New tests of 100 "natural" and "organic" soaps, shampoos and other consumer products show that nearly half of them contained a cancer-causing chemical that is a byproduct of petrochemicals used in manufacturing.
Many items that tested positive for the carcinogen are well-known brands, including Kiss My Face, Alba, Seventh Generation and Nature's Gate products, sold in retail stores across the nation.
The findings of the Organic Consumers Assn., a consumer advocacy group, are sending a jolt through the natural products industry. Gathering today in Anaheim for a national trade show, many leaders worry that the test results will taint the industry in the eyes of the public.
Of the 100 products tested, 47 had detectable levels of 1,4-dioxane, which the Environmental Protection Agency has declared a probable human carcinogen because it causes cancer in lab animals.
Most traditional soaps and shampoos contain 1,4-dioxane. But the discovery that the chemical is present in many housecleaning and personal care products, including some for babies, that are advertised as being natural, organic or "green" comes as somewhat of a surprise.
"For companies to knowingly or even carelessly put a carcinogen into commerce in this day and age is barbaric, I think, particularly products that have the moniker of natural or self-proclaimed 'organic,' " said consumer advocate and author David Steinberg, who directed the study.
The compound is not intentionally added to products; it is a byproduct of a process used to soften harsh detergents. It is formed when foaming agents, or surfactants, are processed with ethylene oxide or similar petrochemicals.
Said Martin Wolf, Seventh Generation Inc.'s director of product and environmental technology, "The natural world is filled with things that can harm. . . . All we can do is work as hard as we can to keep the levels as low as possible and keep our products as safe as possible."
Hain Celestial Group, the Boulder, Colo.-based owner of four of the tested companies -- Alba, Jason, Avalon Organics and Zia Natural Skincare -- said Thursday that it would reevaluate all of its products. Two Alba and three Jason products contained 1,4-dioxane, but the chemical was not detected in tested Avalon and Zia products.
"We are committed to selling products without detectable levels of 1,4-dioxane . . . and will review all formulations accordingly," said Lisa Lehndorff, Hain Celestial's director of corporate consumer relations.
No one knows exactly what amount of the compound may be unsafe. In scientific studies, lab animals that had been fed 1,4-dioxane for many weeks developed nasal, liver and gall bladder cancers. But scientists do not now know what, if any, cancer risk humans face from years-long use of products containing the chemical.
The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates cosmetics, has set no standards for 1,4-dioxane. The agency has occasionally tested products for the compound since the late 1970s and says levels of it have substantially declined since then. The FDA says the current levels "do not present a hazard to consumers," although it has advised the industry to reduce amounts in cosmetics as much as possible.
Josef Koester of Cognis Corp., a Cincinnati-based chemical company that caters to manufacturers seeking "green" compounds, said most companies can avoid 1,4-dioxane but that it "typically requires a higher price point and sometimes performance restrictions for the product. How green the formulators want to go -- it is their choice."
No standards govern the words natural or organic for personal care products. But a few companies, including TerrEssentials, Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps and Sensibility Soaps Inc., which makes the Nourish brand, have certified their products as organic under the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food standards.
But because the vast majority of shampoos, soaps and other consumer goods do not carry the USDA organic seal, it's nearly impossible for buyers to know whether the ones they use contain 1,4-dioxane because the chemical is not listed on ingredient labels. Products most likely to contain the compound usually list polyethylene glycol or compounds with the syllables PEG, short for polyethylene glycol, -eth or -oxynol-, according to the FDA.
Dishwashing liquids are particularly hard to keep free of 1,4-dioxane because they require surfactants that are powerful grease cutters.
Seventh Generation uses coconut oil in its dish soaps, which although it is processed with a petrochemical and vacuum-stripped, still contains almost 2 parts per million of 1,4-dioxane. Wolf said the only way to remove all traces would be to use another surfactant that irritates skin, which the Burlington, Vt.-based company considers unacceptable.
Seventh Generation is "working with several surfactant manufacturers to look for alternatives to this process to modify coconut oil," Wolf said. "We're not there yet. We have more work to do."
A list of 100 products tested for 1,4 dioxane and levels of the probable carcinogen detected can be viewed at latimes.com /business/productlist.