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Nonylphenol ethoxylates restrictions

From February 2021, the European regulation restricting the amount of nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) in textile articles will be enacted.

by Emma Norris

Image © Blacksnake |

Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) are a group of compounds with the general formula (C2H4O)nC15H24O. They are a group of substances which have subtle differences in their structural formula and are generally not found in isolation from one another – rather as a group of ethoxylates. They have historically been used in textiles to aid the dyeing process and as softeners due to their use as non-ionic surfactants, (detergents).

European restrictions

NPEs have been restricted along with nonylphenol (NP) under REACH regulation (EC) No.1907/2006 entry 46 since 2008. This restriction only applies to the use of mixtures in manufacturing within Europe. However, there have been claims that residues of NP and NPEs have been detected in garments and sportswear on sale in Europe, suggesting that their use in the supply chain has not been eradicated. These substances are not subject to worldwide legislation, so their use is still permitted in other regions of the world. Nevertheless, due to environmental concerns, the EU Commission published Regulation 2016/26, entry 46a in January 2016. This restricts the amount of NPEs in textiles that can reasonably be expected to be washed out in water during their normal life cycle to a maximum amount of 0.01 per cent by weight (100 parts per million), and will be applicable to items placed on the European market from 3rd February 2021.

The main relevance to the footwear industry is that the regulation will directly apply to the types of footwear that are intended to be washed – for example, washable canvas pumps and plush slippers. It will not be relevant to most footwear, although it is still advisable to ensure NPEs are not present in textiles from an end-of life perspective, as there could be a release into the environment when waste product is sent to landfill.

Environmental concerns

Unlike many restricted substances, the main reason for the restriction of NPEs is not due to direct health concerns in the wearer of the textile garment or footwear, but because of more general environmental concerns. The main danger with this group of compounds is that when NPEs enters the environment – which is generally as waste discharge – they accumulate in the water course. NPEs are very toxic to aquatic species living in surface water. They are also classified as endocrine disruptors (which can alter DNA and affect hormonal activity). In addition, NPEs degrade into nonylphenol, which does not easily biodegrade and is also an endocrine disruptor. This means that nonylphenol can persist for many years in the environment, so it can have a harmful effect for a very long time.

How NPEs are used

In some textile and leather dyeing processes, wetting agents may be used in order to prepare the substrate so that the dye can be chemically bound to the textile or leather. Alternatively, emulsifying agents can be used when the dye is not very soluble in the liquid media, such as water or an organic solvent. In effect, these emulsifying agents disperse the dye into many tiny particles in the solvent, providing a suitable pathway for the dye to be introduced to the textile or leather.

Testing for NPEs

There are two analytical methods for testing textiles. Both detect and quantify alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEOs) using methanol extraction followed by instrumental analysis. EN ISO 18254-1:2016 uses high performance liquid chromatography with mass spectrometry (HPLC-MS) and EN ISO 18254-2:2019 uses normal phase liquid chromatography (NPLC) as a separation method, in addition to a range of optional detectors. Both methods detect nonylphenol ethoxylates as well as octylphenol ethoxylates (OPEs), which are commonly included in brand and retailer restricted substances lists as they have similar properties to NPEs. At SATRA we determine NP, NPEs and OPE in accordance with EN ISO 18254-1 due to the ability of SATRA's HPLC-MS to detect low levels.

How can we help?

Please contact SATRA’s chemical testing team ( for further information on testing for nonylphenol ethoxylates and other restricted substances.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 12 of the November 2020 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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