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February 07, 2021 7 min read

Do you know how to tell if your shampoo is right for you? Do you know how to determine whether the ingredients on the back label are delivering the promises made on the front?

If not, then this article is for you.   Here's a complete list of toxic ingredients found in shampoo that you want to avoid - plus some alternatives to look for.

It’s up to us to make sure we’re avoiding toxic ingredients and only coming into contact with safe products.

Why? Because US Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approval is notrequired for hair and beauty products. By law, companies can use any ingredients they choose as long as they put it on the label. 

So whose responsibility is it to determine whether the ingredients in shampoo are safe or not? As of right now, it’s up to the companies who make the product to make that call. But we’re here to tell you that ultimately, it’s you. 

Testing the safety of shampoo products is recommended by the FDA but not required. And manufacturers aren’t required to report safety information to the FDA.  

That’s right: American beauty is a self-regulated industry.   There’s a big difference with the rest of the world where harmful ingredients are banned from use in cosmetic products.  Whereas the US has banned a few dozen ingredients, Canada has banned 500, and Europe has banned 1,300.

For us and hopefully for you, this sets off a little alarm in our heads. We’re left wondering: do the companies I’m purchasing this shampoo from really care about my long term health? How can I determine that?

If they do, do they have the resources to adequately determine what’s safe for me to put on my skin?

After all, your skin is the largest organ on your body. And what you put on your skin is absorbed into your bloodstream - actually 64%!

Don’t forget that your scalp is skin too. And in the steamy shower, whatever’s in your shampoo is being absorbed. 

Even though ingredients that we don’t agree with are allowed into the marketplace, we can learn about these suspect chemicals and decide for ourselves whether or not we’d like to come into contact with them.

We’ve created this guide of questionable chemicals to avoid for you. Pull it up on your phone the next time you’re shopping for hair products. Thankfully, there are many wonderful alternatives out there today. 

Ingredients To Avoid In Your Shampoo

Suspect #1: Parabens

Parabens are preservatives that prevent the growth of harmful bacteria in your shampoo. They’re suspected of disrupting hormone function and some studies have found parabens in tumors of women with breast cancer.

Parabens have given preservatives a bad rep, along with others like DMDM hydantoin and imidazolidinyl. But all preservatives aren’t bad. After all, without them we’d have another health concern entirely.

Natural preservatives at the right levels are safer but tend to be more expensive. Some safer preservatives to look out for are:

  • Vitamin E - powerful antioxidant that keeps natural oils fresh
  • Sorbic Acid, Salicylic Acid, Lactic Acid - natural preservatives safe enough to be commonly used in foods
  • Phenoxyethanol - even approved in Europe, but should be below 1% of the formula


Suspect #2: Sulfates

You’ve probably heard of the sulfate controversy. Sulfates are popular in personal products because they provide strong cleaning, lots of bubbles, and are very cheap.   Sulfate detergents are strong enough to keep oil and water mixed, and will remove oils from your skin, scalp, and hair.  Because they create large amounts of foam, we have learned to equate “clean” with bubbles.  If you’ve grown up loving that sudsy feeling of a shampoo, it can take a little time to adjust to a more natural shampoo. 

While sudsy feels nice, it’s not really natural and works against your body. What’s really happening is you’re stripping your hair and scalp of all it’s natural oils. Problem is, that your scalp and hair need oils for  health, protection and resilience.  While you will feel squeaky clean, sulfates will cause your hair to dry out and become brittle.  This also sends a signal to your body that it needs to produce more oil to protect your scalp.  This over-production can lead to all sorts of scalp and follicle issues.  Remember, beautiful hair starts with happy follicles.  For most of us who color treat our hair, sulfates strip color from hair and further. 

For added perspective, sulfates are also found in formulas used to clean garages and engines. They’re powerful de-greasers. 

Sulfates will show up on your shampoo bottle label as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) or sodium laureth sulfate (SLES).  

Good news is that there are plenty of alternatives!  Look for these better cleansers:

  • sodium cocoamphoacetate - Gentle cleansing agent derived from coconut fatty acids
  • decyl glucoside -  mild cleanser with good foam
  • lauryl glucoside - for thicker cleansers
  • sodium cocoyl glutamate - from coconut oil, corn and fruit sugars.
  • sodium cocoyl glycinate - amino acid-derived cleansing agent and skin- softening ingredient in skin care and hair care products

Suspect #3: Phthalates

Many countries agree that phthalates are potential carcinogens. In the US, they’re included in the fragrance of many shampoos. But they’ve been linked to developmental and reproductive problems like endocrine disruption, early puberty in girls, and increased asthma in children

Suspect #4: Synthetic Fragrances

Our biggest qualm with synthetic fragrances is that the word “fragrance” is a cloud of mystery on your shampoo bottle. Manufacturers are legally allowed to use that word to represent an enormous list of unknown chemicals that they aren’t required to disclose.

