Hair health is a holistic concern. Not only is the physiology of our hair and the processes the body goes through to make healthy hair important, making sure to support healthy hair growth through lifestyle, diet and a good hair-care regimen is also key. One crucial piece of the hair-care puzzle is a product we all use regularly that can have a big impact on scalp and hair health: shampoo.
Unfortunately, not all shampoo is good for your hair. Many brands have toxic ingredients that you should avoid. It might seem daunting at first, but once you become familiar with these families of ingredients and seek out brands that are committed to crafting safe and natural hair care products, it will become easier. Promise.
Surfactants are a class of ingredients most often used in shampoos as a detergent to rid the hair shafts and scalp of dirt and oil. Some surfactants, like sulfates, are very efficient cleaning agents and are used in antibacterial soaps and many shampoos on the market.
That said, the strong cleansing quality of sulfates like sodium laureth sulfate (aka ammonium lauryl sulfate) and sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) can strip hair of beneficial moisture and oils. These ingredients can also serve as a skin irritant, causing irritation, dryness and inflammation in some people with sensitive skin. Sulfates might also increase skin sensitivity and worsen existing conditions like rosacea, eczema and contact dermatitis. Overall, these are definitely ingredients to avoid in shampoo. Most sulfate-free shampoos will list that it is free of sulfates right on the bottle.
Parabens, Formaldehyde and Other Preservatives
Parabens are a class of shampoo ingredients that have long been used in health and beauty products as a preservative. Specific parabens like methylparaben and propylparaben are often used in shampoos and conditioners, along with lotions and other hair products with a high water content since they discourage the growth of bacteria and microbes.
Scientific studies have shown that parabens are quickly and easily absorbed through the skin and even penetrate bodily tissue. Parabens can also cause a whole host of skin issues like redness, irritation, itching, flaking and hives. Not only that, but parabens have been shown to impact the body’s hormone regulation because they mimic the hormone estrogen, and they might also impact susceptibility to breast cancer.
It might also be surprising that formaldehyde, an ingredient that probably conjures up images of a morgue or a grade-school science class on dissection, is often used as a preservative in shampoo, too.
Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen and can cause contact dermatitis. And while a shampoo might not contain formaldehyde itself, it could contain any number of ingredients that can create formaldehyde through chemical reactions with other ingredients.
Common “formaldehyde-releasers” include:
- Imidazolidinyl urea
- Diazolidinyl urea
- DMDM hydantoin
Phthalates and Other Synthetic Fragrances
Phthalates are a class of petroleum-based chemicals that can make plastics more flexible and durable. They are found in everything from food packaging to paint to floor tiles. Because phthalates also have the ability to function as lubricants and make fragrances last longer, they’re used in a number of health and beauty products, too.
Despite their versatility, phthalates can be bad news for our bodies and have been shown to cause hormone disruptions, damage the kidneys and liver, impair thyroid function and impact the immune system. They have also been shown to decrease sperm count, increase the risk of pregnancy loss and the risk of diabetes during pregnancy.
Sussing out a product’s phthalate content can be tricky since they are often used as part of a proprietary chemical cocktail that provides scent to a product and might not be listed explicitly. Be sure to avoid anything with synthetic fragrances that are often listed as “fragrance” or “parfum” in the ingredient list. Instead, choose products that advertise they are “synthetic fragrance-free” or “phthalate-free.”
Polyethylene glycol, aka PEG, is commonly used in cosmetics and other wellness products as a cleansing agent, emulsifier or skin conditioner. It’s perhaps most often used, though, as a penetration enhancer to help other ingredients be more easily absorbed.
That might be all fine and good when it’s aiding benign or beneficial ingredients, but since PEG is often contaminated with some not-so-hot chemicals, it might do more harm than good for the human body. The most common culprits are ethylene oxide, a known human carcinogen, and 1,4-dioxane, a possible human carcinogen, which might also have negative effects on the nervous system.
Silicones are a group of ingredients used in shampoo to give your hair a sleek and shiny look. They act like a sleeve that covers each strand in a protective sheath, locking out humidity and locking in moisture. The flipside, though, is that the protection silicones provide can also block out beneficial ingredients from penetrating the hair shaft.
