Americans today are more mindful and conscious about what they put in their bodies, on their skin, and their hair than ever before. When it comes to hair products such as hair masks, shampoos, and conditioners can contain any number of harmful chemicals that you should avoid putting on your hair at all costs.
These chemicals and toxic ingredients can leave temporary or lasting damage to your scalp and hair, causing them to dry out and brittle. Aside from that, they can also affect you in the long term by causing cancer or pregnancy loss.
This is why many have started creating their shampoos and conditioners right at home. Some people even make soap. However, not everyone can make the time for that, and most prefer getting their shampoos and conditioners from big brands they already have some attachment with.
Of course, big brands won’t exactly advertise toxic ingredients in their products that can cause harm to your scalp and hair. But you can easily glance at the ingredients list to see if a product does contain harmful ingredients for your hair. So we’ve put together a list of chemicals and ingredients that you can look out for on the label of your favorite brand of shampoo and conditioner.
Harmful Chemicals In Hair Products You Should Avoid
Sulfates are one of the most popular toxic ingredients found in hair products. It’s a chemical detergent that is usually used to make the shampoo foam up when you massage it into your hair. They work by causing a chemical reaction to bind to the sebum oil that’s produced on the scalp and with water.
This helps the sulfates to easily clean out any oil and residue in your hair which can leave the hair feeling brittle, frizzy, flaky, and dry. Sulfates are also known for potentially being a carcinogen that can ultimately lead to kidney damage and hormone disruption.
You should avoid using any hair product containing Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, and Sodium Lauryl Sulfate. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate can also affect the hair follicles and cause other problems in the human body, and it can strip away colors, dyes, and natural oils from your hair too.
Parabens are also known as xenoestrogens, which give them a similar composition to natural hormones, and can cause an imbalance in your hormones, skin irritation, neurotoxicity, and affect reproductive health. They have also been linked to increased growth in breast cancer cells. A study in 2004 found large amounts of parabens in the tumors of cancer patients, however, it is still unknown how or why this happens.
Parabens aren’t usually listed out in the ingredients list. Instead, they are listed as butylparaben, methylparaben, propyl-paraben, parahydroxybenzoate, methylparaben, etc.
#3 Polyethylene Glycols (PEG)
Polyethylene Glycol or PEG is a known toxicant and thickening agent most commonly made from petroleum. It’s harmful to your hair as it can easily take any moisture in your hair and cause breakage. Being a toxicant, it can also damage or disrupt human development and is linked to various types of cancer.
PEGs can be identified as numbers 100, 120, 14M, 30, 32, 40, 75, and so on. It is also known to contain dioxane, which is a chemical known to cause cancer.
Triclosan is another chemical that is added to cosmetics as a preservative. It is a known endocrine disruptor. Even though it is banned from being used in soaps, it is still found in many shampoos, deodorants, and other products.
Triclosan is a known carcinogen that can have the same effects as parabens and xenoestrogens. It can lead to infertility, fetal harm, immune system issues, weight loss or gain, depression, and uncontrolled cellular reproduction. It is also known to accumulate in your fat cells and maintain toxicity in your body.
Formaldehyde is another popular carcinogen found in a variety of hair care products and is also used as a preservative. While formaldehyde is safe to use in extremely small concentrations, it can be harmful if used regularly.
It can be easily absorbed through the scalp but can also escape through the packaging and into the air which is then absorbed through the skin as shown in animal testing. This chemical can cause toxicity, cause or trigger asthma, and is linked to cancer. It can also cause eye, nasal, and throat irritation.
It is usually written as quaternium-15 on the product’s ingredient list. Aside from hair care products, this chemical can also be found in Brazilian blowouts and keratin treatments at hair salons. There are other ingredients such as Bronopol, imidazolidinyl urea, DMDM hydantoin, and Diazolidinyl urea that can release formaldehyde.
#6 Synthetic Fragrances
Fragrances in hair care products are always harmful and are never added through natural ingredients. It’s typical of big brands to completely exclude what chemicals they add to a product to get the fragrance.
However, if you see the addition of the term “fragrances” or “parfum” in any ingredients list, rest assured that the product is harmful to your scalp and hair. Hair products and cosmetics companies aren’t required by the U.S. FDA to list the chemicals for fragrances added to the product.
Almost 95 percent of fragrances contain chemicals derived from petrochemicals. Chemicals associated with fragrances can cause infertility, allergic reactions, skin irritation, hair loss, asthma, and cancer. Some chemicals can even disrupt the reproductive system. It can also cause redness, itching, hives, or dermatitis on the skin.
However, if fragrances are added using essential oils, they will be mentioned on the label of the product. Essential oils are known to provide benefits to your hair and scalp.
#7 Synthetic Colors & Dyes
Synthetic colors are also another ingredient to watch out for in hair care products. Most shampoos and conditioners contain these chemicals; however, they are extracted from petroleum or coal tar.
