A Deep Dive into the Hidden Dangers of Cosmetic Ingredients (TEA, DEA, MEA).

As the growing concern for health and wellness continues, many consumers are becoming more conscious about the ingredients in their skincare and beauty products.

There are numerous chemical compounds present in these products that, unbeknownst to many, could potentially cause harm to our bodies. Among these, three chemicals often used are Triethanolamine (TEA), Diethanolamine (DEA), and Monoethanolamine (MEA). The question most people want to know is, “Is Triethanolamine safe?” This article will investigate these chemicals and provide some tips on how to avoid them.

What Are TEA, DEA, and MEA?

These three chemicals are commonly found in skincare and beauty products, especially those that have a foamy or creamy consistency. They serve various roles, such as emulsifiers, surfactants, and pH adjusters.

Triethanolamine (TEA)

Triethanolamine is often used in products that foam or have a creamy texture. It helps to adjust the pH levels and acts as an emulsifier, allowing water and oil to mix, and a surfactant, which helps to clean surfaces and create foam. On the Environmental Working Group’s skin deep database, TEA scores a 5 out of 10, suggesting it may pose potential risks as a human skin, immune, and respiratory toxicant or allergen.

Diethanolamine (DEA)

DEA is another common ingredient in cosmetic products. It’s used as a wetting agent, emulsifier, and fragrance ingredient. According to the same database, DEA is rated a concerning 10 out of 10, with high concerns over use restrictions, non-reproductive organ system toxicity, irritation (skin, eyes, or lungs), occupational hazards, and contamination concerns.

Monoethanolamine (MEA)

MEA, another ingredient found in beauty products, is used as an emulsifier and fragrance ingredient. Despite a relatively low score of 1-4 on EWG’s database, there are still concerns over use restrictions and contamination.

The Potential Risks

A report from the International Journal of Toxicology by the American College of Toxicology found that these chemicals are safe for use in cosmetics designed for brief, discontinuous use, followed by thorough rinsing from the skin. However, in products intended for prolonged contact with the skin, the concentration of these chemicals should not exceed 5%. MEA should only be used in rinse-off products, and both TEA and DEA should not be used with N-nitrosating agents.

While it may sound like these chemicals are generally safe, the stipulations attached are concerning. The requirement for thorough rinsing and the warning against prolonged contact with the skin may lead many to wonder if it’s better to avoid these ingredients altogether. We think it’s best to avoid them all together!

Alternatives to TEA, DEA, and MEA

Knowing about the potential risks of these chemicals, many might seek out natural alternatives. Fortunately, numerous brands, are committed to creating safe and effective products without these controversial chemicals. One of our all time favorites is: Beauty by Earth.

Here are some examples of natural alternatives to these chemicals:

  • Emulsifier Alternative: Plant-derived emulsifiers such as cetearyl alcohol (a fatty alcohol), cetearyl olivate, and glyceryl stearate.
  • Surfactant Alternative: Plant-derived glucosides and saponified oils.
  • pH Adjuster Alternative: Citric Acid.
  • Fragrance Alternative: Essential Oils and Fruit/Plant Extracts.

We encourage you to check the labels of your products and avoid those containing TEA, DEA, or MEA. Switching to clean, natural alternatives can help you maintain your beauty routine without compromising your health.

Additional Considerations

While the discussion so far has focused on the individual use of products containing these chemicals, it’s important to note that their usage extends beyond personal skincare and beauty products.

For instance, ethanolamine, another chemical in the same family as TEA, DEA, and MEA, is used as a pH adjuster and can be found in some permanent waves and hair dyes. DEA itself is rarely used in cosmetics, but derivatives of DEA may be used in shampoos and cleansing products.

The FDA includes these chemicals on its list of allowed indirect food additives, meaning they can be used in adhesives in contact with food and to assist in the washing or peeling of fruits and vegetables.

This widespread usage of these chemicals emphasizes the importance of understanding their potential risks and making informed decisions about the products we choose to use.

Safety Assessments by Regulatory Bodies

Over the years, various regulatory bodies have assessed the safety of TEA, DEA, and Ethanolamine. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel has evaluated these chemicals multiple times.

In 1983, the Panel concluded that these chemicals were safe for use in cosmetics and personal care products designed for brief use followed by thorough rinsing from the skin. They advised against exceeding a concentration of 5% for products intended for prolonged contact with the skin. Further, they recommended the use of Ethanolamine only in rinse-off products and cautioned against the use of TEA and DEA in products containing N-nitrosating agents to prevent the formation of potentially carcinogenic nitrosamines.

The Panel reopened the safety assessment in 2010 and issued separate reports for DEA and its salts, Ethanolamine and its salts, and TEA and related ingredients. They concluded that these chemicals were safe in the current practices of use and concentration, provided they were formulated to be non-irritating and not used in products where N-nitroso compounds could form.

More Safety Information

In the United States

The CIR Expert Panel notes that TEA, DEA, and Ethanolamine are mild skin and eye irritants, with irritation increasing with concentration. Ethanolamine, used primarily in rinse-off hair products, can cause greater irritation the longer it stays in contact with the skin.

The Panel also warns that in the presence of N-nitrosating agents, TEA and DEA could form the potentially carcinogenic nitrosamine N-nitrosodiethanolamine. Hence, they should not be used in formulations with N-nitrosating agents.

In the European Union (EU)

The EU has stricter rules. DEA is not permitted in cosmetics and personal care products marketed in the EU. Derivatives of DEA, however, can be used provided the DEA content is 0.5% or less.

For TEA and Ethanolamine, the EU allows usage at a maximum concentration of 2.5% for non-rinse-off and other cosmetics. Neither chemical can be used with nitrosating systems. Both must have a purity of 99%, a secondary amine content of 0.5% or less, a nitrosamine content of 50 micrograms/kg or less, and be in nitrite-free containers.

Reviews by the NTP and IARC

The U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) have also assessed the potential carcinogenicity of these chemicals.

In 1998, the NTP completed a study that suggested an association between topical application of DEA and certain DEA-related ingredients and cancer in laboratory animals. However, the study did not establish a link between DEA and the risk of cancer in humans.

IARC assessed DEA in 2000 and 2012. In its latest assessment, it concluded that DEA is “possibly carcinogenic” to humans.

Despite these findings, the FDA maintains that there is no reason for consumers to be alarmed based on the use of these substances in cosmetics. Consumers who wish to avoid these ingredients can do so by checking product labels.


So, is TEA, DEA, MEA safe? The answer is nuanced. While regulatory bodies have deemed these chemicals safe for use in cosmetics and personal care products under specific conditions, the concern for potential risks persists.

As consumers, it is essential for us to stay informed about the ingredients in the products we use daily. By understanding their potential effects and making conscious choices, we can better protect our health and well-being.

Remember, you have the power to make safer choices. Consider switching to products that use natural alternatives to these chemicals. Your skin, and your health, will thank you.

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