Shampoo, a staple hair product that is used by everyone, regardless of their gender, age, and socio-economic background. But have you ever cared to turn around your shampoo bottle and read what is in my shampoo? You are probably thinking, my shampoo says it is made with natural ingredients, so I don’t need to worry about it. Well, let us enlighten you then, shall we? Finding the right shampoo is like finding the right partner. When you first start dating, they might be packaged as the perfect partner, saying all the right things, looking their best, and making you feel like you are on cloud 9, but the more time you spend with them, the more you learn about them. Then you can go either way from there, it might work out between you two and you live with them happily ever after or you might end up in a toxic relationship with a manipulative partner who keeps dragging you down and you find yourself in a vicious cycle of going back and forth. Yup! shampoo is the same.
Most of the shampoos marketed as non-toxic shampoo/natural shampoo/organic shampoo contain active toxic ingredients and these harmful chemicals in shampoo may be the leading cause of your hair loss, premature greying, scalp irritation, and even some serious health conditions. For years, people have been quick to blame their hair issues such as hair loss, premature greying, dandruff, etc on factors like age, genetics, and stress. Of course, a lot of these factors alongside, poor diet, and other lifestyle choices contribute to hair loss and other scalp conditions. However, a major contributor to your hair and scalp issues is the shampoo you use. Not every shampoo is a match made in heaven for your luscious locks. Shampoos contain an array of bad ingredients that can damage your hair, scalp, and even health. Not only are these chemicals harmful to your hair and body but they also lead to environmental damage as most of these chemicals are not water-soluble. Yikes!
Which Bad shampoo ingredients to avoid?
Sulfates, the number one culprit, known to strip off your scalp’s natural oil a.k.a sebum. Sebum is extremely important for a healthy scalp due to its anti-inflammatory properties alongside its slightly acidic pH that helps in preventing harmful pathogens, such as bacteria and viruses, from penetrating the skin. Yes, sebum is your friend and sulfate is the toxic partner trying to cut you off from your loved ones. Sebum contributes to keeping the scalp moisturized and protected from UV radiation and other environmental damage which essentially promotes healthy hair. Sebum is also responsible for transporting vitamin E to the skin surface which prevents oxidative skin damage. (medicalnewstoday.com) Lack of sebum can lead to dry, itchy, and flaky scalp alongside inflammation and an ideal environment for fungal infections.
While your sulfate shampoo may leave you with a squeaky clean feeling, it can actually lead to the overproduction of sebum in the long run, as your scalp tries to compensate for the lack of sebum. This leads to a greasier scalp which can also cause acne, clogged pores resulting in hair loss. Many fall into a vicious cycle of washing their hair more than necessary, causing more damage to their hair and scalp.
Sulfates are not only compromising your scalp’s natural functioning process by disrupting sebum production, but it also damages the hair protein leading to slow growth, split ends, breakage, and unmanageable dull-looking hair. A study shows that hair exposed to sodium dodecyl sulfate solution loses two times as much protein as hair immersed in water. (forhims.com) Sulfates also lift the cuticles that coat individual strands of hair; exposing the cortex of the hair shaft to moisture, and increasing the chances of breakage, split ends, and lots of frizz. (supercuts.co.uk) And that is not a good look. Lack of moisture and excessive dryness can then lead to depletion of melanin resulting in premature greying. (newtimes.co.rw)
With increasing consumer awareness, a lot of hair care brands have started to promote their hair care products as sulfate-free, especially brands targeted towards the curly hair community. But, did you know that these hair products still contain the carcinogenic surfactants disguised as derived from coconut oil/palm oil or ‘naturally’ derived surfactants? Such products are marketed as a greener alternative to the harsh sulfates derived from petroleum. But the truth is that even the milder surfactants or naturally derived sulfates still go through the same chemical process that the harsh sulfates go through. Cheeky! Essentially, the naturally derived sulfates such as SCS contain 50% of SLS and hence are still causing you more harm than good in the long run when used regularly. Studies show that SLES have been linked to breast cancer, infertility, and numerous hormonal illnesses. (schoolofnaturalskincare.com) Similarly, ALES is known to be harmful to children, as it can lead to improper development of the young eyes due to its protein dissolving abilities. (thetoxicfreefoundation.com)
Look out for – Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), Sodium Coco-Sulfate (SCS), Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate (ALS), Ammonium Laureth Sulfate (ALES), Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), Sodium Alkyl Sulfate (SAS), Sodium dodecyl sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate, Sodium Lauroyl Isethionate (SLI), Sodium Lauroyl Taurate, Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate, Sodium Lauroyl Methyl Isethionate, Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate, Sodium Methyl Cocoyl Taurate, Sodium Cocoyl Sarcosinate, TEA (Triethanolamine) Lauryl Sulfate, TEA (Triethanolamine) Laureth Sulfate.
