Shampoo: What to Look For, What to Avoid

It’s nice to feel clean. Stepping out of the shower is a moment refreshing not just to body, but also to mind and spirit. Getting clean, however, can be more of a journey than we think. Every day we are exposed to a litany of chemicals from every conceivable source, including what we put on our hair. The words “Natural” and “Organic” in big letters on the front may not tell the whole story. It’s worth reading the small print.

So what do we do when we want clean hair? First, know what to watch out for. There are several “red flag” ingredients in shampoos:

Sulfates, either sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) or sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). Used as a surfactant and foaming agent, sodium laurel sulfate is a strong skin irritant and produces nitrosamine, a substance linked to cancer formation. Sodium laureth sulfate produces another possible carcinogen 1,4-dioxane as a byproduct. 1,4-dioxane has been linked to liver and kidney damage, and since it’s a byproduct, it won’t be listed on the label. Surfactants break down surface tension and allow dirt, oil, and other substances to be lifted from the hair. Sulfates are commonly used as surfactants because they lather well. While huge masses of bubbles look great in ads, they aren’t really necessary for clean hair. There are other, gentler, and more natural alternatives to sulfates.

Parabens are chemicals used as preservatives for their strong antibacterial and antifungal properties. They have been found in low concentrations in tumors and are believed to disrupt hormone function. Parabens mimic estrogen by binding to estrogen receptors on cells, an effect that has been linked to both the development of breast cancer and the early onset of puberty in girls. Other preservatives to watch for include DMDM hydantoin and imidazolidinyl. Often used in baby shampoos, these chemicals act as preservatives by out-gassing small amounts of formaldehyde, which is well known for its use in embalming but less well known for its possible carcinogenic and DNA damaging effects.

Phthalates, plasticizers that have been regarded in many countries to be potential carcinogens, are used in part to make the fragrance in shampoos and other cosmetic products linger. Phthalates are also strongly linked to endocrine disruption, early puberty in girls, and increased asthma in children. Phthalates were restricted in children’s toys in the U.S. in 2009 and are also banned in some products in California. If shampoo scent is important to you, avoid any product that merely says “fragrance” in the ingredient list, and look for products that list specific essential oils used for fragrance. While essential oils can be irritating to some people, in general they are a safer alternative to synthetic fragrances.

Additional ingredients to avoid include triethanolamine (TEA), a detergent restricted in Europe because of possible carcinogenic effects, and coal tar dyes, frequently found in dandruff shampoos and also possibly carcinogenic.

For more information on the safety of body care products consult the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database.

Plant-Based, Organic, or Raw Ingredients
There is no need to go unwashed. There are some excellent shampoos out there that are safe for you and the planet. One product that we carry is OrganicPRO shampoos from Nature’s Paradise, a Southern California company making products from organic and raw ingredients. Raw ingredients are from plants grown without the use of chemicals and pesticides and are processed without heat or additives. Available in Moisturizing, Relaxing, and Thickening styles, OrganicPRO shampoos have none of the chemical detergents, preservatives, and synthetic fragrances found in most commercial shampoos. In addition, OrganicPRO products are cruelty-free, vegan, and come in BPA-free, recyclable bottles.

Minimal Packaging
With conventional liquid shampoos, you may not have much of a choice when it comes to packaging. They almost all come in plastic containers. There is, however, an alternative in bar shampoos. These are just like bar soaps, only for your hair. Like most bar soap, shampoo bars are minimally wrapped in paper, so there are no bottles to recycle or otherwise dispose of. Since they are solid, they are approved to take through airport security, making them perfect for camping and travel.
The Ecology Center Store carries J.R. Liggett’s Old Fashioned Bar Shampoos. Like our liquid shampoos, they are free of chemical detergents, fragrances and preservatives. Since they are made from vegetable oils, they don’t strip the natural oils from your hair so most people do not need a conditioner. Some varieties have no added fragrance while others are scented with essential oils. Each 3.5 oz bar offers the approximate number of usages as a 24 ounce bottle of liquid shampoo, so the reduction in packaging is quite significant.
For more on reducing plastic waste check out Beth Terry’s new book, Plastic-free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too, available at the Ecology Center Store.

If you’ve got the time and inclination, you can make your own hair care products at home. One approach is to add light vegetable oil and distilled water to a liquid castile soap like Dr Bronner’s. People in the “Poo Free” movement swear by replacing shampoo and conditioner with baking soda followed by apple cider vinegar. Some curly-haired people have had good conditioning results with a blend of coconut milk, olive oil, and avocado. For additional resources, we also have books to support your search for homemade alternatives, such as Organic Body Care Recipes, and Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World.
[Photo by cottage revolution]

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2 thoughts on “Shampoo: What to Look For, What to Avoid

  1. nice, thnx for the info, very interesting, I use a good shampoo too, it’s Pro Naturals Moroccan Argan Oil Hair Shampoo which is amazing, treats well my hair and keeps it healthy. :D

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