Help! There's an Industrial Solvent in my Shampoo

While "gentle" and "no more tears" are terms we've learned to associate with products like baby shampoo, a recent study by the Environmental Working Group claims that another one might be appropriate for the list: carcinogenic. The study, released on February 8th, found that the compound 1,4-dioxane is present in 22% of personal care products, including baby washes and shampoos. What is 1,4-dioxane? According to a US Environmental Protection Agency "Chemical Fact Sheet,"
1,4-Dioxane (also called dioxane) is a flammable liquid. It may form explosive chemicals, especially when anhydrous (very dry). It is produced in large amounts (between 10 million and 18 million pounds in 1990) by three companies in the United States. ... Companies use dioxane as a solvent for paper, cotton, and textile processiong and for various organic products. It is also used in automotive coolant liquid, and in shampoos and other cosmetics.
Yeah... exactly the kind of stuff you want included in bath time. Dr. Devra Davis, head of the Environmental Oncology Center at the University of Pittsburgh and a professor of epidemiology at their Graduate School of Public Health, tells Public Radio International's Living on Earth that the compound isn't put directly into these products, but rather results from a chemical reaction between ethylene-oxide and Sodium Laureth Sulfate, both fairly common ingredients. Despite the fact that substance has been identified as a probable human carcinogen, the US Food and Drug administration doesn't require its removal because it's considered an "incidental ingredient."

Arguments will certainly ensue (in fact, they already have) about the safety of the levels of 1,4-Dioxane in these products, and we're bound to see a debate parallel to the one over arsenic in drinking water from several years ago. A representative of the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association takes the standard line that we're surrounded by potential hazards, so in the big picture, this one is relatively minor. Dr. Davis notes, however, that we really don't need to have this argument: "It can be completely removed by what's called vacuum stripping. This is something that is completely avoidable."

Because the FDA doesn't regulate "cosmetic products," the best course of action for consumers concerned about this is compound is educating oneself: EWG has an interactive product safety guide to find out which products are free of 1,4-Dioxane and other nasty chemicals, and points to a wealth of web-based resources on the compound. We've also got the scoop on chemicals and more in women's personal care products. ::Environmental Working Group via Living on Earth (via jillian at Daily Kos) and the Dallas Morning News

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