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2D structural formula of Octoxynol-40


What is it?

Octoxynols is a collection name for a group of ethoxylated alkyl phenols. The various octoxynols have different chain lengths and are named after the average number of ethylene oxide added to that specific octoxynol. Some examples are octoxynol-1, Octoxynol-3, Octoxynol-5, Octoxynol-8, Octoxynol-9, Octoxynol-10, Octoxynol-16, Octoxynol-20, Octoxynol-25, Octoxynol-30, Octoxynol-33, Octoxynol-40, and  Octoxynol-70.

What are the effects?

This substance belongs to the groups:

Similar to many other substances, the main concerns of the octoxynols are the “intended” contamination. The substances are made through something called ethoxylation where the toxic chemical ethylene oxide is added, usually to make the chemical milder. In the ethoxylation reactions, another toxic chemical is also formed; 1,4-dioxane. Thus the contamination is an expected chemical reaction. Nevertheless, 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide are not required to be listed as ingredients.

Octoxynol-40 is on the Red List* from Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a project of Breast Cancer Prevention Partners (previously the Breast Cancer Fund). They are concerned because octoxynol-40 might be contaminated with ethylene oxide and 1,4- dioxane.

The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) identifies that octoxynol-40 is “very toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects, causes serious eye damage, is harmful if swallowed and causes skin irritation.” Furthermore, Octoxynol-9 is “harmful if swallowed, causes serious eye irritation and causes skin irritation.”


Even though it is not listed on the ingredient labels, products with octoxynols are likely to contain trace amounts of:

“The Red List includes chemicals found in personal care products that pose serious, chronic health concerns including cancer, hormone disruption, and reproductive and developmental harm. The list also flags chemicals that are banned or have use restrictions by the U.S. or other world governments, ingredients that adversely impact worker health, and ingredients that are widely used in products marketed to women of color.” – Campaign for Safe Cosmetics

How are they used?

Octoxynols are used as surfactants (to lower the surface tension and help with even distribution of the product) and as emulsifiers (helps mixing non-miscible liquids, like water and oil). The longer chains of octoxynol also helps dissolve other substances in products.

The substances can be found in all kinds of cosmetics* but most commonly are they found various hair products. Products such as hair colors,  conditioners, hair bleaching products, hair spray, dandruff and scalp treatment, and shampoos.

We use the European Commissions definition of Cosmetics:
“Cosmetics range from everyday hygiene products such as soap, shampoo, deodorant, and toothpaste to luxury beauty items including perfumes and makeup”.

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Read about the other ingredients.