On top of that, silicones can weigh hair down, making it look limp and lanky. And because several silicones aren’t water-soluble, over time, they can result in a hard-to-remove layer of buildup. This makes silicones quite the slippery little additive to shampoos — they can be both good and bad.
It’s relatively easy to find silicones on an ingredient list; anything that ends in “-cone” is probably a silicone. While silicones are safe to use, two common non-water soluble silicones found in shampoo that might not be so great for your hair’s health and appearance are amodimethicone and dimethicone. If you like the way silicones make your hair look and feel, a lighter water-soluble type of silicone to look for is cyclomethicone.
One more thing to note is that when products are labeled “silicone-free,” it’s typically only indicative of the fact that they don't contain the less desirable insoluble silicones.
What About Dry Shampoos?
When it comes to ingredients, dry shampoos are very different from traditional shampoos. They contain a whole host of other ingredients that you’ll want to avoid. While this list is by no means exhaustive, three common ingredients to look out for in dry shampoos are talc, phenoxyethanol and cetrimonium chloride.
Talc can be great to soak up excess oil and give your hair’s volume a boost, but talc has a negative rap due to a possible link to ovarian cancer. Even though dry shampoo is used on your mane, the American Cancer Society has recommended that people who have concerns about talc may want to avoid or limit their use of products that contain it. Safe and natural alternatives to talc include rice flour in GRO Dry Shampoo, bamboo or charcoal powders.
Phenoxyethanol is a compound naturally found in green tea, though a synthetic version is most commonly used in dry shampoo as a preservative to help keep bacteria in check. It is generally considered safe in low concentrations, though in high concentrations it might be especially unsafe for children.
Cetrimonium chloride is added to dry shampoos to help control static. The EU has capped the limit of this chemical at 0.1%, though at present there are no such restrictions in the U.S. Original safety assessments found cetrimonium chloride to be an eye and skin irritant.
Ingredients You Should Look For Instead
If you’d like to opt for more plant-derived ingredients, essential oils, fruit extracts, botanicals — and even certified organic ingredients — are used in place of many of the synthetic chemicals traditionally used in shampoos. Here are some to look for.
To achieve the silk and shine offered by silicones, consider hair-friendly plant-based oils like jojoba, marula or coconut oil —which can penetrate the hair shaft. These oils are also great if you tend to have dry hair and scalp.
If you have oily hair or frequently use styling products, ingredients like tea tree and eucalyptus oils can help remove excess oil and buildup. Tea tree oil in shampoo might also help if you suffer from dandruff or psoriasis on the scalp. Jojoba oil, too, might help with dandruff and scalp itch while nourishing hair with vitamin C, B vitamins, vitamin E, copper and zinc.
Vegamour's GRO Revitalizing Conditioner not only contains natural ingredients like Capilia Longa to support thicker, fuller hair, but it’s also packed with other beneficial ingredients, including two wild-harvested and nourishing oils: marula and ximenia.
Another beneficial ingredient for those with straight hair is keratin, the protein building block of hair, skin, and nails. While you might have given your hair a full-on keratin boost with a salon treatment, your hair can also benefit from a daily keratin boost with shampoo.
GRO Revitalizing Shampoo contains a revolutionary (and proprietary) chemical-free vegan keratin, Karmatin™, our microencapsulated vegan b-silk™ protein that's designed to help soothe damaged follicles while making strands soft and shiny. This shampoo is like a chemical-free vegan keratin treatment you can use every day. Oh, and did we mention it's a completely non-toxic shampoo and pairs perfectly with our GRO Revitalizing Conditioner?
Combo Deal: GRO Revitalizing Shampoo and Conditioner Kit
Make a Commitment to Hair Wellness
Given a general shift in the wellness and beauty spheres toward a more natural approach, lots of resources are out there to help. Websites like the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database or INCIDecoder have large databases to help you verify the safety of many ingredients or understand why they’re even in a product.
When in doubt, scan a shampoo's ingredients list for natural ingredients and seek out brands that care about hair wellness. Experiment (and have fun) with different ingredients and formulations to figure out what works best for your hair's own unique needs.
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