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SafetyAlerts
September 1, 1999

Coming Clean - Facts About Additives in Shampoos, Soaps and Detergents

Part Two

WASHINGTON, D.C. (SafetyAlerts) - This is the second part of a two part series concerning rumors and fears concerning certain additives in some household toiletries.  Part One explained what "SLS" additives are and how they may affect you.  This section discusses Sodium Laureth Sulfate and its relationship to possible cancer causing agents.

As stated in part one, in an effort to reduce the amount of SLS absorbed by the skin and hair, some manufacturers have combined surfactants with Ethylene oxide.   This procedure actually enlarges the molecule of the additive, thus making it harder to penetrate the skin and hair.  The resulting product is called Sodium Laureth Sulfate, a completely separate chemical from Lauryl Sulfate.

Sodium Laureth Sulfate and related chemicals such as Ammonium Laureth Sulfate are not, in themselves, a carcinogen.  Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) has stated that Sodium Laureth Sulfate and Ammonium Laureth Sulfate are cosmetic detergents that exert emulsifying action, thereby removing oil and soil from the hair and skin. A panel of experts that tested the product pointed out that these two ingredients produce eye and/or skin irritation in experimental animals and in some human test subjects.

Irritation may occur in some users of cosmetics containing these ingredients.  The irritant effects are similar to those produced by other detergents, and the severity of the irritation appears to increase directly with concentration. However, Sodium and Ammonium Laureth Sulfate have not evoked adverse responses in any other toxicologic testing. The CIR has fully assessed the safety of this ingredient and found it to be safe.  You can view the report findings here.

Sounds good so far.  Like many shampoos or soaps, they can irritate your eyes or, if your sensitive to detergents, cause some irritation.  According Don Havery, a chemist at the FDA, the potential problem arises not from the additive itself but from possible by-products of the process that creates them.

The combination of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate with Ethylene Oxide creates Sodium Laureth Sulfate which becomes what is called an ethoxylated surface active agent.  Cosmetics containing as ingredients ethoxylated surface active agents, i.e., detergents, foaming agents, emulsifiers and certain solvents may be contaminated with Dioxane.

In rodent feeding studies conducted for the National Cancer Institute, dioxane was found to produce cancer of the liver and the nasal turbinates. It also caused systemic cancer in a skin painting study. Skin absorption studies demonstrated that Dioxane readily penetrates animal and human skin from various types of vehicles. However, it was also determined that most of the dioxane applied to the skin in a vehicle evaporates into the environment and may not be available for skin absorption.

Dioxane may be removed from ethoxylated compounds by means of vacuum stripping at the end of the polymerization process with out an unreasonable increase in raw material cost.

The contamination of ethoxylated surface-active agents with dioxane was first reported in 1978. Many of the raw materials analyzed since then have been found to contain dioxane.

One important thing to note is that the FDA is only able to regulate cosmetics after products are released to the marketplace. Neither cosmetic products nor cosmetic ingredients are reviewed or approved by FDA before they are sold to the public.  In addition, the FDA cannot require companies to do safety testing of their cosmetic products before marketing.  If, however, the safety of a cosmetic product has not been substantiated, the product's label must read "WARNING: The safety of this product has not been determined."

If you believe that you have purchased an unsafe cosmetic or have had serious adverse reactions to such products you should report them to the FDA by calling the FDA Cosmetics and Colors Automated Information Line 1-800-270-8869.

You can also report other unsafe products, foods or automobiles by using the links provided on the SafetyAlerts website here

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