If you’re one of those people who, like us, love coconut oil and believe the nutty stuff can do no wrong, we’ve got some alarming news for you. While pure coconut oil is still a-okay to use for skin care, cooking, and the like, SFGate reported recently that a chemically modified form of coconut oil found in personal-care products (from shampoo to body wash to hair color) is a known carcinogen. Cue ominous music, right?
According to Ron Robinson, a cosmetic chemist and hair-care specialist at Aviva, cocamide diethanolamine (or cocamide DEA) is a relatively common foaming or thickening agent used in cleansing products. “Cocamide DEA is used as an emulsifying agent to make products ‘creamy’ and is made by reacting the mixture of fatty acids from coconut oils with diethanolamine,” Robinson explains. “DEA is an allergen that, in small doses, can create mild forms of dermatitis in individuals who are susceptible to skin allergies — but high doses of this chemical have been linked to potentially being carcinogenic to humans.”
What exactly constitutes a high dose? According to a study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, that would be 10,000 parts per million (ppm) of cocamide DEA in a product, or one milligram per liquid liter.
Despite the fact that the IARC study found that many of the products it tested contained that dangerous 10,000 ppm of cocamide DEA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration still does not recognize the link between cancer and DEA. Actually, according to Robinson, the FDA has not updated its public release on diethanolamine since 2006, even though the National Toxicology Program completed a study in 1998 that found a connection between regular exposure to DEA and cancer in lab animals. (It’s important to note that the NTP did not show this link with humans.)
Regardless, California recognized DEA as a known carcinogen in 2012, and the Oakland, CA, branch of the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) has finally, as of May 5, reached the first-ever legal agreements with 26 companies to end the use of cocamide DEA in their products. So, is progress being made? Sure — but, according to a press release from the CEH, more than 100 other companies have yet to agree to remove the substance from their wares. To be safe, Robinson provided a list of all of the names that cocamide DEA masquerades under. Avoid a product if any of these appear in its ingredients list:
DEA oleth-3 phosphate
For those of you worried that cocamide DEA might be replacing sulfates as the foaming agent in your sulfate-free products, hold tight. While coconut derivatives are commonly used as a substitute for sulfates in some beauty products, Robinson assures that cocamide DEA is not regularly used as a replacement for this chemical, as the two substances serve different purposes.
But, if you’ve already swapped out most of your beauty routine with pure coconut oil, you’re actually on to something. This saga with cocamide DEA is a reminder that, no matter how many claims a product makes that it is “all-natural” or free of sulfates or other harmful chemicals, that doesn’t mean it’s truly safe. The only way to really know what’s in these items is to study up on your ingredients lists or use an app like Think Dirty that does the research for you.
Tara Rasmus @ refinery29.com