Cocamide DEA – Take Steps to Avoid the Trouble Brewing in Your Shampoo

Chances are that you’ve noticed cocamide DEA (diethanolamine) listed in your shampoo ingredients. It’s been widely used as a wetting agent that provides a rich lather in shampoos – and is used in many other beauty products to produce a rich creaminess. The problem is that it’s been identified as possibly carcinogenic to humans. 

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Some of the products that contain high levels are sold under names you recognize like Colgate Palmolive, Paul Mitchell, and Prell. Lab tests also found the carcinogen in children’s products, such as a store brand bubble bath from KMart and a shampoo/conditioner from Babies R Us. Products came from a wide variety of distributors like Trader Joe’s, Walmart, and Kohl’s.

Cocamide DEA is a chemically-modified form of coconut oil. By itself, DEA is harmless. However, while sitting on the stores shelves or in your shower at home, it can react with other ingredients to form an extremely potent carcinogen called NDEA (nitrosodiethanolamine). NDEA is readily absorbed through the skin very quickly. In fact it only takes 26 seconds for any chemical to penetrate the skin and be absorbed into the bloodstream.

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Cocamide DEA Health Hazards

DEA can cause:

  • Moderate skin and eye irritations
  • Precancerous changes in skin and thyroid
  • Stomach, esophagus, liver and bladder cancers.

    The European Union classifies it as harmful on the basis of ‘danger of serious damage to health from prolonged exposure’.

    DEA compounds can also react with nitrites in cosmetics to form nitrosamines, which the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies as a possible human carcinogen. The degradation of some chemicals used as preservatives can release nitrites when the product is exposed to air.

    The Danish Environmental Protection Agency classifies cocamide DEA as hazardous to the environment - because of its acute toxicity to aquatic organisms and potential for bioaccumulation.

    According to the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer), "There is sufficient evidence of a carcinogenic effect of N-nitrosodiethanolamine”. IARC recommends that NDEA should be treated as a carcinogen. The National Toxicology Program similarly concluded: "There is sufficient evidence for the carcinogenicity of N-nitrosodiethanolamine in experimental animals”. Of over 44 different species in which N-nitroso compounds have been tested, all have been susceptible. Humans included.

    Use in the Beauty Industry

    DEA also acts as a pH adjuster - counteracting the acidity of other ingredients. It is mainly found in moisturizers and sunscreens, while lauramide and cocamide DEA are found in soaps, cleansers, and shampoos.

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    Why Cocamide DEA Isn't Regulated

    Regulation of the cosmetic industry is a joke – but not very funny to consumers. The FDA can make recommendations but it has very little power to enforce them. In 1979 the FDA ordered the industry to eliminate NDEA from their products. In 1992, the FDA tested 12 products for NDEA contamination and found a handful of them still contained the carcinogen. While levels have been reduced, there is still an avoidable risk of cancer when nitrosamine contaminated products are used. Even small amounts of this potent carcinogen can increase the risk of cancer.

    Products to Avoid

    Consumers have a right to know what they’re purchasing - but there are few ways to really know if a product has been contaminated with NDEA. The best way to find out is to check the ingredients of the products you purchase OR you can view this extensive list from the CEH here. The following ingredients should be avoided.

    Cocamide DEA or Cocamide Diethanolamine
    DEA Lauryl Sulfate or Diethanolamine Lauryl Sulfate
    Lauramide DEA or Lauramide Diethanolamine
    Linoleamide DEA or Linoleamide Diethanolamine
    Oleamide DEA or Oleamide Diethanolamine
    Any product containing TEA or Triethanolamine

    Of course, if your immune system is compromised or you have other health concerns, the best way to avoid all forms of DEA is to make your own shampoo or try cowashing instead. I only briefly shampoo my hair like twice monthly and co-wash the rest of the time.

    DIY Homemade Natural Shampoo

    1/2 cup coconut milk
    2/3 cup Castile soap
    10-15 drops essential oil - any kind
    2 teaspoons almond oil or olive oil

    Mix together all the ingredients in the bottle and shake vigorously. Give it a shake before you use it.

    Alternately, you can also use Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap and support an great company who uses their profit to do good in the world. They have been a lead contributor for GMO-labeling campaigns, use fair trade organic ingredients - free from animal ingredients. The company is also certified free from animal testing.

    Depending on your hair type, try rubbing a little cold pressed coconut oil into your hair first and then use Dr. Bronner’s to shampoo it out.

    As a hairdresser of 20 years now, news about cocamide DEA alarmed me more than words can say. Just because manufacturers come up with a chemical solution, doesn’t mean it should be used. When is the FDA going to do its job and protect the American people? Guess they're too busy protecting BIG PHARMA and Monsanto!

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