Parabens are used as synthetic preservatives to increase the shelf life of your shampoo, mainly due to their antimicrobial properties against fungi and bacteria. Paraben can damage your hair by drying it out especially, curly hair, which leads to hair thinning, breakage, and frizzy hair. Just like those partners who suck the life out of you! Paraben can also cause scalp irritation leaving your scalp dry and itchy. Some studies have found parabens to cause loss of natural hair colour. These are only a few examples of the external damage caused by parabens however, there is a plethora of reasons why you would want to stay away from parabens as there are a lot of studies explaining the internal damage caused by parabens.
Unfortunately, parabens can easily penetrate the skin and get into the bloodstream. In a U.S. study, parabens were found in all the urine samples regardless of demographic. (safecosmetics.org) Parabens have the ability to mimic estrogen, which leads to increasing estrogen activity in the body and resulting in hormonal imbalance. This affects reproductive development, causing decreased fertility alongside difficult birth outcomes such as increased odds of preterm birth and decreased birth weight. Studies show that parabens can alter the expression of genes, including those in breast cancer cells (Wróbel 2014), and accelerate the growth of breast cancer cells (Okubo 2001) (ewg.org). So scary! A U.K. study detected traces of five parabens in the breast tumors of 19 out of 20 women studied. (safecosmetics.org) Parabens can also reduce testosterone levels as well as sperm production. (safecosmetics.org)
Look out for – Propylparaben, Isopropylparaben, Butylparaben, Isobutylparaben, Ethylparaben, Methylparaben.
Polyethylene Glycol (PEG)
PEG is another petroleum-derived compound that is used in your shampoo either as an emollient i.e. as a softener, emulsifier i.e. to mix oil and water-based ingredients, and as a penetration enhancer i.e. a medium to help other ingredients deeply penetrate through the skin. Polyethylene is the most common form of plastic, and when combined with glycol becomes a thick liquid that gives your shampoo a rich creamy texture. PEG can irritate your scalp by reducing its moisture levels and speed up the skin’s aging process. Also, its ability to deeply penetrate the skin and act as a vehicle to carry other harmful chemicals inside your body is exactly why you should opt out of choosing the shampoo containing this ingredient.
In its manufacturing process, PEG is found to be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide known as human carcinogens. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) committee, confirm that the impurities found in various PEG compounds include 1,4-dioxane, ethylene oxide, polycyclic aromatic compounds; and heavy metals such as lead, iron, cobalt, nickel, cadmium, and arsenic. Many of these impurities are linked to cancer.(medium.com)
A U.S. study found 1,4-dioxane as a contaminant in 46 of 100 personal care products marketed as ‘natural’ or ‘organic’. (purehaven.com)These carcinogens are known to dangerously interfere with human health development. 1,4-dioxane is known to damage kidneys and liver whereas ethylene oxide, also used in World War I nerve gas, can cause serious harm to the nervous system and is linked to cancers such as lymphoma, leukemia, stomach, and breast cancer. (cancer.gov)
Even if PEG is not contaminated with the above carcinogens, PEG itself is quite harmful as it has been found to cause genotoxicity. In other words, PEG can actually damage the genetic information within your cells leading to the increased possibility of cancer.(davidsuzuki.org)
Just like Polyethylene Glycol, both Propylene Glycol and Butylene Glycol are petroleum-derived compounds, used as penetration enhancers and humectants to give a softening effect to your hair. Now we already know how these penetration enhancers can carry other harmful chemicals to your bloodstream. But Propylene Glycol and Butylene Glycol can not only just penetrate into your skin but also break down the protein and cellular structure. (benaturalorganics.com)
Another problem arises when the glycol coating sits on your scalp from repetitive use and eventually the layers of your scalp dry out, due to lack of moisture reaching the deeper layers of your skin. This leads to your scalp turning itchy and flaky over time, which can then cause scalp irritation, dermatitis, and hives due to the moist skin cells (thehealthsite.com) The Environmental Working Group classified Propylene glycol as a skin irritant that provokes allergic reactions in patients with eczema and other skin allergies. (ewg.org) In 2018, the American Contact Dermatitis Society declared Propylene Glycol as the allergen of the year. (Jacob SE, Scheman A, McGowan MA.) Propylene Glycol has also been linked to causing respiratory and throat irritation, central nervous system depression, blood and kidney disorders, Nystagmus, and Lymphocytosis. (benaturalorganics.com)
Silicones are highly controversial, leaving many haircare enthusiasts divided. This is because, on one side, silicones are known to give a silky, glossy coating to your hair strands by locking in the moisture and reducing friction among hair strands, consequently, reducing frizz. On the other side, silicones create a barrier that deprives the hair strands of receiving hydration and essential nourishing elements like sebum. Consider silicones the partner who you thought was protective of you but turns out to be over-possessive and kind of suffocating. No thanks!
