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The Hidden Hazards in Your Shampoo: Ingredients to Avoid

The Hidden Hazards in Your Shampoo: Ingredients to Avoid

We see it every day on TV and social media -- shampoo ads and commercials claiming that their shampoo will not only transform your hair into a radiant, luxurious masterpiece, but also suggest that choosing their brand will deliver you the confidence worthy of a paparazzi-laden red-carpet experience. But before lathering your hair with a shampoo bottle full of false promises, you might first want to learn the truth about the ingredients in the potions that promise so much.

A shampoo's ingredient label can read more like a medical prescription than a formula for hair-friendly soap. But knowing what chemicals you'll be massaging into your scalp is essential. It can save you the trouble of having to deal with things like dull, lifeless hair, skin irritation, allergic reactions, seborrheic dermatitis and more. While you don't necessarily have to know the function of every ingredient listed, you should be able to identify the names of ingredients that have the most potential to harm your hair.

To help you make the best shampoo choice for your hair and scalp's health, here is a list of the most common toxic chemical culprits that can lead to hair damage:


Sulfates are cleaning agents found in about 90 percent of shampoos, often listed on labels under the names Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate, and Ammonium Laureth Sulfate. These sulfates provide both the rich lather that many people expect from shampoo and activate other shampoo ingredients that help to remove excess oil and dirt. While that may sound like what you're looking for in a shampoo, sulfates can have a harsh downside.

Hair needs natural oils and moisture to stay healthy. Sulfates can remove moisture, irritate the skin, and cause inflammation & sensitivity.

Who should avoid sulfates altogether?

For most people, sulfates have minor effects; and, many people find that shampoos containing them work well. It's also worth noting that shampoos with sulfates are one of the very few options for people with particularly oily hair or dandruff. However, most experts agree that some should avoid using sulfate-infused shampoo altogether.

This includes people who have:

  • Skin Conditions Or Sensitive Skin: Sulfates can have substantial drying effects on a person with sensitive hair or scalp. When using shampoo with sulfates, people with skin conditions like psoriasis or eczema may also notice redness, itching, and cracking in their scalp.
  • Frizzy, Dry Hair: When frizzy, curly or naturally dry hair is exposed to sulfates, the hair is stripped of moisture and natural oils. This causes increased friction, which can make hair even more frizzy and dry.
  • Hair That Has Been Chemically Changed Or Dyed: People who frequently color, straighten, or curl their hair should know that sulfates add additional stress and dryness, and can also cause colored hair to lose its color faster.


Parabens are synthetic preservative chemicals added to products to increase their shelf life by keeping them free of mold, germs, and fungi. You'll discover parabens in other high-water-content products like hand lotions, toothpaste, shaving gels, conditioner, and, of course, shampoo. You'll find parabens listed on the label as things like Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, Propylparaben, Butylparaben, and Isobutylparaben.

There are questions about the safety of parabens penetrating our skin and entering tissue. Concerns have also been raised about parabens' propensity to mimic estrogen, disrupt the endocrine system, and harm reproductive health.

If Parabens Are So Harmful, Why Are They Allowed In Our Shampoos And Other Products?

Despite the risks involved, parabens are not prohibited in the United States. However, they are banned in New Zealand, Australia, South Korea, Japan, Canada, and the European Union. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has also outlawed the use of specific parabens (isopropyl and isobutyl) in all ten of its member countries. China also limits the allowed concentration level of parabens in products to 0.4 percent.

Why Are Parabens Bad for Hair?

Everything you apply to your scalp and hair penetrates your bloodstream and pores. Consequently, in addition to drying out hair, parabens can irritate the scalp, fade hair color, and even result in hair loss. They can also cause eczema, a condition that results in inflamed skin that is dry, itchy, and irritated.


Many people enjoy the scent their shampoo adds to their hair, and there is no harm in using natural fragrances like coconut, lavender, or tea tree oils. But synthetic fragrances are a different story. These types of fragrances are artificially created in a lab using unnatural chemical compounds. Some of these scents are known endocrine disruptors and can trigger allergic reactions, including headaches and respiratory problems.

Unfortunately, synthetic fragrances added to shampoos are regarded as trade secrets, and U.S. regulations do not require manufacturers to share every ingredient on their labels. Consequently, your shampoo bottle may be labeled as "fragrance" or "Parfum" (perfume in French). You can rest assured that the fragrance added to shampoos with this type of label has used an artificially created fragrance, but you won't know for sure if the chemicals they've used are harmful or not. If the ingredients are more specific, they will appear as Benzyl Benzoate, Limonene, Linalool, Geraniol, Citronellol, or many others.

