As a hairstylist, I can admit I’m a bit of a shampoo snob. But the truth is that quality ingredients really do lead to healthier hair. In fact, I would make the case that a great shampoo is more important than conditioner. Many low-quality shampoos contain large amounts of questionable ingredients that strip hair or weigh it down with buildup, and if that’s the case, it doesn’t matter how much great conditioner you slather on top … the damage is done. More importantly, some additives may be harmful to your health. For example, both parabens and phthalates are believed to interfere with hormones and have been linked to a number of health concerns. Some ingredients found in shampoos can even convert to formaldehyde, a known toxin.
Here are a few ingredients you may want to avoid in shampoo. It’s very difficult to find effective shampoos that don’t contain any of these, but it’s important to be an informed consumer. The trick is to to find products that keep potentially harmful ingredients to a minimum and leave hair in great condition. It’s a balancing act to weigh the potential harmful effects of some ingredients without compromising performance. For some of the best options on the market, visit 20 Best Shampoos for Healthy Hair and Scalp.
10 Ingredients to Avoid in Shampoo 1 of 11
Sulfates 2 of 11
You've probably heard the buzz about sulfates by now. They are detergents that contribute the great suds to your shampoo. They are also often found in your kitchen and bathroom cleaning products. They can cause scalp irritation, redness, and itching. Many shampoos include sulfates, and you may prefer the rich lather, but it's best to avoid them if your hair is very dry, damaged, or colored, or if you have sensitive skin.
Ingredients to avoid: sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate
Parabens 3 of 11
These preservatives will improve the shelf life of your shampoo but they may shorten yours. They have the ability to mimic estrogen and some believe they are linked to the rise in breast and testicular cancers.
Ingredients to avoid: methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and isobutylparaben
Silicones 4 of 11
Silicones have the great ability to smooth unruly hair, but over time these synthetic polymers can build up on hair and prevent oils and moisture from entering the hair shaft. Eventually, you are left with more frizz than you started with! If you choose to use shampoos or products with a silicone that is not water soluble, be sure to clarify your hair every couple of weeks with a fruit acid-based clarifying shampoo.
Ingredients to avoid: dimethicone, amodimethicone, cyclomethicone
Waxes 5 of 11
Waxes are added to shampoos to make them pearlescent. They leave hair feeling well-conditioned, but like silicones, they build up on hair.
Ingredients to avoid: glycol disterate, stearyl stearate, cetyl palmitate, lauryl palmitate, lanolin
Drying Alcohols 6 of 11
This is confusing because there are moisturizing alcohols, but drying alcohols are often found in shampoos that offer a "deep" cleansing. They will help rid you of unwanted oils and buildup, but in my experience as a hairdresser, they are incredibly drying and should be avoided. There are healthier surfactants and treatments for removing dirt and regulating oils.
Ingredients to avoid: isopropyl alcohol, SD alcohol 40, ethanol, denatured alcohol
Propylene Glycol 7 of 11
This moisturizer deters products from melting or freezing. Unfortunately, it is also a known irritant to skin and eyes. It's also a toxin that has been linked to a number of illnesses.
Ingredients to avoid: propylene glycol; 1,2-dihydroxypropane; 2-hydroxypropanol; methyl ethyl glycol
Diethanolamine, Triethanolamine, and Monoethanolamine 8 of 11
These ingredients are used to stabilize the pH of shampoos. Not only are they known irritants and common allergens, they also become carcinogenic when they react with nitrates that are also often found in shampoos.
Ingredients to avoid: Diethanolamine (DEA), Monoethanolamine (MEA), and Triethanolamine (TEA)
Synthetic Fragrances 9 of 11
In addition to just not being very pleasant smelling, synthetic fragrances or perfumes usually indicate the presence of phthalates, a questionable additive. Phthalates are synthetic compounds used in plastics that disrupt the production of hormones, and that can cause a whole host of problems. It is very difficult to avoid them entirely, but minimizing your exposure is wise.
Ingredients to avoid: fragrance
Coal Tar 10 of 11
This additive is used to treat dandruff, psoriasis, and other scalp conditions. It can cause skin irritation, sun-sensitivity, and prolonged use can damage hair follicles. I usually recommend a tea tree shampoo to my clients with dry scalps and dandruff. If you prefer medicated shampoos, please switch active ingredients frequently; not only will this help prevent damage from over-exposure, but it is typically more effective as well.
Ingredient to avoid: coal tar
Formaldehyde 11 of 11
This may come as a surprise, but this known carcinogen is sometimes found in shampoos (especially baby shampoos!) as a preservative and anti-bacterial agent. This toxic ingredient is not directly added, but is formed by the addition of formaldehyde-releasers.
Ingredients to avoid: quaternium-15, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinly urea, DMDM hydantoin
Please note that I’ve listed only a few of the common names these ingredients are listed as but most of these have many more monikers and/or derivatives.