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The Hidden Carcinogen in Laundry Detergents and Bubble Bath: 1,4 Dioxane

This is an important read but it’s admittedly kind of a complicated subject. So here is the headline: 1,4-dioxane is worth being aware of because the EPA has classified it as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.” It is also listed in California's official registry of chemicals known to cause cancer. Unfortunately, 1,4-dioxane is in many products that we use every day such as laundry detergent, shampoo, lotion, and bubble bath. The tricky thing is that you aren’t going to see the word “1,4- dioxane” listed as an ingredient because it’s a byproduct of manufacturing process called ethoxylation.

This is what the Environmental Protection Agency has to say about it:

“1,4-Dioxane is used as a solvent.  Acute (short-term) inhalation exposure to high levels of 1,4-dioxane has caused vertigo, drowsiness, headache, anorexia, and irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs in humans…Damage to the liver and kidneys has been observed in rats chronically (long-term) exposed in their drinking water…  Tumors have been observed in orally exposed animals. EPA has classified 1,4-dioxane as a Group B2, probable human carcinogen.”

Why would a company put this in products?

1,4 dioxane is a byproduct that occurs in manufacturing. Specifically, it is a byproduct of ethoxylation which we are not going to try to explain here as it’s kind of like reading a chemistry book. If you’re interested in that lesson, check out the sources below. Essentially, ethoxylation is done to create surfactants which are what create that foaming, sudsy, cleansing effect in products. Ethoxylated surfactants are found in laundry detergent, cleaning supplies, skincare products, toothpaste, body washes, bubble baths and hair care products.

How are companies getting away with this?

Fortunately, there is an additional step that manufacturers can take to remove most of the dioxane from products, but the FDA doesn’t require them to do so. This makes it very difficult to make an informed choice because you can never really be certain that 1,4-dioxane is not in your products.

This is the last that the FDA has said about this topic in 2018: “Since the 1980s we have recommended that manufacturers use the “vacuum stripping” technique, as a way of reducing 1,4-dioxane.The FDA will continue to monitor information about 1,4-dioxane and its levels in cosmetics. If the FDA were to determine that a health hazard exists, it would advise the industry and the public, and would consider appropriate actions for protecting the health and welfare of consumers.”

We think this is weak sauce. The EPA has classified 1,4-dioxane as a “probable human carcinogen” and the FDA merely recommends that companies to remove it from products. It should be a requirement. But alas, the FDA also doesn’t require companies to list out the chemical ingredients in that make up “fragrance” on product labels. Independent testing reveals that even today Tide laundry detergent has 1,4-dioxane in it. And Tide is the best-selling laundry detergent in the US.

How to avoid 1,4-dioxane in your products:

Here is the good news. You now know about this and can avoid bringing it into your home.

We err on the side of caution and look for any ethoxylated ingredients on the label and assume that anything with those sorts of ingredients has 1,4-dioxane. Until the FDA mandates that product manufacturers remove dioxane, it’s safest to assume it's in there. However, if you love a product that contains the ingredients below, contact the brand and ask whether they remove the 1,4-dioxane. Some may! Some don’t. If they can’t give you a straight answer, find an alternative product.

Here is a list of commonly ethoxylated ingredients to look for on a product label. Basically, avoid products that contain ingredients and chemicals ending in –eth and –oxynol. These ingredients are manufactured in a way that can result in simultaneous formation of 1,4-dioxane as an impurity.

  • Anything with "PEG" or ingredients listed as a polyethylene glycol or with a PEG- prefix such as PEG-20, PEG 40 etc.
  • Polyethylene
  • Polyethylene glycol
  • Polyoxyethylene
  • Phenoxyethanol
  • Polysorbate -20, -40, -60, -80
  • Sodium laureth sulfate (very common in hair products)
  • Sodium coceth sulfate
  • Sodium deceth Sulfate
  • Sodium oleth sulfate
  • Sodium myreth sulfate
  • Sodium trideceth sulfate
  • Potassium laureth phosphate
  • Myreth
  • Oleth
  • Ceteareth - 20
  • Steareth – 2, -4, 10, 16, -20, 21
  • Isosteareth -2, -10, -20
  • Ammonium capryleth sulfate
  • Ammonium pareth-25 sulfate
  • Ammonium myreth sulfate
  • Cocamidopropyl betaines
  • Disteareth-75 IPDI, -100 IPDI
  • Magnesium laureth sulfate
  • Magnesium oleth sulfate
  • Zinc coceth sulfate

What sort of products is 1.4-dioxane typically found in?

1,4-dioxane is in many products that we use every day such as laundry detergents, hair products, skincare, and bubble bath. An independent agency, Citizens Campaign for the Environment, took it upon themselves to test a number of commonly used products for 1,4-dioxane and compiled their findings in this shopper guide. Side note – let’s all be grateful for organizations that raise money to run these tests. Here’s the executive summary of their findings:

The personal care products were tested that contained 1,4-dioxane were Neutrogena Rainbath Shower and Bath Gel (Ocean Mist), Suave Essentials Body Wash (Wild Cherry Blossom), Bath and Body Works Shower Gel (Sonoma Weekend Escape), Purex plus Oxy Stain Removers (Fresh Morning Burst), OGX Lavender Platinum, John Frieda Brilliant Brunette, Dove Nutritive Solutions (Coconut and Hydration), Tresemme Moisture Rich with Vitamin E, Suave Professionals Moroccan Infusion (Color Care), Garnier Fructis with Active Fruit Protein, Johnson’s Baby Shampoo, Disney Frozen Bubble Bath, Original Bubble Mr. Bubble.

The laundry detergents that were tested and contained 1,4-dioxane were Tide Original, Tide Simply plus Oxi (Refreshing Breeze), 2x Ultra Ivory Snow (Gentle Care), All with Stain Lifters (Fresh Rain), Arm and Hammer (Clean Burst, 2x Concentrated), Purex plus Oxy Stain Removers (Fresh Morning Burst).

*Note: They didn’t test every fragrance variety so it’s safe to assume that other products under the brand's product line would have also tested positive for 1,4-dioxane.

Let's all take a deep breath...

Our goal in telling this is not to freak you out. Our goal is to help you become more familiar with product ingredients and get a better grasp of what you’re seeing on an ingredient label. Product formulations change all the time and while there are awesome groups that rate products, they simply cannot keep up with the rate of production in this industry. Companies are, understandably, always trying to make their existing products more cheaply so that they are more profitable. They are also always trying to come out with new, different products to differentiate themselves. This is just how business works!

Rest assured knowing that there are companies who are doing great work to keep unsafe ingredients out of these products that we use everyday. We are proud to be one of them and appreciate the work that others are doing to bring cleaner, simpler formulations that aren't designed to sit on a shelf forever and who believe that soap doesn't need to foam to work. In the meantime, read product labels. If you don't know what something is, look it up. If there are a million ingredients, ask yourself why. And vote with your wallet. You're more powerful than you think.