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Cocamide diethanolamine, cocamide DEA raises concern

NEWTON, Mass. — Buyer beware. Common shampoos, body washes, shaving lotions, and even makeup were all found to contain a potential carcinogen, according to the health and environment watchdog Silent Spring Institute.

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“This is an invisible source of toxic chemical exposure,” said Cynthia Luppi, New England director of Clean Water Action.

“You can put pretty much anything into consumer products,” said Ruthann Rudel, toxicologist, chemist and director of research at the Silent Spring Institute.

The chemical of concern that they found is called cocamide diethanolamine, cocamide DEA for short. It’s a chemical made by mixing coconut oil with the organic compound diethanolamine, which makes things foamy and sudsy.

“The diethanolamine is the part that is the problem, and in the cancer studies, in animals, this caused some tumors in the liver and the kidney,” said Rudel.

Right now, the International Agency for Research on Cancer lists cocamide DEA as a possible human carcinogen. It is also listed on ingredient labels as:

  • amides, coco, n,n-bis (2-hydroxyethyl)
  • amides, coco, n,nbis (hydroxyethyl)
  • coco amides, n,n-bis (2-hydroxyethyl)
  • coco n,n-bis (2-hydroxyethyl) – amides
  • coconut diethanolamide
  • coconut fatty acid diethanolamide
  • coconut fatty acid diethanolamide
  • cocoyl diethanolamide
  • diethanolamine coconut fatty acid condensate
  • n,n-bis (2-hydroxyethyl) – amides, coco
  • n,n-bis (2-hydroxyethyl) – coco amides

The state of California has taken it a step further under Proposition 65, requiring warning labels on all products that contain it. The average woman uses 12 of these types of products every day, and the average man used six daily, according to Luppi.

“They can penetrate your skin and go directly into your blood stream … it’s one of our most direct exposures to pollution,” said Luppi.

In Massachusetts, cocamide DEA isn’t regulated, so it’s up to consumers to pay attention to what they’re buying and where they shop. Whole Foods is right now considered the gold standard for personal care products, according to Clean Water Action.

“There are over 400 chemicals that (Whole Foods) screens products for,” said Luppi.

Target, Walmart and CVS have also taken some initial steps as well, thanks to newer, stricter policies.

“Among the biggest laggers are department stores like Macy’s,” said Luppi.

In a statement to NewsCenter 5, Macy’s responded by saying, “As a retailer selling thousands of different products of all types, Macy’s relies on its vendors to provide products that comply with all laws and regulations, and that are labeled correctly. Our vendors are industry leaders that operate under significant public scrutiny, and we believe they are better positioned and qualified to verify the safety of their products.”

Chemicals in personal care products are regulated by the FDA, but the federal laws that do exist are more than 70 years old. Some states are working to bridge the gap, with 33 states, including Massachusetts, recently announcing plans to introduce legislation focusing on reforming chemical safety. In Massachusetts, that legislation is called the “Healthy Families and Businesses Act,” which is currently before the Senate Committee on Ways and Means.

2012 report on retailers, policies on chemicals in personal care products

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