Reading the Label: Decoding Shampoo Ingredients

Cute African American using shampoo

Pretty packaging, misleading marketing language, price, and a lack of education on this subject leads people to buying hair products that could do more harm than good to their hair and overall health. Learning to decode ingredient labels is an important step in a healthy hair journey. Most commercially available hair care products today contain harmful and potentially carcinogenic ingredients, so it’s important to educate yourself on what you’re being exposed to on a daily or weekly basis.

I wanted to start my “reading the label” post on this blog with shampoo, because it is one of the most important products in our arsenal. A good shampoo keeps your scalp healthy which leads to easier maintenance and more hair growth. A bad shampoo will lead to breakage, scalp irritations, frizz, and tougher hair maintenance.

Here are 7 ingredients you want to avoid in your next purchase of shampoo:

1. Lanolin, Mineral Oil, & Petrolatum

Mineral oil, lanolin, and petrolatum are used industrially to cut fluid and lubricate oil. This oil coats the skin and hair just like plastic wrap. The skin’s natural barrier is disrupted as this plastic coating inhibits its ability to breathe and absorb moisture and nutrition and release toxins and waste. It promotes acne, skin sensitivity and other disorders.

2. Isopropyl Alcohol

This petroleum-derived substance cleans and dissolves oils and is found in antifreeze, wood finish, and shellac. It is a solvent and poisonous substance that changes other substances natural qualities. Isopropyl alcohol is also found in hair color rinses, body rubs, hand lotions, after-shave lotions, fragrances and many other cosmetics. According to A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients, inhalation or ingestion of the vapor may cause headaches, flushing, dizziness, mental depression, nausea, vomiting, narcosis and even coma. For hair, alcohol is extremely drying and strips hair of moisture, which can lead to hair damage and loss.


3.  Propylene Glycol (PG)

This ingredient is actually the active component in antifreeze, airplane de-icer, and brake and hydraulic fluid.  It has the ability to break down skin yet is found in most forms of shampoo, make-up, hair products, lotions, after-shave, deodorants, mouthwashes and toothpaste to give a product “glide” or “slip”. PG has systemic consequences such as brain, liver and kidney abnormalities.  Also, allergic reactions, dermatitis, dry skin, hives, and eczema. Consumers are not protected nor is there a warning label on products such as stick deodorants, where the concentration is greater than that in most industrial applications.

4. Synthetic Colors & Pigments

Artificial colors and pigments are used widely in hair care products for aesthetic purposes. These ingredients frequently appear as FD&C or D&C followed by a color and a number (e.g. FD&C Red No. 5 / D&C Green No. 5). Color pigments may cause skin sensitivity and irritation. Absorption of certain colors can cause depletion of oxygen in the body and even death according to A Consumer’s dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients.

Colors that can be used in foods, drug, and cosmetics are derived primarily from coal tar, a known carcinogen.  Many shampoos designed to treat dandruff contain coal tar and can be disguised in many forms (e.g. “Stantar”, “Clinitar”, “Medi-Tar” and “Polytar”). It has been found to cause allergic reactions, asthma attacks, headaches, nausea, fatigue, nervousness, and lack of concentration.

5. Synthetic Fragrances

Synthetic fragrances are present in most shampoos, sunscreen, conditioners, baby products, and styling pomades. The word “fragrance” can indicate the presence of up to 4,000 separate ingredients, many of which are synthetic. In some individuals, these compounds can induce headaches, dizziness, rash, skin discoloration, violent coughing, vomiting, and skin irritation. Many of the compounds in fragrance are carcinogenic or otherwise toxic. Clinical observation by medical doctors have shown that exposure to fragrances can affect the central nervous system, causing depression, hyperactivity, irritability, inability to cope, and other behavioral changes. For a safe alternative, try purchasing unscented products and add in your own fragrance using all-natural essential oils.

6. Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is used in hair care products containing water to prevent the growth of bacteria. It’s also a known carcinogen and according to the Mayo clinic, it can irritate the respiratory system, cause skin reactions and trigger heart palpitations. Exposure to formaldehyde may cause joint pain, allergies, depression, headaches, chest pains, ear infections, chronic fatigue, dizziness and loss of sleep. It can also aggravate coughs and colds and trigger asthma. Serious side effects include weakening of the immune system and cancer. Despite its possible harmful side effects, cosmetic manufacturers are free to use formaldehyde in your shampoos, conditioners, antiperspirant, nail polish and lotions without listing it as an ingredient.

7. Sulfates (SLS, SLES)

Sulfates are strong chemical detergents and surfactants that give shampoo that sudsy quality. Sulfates are commonly used in car wash soaps, garage floor cleaners, dishwashing soap, and engine degreasers. It’s also commonly used for its cleansing and foaming qualities in most shampoos, hair conditioners toothpaste, shaving creams, and bubble baths. Like most harsh detergents found in your shampoo, sulfates strips the hair of its natural oils — often leaving it dry, irritated, red, itchy and brittle.

Sulfates are possibly the most dangerous ingredients in personal care products today. Animal testing has shown, exposure to sulfates have led to eye damage, along with depression, labored breathing, diarrhea, severe skin irritation and corrosion and death. According to the American College of Toxicology states both SLS and SLES can cause malformation in children’s eyes and can stay in the body for up to five days. Other studies have indicated that SLS easily penetrates through the skin and enters and maintains residual levels in the heart, the liver, the lungs and the brain.

Although there are many websites claiming SLS is a carcinogen, the American Cancer Society has taken the position that SLS and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) do not cause cancer.

If you still plan to use sulfates, you should consider the lists below:
Gentle surfactants to look for:
• Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate
• Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate
• Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate
• Sodium Methyl Cocoyl Taurate

Harsh/Drying surfactants to skip:
• Sodium Laureth Sulfate
• Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
• Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate
• Ammonium Laureth Sulfate
• Sodium Myreth Sulfate
• Saponified Oils
• Soap

I know this may seem like a lot to know, but a simple rule of thumb is that if you can’t pronounce it, don’t buy it. The more of a particular ingredient you have in a product, the closer it is to the top of the list of ingredients on the bottle.

Unconsciously snagging a bad shampoo can do damage to your hair and overall health. Manufacturers often make the argument that these ingredients pose no real threat to our health and safety since they are present in personal care products in such small amounts. However, it is hard to believe that these chemicals will not have some long-term effect on our bodies after we’ve been exposed to them daily for our entire lives.


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