Deciphering Soap and Bodycare Ingredients – Beware of the “-eth”

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

As I mentioned in my SLS post, consumers have had an accurate sense that bodycare companies are lying to them. For too long, many companies have taken advantage of the trust and ignorance of their consumers. By in large, companies are not looking out for the well-being of the consumer. In general, I am not a cynic, and there are definitely some fabulous exceptions to that statement (Dr. Bronner’s, e.g). However, a consumer’s only reliable defense is to keep informed, ignore advertising, and read ingredients.

There is a lot to learn about ingredients, and what I have to say here is really only the tip of the iceberg. However, I want to point out one group of ingredients I call the “-eth’s” . You’ll see these in many bodycare products, both conventional and “natural”, and in household cleaners. These ingredients have the syllable “-eth” somewhere in their name – Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), Sodium Myreth Sulfate, Polyethylene glycol, for example. This indicates that a process took place called ethoxylation.

As I mentioned in my last blog, the confusion about Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) could possibly have been and understandable mix-up with Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES). Even if this were the case, I still think disreputable marketers took full advantage of the mistake. Although there is obviously some similarity in the make-up of these two chemicals, the cancer concern is only relevant to SLES, as I explain below. The difference is in the “eth”.

The relevant thing to know about this mouthful of a process is that ethoxylation makes a byproduct called 1,4 Dioxane. 1,4 Dioxane is not considered an ingredient when it is a byproduct of the manufacturing, so you won’t see it listed on any labels. However, it’s so bad that it earns the Prop 65 warning in California, indicating that it is “known to the State of California to cause cancer” and is suspected by the California EPA as a kidney toxicant, neurotoxicant and respiratory toxicant. There was a big stink about 1,4 Dioxane a year or so ago when it was found in many, many conventional and even some “natural” soaps, shampoos, and other cleansers and many baby products, all of which contained “-eth” ingredients.

Any product that has an “eth” ingredient has the potential of also containing 1,4 Dioxane.

As I said, the concern of “eth’s” is only a small part of understanding chemical ingredients. Since you can’t trust what companies say about themselves, here are some great third party resources:

  • The USDA Organic certification seal. No product with this seal will contain any of these “-eth” ingredients, or other questionable ingredients. It is a very rigorous certification.
  • The “Shoppers Safety Guide”, published by the Organic Consumers Association, helps navigate the bodycare and cleaning product choices .
  • The Cosmetics Safety Database,, run by the Environmental Working Group deciphers ingredients in bodycare products. Just type in the product name. (They focus only on bodycare, not household stuff, though ingredient-wise there is some overlap.)