A new study commissioned by a US consumer watchdog found that leading brands of personal care products such as shampoos, lotions and body washes that are labelled organic or 100 per cent natural contain an unidisclosed carcinogenic toxin 1,4-Dioxane. The tests were carried out by a well known, reputable third party laboratory said the consumer group.

The announcement was made by the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), a consumer group with over half a million members, in a press statement posted on their website on Friday March 14th.

The reason the toxin is present is because it is a byproduct of ethoxylation, a process that the OCA describes as "a cheap short-cut companies use to provide mildness to harsh ingredients". Ethoxylation uses the petrochemical Ethylene Oxide and produces 1,4-Dioxane as a byproduct. OCA reports that 1,4-Dioxane is in the list of known cancer causing chemicals that is published every year by the Governor of California under the state's proposition 65 (the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986).

The OCA said that 1,4-Dioxane has "no place" in "natural" or "organic" branded personal care products. According to the group, the California Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classes 1,4-Dioxane as a leading contaminant of groundwater and suspects it to be a kidney toxicant, neurotoxicant and respiratory toxicant.

The toxin is often present in conventional personal care products, said the OCA, as shown by other research, but the objection here is that it was found in so called "natural" and "organic" products, none of which are certified under the US Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program. Some of the leading brands found to contain 1,4-Dioxane include:
  • JASON Pure Natural & Organic.
  • Giovanni Organic Cosmetics.
  • Kiss My Face.
  • Nature's Gate Organics.
The OCA is calling for all so called organic brands that include ethoxylate ingredients or use any petrochemicals in their ingredients to drop their claim to being organic and show this on their labelling and branding.

OCA's Executive Director, Ronnie Cummins, told the press:

"The practice of ethoxylating ingredients or using other petroleum compounds must end for natural personal care, and is that much more outrageous in so-called organics brand products."

At a time when Americans are trying to wean themselves off petroleum-based ingredients, it is "self-defeating that we are literally bathing ourselves and our children in toxic petroleum compounds," said David Steinman, environmental health consumer advocate and author of The Safe Shopper's Bible.

"But consumers should also take heart in the emergence of a growing number of companies who've received the message and who are seeking to completely avoid petrochemicals in their cosmetic and personal care products," added Steinman.

Steinman recommended consumers wishing to buy organic products check that they contain ingredients certified under the USDA National Organic Program.

The OCA said all the USDA Certified brands tested in their study were 1,4-Dioxane-free, including Dr. Bronner's, Sensibility Soaps (Nourish), and Terressentials.

They also found that all German Natural BDIH certified brands they tested were also free of the toxin, including Aubrey Organics and Dr. Hauschka.

The OCA commented that unfortunately most personal care products sold in health food stores that claim to be "organic" contain ingredients that are not certified under the USDA National Organic Program. They contain only "cheap water extracts of organic herbs and maybe a few other token organic ingredients for organic veneer," said the OCA in their press statement.

The main ingredient in such products, said the association, is conventional manmande cleansers and conditioning chemicals, made partly using petrochemicals.

Market surveys show that consumers are prepared to pay more for products branded as "natural" or "organic", said the OCA. But they are not expecting them to contain petrochemical-modified ingredients or toxin like 1,4-Dioxane.

A clue to the presence of ethoxylation byproducts like 1,4-Dioxane is when the ingredient list contains names like "myreth," "oleth," "laureth," "ceteareth," any other "eth," and also names like "PEG," "polyethylene," "polyethylene glycol," "polyoxyethylene," or "oxynol", said the consumer group.

Cummins urged consumers to be more aware, because:

"When it comes to misbranding organic personal care products in the US, it's almost complete anarchy and buyer beware unless the product is certified under the USDA National Organic Program."

Government regulators don't agree on whether trace levels of 1,4-dioxane in personal care and household products are toxic. Personal care products are regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration, which maintains that the amounts typically found in them are not hazardous to consumers, said a report in the Washington Post.

According to the Post, the OCA gets 90 per cent of its funding from private individuals and the rest is from grants and donations from companies, including two that make personal care products. The OCA tested one of these, Dr Bronner's Magic Soaps (which was found not to contain 1,4-dioxane).

Spokespeople for some of the companies listed by the OCA as having products containing the toxin were surprised by these results and said they would be investigating further.

Click here to see the full list of products tested and the results.

Sources: Press release from the Organic Consumers Association, Washington Post.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD