Well, this just sucks. Guess I have to change my soap and shampoo again. Ugh.

Popular ‘green’ products test positive for toxicant

A cancer-causing chemical is found in almost half of 100 such goods studied.

By Marla Cone, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
March 14, 2008

New tests of 100 “natural” and “organic” soaps, shampoos and other consumer products show that nearly half of them contained a cancer-causing chemical that is a byproduct of petrochemicals used in manufacturing.

Many items that tested positive for the carcinogen are well-known brands, including Kiss My Face, Alba, Seventh Generation and Nature’s Gate products, sold in retail stores across the nation.
The findings of the Organic Consumers Assn., a consumer advocacy group, are sending a jolt through the natural products industry. Gathering today in Anaheim for a national trade show, many leaders worry that the test results will taint the industry in the eyes of the public.

Of the 100 products tested, 47 had detectable levels of 1,4-dioxane, which the Environmental Protection Agency has declared a probable human carcinogen because it causes cancer in lab animals.

Most traditional soaps and shampoos contain 1,4-dioxane. But the discovery that the chemical is present in many housecleaning and personal care products, including some for babies, that are advertised as being natural, organic or “green” comes as somewhat of a surprise.

“For companies to knowingly or even carelessly put a carcinogen into commerce in this day and age is barbaric, I think, particularly products that have the moniker of natural or self-proclaimed ‘organic,’ ” said consumer advocate and author David Steinberg, who directed the study.

“We need standards,” he said. “Consumers walk into a health-food store or natural-product supermarket with the expectation that the product they purchase will be natural or safer than what they could purchase at the drugstore or supermarket.”

The compound is not intentionally added to products; it is a byproduct of a process used to soften harsh detergents. It is formed when foaming agents, or surfactants, are processed with ethylene oxide or similar petrochemicals.

Said Martin Wolf, Seventh Generation Inc.’s director of product and environmental technology, “The natural world is filled with things that can harm. . . . All we can do is work as hard as we can to keep the levels as low as possible and keep our products as safe as possible.”

Hain Celestial Group, the Boulder, Colo.-based owner of four of the tested companies — Alba, Jason, Avalon Organics and Zia Natural Skincare– said Thursday that it would reevaluate all of its products. Two Alba and three Jason products contained 1,4-dioxane, but the chemical was not detected in tested Avalon and Zia products.

“We are committed to selling products without detectable levels of 1,4-dioxane . . . and will review all formulations accordingly,” said Lisa Lehndorff, Hain Celestial’s director of corporate consumer relations.

No one knows exactly what amount of the compound may be unsafe. In scientific studies, lab animals that had been fed 1,4-dioxane for many weeks developed nasal, liver and gall bladder cancers. But scientists do not now know what, if any, cancer risk humans face from years-long use of products containing the chemical.

The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates cosmetics, has set no standards for 1,4-dioxane. The agency has occasionally tested products for the compound since the late 1970s and says levels of it have substantially declined since then. The FDA says the current levels “do not present a hazard to consumers,” although it has advised the industry to reduce amounts in cosmetics as much as possible.

Many companies in the “natural” business have been striving for years to eliminate 1,4-dioxane. They use coconut or other plant oils as surfactants, and they have reformulated products and added a process called vacuum-stripping. But traces still remain, in the parts-per-million range.

Josef Koester of Cognis Corp., a Cincinnati-based chemical company that caters to manufacturers seeking “green” compounds, said most companies can avoid 1,4-dioxane but that it “typically requires a higher price point and sometimes performance restrictions for the product. How green the formulators want to go — it is their choice.”

Some organic company owners said it is deceptive for many products to be called natural when the carcinogenic compound indicates that petrochemicals are used in their manufacture.

No standards govern the words natural or organic for personal care products. But a few companies, including TerrEssentials, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps and Sensibility Soaps Inc., which makes the Nourish brand, have certified their products as organic under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food standards.

“It makes it really difficult for us to communicate real organic when our little voice gets lost in this sea of products that are all claiming to meet the [USDA organic] standard when, in fact, they don’t,” said Diana Kaye, co-founder of TerrEssentials, a small Maryland company. All six TerrEssentials soaps and other products tested were free of 1,4-dioxane.

Other brands, including Burt’s Bees, Desert Essence and EO, are not certified to meet organic food standards but still contained no 1,4-dioxane in the tests.

But because the vast majority of shampoos, soaps and other consumer goods do not carry the USDA organic seal, it’s nearly impossible for buyers to know whether the ones they use contain 1,4-dioxane because the chemical is not listed on ingredient labels. Products most likely to contain the compound usually list polyethylene glycol or compounds with the syllables PEG, short for polyethylene glycol, -eth or -oxynol-,according to the FDA.

Method, a San Francisco-based company whose products are sold at Target, intentionally does not call its products “natural,” said co-founder Adam Lowry. Instead, the labels say “naturally derived” because the plant oils have been processed with ethylene oxide to make them better cleansers.

Three of its products were tested, and two — its ultra-concentrated dish soap and a hand soap — contained 1,4-dioxane.

“For us there are no alternatives that are still effective,” Lowry said. “Unless you can have a high-performance product, if you have a green product or a natural product, then what’s the point of having one that doesn’t work?”

Method’s creamy hand soap, which had 7 parts per million of 1,4-dioxane in the tests, has been reformulated and now contains none, Lowry said.

“We 100% believe that our products are completely safe and there’s zero risk,” he said.

Whole Foods on Thursday declined to say whether the test results would prompt any changes in products sold at its stores. Three of four products tested in Whole Foods’ own product line, 365 Everyday Value, contained 1,4-dioxane.

