Ingredient Watch List: Tetrasodium EDTA, the Preservative Made from Formaldehyde
If you knew your personal care products had preservatives made from carcinogens, would you want to use them?
We didn’t think so. Yet one ingredient made from a potential carcinogen is found in many personal care products, and is reported by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review to be safe.
It’s tetrasodium ETDA, made from ethylenediamine, formaldehyde—a known carcinogen according to the National Cancer Institute—and sodium cyanide (which is made from the toxic gas hydrogen cyanide).
It gets worse. This ingredient is also a penetration enhancer. That means it breaks down the skin’s protective barrier, making it easier for other potentially harmful ingredients in the formula to sink deeper into your tissues and perhaps even into your bloodstream.
Some of your creams may contain a preservative made from formaldehyde—you deserve better.
What is Tetrasodium EDTA?
Tetrasodium ETDA (which stands for ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid) is a water-soluble ingredient used as a “chelator,” which means it binds to certain mineral ions to inactivate them. Through this action, it can prevent the deterioration of cosmetic and personal care products, as it stops the growth of mold and other microorganisms. Tetrasodium EDTA also helps maintain clarity, protect fragrance compounds, and prevent rancidity. One of its main uses it to help personal care products work better in hard water.
Laboratory technicians use the three ingredients mentioned above to synthesize EDTA, and then tetrasodium EDTA is derived from that. You’ll find it in moisturizers, skin care and cleansing products, personal cleanliness products, bath soaps, shampoos and conditioners, hair dyes, hair bleaches, and many other products. It’s also cleared for use in packaged foods, vitamins, and baby food.
Is It Safe?
The Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel evaluated the scientific data and concluded that disodium ETDA and related ingredients (including tetrasodium EDTA) were safe as used in cosmetic ingredients and personal care products. The panel also said the ingredient was not well absorbed in the skin. They did note, however, that since the ingredients are penetration enhancers, formulators should be careful when combining these preservatives with other ingredients that may be hazardous if absorbed.
The Cosmetic Safety Database rates the hazard of the ingredient at a low “2,” with a low overall health hazard, and EDTA has not been found to cause cancer in laboratory animals.
In addition to the formaldehyde thing, however—which makes me uncomfortable—this ingredient may also contain dangerous levels of dioxane, a by-product of manufacturing that is also carcinogenic. There have been some case reports of sensitive individuals developing eczema after using cream with tetrasodium EDTA, and it’s known to be a potent eye irritant. It can also be slow to degrade, making it a poor choice for environmental health.
Why Take the Risk?
This is another one of those synthetic preservatives that just doesn’t feel good. We don’t have established scientific data on whether long-term use may hurt us, but just looking at the sources, is this really something we want to be putting on our skin?
We have other alternatives we can use, like coconut and castor oils for lather, and orange and cedar wood essential oils for natural preservatives, just to name a few. I would much rather nourish my skin with natural ingredients I know to be safe, rather than take a risk with something chemical, harsh, and potentially harmful—particularly when I have a little one running around the house who may be even more sensitive!
To avoid this ingredient, watch for these on the label:
- Edetate sodium
- Tetrasodium edetate
- Tetrasodium salt
Do you avoid this ingredient in your products? Have you experienced sensitivity to it?
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“Tetrasodium EDTA,” National Library of Medicine HSDB Database, http://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/cgi-bin/sis/search/a?dbs+hsdb:@term+@DOCNO+5003.