The Complete List – 15 Harmful Shampoo Ingredients to Avoid

harmful shampoo ingredients

Do you know all of the ingredients in your shampoo like you do your food? Probably not! These days an increasing amount of people are making the choice to buy organic foods, work out regularly, and use natural products in an effort to lead a healthier lifestyle.

However, not everyone is aware that an everyday staple such as your shampoo can contain elements such as sulfates, sodium chloride and silicone, that are harmful to both you and the environment. Below is the complete list of 15 of the the most common harmful shampoo ingredients that you should be on the lookout for – and why.

1. Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate or Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)

Sulfates are very strong detergents that are great for stripping the oils from your hair. But that also means that they rob your hair of its moisture. Sulfates are a type of surfactants (a compound that lower the surface tension), and are very common shampoo ingredients. They work through a chemical reaction in which they bind with the sebum on our scalp on one end, and with water on the other. When you rinse out the shampoo, the surfactants take all the oils and residue with them. These cleaning agents are so harsh they can damage the hair, make it brittle, and increase frizz. They can also cause allergic reactions in people with sensitive skin.

2. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)

This detergent basically does the same to the hair as the two mentioned above and has a very similar name. It also creates the lathering foam that we love. Some people may think they do not get sufficiently clean without the foam, though that is not the case. SLS is also a component in many common household products, like body wash, toothpaste and cleaning products. SLS can have mutagenic properties and other toxic effects on the human body. If you are looking to give your hair more moisture you might consider avoiding this ingredient in your next shampoo!

3. Parabens

Other than sulfates, parabens are probably the shampoo ingredients that are nowadays most well-known to be harmful. Parabens are used as a preservative to prevent bacteria from growing in cosmetics and shampoos, and it is likely that our skin can absorb them during topical use. They are also a common ingredient when keeping processed or canned food fresh, which means that we also get them in our system orally.

According to the American Chemical Society, 85 percent of American personal care products contain parabens, and an experiment in 2005 found parabens in the urine of 99.1% of people tested. Parabens can mimic the hormone estrogen and have been linked to an increased growth of breast cancer cells. Multiple experiments have shown that women have a higher concentration of parabens in their bodies compared to men, which is probably a result of using more cosmetic and healthcare products. This is worth thinking about when choosing what to put on your skin and in your hair.

4. Sodium Chloride

Sodium chloride is simply salt. Salt exists in shampoos and conditioners mainly to make the consistency thicker. Salt can make an already sensitive scalp dry and itchy, which can eventually be a cause of hair loss. It can also irritate and burn your eyes if you get shampoo in them.

5. Polyethylene Glycols (PEG)

This is also a thickening agent that is often contaminated with byproducts. They can be directly harmful to humans since they are derived from petroleum. There has not been sufficient research done to conclude that PEGs themselves are toxic. However, common by-products in the PEGs, like ethylene oxides and 1,4-dioxane are harmful.

6+7. Diethanolamine (DEA) and Triethanolamine (TEA)

DEA and TEA are also emulsifiers and foam agents that reduce the surface tension between different substances so that ingredients that are water-soluble and oil-soluble can blend together. In 1998, researchers found a link between the topical application of DEA and cancer in animals during lab tests. According to the Food and Drug Administration, however, there are no proven links between the use of DEA and cancer in humans.

8. Formaldehyde

Out of all the shampoo ingredients that are harmful, formaldehyde may be the scariest. Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen and has been proven to be absorbed through the skin in animal testing. Manufacturers often add it directly as a preservative. But it can also be released over time through a chemical process from other types of preservatives. The formaldehyde-releasers have different names and it will not always be clear what they actually are. But one that is common in shampoos is quaternium-15. In 2013, hundreds of American women sued Unilever after experiencing hair loss, burnt scalps, and broken or discolored hair after using an at-home hair-smoothing product. The reason was that the product contained a formaldehyde-releasing ingredient. The same goes for Brazilian blowouts at hair salons, the popular treatment that makes your hair shiny and frizz-free, as formaldehyde is often activated through heat. Despite this, the chemical is legal in personal care products in the U.S. The European Union has restricted the use of formaldehyde in personal care products, and in Sweden and Japan it is entirely banned from cosmetics and toiletries.