Silicones are synthetically produced and most of them are water-insoluble. This means you cannot remove them from your hair only with water or mild shampoos unless you use a strong clarifying shampoo containing harsh sulfates. Clingy! Over time silicones build up on your hair strands consequently, weighing them down and suffocating them due to their ‘protective layer’ says Bari Strohmenger, the director of product and development, DevaCurl. As per Shelley Davis, the founder of Kinky-Curly, it can be hard to wash out the silicones which can lead to dry and brittle ends due to lack of moisture and quite a greasy scalp due to sebum sitting on top of silicone-coated hair. As a result, your hair is more prone to split ends and breakage as well as a magnet for dirt and grime. Silicones can also clog pores which can lead to scalp acne, inflammation, and slow hair growth.
Some argue that water-soluble silicones such as Dimethicone Copolyo, Polysioxane, Lauryl methicone copolyol do not damage the hair due to their breathable nature. However, we would advise using such synthetic ingredients sparingly and opt for natural alternatives for regular haircare.
Look out for – Dimethicone, Cyclomethicone, Cetyl Dimethicone, Amodimethicone, Pheryl Trimethicone, Ceteraryl Methicone, Dimethiconol, Stearyl Dimethicone, Trimethylsilyl Amodimethicone, Cyclopentasiloxane, Behenoxy Dimethicone, Stearoxy Dimethicone, Amodimethicone (non-soluble when Trideceth-12 and Cetrimonium Chloride are absent).
Monoethanolamine (MEA), Diethanolamine (DEA), and Triethanolamine (TEA)
MEA is a common name for ethanolamine whilst DEA and TEA are the most commonly used ethanolamine compounds. MEA, DEA, and TEA are used as emulsifiers, pH adjusters, and most importantly as foaming agents in your shampoo. As most of the chemicals in your shampoo, DEA and TEA can irritate your scalp and break the keratin in your hair strands.(blog.aarp.org) The Expert Panel for the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) recognized MEA, DEA, and TEA, as both eye and skin irritants. They concluded that the longer the ethanolamines stay in contact with the skin, the greater the likelihood of irritation, which is why ethanolamines were reported to be used only in rinse-off hair products.(cosmeticsinfo.org) It was found that 52 to 68 percent of DEA remains on the upper layers of the skin after exposure. (Kraeling, M. E. K., Yourick, J. J., & Bronaugh, R. L., 2004)
The CIR confirms that when TEA and DEA are used in a product containing N-nitrosating agents, the chemical reaction can form carcinogenic nitrosamine, N-nitrosodiethanolamine (NDEA) which is easily absorbed through the skin. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has listed individually the class of more than a dozen different chemicals from nitrosamines, as potential carcinogens.(monographs.iarc.who.int) The European Commission prohibits DEA in cosmetics due to concerns about the formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines. TEA and DEA have been linked to producing cancer in the liver. Whilst DEA can affect male reproductive health by altering the sperm structure resulting in abnormalities in the sperm’s ability to swim and fertilize the egg. Furthermore, DEA can accumulate in the liver and kidney, which can lead to organ toxicity and also possible neurotoxic effects such as tumors. Another study suggests that an expecting mother’s exposure to DEA can result in the offspring’s permanent damage of memory function and brain development. (safecosmetics.org)
Look out for – Triethanolamine, Diethanolamine, DEA, TEA, MEA, Cocamide DEA, Cocamide diethanolamine, Cocamide MEA, DEA-cetyl phosphate, DEA oleth-3 phosphate, Lauramide DEA, Linoleamide MEA, Myristamide DEA, Oleamide DEA, Stearamide MEA, TEA-lauryl sulfate.
Formaldehyde is mostly released from preservatives in your shampoo. (safecosmetics.org) As per Peter Kell, the deputy chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), formaldehyde has been found to be causing hair loss, skin sensitivity, and itchiness. (belgraviacentre.com) When in contact with the scalp, it can cause trauma to the hair follicles which can result in hair loss. (hairlossly.com)
In 2015, formaldehyde was announced allergen of the Year by the American Contact Dermatitis Society. (safecosmetics.org)Exposure to formaldehyde may also cause allergic reactions, itchy skin, eye irritation, skin rash, scalp irritation, hair breakage, or damage.(healthline.com) Among many experts and government bodies, the United States National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer recognize formaldehyde as a human carcinogen. Sweden and Japan have banned its use in personal care and cosmetics whereas, the EU and Canada restricted concentration in personal care products. Studies have shown that exposure to formaldehyde can lead to an increased possibility of some cancers especially, leukemia and tumor formation. (safecosmetics.org)
Look out for – Formalin, Formaldehyde, Quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, polyoxymethylene urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol), 1,3-dimethylol-5,5-dimethylhydantoin, methylene glycol, methanal, methylene oxide, methane diol, methyl aldehyde, paraform, oxomethane, oxymethylene, timonacic acid, thiazolidinecarboxylic acid, Benzylhemiformal, 5-bromo-5-nitro-1 3-dioxane, formic aldehyde, Glyoxal.
