Chemical Profile: Diethanolamine

What Is Diethanolamine?

Diethanolamine is a substance that is most commonly used to create more complex ingredients that are used in a wide range of personal care products, cosmetics, cleaning products, and household goods. This includes, shampoos, cosmetics, deodorant, hair dye, dishwashing detergents and chemicals used in the production of textiles. 

Diethanolamine is also one of the primary feedstocks (substances used to produce other substances) for the production of glyphosate, a pesticide best known as a component of Roundup.

The substance’s production involves reacting ethylene oxide with ammonia. Ethylene oxide, a chemical associated with multiple kinds of cancer, is applied during production in a process called ethoxylation. Ethoxylation can lead to contamination with 1,4-dioxane, which is also a known carcinogen.

The Health Concern

Diethanolamine has been classified as a carcinogen by the California Environmental Protection Agency as well as possibly carcinogenic to humans with sufficient evidence in experimental animals by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

The U.S. EPA considers diethanolamine a hazardous air pollutant and has listed the substance on the Toxics Release Inventory (a compilation of substances that pose a threat to human or environmental health).

Another concern with diethanolamine is its potential for contamination. In product formulations, diethanolamine can cause the formation of nitrosamines, which are by-products formed in production. Nitrosamines are of concern because some have been found to be associated with cancer.

As stated above, because diethanolamine uses a process called ethoxylation, it can be contaminated with ethylene oxide and/or 1,4-dioxane, both of which are associated with cancer.

None of the possible contaminants found in diethanolamine – ethylene oxide, 1,4-dioxane and nitrosamines – will be listed on ingredient labels because they are not added ingredients; they are used in or can be by-products of the production process.

How to Avoid It
  • Read ingredient labels to avoid diethanolamine. Product labels containing diethanolamine will include “diethanolamine” or more commonly the abbreviation “DEA,” which is typically listed as a compound ingredient. Some examples include:
    • Cocamide DEA
    • DEA-Cetyl Phosphate
    • DEA Oleth-3 Phosphate
    • Lauramide DEA
    • Myristamide DEA
    • Oleamide DEA
  • Shop for MADE SAFE Certified personal care products and cosmetics. Diethanolamine and ingredients containing it are not permitted in certified products.

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