9. Alcohol

This is a very common component in beauty products and shampoo ingredients. Most alcohols have a drying effect, and the higher up in the ingredient list it appears, the more of it the product contains. Some alcohols that are not as bad for dry hair start with a “C” or an “S”, like Cetearyl alcohol and Stearyl acohol. They can actually help your hair retain moisture. The ones that are bad if you already have dry hair usually have a “prop” in their name, like Isopropyl alcohol or propanol.


10. Synthetic Fragrances

Products that have “fragrance” on their label contain thousands of hidden chemicals. This is thanks to a loophole in the law that allows companies to not disclose all of the ingredients of a product in order to avoid copycats. This way, manufacturers can just put some ingredients under “fragrance” and get away with it. Some ingredients in fragranced cosmetic products can disrupt the reproductive systems. They can also cause cancer, asthma and make their way into women’s breast milk. Like many ingredients on this list, it is also an irritant to the skin and scalp, which can lead to hair loss. According to the Environmental Working Group, 75 percent of products that list “fragrance” among their ingredients contains phthalates. This too, is an ingredient that illegal in many countries, including Canada, the EU and parts of Asia – but not in the U.S.

11. Synthetic Colors

Most shampoos and conditioners are dyed with a synthetic color to make them look nice. These colors come from petroleum or coal-tar sources, all of which come with harmful health effects. Many have links to various diseases – even cancer, and are already illegal abroad. Synthetic colors will normally go by FD&C or D&C combined with a number.

12. Dimethicone

A type of silicone, dimethicone is basically plastic that is used in a ton of hair products and contributes to product buildup that makes your hair feel greasy. On the plus side, it is what makes hair look shiny. But on the downside, it weights the hair down, making it heavy, limp and lifeless. Since it lies like a protecting cover on the surface of the hair, it stops moisture and nutrients from coming in and instead collects dirt and residue. It can clog the pores on the scalp and cause skin irritation. Most face creams also contain some type of silicone, as it is what makes the cream glide nicely onto our skin, and many people have reported increased acne or skin problems.

Harmful shampoo
Do you know all of your shampoo ingredients? Some of the ingredients in your favorite shampoo can be harmful for you.

13. Cocamidopropyl Betaine

Most shampoos, even the ones claiming to be natural, contain cocamidopropyl betaine, which is another foam booster. Do not let the fact that it is a natural compound from coconuts trick you! Hair products use it together with something called dimethylaminopropylamine which can cause skin irritation, allergy, rosacea, and eczema.

14. Triclosan

Triclosan was banned from being used in antibacterial soaps in 2016, but ironically it is still an allowed ingredient in other household staples, such as toothpaste, shampoos and deodorants. This is a chemical antibacterial agent that is known to cause hormone disruptions, which can cause cancer, neuro developmental problems and affect fetal developments, among other things.

15. Retinyl Palmitate

Some shampoos contain retinyl palmitate, which is the ester of retinol. That means it is a retinoid, which is one of the most important vitamins for the skin. However, when in contact with skin, it converts into retinol. This is a known skin irritant and can cause peeling, scaling, redness, and itching. There are warnings about side effects from retinyl palmitate, including cancer, reproductive problems, and organ toxicity.

Harmless Shampoo Ingredients

The list of shampoo ingredients that are bad for us is extensive, and it can be hard to always keep track of all of them. However, there are plenty of brands that use only natural and organic ingredients, and you can even make your own homemade hair treatments using things from your kitchen. If you are suffering from hair loss or unhealthy hair growth and feel chemicals may to blame, there are natural supplements to turn to. They contain plant-derived ingredients that work synergistically to aid your natural hair growth without chemicals or dyes.

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