ecostore New Zealand Blog

Ask the experts: what’s all the fuss about cocamide DEA?
Posted On September 25th, 2013

Woman shampooing her hair

A California lawsuit against four companies selling products containing Cocamide DEA has brought this common household chemical into the media spotlight. I spoke to Huia Iti, the head of research and development for ecostore, about the science behind it.

What is Cocamide DEA used for? 

Cocamide DEA is commonly found in detergents and personal care products. It acts as a foam stabilizer to boost foam and produce long lasting bubbles. Soaps and detergents don’t actually need foam in order to clean but thanks to advertising campaigns dating back to the 1950s there is still a common public perception that foam = clean.

What is Cocamide DEA? 

Cocamide DEA is known as a ‘tertiary amine’ formed by the reaction of fatty acids from coconut oil with a substance called Diethanolamine (DEA).

What are the health concerns regarding Cocamide DEA?

First of all it has been linked with cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) found that applying Cocamide DEA to the skin of mice gave them cancer which classifies Cocamide DEA as an animal carcinogen by definition. This carcinogenicity is believed to be caused by the free ‘DEA’ part of this ingredient. Free DEA can often be present as an impurity in the final Cocamide DEA product – between 4-8.5% – depending on the ratios of the starting materials used. (1)
There have been no human studies to prove that Cocamide DEA is carcinogenic to humans, but because of its carcinogenicity potential to animals, it has been classified by the IARC/World Health Organisation (WHO) as ‘Possibly Carcinogenic to Humans’. (2)
Secondly there’s the potential for Nitrosamine formation from ‘DEA’. When combined with certain other chemicals which are also used in cosmetics and detergents, DEA can form dangerous Nitrosamines. (3) Nitrosamines are known to be ‘one of the most broadly acting and potent carcinogens’. (4) They can be absorbed by the skin, airways and digestive tract, and can even be formed inside the body’s organs. (5)

Is Cocamide MEA any safer?

Cocamide DEA and Cocamide MEA are close cousins; they are both formed by combining fatty acids derived from coconut oil with amines. Cocamide DEA uses Di-ethanolamine and Cocamide MEA uses Mono-ethanolamine, also known simply as ethanolamine.
It’s not really any safer because the MEA used to make Cocamide MEA can be contaminated with DEA (6), which is why the CIR (Cosmetic ingredients review) recommend it not be used in products which have the potential to form nitrosamines. (7)

So what’s behind the California lawsuit against companies using Cocamide DEA 

The IARC is affiliated with the World Health Organisation. Their research on mice resulted in them classifying Cocamide DEA as a 2B substance, or ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans.’ Proposition 65 (8) is a California state law, which aims to protect drinking water sources and reduce general exposure to toxic substances that cause cancer and birth defects. It’s administered by California’s Environmental Protection Agency’s ‘Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment’ (OEHHA). Following the research published by IARC[ix] (9), the OEHHA added Cocamide DEA to the ‘Chemicals known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity’ list. (10)

After seeing this list, the CEH (Centre for Environmental Health) filed a California lawsuit against four companies that sell products containing Cocamide DEA, and the CEH has sent legal notices to more than 100 other companies that produce and/or sell Cocamide DEA-tainted products that their products violate state law. (11)

What should we do if we see this ingredient in our shampoo, bubble bath or other body care product?

In my opinion there is enough scientific evidence to avoid this ingredient. As I mentioned earlier, foam only helps to create an illusion of better cleaning without adding any benefit so there is actually no need for foam stabilisers like Cocamide DEA or Cocamide MEA in household products.

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