Triethanolamine: Definition, Characteristics, Uses, Risks, Side Effects and Recommendations

It is an organic compound whose composition is ethylene oxide and ammonia.

This chemical compound is commonly found in several cosmetic products and used in several different medical applications.

In cosmetic uses, triethanolamine is used to raise the pH of certain mixtures and act as an emulsifier (to help various ingredients mix better).

Triethanolamine, also known as TEA, is a reactionary by-product of two substances: ethylene oxide and ammonia. Triethanolamine is used for various purposes in various cosmetics and personal care items.

This ensures that they spread smoothly on the skin and hair and prolong their lifespan. Also, triethanolamine is sometimes a foaming agent and adds fragrance to products. Triethanolamine can be found in up to 40% of beauty items currently on the market.

These include perfumes and other fragrances, hair products, hair dyes, shower gels, shaving creams and gels, skin creams and lotions, eye serums, skin cleansers, and makeup such as foundations blushes, mascara. , eye shadows and eye protectors.


This chemical is generally colorless or light yellow and may have a faint ammonia odor. The texture of triethanolamine is usually very coarse, and it can become a solid or crystallize at room temperature.


This means that it cannot be added to all products effectively, such as anti-aging serums, as the texture can reduce the ease of application to the skin.

Triethanolamine has several associated warnings, which may become a concern for those who use products that contain it regularly.

What is triethanolamine used for?

Triethanolamine (TEA), diethanolamine (DEA), and ethanolamine are clear, colorless, thick liquids with ammonia-like odors. In cosmetics and personal care products, triethanolamine can be used in some makeup products such as:

  • Eyeliner.
  • Mascara.
  • Eyeshadow.
  • Blush.
  • Makeup bases.

As well as in:

  • Fragrances
  • Haircare products.
  • Hair dye.
  • Wave sets.
  • Shaving products.
  • Sunscreens.
  • Skincare and skin cleansing products.

Ethanolamine can be used in some permanent waves and hair dyes and colors. Diethanolamine is rarely used in cosmetics, but DEA derivatives can be used in shampoos and cleaning products.

Why is it used in cosmetics and personal care products?

TEA, DEA, and ethanolamine help form emulsions by reducing the surface tension of the substances to be emulsified so that the water-soluble and oil-soluble ingredients can be mixed. They are also used to control the pH of cosmetics and personal care products.

DEA is rarely used in products, but it can be combined with other substances and made into a new ingredient (i.e., DEA salt) that is no longer chemically identical to DEA. This “chemical reaction” leads to an unknown substance that is very stable and does not break down easily.

Cocamide DEA and lauramide DEA are examples of such ingredients. DEA salts are surfactants, emulsifying agents, viscosity-increasing agents, hair or skin conditioning agents, foam boosters, or antistatic agents.

It should be noted that DEA and DEA derivatives are used in other products besides cosmetics and personal care products. For example, DEA and DEA derivatives have been approved for food-related applications, primarily food packaging.

As with any chemical reaction, there can be unavoidable small amounts of the starting materials (in this case, DEA) carried into the final product. These low residual levels do not affect the use or performance of the new ingredients, and the stories are controlled to safe levels during manufacture.

TEA is most commonly used in cosmetics and works as a surfactant or pH adjuster. Other ingredients that contain TEA work as surfactants and hair or skin conditioners.

Ethanolamine works as a pH adjuster. Most of its salts function as surfactants; some ethanolamine salts work as pH adjusters, hair fixers, or preservatives.

Two harsh chemicals do no good. While federal regulations allow small doses of triethanolamine in beauty and personal care items, they are dangerous in the short and long term, from irritating skin and eyes to damaging the respiratory and immune systems and inciting cancer.

Consequences of using triethanolamine


Triethanolamine combines two highly toxic chemicals, neither of which would be recommended for skincare.

Despite being used in thousands of personal care and beauty items, including many that claim to be hypoallergenic, triethanolamine can cause short-term and long-term skin, hair, and eye irritation and inflammation. Its immediate effects include:

  • Itch.
  • Crying eyes.
  • Dry and brittle hair.
  • Skin itch.

Over time, the use of triethanolamine can cause chemical damage to the skin, such as blisters, a feeling of heat, burning, hives, and peeling.

Small doses of triethanolamine are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) for use in cosmetics and personal care products intended for ‘discontinuous use,’ which means they should be washed briefly after the application.

However, due to its toxicity, the FDA recommends no more than a 5% concentration of triethanolamine in a product formulation because it can be dangerous in large doses or during long-term use.

The problem then falls into the hands of the consumer, who may be absorbing small amounts of triethanolamine into their skin through many everyday products that are used daily. The accumulation of small doses of this toxic substance turns into a large quantity.

Long-term side effects

Daily exposure for long periods can be highly unhealthy. In clinical trials in animals, high doses of triethanolamine caused liver, bladder, and testicular cancer.

Similar animal studies showed that triethanolamine could adversely affect organs, even in low doses, mainly when applied around the lips, mouth, and eyes.

Triethanolamine has also been an immune system, respiratory toxic, skin, and whole-body allergen. It can also cause genetic mutations in vitro.

Furthermore, triethanolamine can be carcinogenic when combined with products with N-nitrosating agents as they can react to form nitrosamines.

Any ingredient that saturates our health and beauty industry is unsafe but is only safe for us. No one can know how much triethanolamine they absorb. Any amount of triethanolamine is believed to be too much.

Short term side effects

There are also several short-term side effects associated with triethanolamine. Allergic reactions can cause itchy or watery eyes, brittle or dry hair, and itchy skin.

This chemical can cause skin damage in the long term, including flaking, blisters, and a burning sensation when the products are applied. If you think you are allergic to triethanolamine or have concerns about its effects on your health, discuss its uses with your dermatologist.


The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act do not require cosmetic products and ingredients to be approved by the FDA before they go on the market, except for color additives that are not intended to be used as coal tar hair dyes.

However, they must be safe for consumers under labeled or customary conditions of use. Companies and individuals who market cosmetics have a legal responsibility for the safety of their products and ingredients.

While the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Industries has approved triethanolamine as safe for use, the organization also recommends that any product containing this chemical should not have a concentration greater than 5% to be secure.

Triethanolamine is moderately dangerous to the skin despite its many uses if applied long-term. If you have any concerns about the dangers of triethanolamine, there are several ways to reduce your risk of exposure.

Although triethanolamine is used in various cosmetic, health, and beauty products, it is also considered moderately dangerous.

Despite Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic approval, it should never be used long-term. It has been shown to have detrimental effects on human skin and the immune system and is classified as a respiratory toxic.

Clinical tests show that high doses of triethanolamine have caused liver, bladder, and testicular cancer in laboratory animals. While these results are certainly a cause for concern, there are several ways to avoid long-term exposure.

When using triethanolamine products, such as cosmetics, you should invest in a quality makeup remover rather than washing your face with warm soapy water.

Daily facial cleansing with soap cannot remove all traces of cosmetics, which could increase the risk of prolonged exposure to triethanolamine, especially for the delicate skin around the eyes and mouth.

If you use cosmetics such as eyeshadow and eyeliner that contain the compound, be sure to altogether remove the product each night with facial sponges and avoid using makeup with triethanolamine that is marketed as wearable for 24 hours or more, as such claims they are misleading.