Thursday, 11 September 2014

Triethanolamine TEA in Gel - Is it a bad ingredient?

Since I put up my analysis of the max hydration method, several of you have sent me additional links to questions that you have about the scientific analysis of ingredients and why they are drying.  One of the pages sent to me was this one about triethanolamine. There are numerous inaccurate statements within that article which I cannot tackle. I will therefore try instead to tell you about the ingredient itself and the research I have found about it.

1. What is triethanolamine?

It is a base which does contain three alcohol molecules but it is not an alcohol. 

2. Why is TEA found in gels?

It is used to adjust the pH to a neutral region so that the gel can actually form. Most often you will find both TEA and carbomer listed. These two are the backbone of most commercial gels. The TEA is added to water to adjust the pH and carbomer (a polymer) helps to turn the liquid phase (aloe vera or water or both) into a gel.  I found a video showing exactly this. Do note how little TEA is required!

3. Does TEA form sodium hydroxide in gel?

Honestly the chemistry when you have 5 or more ingredients is quite complex and it would be highly inaccurate to speculate on this without having done lab tests. Suffice it to say though that even if you directly added sodium hydroxide (which can be done as it too is a base and we need the base to bring the pH to neutral!), this does not mean that your hair will be relaxed. The bottom line is that bases are used for pH adjustment for hair lotions, conditioners and gels which are not intended to relax hair.

4. IF there is sodium hydroxide in the gel, can it  give you cancer?

Currently, sodium hydroxide is not classed as a carcinogen. I say currently because information may change but so far, it is not known or listed directly as a carcinogen. This does not mean that it is safe and can be used willy nilly! In high concentration (e.g relaxers), it most definitely is dangerous and associated with skin damage but again not everyone who uses a relaxer ends up with burns, with proper precautions it can be used.

5. Does TEA contain nitrosamines and can this give you cancer?

TEA can indeed contain nitrosamines and nitrosamines are known to be carcinogenic, this is widely accepted. However, cosmetic grade TEA from Dow Chemical Co. has previously been analysed independently and there was no detectable nitrosamine across several batches (J Soc Cosmet Chem, pp 237-252, 1980). The word 'detectable' is important because the instruments used can find nitrosamines if there is at least around a nanogram (1 billionth of a gram) present......yes really that little! Therefore if cosmetic grade TEA of a similar standing is used for the gel, it will probably have no detectable nitrosamine.

6. Is TEA safe?

It is up to you to decide for yourself. In the same way that it is up to you to decide whether parabens are safe or not. I only provide the information  :)

If you are worried about nitrosamines then do read up more on frying meat, eating smoked and preserved meat e.g bacon etc as if you have these regularly, your hair gel should be the least of your concerns. 

7. Do I (me, Jc) use TEA?

Yes, I am currently liking aloe vera gel (a commercial one) with TEA and preservatives. It would be nice to use the plant leaf directly but that is filed under too much work for me. I also have no issues with parabens or formaldehyde precursors as preservatives..........I say this just so you can see where I lie in the spectrum :)


  1. Hi Jc, thanks for taking the time to write such informative articles. It is sometimes very frustrating to weed out truth from fiction and your insight is greatly appreciated. I wish you were able to tackle or at least highlight some of the inaccuracies in the link above. My question is : were you able to conclude that TEA while a pH adjuster does not have drying effects at all or was that one of the inaccuracies you were talking about?

    1. I could not highlight them all because they were too many examples

      1. Unless the product is of single ingredient, it is not possible to say whether the product is overall drying. E.g you can add ethanol to a hair conditioner as a preservative or solvent but the hair conditioner will retain its moisturising properties. Pour pure ethanol on the hair and you have a different effect. The chemistry of how a product works is more than a single ingredient.
      2. There are links which are spurious e.g
      - Does TEA really combine with polyacrylate to form NaOH and further should this happen, given that there are additional ingredients, is it possible that the Na and OH ions may associate with other ingredients not direcly forming NaOH?
      - Directly adding a base like NaOH for pH is commonly done and sometimes not even declared on the bottle as it is under 1%, its presence does not mean the product is a relaxer or even relaxer like (noting that even NaOH at a pH of 10 can fail to relax hair if the concentration is low)
      - Very impartial information is given on TEA and NaOH and the link to cancer. If I am honest, it is very possible to link any ingredient to cancer but it is more important to explain why there is a possible link, how can it be mitigated and leave the consumer to decide for themselves.

