Is triethanolamine a carcinogen?
It is believed that TEA should not be used with nitrosating agents to avoid the formation of nitrosamines-cancer-causing compounds. However, a study by Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology found that only 0.68% of TEA formed into nitrosodiethanolamine when mixed with sodium nitrite.
In other words, there is an extremely small chance that Triethanolamine could cause cancer by itself or be turned into a carcinogen. For further reassurance, the American Cancer Society does not recognize TEA as a known-or probable-carcinogen.
The idea that even the smallest amount of nitrosodiethanolamine was formed can be a little off-putting, but this only occurs when it is heated or consumed (and even then it is still heated by body heat).
What is triethanolamine used for in hair care products?
- It is used as a pH adjustment in hair creams, lotions, and other products
- It serves as an emulsifier and surfactant (solubilizes oils* and other ingredients that are not completely soluble in water)
- It neutralizes fatty acids
- It helps wet products dry faster (because of the ethanol)
- It is a very effective gelling agent because of its consistency
- It is also used to thicken formulas
Note: Popular products like EcoStyler Styling Gel and Fruit of the Earth Aloe Vera Gel* have triethanolamine as an ingredient.
Should I buy products with TEA or not?
Simply put, the most that triethanolamine will do is make your hair dry and brittle because of the alcohol in the compound. However, you should note that mixing oils* and non-alcohol creams into your products that have TEA as a listed ingredient can prevent drying of the hair.
There aren’t any major health problems caused by TEA, but it is a skin and eye irritant so you must rinse it off your face immediately and avoid leaving it on your hair for too long.
Do not worry about triethanolamine being a carcinogen because it is very low risk. However, keep in mind that you should avoid products that mix TEA with nitrosating agents- this is purely a preventive measure.
In the end, your choice to use products with TEA as a part of their formula is up to you. Personally, I would not worry about it but if you feel that you need to avoid this ingredient, be sure to check future buys-as well as your frequently used products- for triethanolamine so you can avoid them in the future.