Ethoxylated compounds are synthetic chemicals created using the known carcinogen ethylene oxide. Chemical manufacturers are able to create synthetic chemicals that have skin-conditioning or cleansing products similar to oils, soaps, and natural butters but at a much cheaper price. Many times these chemicals are made out of cheap petroleum or animal by-products. These are the parts of the animals from the bottom of the barrel, literally, that no one wants. First, they take out the meat that they sell to people, then they take the lesser cuts and use them for hot dogs and other low-grade meats. Then, the pet-food companies have their pick. The leftover sludge of fats and cartilage is then processed and sold to cosmetic companies to make ingredients like stearic acid and cetearyl alcohol.
So, where does ethylene oxide come in to play? Well, companies can turn a fatty acid like stearic acid in to an emulsifier, steareth-20, which is able to combine water and oil. Using the ethoxylation process, chemists can design chemicals that are able to do things that they otherwise would be unable to do.
The problem with the ethoxylation process is that trace amounts of ethylene oxide can remain in the product. Ethylene oxide is a known carcinogen, and can be absorbed by the body through the skin. Other compounds like sodium lauryl sulfate and propylene glycol are penetration enhancers, and break down the protective barrier of skin, delivering these carcinogenic chemicals further in to the skin and bloodstream.
Additionally, the ethoxylation process can create 1,4-dioxane, also a known carcinogen.
Recently a study done by the State of California and the Organic Consumers Association found that a number of personal care products that were supposedly "natural" contained higher than acceptable levels of 1,4-dioxane from ethoxylated compounds. In fact, once the state of California found out about the contamination, it sued the companies that it had tested. Every product sold in California that contains a carcinogen must have a warning label. The brands were forced to reformulate and most of them fixed the contamination problem. But this was only a handful of “natural” companies—the big brands have gone untested and unregulated for 1,4-dioxane contamination.
How to spot an ethoxylated compound
There are three easy ways to spot an ethoxylated compound. First is looking out for "PEG." PEG stands for polyethylene glycol. Polyethylene Glycol is used in cosmetics as a skin conditioner and emulsifier. It usually is followed by a number, reading PEG-200. The number following the PEG is the number of moles (a unit of measure in chemistry) that the glycol has been treated with. So PEG-40 is polyethylene glycol treated with ethylene oxide 40 times. The higher the number, the more ethylene oxide
Second, look for the suffix "eth." Sodium laureth sulfate or ceteareth-20 are two examples. The "eth" indicates it has been treated with ethylene oxide.
Third, look for dashes followed by a number, as in steareth-20.
One last ingredient to avoid: "vegetable emulsifying wax." This is a blend of fatty acids and polysorbate 60 and steareth-20, which are ethoxylated compounds.
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