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The Truth About 1,4-DIOXANE

Solvent in petri dish
May 3, 2017 Reviewed by Marta 0 Comments

A chemical that you may never have heard of and almost certainly have not seen on the ingredient list of your personal care products is so toxic that two senators are trying to get it banned. It is called 1,4 dioxane, and its synonyms are diethylene oxide and dioxane. I’m all for controlling the substances that go into products that we put on our bodies and leach into the water system, so Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand have my support. Still my journalist’s antennas are waggling frantically in attempt to pin this story down.

So, what exactly is 1,4 dioxane? And since it could be in over 20 percent of readily available products — some reports even say it is in 46 percent — why isn’t it on any ingredients lists? 1, 4 dioxane is a chemical that is used as a solvent in personal care products, mostly in things with suds such as cleansers and shampoos. It is also carcinogenic. Schumer and Gillibrand were motivated to ban it after it was found in 71 percent of the water services tested in Long Island.

1, 4 dioxane an actual compound that is made and sold by a company called Sigma Aldrich. But it also can materialize when ingredients have gone through a process called ethoxylation, in which ethylene oxide is added to other chemicals to make them less harsh.  In fact, this is by far the most common way for 1,4 dioxane to wind up in common personal care products. For example, sodium laurel sulfate, a known irritant that is used as a surfactant is sometimes converted to the less-harsh chemical sodium laureth sulfate (the “eth” denotes ethoxylation). The conversion process can lead to contamination of this ingredient with 1,4-dioxane.

So, look for ingredients ending in “eth,” such as laureth. These ‘eth” ingredients may also end in a number like ceteareth-20 or steareth-20. Another way to spot an ethoxylated compound is to look out for "PEG." PEG stands for polyethylene glycol, used in cosmetics as a skin conditioner and emulsifier. It usually is followed by a number (e.g. PEG-100). The number represents the approximate molecular weight of that compound. Typically, cosmetics use PEGs with smaller molecular weights. The lower the molecular weight, the easier it is for the compound to penetrate the skin. Read more on PEGs here.

Not all PEGS will have 1,4 dioxane, but, according to a report in the International Journal of Toxicology by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) committee, impurities found in various PEG compounds include ethylene oxide, 1,4-dioxane, polycyclic aromatic compounds and heavy metals such as lead, iron, cobalt, nickel, cadmium and arsenic. PEGs are hard to avoid and they turn up in very many skincare problems, including some that are recommended on Truth In Aging — we do our best to call them out though and will begin looking more closely potential sources of 1,4 dioxane.


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