Chemical
Avoid Alkylphenol Ethoxylates (APEs) in Cleaning Products and More!

Avoid Alkylphenol Ethoxylates (APEs) in Cleaning Products and More!

March 29, 2013

Alkylphenol Ethoxylates (APEs) are synthetic surfactants found in detergents, cleaning products, pesticides, lubricants, hair dyes and other hair care products, and even spermicides. The most common APEs are nonylphenol ethoxylates.

Studies have linked APEs in waterways and aquatic sediments to altered reproduction, feminization, hermaphrodism, and lower survival rates in salmon and other fish. These effects have been observed even at low levels, which mean that it takes relatively little APE pollution to create big problems. Unfortunately APEs are robust and do not readily biodegrade into simpler, less harmful compounds. Instead, when they’re washed down the drain—which is their ultimate destination given the products they’re found in—they’re able to enter the environment and persist for long periods of time.

In addition to being persistent, APEs are also bioaccumulative. This means that once they enter a living organism—whether it’s a fish or a person—they tend to accumulate in its tissues over time. This explains why APEs like nonylphenol ethoxylates have been detected in human blood and breast milk.

This is of particular concern as many APEs have been shown to mimic estrogen and are strongly suspected of causing endocrine disruption. Both the nonylphenol and octylphenol forms have been found to cause breast cancer cells to multiply in the lab. Other studies have found smaller testicles and decreased sperm counts in animals whose mothers were exposed to octylphenol in the womb. APEs may also play a role in immune system disruption.

All of this makes APEs a good thing to avoid. But they’re hard to spot because they’re rarely listed on the ingredients panels of household products like cleaners, detergents, and pesticides. Consumers will have limited success looking for indicators like chemicals whose names end in “–phenol ethoxylate.”

A more effective strategy is to consult online databases that list ingredients by name like the National Library of Medicine’s Household Products Database. For details on ingredients in personal care products, there’s the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database.