And phthalates are usually among them. 

Look for companies that use specific essential oils to add scent to their products. More than often, these oils nourish your scalp in addition to smelling great. 

Some oils that make an excellent addition to shampoo: 

  • Grapefruit essential oil
  • Cedarwood essential oil
  • Sandalwood essential oil
  • Sea Buckthorn essential oil
  • Rosemary essential oil

Suspect #5: Diethanolamine (DEA) and other related substances

Diethanolamine (DEA) and triethanolamine (TEA) are detergents that provide lather in your shampoo. These ingredients, also found in antifreeze and brake fluid, are harsh on the skin. 

They have been restricted in Europe, California, and Canada because of possible carcinogenic effects. And the Danish Environmental Protection Agency classifies DEA as environmental pollutants that threaten aquatic life. 

They’ve been flagged for being linked to developmental problems, reproductive issues, and allergies. 

In other words, this is an ingredient you can live without. 

Suspect #6: Isopropyl Alcohol

When it comes to your hair, there’s good alcohol and there’s bad alcohol.  

Isopropyl alcohol has a drying effect and is especially damaging to curly hair. It also contributes to frizz and takes moisture out of your hair. 

There are many kinds of alcohol that you’ll find on your shampoo bottle and they’re not all bad. Some other drying, frizz-inducing alcohols to look out for are: 

  • Ethyl Alcohol
  • Ethanol Alcohol
  • Propanol Alcohol

On the other hand, some alcohols that actually add moisture and help to detangle are: 

  • Cetyl Alcohol
  • Cetearyl Alcohol
  • Lauryl Alcohol

Suspect #7: Triclosan

If a product is labeled “antibacterial,” you’re likely to find triclosan on the ingredients list. It’s used as an antibacterial chemical in some shampoos.

But the chemical is extremely controversial because it’s been linked to contributing to allergies, disrupting hormone function and the endocrine system. In 2016, Triclosan was banned from use in antibacterial liquid soap, but it remains in use in many other categories including toothpaste!

What Ingredients Should You Look For?

When shopping for shampoo, look for plant-based products. If you can read almost the entire list without having to turn to Google, then your product is probably manufactured with integrity and consideration for both you and the environment. 

Ingredients like aloe vera, baobab, jojoba oil, shea butter, avocado oil, and vitamin E should be at the top of that list. 

Buyer Beware:  Be Mindful When Shopping For All Beauty Products

Remember that the laws and regulations of the FDA (or lack thereof) apply to the entire beauty industry. So use this knowledge when buying makeup, deodorant, lotion, nail polish, and other products. 

Watch out for buzzwords that are slapped on the front of the label to catch your eye. Just because the label says “natural,” doesn’t mean that it is.  In the industry this practice is called “green washing”  - giving the impression that a brand is free of harmful ingredients when it isn’t.

Buzzwords to look out for are:

  • Organic
  • Clean
  • Green
  • Safe
  • Planet
  • Love
  • Nontoxic
  • Coconut-based
  • Eco-friendly

 There’s hope!  You got this.

By learning to read your product labels with the tips we shared above, you’ll be on your way to finding more healthy products for you and your family.  Products can be good for you, help you look good, and be good for our planet. 

For those who are into the “consumer reports” type ratings, There are a several non-profit organizations that rank cosmetic products based on ingredients.  The most popular is the Environmental Working Group.  The Environmental Working Group’s mission to empower people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment brings breakthrough research and education together to drive consumer choice and civic action.  EWG’s Skin Deep® database is an online guide for cosmetics and personal care products. It was launched in 2004 to help people find safer products, with fewer ingredients that are hazardous or that haven’t been thoroughly assessed for safety.  Just enter or scan the brand you are interested in. 

Arm yourself.  Knowledge is power. And with a little bit of knowledge and a thoughtful eye, you can become a powerful consumer.

What are your favorite companies that manufacture their products with real environmental integrity? 

Drop us a comment below to tell us about them!

Abigail + David

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