Triethanolamine

This is an organic compound made up of ammonia and ethylene oxide and is commonly found in cosmetic products, as well as industrial and medical products. Its main function is to neutralize fatty acids and adjust the pH of mixtures. In skin care products, it helps solubilize oils and other ingredients that are not entirely soluble in water and helps the formula mix together better.

This substance has a clear or light yellow hue and can sometimes have a faint odor of ammonia. It is a thicker texture and because of this it can’t be added to all types of skin care products effectively, such as eye serums, where a thinner and finer solution is needed for application to the sensitive skin in that area.

triethanolamine use and safety in skin care
Ball and stick model of the triethanolamine molecule

Use of Triethanolamine

While it is not suitable for an eye serum, it is commonly found in other products for the eye area such as mascara, eye liner and eye shadow where it is not a hindrance to have a thicker product for application. It is used in other cosmetic products such as foundation and concealer as well. Outside of cosmetic products, it is often used in shaving creams or gels and sunscreen lotions. It’s utility as an emulsifier and surfactant helps the product spread more evenly on the skin, which is why it is so prominent in cosmetic products where it is important that it not cake or clump on the skin.

Triethanolamine Risks

When using a product that contains triethanolamine it is important to wash it off the skin on a daily basis (uses a cleansing product for best results) as it is not meant to be in prolonged contact with the skin. This ingredient is approved by the FDA as safe for use, but they have made a recommendation that it should not be more than a 5% concentration in the product for it to be suitable for use.

Long-term use of this substance can actually be harmful to the skin so it is best to limit your exposure. Studies have shown that repeated use of a high concentration of this ingredient can lead to issues with the skin, as well as immune system. Because of these risks, this substance has the classification of a respiratory toxicant. Beyond those issues, clinical tests on laboratory animals have lead to liver, bladder and testicular cancer.

In the short-term, risks include allergic reactions which can be evidenced by itchy or watery eyes, as well as dry and itchy skin.

How to Use Triethanolamine Safely

If you choose to use products that contain this ingredient, it is very important that it not be left on for too long and to wash it away daily. A skin exfoliation and cleanser with warm water is highly recommend to be sure to wash away any trace of the product. Finish this routine with the application of a moisturizer to restore and lock in hydration into the skin. Be extra vigilant in removing it around the eye area as the skin here is more sensitive than elsewhere.

While this is a common ingredient in many of the cosmetic products you may use, it is certainly not an ingredient to look for in an eye serum, and we reiterate the need to wash it away to avoid long-term exposure. Consult your dermatologist if you are having any skin issues that may be resulting from products that contain this substance.