Dishwashing liquids are particularly hard to keep free of 1,4-dioxane because they require surfactants that are powerful grease cutters.

Seventh Generation uses coconut oil in its dish soaps, which although it is processed with a petrochemical and vacuum-stripped, still contains almost 2 parts per million of 1,4-dioxane. Wolf said the only way to remove all traces would be to use another surfactant that irritates skin, which the Burlington, Vt.-based company considers unacceptable.

Seventh Generation is “working with several surfactant manufacturers to look for alternatives to this process to modify coconut oil,” Wolf said. “We’re not there yet. We have more work to do.”

7 thoughts on “Popular ‘green’ products test positive for toxicant

  1. We applaud the Organic Consumer Association’s (OCA) recent research efforts to educate consumers about the safety of personal care and home cleaning products. It is important for consumers to know that Seventh Generation’s dish liquid, which does contain a minute amount of the ethoxylate 1,4-dioxane, is deemed safe according to the FDA’s and our own strict guidelines.

    We are committed to eliminating all harmful chemicals from household cleaning products. Consistent with our core mission, we have worked with surfactant manufacturers for many years to reduce levels of 1,4-dixoane in ethoxylated surfactants and it is our intent to completely eliminate 1,4-dioxane from all of our products.

    The OCA research reviewed personal care products such as hand soaps and shampoos alongside household cleaning products with different usage and efficacy requirements. As noted in the Los Angeles Times on March 14, 2008, “Dishwashing liquids are particularly hard to keep free of 1,4-dioxane because they require surfactants that are powerful grease cutters.” Liquid laundry detergents also require surfactants for stain removal.

    We share the OCA’s concerns about the misuse of terms such as “organic” and “natural” and the lack of disclosure requirements. We have championed this cause and have led the market for twenty years. We also believe that the decision to stop using conventional synthetic chemical cleaners is one of the most important ones you’ll ever make for the health of your family and the safety of your home. While our products are not perfect today, we will continue to improve them and are confident that they are a much better and safer choice than traditional cleaning products.

    Is There An Alternative to Ethoxylates?

    We don’t believe that today there is a better or safer choice. Ethoxylation is used to modify plant oils to make them function as surfactants. It is possible to create surfactants without ethoxylation, but there are trade-offs. One alternative, for example, is to use exclusively petroleum-derived materials. However, this is less sustainable than using renewable plant oils. Petroleum-derived surfactants may also have less desirable biodegradability and toxicity profiles. For anionic (negatively charged) surfactants, another alternative is to not ethoxylate the plant oils. The resulting surfactants (SLS, for example) are more irritating than the equivalent ethoxylated surfactant.

    It is also worth noting that all of the dish liquids tested by the OCA contained ethoxylates. Furthermore, according to the OCA, no viable alternative currently exists and will need to be developed and thoroughly tested.

    For our dish liquids and liquid laundry detergents, ethoxylates help deliver products that work. While that is true for now, we are working to eliminate ethoxylates from all products in the future.

    Our Commitment To You

    Consumers want to know what ingredients are in the products they use in their homes and they want to be informed about the potential effects of these chemicals on their health and the health of their families. At Seventh Generation, we believe the best way to produce this information to consumers, at the point of purchase, is through full disclosure of ingredients on product labels.

    That’s why we’re proud to have led the industry as one of the few manufacturers of household cleaning products to voluntarily disclose ingredients. Seventh Generation has instituted a two tier system of disclosure, using consumer-friendly descriptions on our packaging (for example, “coconut oil derived cleaning agent”), and specific chemical or INCI names on our Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), which are available on our website. In addition to ingredient disclosure on our labels and MSDS, as described above, consumers are able to call our toll-free number for ingredient lists, or for additional information about each ingredient.

    Seventh Generation has submitted testimony to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) asking that they include definitions for “organic” and “natural” in the revised edition of the Green Marketing Guidelines. This will assure that all manufacturers use the terms “organic” and “natural” in a consistent way.

    At present, the term “natural” does not have a regulated definition. In the absence of regulation Seventh Generation has defined “natural” to mean “derived from natural materials.” Surfactants that are made from plant oils and minerals are “natural” by this definition. This includes the surfactants used in our products.

    Learn More

    There are a number of organizations working to educate consumers about safer household and personal care products. We encourage consumers to learn more about Women’s Voices for the Earth, their Safe Cleaning Products Initiative, and to get the facts about safe cleaning products in their report, Household Hazards

  2. Great article. When selecting any skin care product it is very important to review the ingredients. I always suggest using all natural products when possible.

  3. Thanks for your comments Blake. I agree that natural is typically better, but the point of the article is that petroleum is found naturally and using it can create a carcinogenic ingredient. So while natural is better, still roughly 50% (per the article) contain harmful substances. It’s best to understand the ingredients often associated with this and avoid products with these ingredients. It’s not hard, but it does require a little upfront effort.

  4. what about arbonne skin care line? So far it seems like a very good product. Have you heard otherwise or anything about it?

  5. Hi Casey,

    I also loved Arbonne, but was dissapointed to find out they were not as safe as they claimed to be. They are safer than most conventional products, but looking at the http://www.cosmeticdatabase.com site, many of the products rate 4-7 and are considered moderately hazardous. Many products also contain formedahyde, even the baby line.

    So after learning a little more about skin care products, Arbonne is not looking as great as it once was. Again, it’s a lot safer than many other conventional products, but there are many much safer products available.

    Please check back because I am working on another article around skin care products that you would likely be interested in. I hope to have it done in the next week or so.

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