To avoid compromising your health, you should look for shampoos from companies that have decided to use natural fragrances, including essential oils, exclusively. Consider a shampoo brand that sells plant-powered products instead of synthetic ones, as the former tend to cause scalp irritation, inflammation, itching, and dry hair.


Alcohol in shampoo is highly prevalent and one of the most drying ingredients found in shampoo. Most shampoo alcohols have harsh, drying properties that can deplete your hair of its natural oil, causing dandruff and dry scalp. It can also cause problems with dry skin because it throws off the normal water/lipid balance.

But not all alcohols are bad for your hair, which is why it's crucial to read the label. For instance, fatty alcohols like stearyl and cetalyl alcohols are less used as thickeners and are less drying. These are safe alternatives to other alcohols and have been shown to help hair maintain moisture. But you should avoid shampoos with alcohol labeled with the word "prop," such as propanol, propyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, or a label that says it contains both ethanol and denatured alcohol.


Man-made silicones can be found in a range of hair care products, such as heat protectors, shampoos, conditioners, and other household and cosmetic products. It's used in shampoo because, by coating the hair shaft, it traps moisture, minimizes frizz, and provides that silky, soft feel to hair. It is particularly helpful for those whose hair is not very tolerant of humidity. But despite its positive contributions to healthy hair, there are clear drawbacks to using silicone hair products.

Silicones form a seal that hydrates hair from the inside out, but this barrier can prevent other nourishing substances from getting deep inside the hair follicle. Additionally, silicone can accumulate on your hair over time, giving it a dull, dry texture that can lead to hair breakage. Furthermore, silicone that isn't water-soluble can be challenging to remove with a basic wash.

Does Silicone Pose A Hair Care Risk?

Although silicone has drawbacks, it is not a hazardous substance and won't adversely affect your physical health. But it can have an impact on your hair's strength and beauty. Silicone causes hair to feel heavy and dry and accumulates into a difficult-to-remove residue. You can prevent these problems without totally giving up silicone. For example, you can use a smaller quantity of product at a time or use silicone-infused shampoos fewer times a week. It's essential, however, to consider that silicones come in a variety of forms, and some may damage your hair more than others.

Which Silicone Ingredients Should Be On My Radar?

Silicone comes in a wide variety of forms and names, so it may be challenging to find the word "silicone" on the back of your bottle of shampoo or conditioner. Silicone is generally associated with everything that ends in "-cone." If a "-cone" word is listed toward the beginning of the ingredient list, you can assume the product contains a higher amount of silicone. But remember, not all silicones are the same. Some are heavier and more likely to build up, while others are lighter and better for your hair.

Cyclomethicone, for instance, is a "breathable" silicone that is light in weight and water-soluble, so it washes out of hair easily. Dimethicone and amomethicone, on the other hand, is a heavier silicone that may require multiple washes with clarifying shampoo to remove.

If your shampoo claims to be "silicone-free," you would be wise to be skeptical of the label. Many hair care products falsely claim to be "silicone-free" when, in fact, they just exclude the "bad" silicones. Be sure to check the list of ingredients to be sure silicone is absent from your shampoo.

If you want to avoid silicones altogether but still want to hydrate and control frizz, consider looking for alternatives. Plant-based oils like shea butter, aloe vera, and jojoba oil will nourish your hair while maintaining the same glossy appearance.


Shampoo manufacturers often add artificial colorants to their products to increase their appeal. Unfortunately, they frequently contain chemicals that can be harmful to our health. Coal tar, a coal production byproduct linked to cancer, and heavy metals like lead and arsenic are sometimes used to make a variety of artificial dyes and colors.

In addition to cancer, many of these colorants can cause rashes, breakouts, and other irritations. Some colorants have FDA approval, but others need more testing. Coal tar is banned in Canada and most of Europe because to its cancer risk, but legal in the U.S. On labels, artificial colorants look like this:

  • FD&C (Food, Drug, and Cosmetic) colorants (e.g., FD&C Blue No. 1, FD&C Red No. 4)
  • D&C (Drug and Cosmetic) colorants (e.g., D&C Red No. 33, D&C Yellow No. 11)
  • CI (Color Index) numbers for synthetic colors (e.g., CI 42090 for Blue 1)

The safest choice is to avoid colorants altogether, especially those labeled with a combination "D" and "C" with a number, or "FD" and "C."


Too often, shampoo marketing campaigns distract us from the potential risks associated with the ingredients in their products. But we should all be wary of sulfates that remove natural oils, parabens linked to skin irritation and hair loss, artificial fragrances that can cause allergies, and other harmful chemicals. The next time you reach for the shampoo bottle, remember to check the label. Making wise decisions now can result in healthier, more attractive hair later on.