Phthalates a.k.a. phthalate esters are used as gelling agents/plasticizers in your shampoo and other hair care products. Phthalate is a synthetic ingredient used to help lubricate and soften other substances in your shampoo formula. It also increases spreadability, enhances absorption, and makes the fragrance last longer in your shampoo. In fact, phthalate is possibly listed as a ‘fragrance’ in your shampoo ingredients and other personal care products. So what exactly makes phthalates a harmful ingredient?
The EU and Canada recognize phthalates as endocrine disruptors. It was found that exposure to phthalates in expecting mothers may lead to birth defects especially, affecting the genitals and reproductive systems in male newborns. Phthalates have also been linked to hypospadias, undescended testes, low sperm count as per Professor Richard Sharpe of the Medical Research Council’s Human Reproductive Sciences Unit.
According to a study funded by the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, the National Cancer Institute, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to phthalates can act as catalyst for obesity. (briogeohair.com) (simplyorganicbeauty.com)
Look out for – DCP (dibutyl phthalates), DMP (dimethyl phthalate), DEP (diethyl phthalate), DEHP (Di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate), BzBP (benzylbutyl phthalate), DBP (dibutyl phthalate), DNOP (di-n-octyl phthalate), DiNP (diisononyl phthalate), DiDP (diisodecyl phthalate), DnHP (di-n-hexyl phthalate).
Alcohol is used to blend the ingredients in your shampoo. If your hair is naturally on the dryer side, especially curly and wavy hair types, you should opt for alcohol-free hair products. This is because the low molecular alcohols, also known as short-chain alcohols, strip the moisture and oils off your hair. (maneaddicts.com)
Due to a low molecular weight, these types of alcohols evaporate quickly, reducing the drying time after your hair wash. However, this can also result in dry, frizzy, and brittle hair which can lead to hair breakage, slow growth, and eventually hair loss. (naturallycurly.com) It is advised to avoid products listing alcohol as one of the first four ingredients. The closer to the top of the ingredient list, the higher the percentage in the product. (blog.aarp.org)
Look out for – Ethanol, SD alcohol, SD alcohol 40, Alcohol denat, Propanol, Propyl alcohol, Isopropyl alcohol.
Sodium Chloride a.k.a table salt is used as a thickener in your shampoo. Spreading salt all over your scalp and luscious locks can actually strip off the essential moisture in your hair leaving you with extremely dry hair and an itchy scalp. If your hair is naturally on the dryer side then using a shampoo containing sodium chloride can worsen the dryness and even lead to severe skin irritation. This will then end up in hair loss and extremely thin ends. If you suffer from sensitive skin, consider staying away from a shampoo with table salt in it.
The bottom line
This is a non-exhaustive list of the toxic ingredients found in most shampoos. There are a plethora of other harmful chemicals disguised in synthetic fragrances and colours, found in your shampoo ingredients. These products are continuously marketed as sulfate free shampoo/non toxic shampoo/natural shampoo and in some cases even organic shampoo. While these hair care companies will tell you that these shampoo ingredients are safe when used in a recommended concentration, it should be considered that the long-term use of these synthetic chemicals is harming you as well as the environment.
Think about it, anything that you put on your scalp repeatedly gets absorbed into your skin and then into your bloodstream. These toxic ingredients in your hair care products can enter your system through, eyes, smell, and skin. They might not cause any immediate damage and give you an illusion of shiny, soft, and healthy hair however, long-term use of these products is compromising your scalp’s natural functioning process, which will end up in hair loss, dry hair, slow hair growth, skin irritation, and many other scalp and health conditions.
How to avoid these Harmful ingredients in shampoo?
It is best to opt for non-toxic shampoo that is made with ethically sourced natural ingredients free from any synthetic fragrance, dyes, and the harmful chemicals listed above. Ain’t nobody got time for dealing with the fake stuff! It is worth cross-checking the ingredient list with the marketing claims of being sulfate free or paraben free on your shampoo bottle. Whether choosing a shampoo or a partner do some background checks! You can choose natural hair products with a shampoo formula containing castile soap or soapnut base. An organic ingredient-based shampoo with essential oil instead of synthetic fragrance is going to be much gentler on your scalp and to the environment. You will not need any dandruff shampoo or specialized hair product if you switch to more simple and natural hair products, as the natural ingredients will nourish your hair by providing all the essential nutrients to your hair. So keep it natural and your hair, your body and the environment will thank you.