This post may contain "affiliate links." This means if you click on the affiliate link and purchase the item, I'll receive a commission. I disclose this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255. I only recommend products that passed my strict criteria. Read about my research methods in the Start Here page.
Last updated on November 30th, 2016
I’d often heard the rumor that soap manufacturers use numbing agents to make tear-free baby shampoos. But I never heard the specifics – what the numbing agent was and how lots of people seem to know about it.
When I first started researching safe baby shampoos, I often encountered the claim “no numbing agent,” which made me scared to buy shampoos without this claim. Someone even claimed that, “Johnson and Johnson shampoo actually has a numbing agent in it and can cause blindness, so the baby may not cry, but might loose [sic] eyesight.” (Source) But no sources of this information were ever cited. Thus, I concluded that there was nothing reliable on the Internet regarding the mystical numbing agent in baby shampoo.
I did lots and lots research and even contacted GoodGuide. Regular readers of this blog know that I use GoodGuide’s and the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG’s) databases. GoodGuide is a team of scientists who rate products and companies on health and environmental impact as well as social responsibility. As opposed to the EWG, GoodGuide has a place where consumers can ask questions.
And here is Bill Pease’s answer,
“Most baby shampoos are formulated to be tear free by reducing the concentration or even presence of conventional shampoo ingredients that have the ability to irritate the eyes. I am not aware of any reliable source that ingredients are added to baby shampoo formulations because they anesthetize tear ducts, although this is sometimes asserted in various natural product blogs. The ingredients most often indicted in these articles are alkyl polyethoxylates or alkyl phenol polyethoxylates.”
In the end there was nothing left to do but learn how baby shampoos are made. As I talked to many personal care product companies and studied ingredients of almost all baby shampoos sold in the US, I concluded that use of a numbing agent in baby shampoos is an urban myth.
I also concluded that in order to choose the safest consumer products, you have to understand how products are made. When you rely solely on marketing claims, as I was at first, you can become easily confused, frustrated, and spend money on something you will regret. So let me help you understand how tear-free shampoos are made.
There are two types of baby shampoos: soap-based and soap-free made with synthetic foaming cleansers, often referred to as surfactants.
Soap-based baby shampoos are made with saponified plant oils such as coconut oil, olive oil, or jojoba oil. In the process of saponification, a plant oil is reacted with an alkali. The alkali (called either potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide) does not remain in the final product. This is how soaps have been made for centuries before the recent invention of synthetic surfactants. By the way, when potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide is listed as an ingredient that does not mean it remains in the final product. It is listed because it is used to make soap.
The benefits of soap-based baby shampoos are that there are no health or environmental concerns associated with them. The downside (you guessed it) is higher pH, which means that baby’s eyes will hurt if you are not careful. I have been using only soap-based shampoos on my son and he learned quickly to close his eye and tilt his head.
Soap-free baby shampoos are made with synthetic surfactants and there are probably thousands of them. While many shampoo companies claim that their shampoos are derived from coconut oil, this claim is not so simple. But you’d be amazed at the multitude of steps that are necessary to turn coconut oil into a surfactant. It takes lots of steps and the process can involve toxic chemicals, so it’s not as healthy or pure as it may seem at first blush.
For example, Sodium Laureth Sulfate can be made from coconut oil, following this process. First, coconut oil is turned into fatty acids that are used to derive lauryl alcohol. Then lauryl alcohol is treated with sulfur trioxide gas or chlorosulfuric acid to produce Sodium Lauryl Sulfate. And finally, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate is treated with carcinogenic ethylene oxide to make Sodium Laureth Sulfate. This process is called ethoxylation. As a result of the ethoxylation reaction, carcinogenic 1,4-dioxane is produced and can be left in the final product. You won’t find 1,4-dioxane disclosed on the label, because it is not an ingredient but an impurity that does not legally have to be disclosed.
The benefit of soap-free shampoos is that as they do not have soap but instead they contain non-alkaline surfactants, which means they won’t hurt baby’s eyes. But at what cost? Some of those surfactants are carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and allergens.
The only synthetic surfactants in tear-free baby shampoos I am comfortable with are surfactants of the glucoside family such as decyl glucoside and lauryl glucoside. They are not known to have any health concerns and won’t irritate baby’s eyes, making what is known as tear-free baby shampoos.
And if you are up for trying a solid shampoo, check out my favorite By Valenti True Castile Soap. It is pure saponified olive oil, which is what true castile soap is. Olive oil has tremendous moisturizing benefits. I have been washing my son’s hair for three years with it. So if you don’t mind being a bit unconventional, try this bar soap. The great benefit is that you save money and help reduce plastic production and exposure. I highly recommend it for newborns!
In conclusion, I hope you have a much better understanding now of how baby shampoos are made and that there are no numbing agents in tear-free baby shampoos. It is a relief, isn’t it?