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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30 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. 😀

  2. I used to use Aubrey organics green tea shampoo because it was recommended for grey water and had no sodium ingredients on the label.

    Just today I got a new bottle, and there is some sodium on the label — ingredient #4 is sodium lauroyl lactylate, and futher down is sodium phytate. Is it still okay for grey water ?

    • Hi Jon,

      Thanks for your question! I passed it on to my colleagues, and here is what they say –

      High salts in greywater is a common concern and unfortunately, if it has “sodium” in front of the ingredient then we do not recommend using it as greywater. Aubrey’s Organics didn’t used to have sodium ingredients in their body care products. While we have a general fact sheet on products that are greywater-compatible, a more comprehensive response can be found from Greywater Action Network’s FAQ page here: They also recommend Aubrey’s Organics, but I don’t think they’ve updated their information because it’s clear that Aubrey’s Organics now has sodium in their ingredients. They definitely say that any ingredient with “sodium” shouldn’t be used for greywater.

      You could contact Aubrey’s Organics and let them know, too! Let us know if you have any follow up questions.
      Best wishes,

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  5. We used ECOLOGY No.1 Shampoo and ECOLOGY No.2 condition from our visit at Welk Resorts. Is is available for retail sale any place?

    • I loved the ECOLOGY products at Welk and are looking for them as well. The container says Manufactured and Distributed by Welk Resorts, Escondido, CA 92026. While at their resort there, I purchased large bottles of Ecology No. 3 Moisturizer, and brought home all of the extra little soaps. I was told that they are to be discontinued at the resort. I so wish I could find the products online.

  6. Shampoos I used on a steady basis… Paul Mitchell, Red kin, pure ology, biologe, started losing hair, bad breakage, sist in scap and afraid of cancer. Checked many ways of least chemicals shampoos. I started using Ogx Biotin Collangen shampoo, Ogx vitamin E conditioner and Keratin oil shampoo. I have lots of new growth, breakage is normal. It’s six months and my hair is thick, still new growth, soft and the lady that cut my hair said she was amazed in the change in my hair. I told her what I found and now I NO LONGER HAVE BAD INFECTIONS IN MY EYES AND NO MORE DRY EYES. PLENTY OF NORMAL TEARS.

    • One more coment…she said there are beauticians that lose feelings in their hands in time being a beautiton. She was glad I told her so she could figure out how to avoid some of these shampoos etc.

    • Hi Bren,
      I am also loosingy hair terribly, so worried as they aren’t also growing much in length.
      Wanted to understand that you have mentioned two types of shampoo – Ogx Biotin Collangen shampoo, and Keratin oil shampoo.
      Can you pls explain the reason for the Keratin one .I am planning to go with your team is for the shampoo and conditioner. pls let me know if I need to also use the Keratin shampoo.

  7. I have been using ion products for over a year. I have been experiencing major hair loss for months and haven’t been able to figure out why. Could this be the reason!? I finally looked at the ingredients list and couldn’t believe the long list I never thought to look at! I’m not sure what to do at this point? Will it even grow back?

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  9. So, I’m thinking about using DoTerra shampoo and conditioner. It has A LOT of ingredients in it and that freaks me out. Most of them I can’t pronounce. I wish I could link a picture that shows the ingredients. Can someone look it up and tell me what them think?

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  11. I have been pro-actively eliminating “stressors” from my life as best as I can. This includes anything that comes on contact with your body – shampoo, soap, detergents (for cleaning clothes, bed sheets, etc), household cleaning products (google “Exposure to Cleaning Products Are as Bad as Pack-a-Day Smoking”) etc and also things that are more difficult to control like Electro-Magnetic Radiation from mobile phones, microwaves – household appliances – laptops, Wi-fi and the panoply of other things like air pollution – I cannot list them all. In any case I have replaced my underarm deodorant with Sodium Bicarbonate (NaHCO3) with incredible results – far superior than any product I ever purchased. I have also replaced toothpaste with the same (NaHCO3) and gargle/swish with NaHCO3. For soap I came close to making my own soap but found the same natural soap (basic soap) readily available everywhere if you open your eyes. And to shampoo now – I have found zero reason – except for cultural “looks” (i.e. not wanting to have oily-looking hair) and an itchy scalp from microorganisms – to use shampoo on your hair – EVER! I replaced “branded” shampoos with the soap I found but still questioned it because you are destroying the protective coating – sebum and giving your body a new task everytime you wash your hair. Same with skin and the oils there. If anything, one needs to reduce the frequency of using soap/shampoo’s. You can still shower daily but you just don’t need to soap up – most of the dirt/microorganisms hitchhiking in your hair or on your skin can simply be washed off with good ole H2O. Hope this helped someone and apologies for the longer than intended message. I like this blog.

    • I am in total agreement with what you have written. I just “discovered” this blog. I wash with baking soda, found a very fine one that dissolves so well in boiling water, I just wait till it cools – and wash, once or twice a week, and rinse with vinegar in water. I infuse corriander and rosemary in the vinegar. Ditto on soap, less…is best. Baking soda can be used for most washing purposes of all kinds.

      • ps. I have been using baking soda hair cleaning method for 4 years and just vinegar rinse, my hair never looked better. I am grey now, but my hair looks wonderful and feels wonderful, I “condition” with a few drops of cold pressed oils that I use on my face, the lighter ones work best for me, like grapeseed oil.

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    • Hi Barbara,

      Thank you for your inquiry. As stated in the blog above, we recommend not using products that include the following ingredients:

      – Sulfates / surfactants (i.e. sodium lauryl sulfate & sodium laureth sulfate)
      – Parabens
      – Phthalates
      – DMDM hydantoin

      There is also another great organization that we reference for personal care products, Made Safe, below is a list of additional ingredients they recommend staying away from when choosing shampoo and/or conditioner:

      – imidazolidinyl
      – diazolidinyl urea
      – polyoxymethylene urea
      – sodium hydroxymethylglycinate
      – 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol)
      – glyoxal

      In regards to Hair La Vie shampoo, I looked up the ingredients and referenced them against this list above and did not see any overlap.

      However, as stated in the blog post above, we support minimal and reusable packaging and Hair La Vie packages their products in plastic containers.

      Please feel free to contact us with any additional questions or concerns. Thank you!

      • I really like this article, I’ve been using Maui moisture shampoo and it’s a vegan type of shampoo no sls, no sulfates,no parabens and no silicones. I use to get bad dandruff break outs and loss of hair, I tried dandruff shampoos non of it worked, then I started researching different ingredients and switched to vegan friendly shampoos and conditioners as well as every two weeks, do this mixture in a spray bottle that consists of apple cider vinegar, distilled water and tea tree oil, let it set in hair for 30 minutes after spending time message it into the scalp. Then I use a plastic bag and hair tie wrap around hair it set for thirty minutes, then take the bag of and use shampoo, conditioner and water after the wash, I use Gardiner frucis hair mask and work through hair with a wide tooth comb, once dry I brush it and now I’ve noticed nearly all the dandruff is gone my hair is healthier and has grown back in thicker, plus it’s growing faster as well.

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  15. These are some very interesting points especially since I had no idea that there was so much to take into consideration when choosing a shampoo. However, I can understand why you would strongly suggest something more natural. After all, you will want to make sure that your hair doesn’t get accidentally damaged by any chemicals.

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