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FAQ: 1,4-dioxane

What is 1,4-dioxane? How can I avoid it?

Will products contaminated with 1,4-dioxane harm my baby?

How many personal care products contain 1,4-dioxane?

Is 1,4-dioxane the only hazardous impurity in personal care products?

Q: What is 1,4-dioxane? How can I avoid it?

A: 1,4-dioxane is a petroleum-derived carcinogenic compound that is used intentionally in dry cleaning solvents, lacquers and automotive coolant. 1,4-dioxane also shows up in personal care products because it is the byproduct of some chemical ingredient manufacturing processes, including the process by which sodium lauryl sulfate becomes sodium laureth sulfate. The latter SLS is used in products that make suds, like shampoo, bubble bath and body wash.

Independent lab results released in February 2007 revealed 1,4-dioxane contamination in kids’ bath products as well as some adult products. 1,4-dioxane is a known animal carcinogen and probable human carcinogen as well as a skin and lung irritant. It is strongly suspected to be toxic to the kidneys and nervous system. It also appears on California’s Proposition 65 list of substances known to cause cancer or birth defects. For more about 1,4-dioxane, see the September 2007 public health statement from the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Although 1,4-dioxane can be vacuumed-stripped out of personal care products for pennies, this step is often not taken by manufacturers. And because it shows up in many sudsing products, an individual may be exposed multiple times each day through different products.

Since it is an impurity, not an intentional ingredient, 1,4-dioxane does not appear on ingredient labels. For consumers, that means having to go one step further to avoid any products containing petrochemical ingredients that often come along with 1,4-dioxane contamination. These include the ingredients or partial ingredient names: “PEG,” “polyethylene,” “polyethylene glycol,” “polyoxyethylene,” “-eth-” (such as sodium laureth sulfate), “oxynol” "ceteareth" or "oleth."

An easier way is to use the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database. Use the "shopping requirements" feature of the advanced search to limit your results to products that do not contain known impurities, including 1,4-dioxane.

Q: Will products contaminated with 1,4-dioxane harm my baby?

A: It is highly unlikely that any one product containing 1,4-dioxane will cause harm on its own. The problem is that none of us are exposed to just one product. The same baby could be exposed to 1,4-dioxane from baby shampoo, bath bubbles and body wash in a single bath, as well as from other contaminated personal care products today, tomorrow and the next day. It is these multiple, chronic exposures to carcinogens such as 1,4-dioxane that are cause for concern.

Q: How many personal care products contain 1,4-dioxane?

A: Since the contaminant is not listed on labels, there is no way to know for sure. But an analysis by Environmental Working Group found that 97% of hair relaxers, 57% of baby soaps, and 22% of all products in the Skin Deep database may be contaminated.

Q: Is 1,4-dioxane the only hazardous impurity in personal care products?

A: No. From the Environmental Working Group analysis: “When it comes to harmful impurities in cosmetics, 1,4-dioxane is just the tip of the iceberg. Our analyses show that 80 percent of all products may be contaminated with one or more of the two dozen recognized cosmetic impurities that are linked to cancer and other health concerns. According to government and industry studies, these trace contaminants in petroleum-based ingredients often readily penetrate the skin, and their presence in products is not restricted by government safety standards — they are legal at any level.

"In our 2004 online survey of the cosmetics and personal care products used by 2,300 people, we found that impurities are so ubiquitous that one of every five adults is potentially exposed every day to all of the top seven carcinogenic impurities common to personal care product ingredients — hydroquinone, ethylene dioxide, 1,4-dioxane, formaldehyde, nitrosamines, PAHs and acrylamide."