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Also Known As: Cocoamide DEA , from the coconut plant


A foaming agent widely used in personal care products such as shampoos, hair dyes, and bath products. These products generally contain 1 to 5 percent DEA or DEA-related ingredients. DEA can also be found in some pesticide formulations, as a so-called inert ingredient. This agent comes from coconuts.

Products containing DEA may be contaminated with nitrosamines, some of which may cause cancer, if the product contains nitrites as a preservative. Nitrosamines may accidentally contaminate DEA-containing products as well.

Health Effects Immediate Health Effects

  • If SWALLOWED, diethanolamine is Moderately Toxic

  • If ABSORBED THROUGH SKIN, diethanolamine is Moderately Toxic

  • If INHALED (SNIFFED OR BREATHED IN), diethanolamine is Not Available

Longterm or Delayed Health Effects
  • This chemical is considered an Unclassifiable Carcinogen by the World Health Organization, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or another agency.

  • Allergen

  • Skin and eye irritation.

  • Some tests on laboratory animals suggest that DEA may cause liver or kidney tumors.

  • Tests on laboratory animals have shown damage to the testicles, reduced sperm activity, and effects on the liver, kidney, bone marrow, brain, spinal cord and skin from exposure to diethanolamine.

  • Immunotoxin

  • The National Toxicology Program found �clear evidence � of carcinogenicity in male and female mice, but �no evidence� in male and female rats.

How Exposures Occur

Absorption Through Scalp and Skin
  • DEA in shampoos, conditioners, creams, cosmetics, hair dyes, bath products, and other personal care products may penetrate a child�s skin during normal use.

  • Children may breathe in DEA when pesticides containing DEA are sprayed near them.

Intraveneous (IV) Solutions
  • Diethanolamine solutions are used as solvents for numerous drugs that are administered intravenously.

Significant Statistics

European Union restricts DEA use to 1% of any cosmetic ingredient. But in the U.S., there are no such regulations. Manufacturers are advised by the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association to limit DEA usage to five times what is accepted in Europe.

Bleifuss, Joel. �To Die For,� In These Times (February 17, 1996).

As of 1980, the U.S. FDA analyzed 335 cosmetic products and found that 42% were contaminated with N- nitrosodiethanolamine. This nitrosamine contaminant of diethanolamine is considered a probable carcinogen.

“N-Nitrosodiethanolamine, CAS No. 1116-54-7: Reasonably Anticipated to be a Human Carcinogen.” Tenth Report on Carcinogens. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Toxicology Program, December 2002.


How to detect diethanolamine

  • Read labels. On personal care products, look for DEA, diethanolamine, or DEA-related ingredients, including: Cocamide DEA, Cocamide MEA, DEA-Cetyl Phosphate, DEA Oleth-3 Phosphate, Lauramide DEA, Linoleamide MEA, Myristamide DEA, Oleamide DEA, Stearamide MEA, Triethanolamine (TEA), TEA-Lauryl Sulfate. These ingredients could also be contaminated with nitrosamines, a potentially cancer-causing byproduct of DEA.

  • You can search for products containing diethanolamine on Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Searchable Product Guide website.

How to minimize exposure to diethanolamine

  • As a precaution, discard products that contain DEA.


  • Natural shampoos and other personal care products are sold in natural foods stores. Some may contain DEA-related ingredients (see Detection), so check labels before purchasing. Shop for better personal care products using  Neways safe products

  • Choose organic pest control methods for your home, garden and lawn.

For More information

Books, articles, factsheets and reports

Bleifuss, Joel. �To Die For,� In These Times (February 17, 1996).

Cancer Prevention Coalition. “Diethanolamine: What is it?” Cancer Prevention Alert, No. 13, (1995).

Epstein, Samuel, and David Steinman. The Safe Shopper�s Bible: A Consumer�s Guide to Nontoxic Household Products, Cosmetics and Food. New York: Macmillan Publishers, 1995.

Other government agencies

U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
5100 Paint Branch Parkway
College Park, MD 20740-3835
888-INFO-FDA (888-463-6332)

National Toxicology Program

National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences
P.O. Box 12233
Research Triangle Park, NC 27709

Nonprofit organizations

Cancer Prevention Coalition

c/o School of Public Health
University of Illinois Medical Center
2121 West Taylor Street
Chicago,IL 60612

Other websites

Because We're Worth it! The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics

More Resources on chemicals in everyday products

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