It can be alarming to read through your product labels and come across ingredients that you've never heard of, let alone know what purpose they serve—or worse, what side effects they might have. But should you be wary of all polysyllabic ingredients just because you aren't sure how to pronounce them? Take triethanolamine, for instance. In an effort to be more aware of what you're putting on your skin, you might have come across this ingredient in your products and want to know more.
But you won't find it on any "best of" lists of skin ingredients, nor will you see it very high on the lists of beauty watchdog websites as an ingredient to be completely avoided, which makes it all the more mysterious. So we turned to Neal Schultz, MD, a board-certified dermatologist, and Perry Romanowski, an independent cosmetic chemist and founder of The Beauty Brains, to explain more about it. Here's what you should know about triethanolamine in skincare and whether or not it's safe to have in your skincare and cosmetics products.
Meet the Expert
Type of ingredient: Emulsifier and pH adjuster
Main benefits: Stabilizes, balances a product's pH, and thickens the formula.
Who should use it: In general, anyone who does not have an allergy to it.
How often can you use it: As long as it's delivered from a standard cosmetic product and does not cause irritation, products with triethanolamine are considered safe to use on a daily basis by both Romanowski and Schultz.
Works well with: As a pH adjuster, triethanolamine works particularly well with acidic materials, Romanowski adds.
Don't use with: According to reviews by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel, to prevent the formation of possibly carcinogenic nitrosamines, triethanolamine should not be used with N-nitrosating agents in formulations or should not be used in cosmetic products in which N-nitroso compounds can be formed.
What Is Triethanolamine?
"Triethanolamine (TEA) is a clear, colorless, thick liquid that smells a bit like ammonia because it has nitrogen at its center," Romanowski says. As he explains it, triethanolamine is made by reacting ethylene oxide, which is derived from the petroleum industry, with ammonia, which is derived from air. It's primarily used in product formulas to adjust the pH (which means the amount of acidity in something) and to emulsify immiscible fluids (in other words, fluids that don't mix well on their own). Triethanolamine isn't used in any specific product types per se, but you'll find this stabilizer and pH adjuster in everything from cosmetics and fragrances to haircare and skincare. In regards to skincare, in particular, triethanolamine can be found in a wide range of products: shaving gels and creams, sunscreens, lotions, serums, and cleansers.
The Benefits of Triethanolamine for Skin
Triethanolamine might not have any particular benefits for the skin, but it does function in a few different ways to help the overall products that it's used in work better and last longer.
- Balances pH: According to Schultz, triethanolamine can neutralize things that throw acidity and alkalinity off balance. "The reason that’s important is because a pH that’s out of the neutral range has a higher chance of causing irritation," he says.
- Emulsifies: For an oil and a non-oil substance to mix together, you need a chemical that will hold them together, aka an emulsifier or a stabilizer. "We call those products amphoteric because they both have an oil-binding side and a water-binding side," Schultz explains. "The bottom line is, they get immiscible fluids to play nicely together and to become miscible." Without the use of an emulsifier, the oil and water would settle out and separate (the water would be up on top, the oil would be on the bottom) and you would not have an effective product.
- Stabilizes emulsions: As an emulsifier or stabilizer, triethanolamine helps emulsions, such as creams and lotions, last longer, according to Romanowski.
- Thickens the formula: Schultz adds that as far as sensory or aesthetic benefits, triethanolamine also helps thicken and add body to the formula.
Possible Side Effects
Is triethanolamine safe in skincare? Well, if you've done your research on triethanolamine, you might've come across scary information involving the formation of possibly carcinogenic nitrosamines when it's used with certain ingredients (N-nitrosating agents) during manufacturing. So first, let's clear the air. Romanowski says that the ingredient is not dangerous to use at cosmetic levels and is safe when delivered from a standard cosmetic product. "Toxicology experts have reviewed the safety testing and data on TEA and have concluded that the products on the market today and the levels of TEA used are not unsafe," he says. "There is no evidence of a problem with longterm exposure. This is just standard chemical fear mongering." Schultz adds, "There is no known link to cancer."
As for other side effects, Schultz points out that there is a risk of irritation or allergy at certain concentrations, especially above 5%, which should be avoided. "It does not bother most people, but if you are having irritation from a skincare product and you don’t know what’s causing it, look at the ingredient deck," Schultz suggests. "If this is one of the ingredients in it, consider that that may be the particular ingredient used that’s causing it and look for a comparable product without that ingredient and see if that makes a difference."
How to Use Triethanolamine
Because it's included in such a wide range of products, the application of formulas containing triethanolamine depends on the specific product in question. And since it offers no benefit to the skin, Romanowski says that no one should go out of their way to use triethanolamine. "From a consumer standpoint, triethanolamine is not something they need to think about," Romanowski says. As far as how often is safe, as long as you do not have an allergy to it and the products are used as intended, Schultz says it's okay to use it on a daily basis.
What is triethanolamine?
It's a emulsifier and pH adjuster that's used to stabilize and balance a product's pH, and thickens the formula.
How do you use triethanolamine in skincare?
Because it's included in such a wide range of products, the application of formulas containing triethanolamine depends on the specific product in question.
Is triethanolamine safe to use in skincare?
Romanowski says that the ingredient is not dangerous to use at cosmetic levels and is safe when delivered from a standard cosmetic product.
Fiume MM, Heldreth B, Bergfeld WF, et al. Safety assessment of triethanolamine and triethanolamine-containing ingredients as used in cosmetics. Int J Toxicol. 2013;32(3 Suppl):59S-83S. doi:10.1177/1091581813488804