Triethanolamine: What Is It, Cosmetic Uses & Side Effects

Priya Singh
Fact-Checker: Priya Singh
This article was last updated on: July 26, 2023
Table of Contents

Traversing the realm of cosmetics often feels like navigating through a dense jungle of scientific jargon. With terms like “sodium lauryl sulfate” and “hydroquinone” dominating the ingredient lists, even the most enthusiastic beauty aficionado can be left scratching his or her head.

One lesser-known, yet intriguingly nuanced ingredient making its appearance in the labyrinthine world of cosmetic labels is Triethanolamine. Oh yes, you heard it right—Triethanolamine. While the name may sound like something straight out of a high school chemistry textbook, it is indeed a part of our daily skincare routine—often hiding in plain sight.

In this article, we’ll be casting a spotlight on this intriguing compound, Triethanolamine, affectionately dubbed TEA in beauty circles. We’ll delve into its properties, understand the roles it plays in our favorite beauty products, and discuss why cosmetic formulators prize this ingredient.

What is Triethanolamine?

Triethanolamine, fondly abbreviated as TEA, might be a mouthful to pronounce but is a straightforward ingredient in the world of cosmetics. It’s an organic compound produced by mixing ethylene oxide with ammonia—two substances that could very well be key chapters in a chemistry textbook. As a colorless compound with a strong ammonia-like odor, TEA is used mainly in skincare products for its buffering, fragrance, surfactant, cleaning, and emulsifying properties.

Functioning as an alkaline substance, Triethanolamine works to balance pH levels in a product or on the skin—helping to maintain the optimal level for both product stability and skin health. It’s an essential player in formulating pleasant-to-use, efficient skincare that holds its own over time. Typically, you will find TEA in concentrations between 1% and 2.5% in creams, lotions, cleansers, and shampoos. Although it can be purchased as a stand-alone substance, it’s most commonly spotted as part of a broader formulation of ingredients due to its inherent versatility and functionality.

Who Can Use Triethanolamine?

One of the beauties of Triethanolamine is its suitability for a broad spectrum of skin types. Whether your skin is oil-drenched or parched like a desert, TEA can find a place in your skincare regimen, provided it’s used as directed and in the right concentration.

Triethanolamine is a synthetic ingredient, and the production process doesn’t involve animal-derived components, making it suitable for both vegans and vegetarians. However, as always, it is wise to confirm with the specific brand or manufacturer to ensure adherence to vegan and vegetarian principles.

For women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, it’s always best to discuss new skincare ingredients with a healthcare provider. Though Triethanolamine isn’t typically considered harmful in cosmetics, everyone’s skin reacts differently and, during these life stages, sensitivity can change. Therefore, consultation with a healthcare professional is advised to ascertain suitability.

Triethanolamine’s Cosmetic Uses

Triethanolamine boasts a plethora of uses within the cosmetics industry, enhancing the functionality and user experience of various beauty products. Let’s dive into some of its key roles:

  • Buffering Agent: One of the most pivotal aspects of a cosmetic formulation is maintaining an optimal pH level. A product’s pH can impact its stability, efficiency, and even how it interacts with our skin. Triethanolamine steps in as a buffering agent, neutralizing acids to establish a more neutral pH. This function not only increases a product’s shelf-life but also helps to ensure it remains gentle on the skin.
  • Fragrance: While Triethanolamine itself is not a perfuming agent, it plays a crucial role in dispersing fragrant components evenly throughout a cosmetic product. This ensures that the enticing aroma of your favorite lotion or cream is uniformly distributed, enhancing your overall sensory experience.
  • Surfactant: Surfactants are game-changers in the realm of skincare and haircare, and Triethanolamine is no exception here. As a surfactant, it lowers the surface tension between different substances, allowing oil-based and water-based ingredients to blend seamlessly. This process results in a smooth, homogeneous product that feels pleasant on application.
  • Cleansing Agent: TEA takes on an essential role in products like shampoos, facial cleansers, and body washes. Working as a cleansing agent, it helps to dissolve dirt, oils, and other impurities from the skin and hair. This makes for a deeply refreshing and effective cleansing experience.
  • Emulsifying Agent: Ever wondered how your rich, creamy moisturizer maintains its luxurious consistency? You may have Triethanolamine to thank. Acting as an emulsifier, it helps combine water and oil phases in a product—ensuring that they don’t separate over time. This leads to a stable, satisfyingly consistent product that delivers its benefits effectively.

Triethanolamine Potential Side Effects

Before diving into potential side effects, it’s important to remember that reactions to any ingredient, including Triethanolamine, can vary significantly from person to person. This is largely due to our unique skin types, sensitivities, and allergenic predispositions. Therefore, knowing your own skin—inside and out—is crucial. Unsure about your skin’s traits? This article can help you find your skin type.

Now, let’s discuss the potential side effects of Triethanolamine:

  • Skin Irritation: Some people may experience mild to moderate skin irritation, such as redness, itching, or dryness. This is most likely to occur in individuals with sensitive skin or those allergic to Triethanolamine.
  • Allergic Reactions: Though rare, severe allergic reactions to TEA can occur, resulting in symptoms such as swelling, severe redness, or difficulty breathing.
  • Eye Irritation: If products containing TEA come into contact with the eyes, it can cause discomfort and irritation.

In case of experiencing any of these side effects, discontinue the use of the product immediately and seek medical attention if the reaction is severe. Mild irritations usually subside once the product use is stopped.

However, before this causes you any alarm, it’s crucial to note that adverse reactions to Triethanolamine are indeed rare. Generally speaking, when used within the prescribed concentration ranges, this ingredient is deemed safe and effective in cosmetic formulations.

To avoid potential reactions, always conduct a patch test before integrating a new product into your routine. This simple but valuable step can save you from unexpected skin reactions down the line. You can refer to our comprehensive patch testing guide to learn how to do it correctly.

Comedogenic Rating

Triethanolamine scores a zero on the comedogenic scale, meaning it’s non-comedogenic. This rating is a result of its function and composition—it does not clog pores or contribute to the formation of acne. What makes this possible is that while it helps bind oil and water-based ingredients together in a product, it does not have an oily nature that could potentially lead to pore blockages.

Therefore, individuals who are prone to acne or breakouts can use products containing Triethanolamine without worrying about exacerbating their skin condition.


Not all heroes wear capes—and not all ingredients in personal care products create an immediate impact. Some, like Triethanolamine, are behind-the-scenes heroes designed to support the overall formulation. These non-active ingredients might not directly target skin concerns, but they essentially boost the performance and stability of a product.

The popularity of Triethanolamine might not be sky-high, given its technical, chemistry-driven name and function. However, that doesn’t diminish its crucial role in the industry. It’s far from being an avant-garde ingredient. Instead, it’s a staple in cosmetic formulation, ensuring our favorite products look, smell, and feel just right.

If you find yourself concerned about this ingredient, remember that it’s generally deemed safe for topical use in prescribed concentrations. Adverse reactions are rare, and those with acne-prone skin can heave a sigh of relief due to its non-comedogenic nature. As always, make informed decisions about your skincare choices and find the ingredients and products that work best for your unique skin.

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