Shampoo Labels Don’t Come Clean

Consumers can be spotted in grocery and convenience store aisles across the U.S. turning over bottles of shampoo, lotion, bubble bath, and more. What are these everyday detectives sleuthing for? Their quest is complete when they’ve found and decoded the fine print on the back of the package, listing every ingredient that flowed into the bottle and will eventually end up on the skin and in the body.

These savvy shoppers know Federal Law requires cosmetic companies to list a product’s ingredients directly on the product or on its packaging. Harmful ingredients like parabensphthalates, diazolidinyl urea, and diethanolamine (DEA) send up red flags and the offending product is undoubtedly returned to its shelf.

Unbeknownst to the most thorough of label checkers, an unlisted ingredient has been showing up in children’s bath products and adults’ shampoos.

The chemical is 1,4 dioxane (not to be confused with dioxin). It is linked to cancer. And it occurs as an impurity in personal care products when an ingredient is “ethoxylated” or converted into another ingredient, such as when sodium lauryl sulfate is transformed into the milder sodium laureth sulfate.

We can be exposed to 1,4-dioxane when we apply products to our skin or when we breathe the vapors from a warm bubble bath or a sudsy scalp. Manufacturers can remove some or all of the 1,4 dioxane in their products—but most do not.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Eleventh Report on Carcinogens, “1,4-Dioxane is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals.” Additionally, the report states that the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) warns, “the presence of 1,4-dioxane, even as a trace contaminant, is cause for concern...”

To avoid 1,4-dioxane, supermarket sleuths have to watch out for some new bad guys. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s (ATSDRPublic Health Statement for 1,4 Dioxane, “1,4 Dioxane may be a contaminant in cosmetics, detergents, and shampoos that contain the following ingredients (which may be listed on the product label): ‘PEG,’ ‘polyethylene,’ ‘polyethylene glycol,’ ‘polyoxyethylene,’ ‘-eth-,’ or ‘-oxynol-.’” Common examples of ingredients with “-eth-” in the name are sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), sodium myreth sulfate and ammonium laureth sulfate. The ATSDR warns, “…families should avoid using products containing the ingredients [that indicate 1,4-dioxane may be present] ...”

David Steinman, author of Safe Trip to Eden, sent samples of over two dozen shampoos and bath products to West Coast Analytical Service, an independent testing laboratory specializing in trace chemical analysis to test for 1,4 dioxane. All of those sampled contained the impurity.

Products with the highest levels included:

  • Clairol Herbal Essences Rainforest Flowers Shampoo (23 ppm)
  • Olay Complete Body Wash with Vitamins for normal skin (23 ppm)
  • Hello Kitty Bubble Bath by Kid Care (12 ppm)
  • Johnson’s Kids Shampoo Watermelon Explosion by Johnson & Johnson (10 ppm)

Besides diligently deciphering labels, consumers can look for these brands of more natural personal care products:

  • Aubrey Organics
  • Avalon Organics
  • Dr. Hauschka
  • Logona
  • Paul Penders
  • Terressentials
  • Weleda

Published on September 24, 2007