Ethanolamines - ChemicalSafetyFacts.org

Ethanolamines

Ethanolamines are a family of chemicals that work as surfactants and emulsifying ingredients in personal care products and cleaning products. Common ethanolamines include monoethanolamine (MEA), diethanolamine (DEA) and triethanolamine (TEA). Ethanolamines are made through a chemical reaction of ethylene oxide with ammonia.

Uses & Benefits

Personal Care Products

Ethanolamines like MEA work as cleansing agents, or surfactants, in personal care products and cosmetics. In these types of products, ethanolamines help remove dirt and oil on skin by dissolving grease and blending other important ingredients. Because ethanolamines don’t impart a strong odor, they are commonly ingredients in products like hair dye. Ethanolamines like MEA help adjust the pH of a product to keep it from degrading when stored in a container so it will last longer.

DEA and DEA-related ingredients also function as emulsifiers or foaming agents in cosmetics and help adjust a product’s pH level or acidity. One example is cocamide diethanolamine, which is made by reacting coconut oils with DEA to create a cleansing foam in bath products like shampoos and hand soaps.  

Cleaning Products

Ethanolamines such as MEA are common ingredients in cleaning products like floor and tile cleaners, as well as laundry detergents. As surfactants in these products, ethanolamines help remove dirt, grease and stains. DEA is a common ingredient in industrial cleaning products, such as engine degreasers and industrial strength detergents, due to its ability to break down oil and grease.

Industrial Applications

Due to its emulsification properties, MEA and DEA also can be used in industrial applications, such as chemical manufacturing and gas treating. In gas treating processes for refineries and natural gas streams, MEA and DEA help remove contaminants from gasoline. As a chemical intermediate, DEA is used in agrochemicals to make pesticides, where it helps increase a pesticide’s ability to dissolve in water. In the production of wax, polish and coating products, DEA works as an emulsifier to help ingredients mix and help keep other materials from corroding.

MEA acts as a plasticizing agent to help make plastic become pliable and soft. Chemical manufacturing plants use MEA to remove carbon dioxide from ammonia gas in the production of synthetic ammonia.

TEA is used as a surfactant in agrochemicals, to help pesticides disperse into crops, which then helps repel insects from the crops. As a petroleum demulsifier, TEA helps separate oil from water and other substances. In cement additives, TEA helps advance setting and/or hardening of cement. It is also a corrosion inhibitor in steel and zinc materials used in building and construction.

Safety Information

The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), an independent expert scientific panel established by the Personal Care Products Council, has evaluated the safety of ethanolamine used in personal care products and cosmetics. In its review, CIR has found that ethanolamine ingredients are safe as currently used in those products. CIR has also issued separate safety evaluations for TEA, DEA, and MEA, stating that these chemicals are safe in their current uses and concentrations when formulated appropriately.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also includes TEA, DEA and ethanolamine on its list of allowed indirect food additives. These ingredients may be used in adhesives in contact with food and to assist in the washing or peeling of fruits and vegetables.

To protect workers in industrial settings, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has established a Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) for ethanolamine at 3 ppm in the air and requires employers to control workplace exposure below that PEL.

Answering Questions

What are the uses of monoethanolamine (MEA)?

In consumer personal care and cleaning products, MEA acts as a cleansing ingredient or surfactant.

Is triethanolamine (TEA) dangerous?

In products like cleansers and soap, TEA is considered a safe ingredient at the typical amounts used, according to scientific panels like the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR). The FDA also includes TEA on its list of allowed indirect food additives.

Does diethanolamine (DEA) cause cancer?

The FDA states that “there is no reason for consumers to be alarmed” about cancer based on the current use of DEA substances in cosmetics. DEA and derivatives of DEA, such as cocamide DEA, function as emulsifiers or foaming agents in cosmetics. These compounds have also been reviewed for safety by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), an independent expert scientific panel established by the Personal Care Products Council, and by other scientific agencies.

In 1998, the U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP) completed a study that found an association between the topical application of DEA and certain DEA-related ingredients and cancer in laboratory animals. To put this study into perspective, FDA stated that the NTP study did not establish a link between DEA and the risk of cancer in humans.

Is cocamide DEA safe?

CIR reviewed the safety of cocamide DEA, and other related substances including lauramide DEA, linoleamide DEA and oleamide DEA, and concluded that cocamide DEA is safe as used in rinse-off personal care products and safe at concentrations of less than or equal to 10 percent in leave-on products.

The FDA has stated, “there is no reason for consumers to be alarmed” regarding the use of DEA substances in cosmetics. There was some confusion about the safety of cocamide DEA after NTP completed a study that found an association between the topical application of DEA and certain DEA-related ingredients and cancer in laboratory animals. FDA stated that the NTP study did not establish a link between DEA and the risk of cancer in humans.