Ingredient Watch List: Tetrasodium EDTA, the Preservative Made from Formaldehyde

Tetrasodium EDTA

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,[email protected]+5003.

comments (53 and counting)


Reader Interactions


  1. Franchesca says

    I found this product as the second to last ingredient in my deodorant, Arm & Hammer Essentials. I chose this deodorant to avoid the aluminum in other commercially made options. Upon looking it up it’s interesting to see that this deodorant marketed as natural and healthier isn’t quiet what one would think. Thanks for the info. Not sure what to do instead as my husband is a little hesitant to use just coconut oil.

    • Gloria Gill says

      Try using a solid salt block deoderant. It does take a week for one’s body to adjust (so endure sticky armpits for a week), but after that, it works marvelously. In addition, it is vastly more economical than any stick or aerosol deoderant. I paid $8 for mine, and I’m still using it eight years later.

  2. Maria Berggren says

    I don’t understand the suggestion to use orange or cedarwood essential oils as natural preservatives. I have never heard that these specific oils have any preservative properties and if they do they would certainly not be broad spectrum. It is hard to take this article seriously when uninformed and potentially dangerous suggestions like that is bandied about.

  3. Viki says

    I have sensitive skin and am leery of using anything with ingredients I can’t pronounce. I’m glad I looked this up, I’ll be avoiding anything with this stuff in it from now on.

  4. LJ says

    Thanks for this information .. My baby and I both uses a well-known brand of a baby wash .. I read some issues about it being hazardous to the skin and so out of curiosity I searched to find out if it’s true .. I have read to other websites the top 5 chemicals to avoid .. and checked that list if the baby wash contains it .. Tetrasodium EDTA is included .. and so I decided to stop using that product .. I don’t even want to risk my baby’s health for that ..

  5. Moses rose says

    Am impressed from what i learnt.but i Love to know more dir am just a biginer.i Appriciate it if you Five me to what am searching for.

  6. Dr Robert Butts says

    Basing the safety of a compound on its initial ingredients without taking any count of any chemical reactions is highly misleading. On that basic table salt would be banned as pure highly reactive and dangerous sodium plus deadly ,poison gas,chlorine reacts to give 100 percent common table salt.

  7. Betsi says

    I have been using Eco Colors for my hair color since being diagnosed with many allergies including EDTA. It doesn’t seem to be working for me any more. Does anyone know of another hair color that is free of EDTA?

  8. Chemguy says

    Please use caution when deciding what suggestions to follow. I appreciate that the author did not say EDTA was outright bad for you, but the way in which she mentioned the ingredients was certainly intended to elicit a specific reaction. Would you consume sodium chloride if I told you that it was made from reacting sodium metal, which explodes on exposure to water (which constitutes a large portion of a human’s body mass) with chlorine gas, which is fatal to humans if inhaled and causes severe burns upon skin contact? If you’ve ever salted your food, you have. Sea salt and mined salt also have the same components, with other metals and halides floating around, despite their “natural” derivation. EDTA is sometimes used as intravenous therapy in cases of heavy metal poisoning. It can be extremely helpful when used in safe applications, which the FDA provides guidelines for. Please, trust those who spend their lives trying to keep you safe.

    • says

      Table salt has been linked to heart disease and sudden stroke… It is not the most healthy thing to consume in large quantities. It is a vital nutrient but is also carcinogenic if overused.

  9. Marie says

    Yes! I constantly had hives and deep painful sores on my neck, back, and jawline. I had tried probably 20 different shampoos and conditioners. Had finally found one that didn’t and sat down and compared it to everything else I’ve tried. Sure enough, this new one was the only one without EDTA! So I tried another shampoo without EDTA, sure enough, also no problems. It’s also becoming more popular in food and beverages, propel changed their formula and it now has EDTA, throat swelled and had chest pains.

    • Bjorn says

      The EDTA allows deeper penetration of the other chemicals in the products. The chemicals in shampoo, soaps and deodorants are not meant for internal use. EDTA is most likely causing reactions from other allergens.

  10. Noelle says

    I went on vacation to hawaii for a week and 2 days after i came home i noticed something on my face equal to a cold sore then started to get vescicles/rash on my forehead then around my eyes popping up for a week that itched and burned. At first thought it was bug bites but no one else had it and the rash did not pop up anywhere else on my body so i thought bugs cant be that picky where would only attack my face. Then realized my sister bought this new lotion called smoothie body butter by soap and glory(uk based) that i tried only on my face since the hawaii weather dried out my face, the last day we were there. Beware of this product lots of chemicals in it!!! Its been 3 weeks and my face is still trying to heal

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