Jan Lee
August 29, 2013

Do you know what toxic substances are in your shampoo?

California’s Center for Environmental Health thinks that you should.

On Tuesday, the CEH filed lawsuits against four personal care product manufacturers after it found evidence of a toxic substance, cocamide Diethanolamine (cocamide DEA) in their shampoos, soaps and other personal care products. The nonprofit firm also sent letters to approximately 100 firms whose products also tested positive.

Cocamide DEA, a foam stabilizer and volumizer agent, is listed as a carcinogen in California. Under Proposition 65, which California voters passed in June 2012, manufacturers must warn consumers if products contain harmful amounts of certain toxic substances. Cocamide DEA was banned from use under state law last year after The International Agency for Research on Cancer determined that the chemical composition made up of fatty acids from coconut and DEA caused cancer in animals.

According to a press release by the Center for Environmental Health, some of the products were shampoos and care products designed for children. Kmart’s store-brand children’s bubble bath and a shampoo/conditioner manufactured by Babies R Us both tested positive for cocamide DEA.

The Center for Environmental Health reports that it found cocamide DEA in 98 over-the-counter products, including Awapuhi Ginger Shampoo by Organix, Tea Tree Special Shampoo by Paul Mitchell, and African Essence Neutralizing Shampoo by African Essence. In some cases as much as 200,000 ppm of the chemical was found in tested products.

“Most people believe that products sold in major stores are tested for safety, but consumers need to know that they could be doused with a cancer-causing chemical every time they shower or shampoo,” said CEH’s Executive Director Michael Green. “We expect companies to take swift action to end this unnecessary risk to our children’s and families’ health.”

Walgreens Co.; Lake Consumer Product, Inc.; Todd Christopher International, Inc.; and Ultimark Products, LLC received notice of lawsuits earlier this week. The remaining manufacturers were served legal notice, and have 60 days to respond. The CEH expects further suits to follow.

Under federal law, the use of cocamide DEA in personal care products is not considered a toxic substance and is not illegal. Based on a 1998 study by the National Toxicology Program, the FDA established in 1999 that although “NTP study suggests that the carcinogenic response is linked to possible residual levels of DEA … (the) NTP study did not establish a link between DEA and the risk of cancer in humans.”

The FDA’s literature on DEA has since been updated (2006) and notes that “DEA and DEA-related ingredients are used much less frequently in cosmetic products than they were when the NTP completed its study.”

The EPA notes that there have been acute responses to exposure to DEA in some people, including respiratory problems and skin reactions. However, it has not classified the ingredient as a carcinogenic toxic substance.

Some questions about testing procedures were reported in a 2003 Science FDA Poster abstract, in which researchers noted that there were inconsistent results in skin tests on humans with products containing DEA, and (therefore) skin levels of DEA should not be included in estimates of systemic absorption used in exposure.”