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Does the ingredient cocamidopropyl betaine, found in some personal care products, cause dermatitis?

According to the cosmetics industry, if the compound is properly purified it should not cause the skin to be irritated. However, there are cases where irritation may occur but this may have nothing to do with the chemical itself.

Cocamidopropyl betaine is a “surfactant” that can be found in shampoos, hand soaps and some cosmetics. These are molecules that congregate at the surface of substances that would not normally mix, such as water and oil, and allow them to mix. This is of great importance when removing oily substances from fabrics or from the body. Surfactants also can enhance foaming by allowing air to mix with a solution and foam is helpful in removing soil from a surface.

It is possible for cocamidopropyl betaine to cause skin irritation, however, it isn’t clear if that is due to the chemical itself or to residues of the reagents from which it is produced. The cosmetics industry claims that if the compound is properly purified it is not irritating. Of course, there is no way to know whether in specific products it is properly purified. All one can say is that if someone experiences irritation, they should stay away from the product. But it is certainly possible that one product that contains this chemical is irritating while another is not if the irritation is indeed due to residues involved in the synthesis.

Sometimes cocamidopropyl betaine is promoted as “natural” which is totally misleading. One of the components used in the synthesis is lauric acid found in coconut or palm oil. But the final product is made by combining this with a host of reagents. In any case, whether a substance is natural or not has absolutely nothing to do with whether it can cause skin irritation. After all, poison ivy and stinging nettle are perfectly natural.


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