  2. i'm aware TEA is a neutralizer, it is practically the base of everything that has been mentioned. "TEA reacts with acids and neutralizes to form salts in water based products". The point is supposed to be that TEA does react with acids to neutralize the ph and it because of that forms salts. I was going by the order of the ingredients, but either way the fact of the matter is the relationship of these two ingredients is that they will neutralize the other. Whether acid or base is added to the other first, both will neutralize the other. Since Polyacrylate is less in amount than the TEA in this ingredient list it is fair to assume it is being used to lower the ph of the TEA. It is going form the same compound so it really does not make a difference either way.


    It is not extreme to associate TEA with ethanol, it is an ethanolamine, an amino alcohol and research shows that it behaves the same way as ethanol in the context of what was being talked about in the post. It is that alcohol characteristic that makes the difference whether the product containing TEA is water based or oil based. Amino alcohols (like ethanolamine) themselves are in fact drying once denatured.

    I also never said that the denaturation due to proteins was the exact same as denatured alcohol. I stated that denaturation of alcohol due to heating like discussed in the post, is actually different than if the alcohol was already denatured before adding it to the gel. "Triethanolamine is an aminoalcohol. Neutralizes acids to form SALTS plus water in exothermic reactions." So I'm being very specific about heating and provided a real life examples compared side by side to show that you cannot get a completely clear gel with out heating it the way described in the post, and it absolutely is in line with what was described in the study. That is why I included the photos of the aubrey organics gel. It contains denatured alcohol and a made a point to specifically contrast it with the type of denaturing I was talking about. I emphasized that though they are both being denatured, the way it is denatured (no heating, before heating, or after heating, etc) is what matters. How exactly an alcohol was denatured before being added to the gel is kind of irrelevant because I was talking specifically about denaturing due to heat when done in a specific order, to get the clear gel result. So what you are saying doesn't conflict with anything I said.

  4. There may not be only one way to get gel to look Crystal clear, but the parameters of what I was talking about in this post were extremely specific so don't try to over generalize it. I said over and over that if the gel actually contains TEA or alcohol and it is crystal clear, (it will always contain an acid along with it) then you can assume it has been heated to be denatured. There may be other ways to get gels crystal clear, but if they don't contain TEA or alcohol, then they are not what I am talking about. BTW you say you have made crystal clear gels before but I am not inclined to believe that unless you show what product it is you are talking about. How should I just take your word for it? Provide proof, pictures. How do I know your "crystal clear" isn't just slightly opalescent or foggy like the aubrey organic or even giovanni LA styling gel? Plus you never specified the ingredients in said product, so it may not even apply to what I am saying.

    Yes the polyacrylate acid is a holding agent too. So? That doesn't take away from the fact that TEA is helping to increase the viscosity as well, and is also contributing to the hold in this gel. Why would we assume that only one ingredient is relevant to the hold? Plus the one furthest down the list? If I had a gel that contained only water and aloe vera gel, vs a gel that had water, aloe vera gel, marshmallow root and burdock root, does that mean that the aloe vera being a holding agent makes the fact that the other extracts are holding agents irrelevant? Plus many gels are 80% water. But why is it that KCCC didn't give me bald spots and all the gels I had tried with TEA did? No, the other ingredients in the formulation are still having their effect and contributing the the behavior of the gel and its effect on your hair.

    When it comes to products mentioning it is 80% water means nothing. Even relaxers can contain but 2% lye. But that is still the active agent. And even if it was a .5% lye relaxer, if I walked around with it on my hair all day and did not rinse it out until the morning, and kept reapplying it, that obviously would cause accumulative damage as well despite being so mild.

    1. Sorry News n stuff, I was not able to follow your train of thought. I thought they would make sense to me if I posted them all but unfortunately I do not understand you very well.

      My general issues with the initial article are spelled out in my previous comments. I do not know where you got me making clear gels from? I didn't write that in this article. I also don't understand why we are talking about clear gels because colour was never an issue.

      Actually you can apply a pH 10 pure sodium hydroxide solution to your hair and it will not change the cortex or relax it at all because the concentration of the solution matters and neither does percentage. Molarity is what matters.

      I am trying to say, do not over-simplify. Your concerns about TEA and the link to them causing you bald spots is valid but it is an oversimplification to talk about NaOH and cancer. In the same way fine tooth combs are terrible for my hair but my husband being white can use them all day without issues. Sometimes something can react badly with one person but not with another. There are many users of those same gels who have pretty nice hair, it just doesn't work for you.

      Anyway, this comment is super general because I didn't understand if there was a request or clarification neeeded......Feel free to let me know if there was something specific you wanted me to address.

    2. Jc, can this same rationale be applied to baking soda diluted in water vs baking soda combined with a conditioner in terms of its pH and affects on the cortex of hair?


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