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Last updated on April 2nd, 2019
Have you looked at your shampoo label? It is definitely not something easy to read and understand – a long list of unpronounceable ingredients. After a few years reading labels, I think I finally have a good idea why shampoos have so many ingredients. I’d like to help you learn to read a shampoo label so you can choose the least toxic and the most beneficial shampoo for your hair. Also, check out this new Shampoo Rating List to find safe products out of over 110 items presented.
Ingredients are listed in the order of predominance on the shampoo label
Per the FDA’s requirement, shampoo ingredients are listed in such a way that the most prevalent comes first, down to the 1 percent level. Below 1 percent, ingredients may be listed in any order. While some toxins remain potent even in very small doses, I believe it is helpful to know what ingredients are dominant in your shampoo. By the way, most shampoos list water/aqua first, which tells you what shampoos are mostly made of – water that you pay for. (This is one of the reasons I favor shampoo bars or soap bars for that matter.) Look at your shampoo label and tell me if water is listed first.
The core of shampoos are soaps/synthetic surfactants (aka detergents)
The core of any shampoo are substances that make your hair clean. Most shampoos are made with several synthetic surfactants (cleansing agents or detergents) that are derived from a variety of chemicals. There is a proliferation of synthetic surfactants and it is challenging to know which ones are safe as most of them are not sufficiently studied. The safest cleansing agents are saponified vegetable oils (aka soap). The problem is that they may leave soap residue in your hair. On the shampoo labels, soaps or surfactants are listed after water. Look at your shampoo label and tell me what cleansing agents it has.
Some of the surfactants to avoid:
Cocamide DEA, MEA, TEA or MIPA
PEGs-(with PEG-n designation)
Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)
Ammonium Laureth Sulfate
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)
Carrying agents are used as the base; they “carry” active ingredients. Herbal extracts in most shampoos use water, vegetable glycerin, or grain alcohol. Avoid propylene glycol as a carrying agent as it has been associated with dermatitis even at low concentrations. Does your shampoo have propylene glycol? Let me know in the comments.
Emulsifiers are added to a shampoo formulation to hold together opposites like oil and water to create good consistency. Lecithin and guar gum are among the safest emulsifiers. Emulsifiers to be avoided include all compounds with MEA, DEA, TEA, and MIPA, and ingredients with the PEG-n designations. All may be potentially carcinogenic given the possibility of 1,4-dioxane and nitrosamines contamination.
Emollients inhibit the loss of moisture and are excellent for dry and damaged hair. Lubricants reduce friction between hair strands while smoothing hair and adding shine. Vegetable/plant oils such as olive oil and evening primrose oil are great natural emollients and lubricants. Panthenol and aloe vera are great safe moisturizers.
Emollients to be avoided include mineral oil (a petroleum derivative) and silicones such as dimethicone. Silicones do not biodegrade; thus, they pollute the environment. Also, silicones coat hair. If you’d like your hair to be coated (and it may sometimes be beneficial for very damaged hair), you might consider copernicia cerifera cera wax, which is biodegradable plant wax. Does your shampoo have dimethicone or other silicones?
Humectants are used to attract and retain moisture from water. They give hair the feeling of fullness. They also prevent shampoo from drying out. Safe humectants include vegetable glycerin and sorbitol. The ones that are common, but may cause irritation and allergy, include propylene glycol, butylene glycol, and ethylene glycol. Does your shampoo label have propylene glycol?
If you have damaged hair, make sure you have proteins in your shampoo. Proteins strengthen hair by bonding to and filling damaged parts within it. Rice and quinoa proteins are preferred over soy and wheat as they are less likely to have GMO and gluten concerns.
Shampoos with toxic chemicals in them always have fragrance. They have to because that toxic stuff stinks. Look for fragrance-free shampoos or shampoos with essential oils for fragrances. And avoid synthetic fragrances/perfumes as they are a mixture of undisclosed chemicals. Fragrance mixes have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system.
Since shampoos have water and are used in the shower – an area where water can get in easily – shampoos need preservatives. Preservatives do not let microbes and mold grow. The least toxic and least controversial preservatives are potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate. These preservatives are used in food. (I am not recommending eating food with preservatives.)
Preservatives to watch out for include:
Parabens (associated with interfering with hormone system),
Can you find a preservative in your shampoo?
I hope this helped to motivate you to look at your shampoo label. Tell me what you saw and ask any questions you may have about shampoo ingredients of your shampoo. Next, we can apply this to reading a specific shampoo.