These chemicals can cause damage to the hair cuticles by making them susceptible to oxidative damage and can deposit toxicity on the scalp
Keep an eye out for the terms FD&C or D&C combined with some number in your product’s ingredient list. These terms indicate that the product contains synthetic colors and dyes.
Dimethicone is a form of silicone that can make your hair feel soft and smooth. However, it can completely dry out your hair if it’s used regularly.
It can also cause a build-up of gunk and chemicals in the root which can cause moisture to be blocked out and stop nutrients to reach your hair. It can also irritate or burn the scalp. The long-term build-up of gunk can also make your hair feel greasy and clog the pores on the scalp.
#9 Retinyl Palmitate
Retinyl Palmitate is the ester of retinol that is combined with palmitic acid. It is a known chemical that causes a variety of skin issues such as peeling, scaling, itching, burning, and redness and has been linked to cancer, reproductive problems, and toxicity.
#10 Sodium Chloride
Sodium chloride, also known as salt, can be found in a plethora of shampoos and conditioners. While it can make the hair thicker, salt can also dry out scalps that are sensitive and cause itchiness. This can eventually cause hair loss.
#11 Cocamide MEA, Diethanolamine (DEA), and Triethanolamine (TEA)
All of the ingredients mentioned above are used as cleaning agents and are banned by the European Commission to be used in cosmetics. They are used to stabilize the pH of hair care products. However, they are potentially carcinogenic and can cause eye irritation and common allergies.
DEA and TEA are also known to be used as emulsifiers and foam agents that are used to reduce surface tension so water and oil-soluble ingredients can mix. A study in 1998 found a link between DEA and cancer in animals, however, it is not clear of the effects on humans.
Alcohols or denatured alcohol are used as thickening agents in shampoos but sometimes they are also used as emollients. They are also added to hair products as they can help retain moisture.
While some alcohols starting with a “C” or an “S” like Cetearyl alcohol or Stearyl alcohol can be good for dry hair, alcohol names containing the term “prop”, like Isopropyl alcohol or propanol can be harmful to already dry hair.
Isopropyl alcohol can strip away oil from your scalp causing your hair to be dry and brittle. You should also keep an eye out for ethanol alcohol, ethyl alcohol, propyl alcohol, or SD alcohol in the ingredients list. Other alcohols that may be present in hair care products are alcohol denat, SD alcohol 3-A, SD alcohol 30, SD alcohol 39-B, SD alcohol 39-C, SD alcohol 40-B, and SD alcohol 40-C.
#13 Cocamidopropyl Betaine
This chemical is also used as a cleansing agent and to produce foam when you shampoo your hair. Even though it is derived from coconut oil, it can have its own negative effects on your hair. It can be found in various hair products with dimethylaminopropylamine and can cause skin irritation, allergies, rosacea, and eczema.
Toluene is a petrochemical commonly used in hair dyes, as a solvent to dissolve paint, and paint thinner. It can also be found in hair color and bleaching products.
This chemical can cause problems with the immune system and is known to cause birth defects. It can also impact your central nervous system negatively, affect the respiratory system, and irritate the skin.
Toluene is also labelled as benzene, phenylmethane, toluol, and methylbenzene.
Silicones are emollient slip agents that can lock moisture and gives the hair a temporary silky shine. However, silicones in shampoos and conditioners can create a thin, waterproof film on the hair. This film can easily dehydrate the hair which can cause the hair to weaken and cause split ends.
Silicones can bind with sebum oil produced naturally by the scalp which causes the hair to be greasy. It can make your hair feel heavy and can seal the hair cuticles preventing any moisture to penetrate the hair shaft.
Some common silicones that you can find in the ingredients list are dimethicone, Cyclomethicone, Phenyl Trimethicone, and Cyclopentasiloxane.
Phthalates are a group of chemicals often used in hairsprays to reduce the stiffness of the hair or act as binding agents in cosmetic products, including shampoos, dissolve ingredients, improve texture, and even add fragrance.
They are added to hair care products to increase the spreadability of the product and are also used in perfume so they can stick to the hair and scalp. Studies have found that phthalates can interfere with the endocrine hormones, affecting the health and quality of your hair.
Endocrine hormones are hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, cortisol, testosterone, insulin, and thyroid hormones, that can affect the hair growth cycle. Endocrine disruptors such as phthalates can also cause early puberty in girls, reduce sperm count in men, and cause reproductive and genital defects.
Some studies have also shown that exposure to this chemical may increase the risk of pregnancy loss and gestational diabetes, and can harm the kidneys, thyroid, immune system, and liver. Phthalates can also be mentioned in the ingredients list of big brand products such as DEHP or bis(2-Ethylhexyl) phthalates and fragrances.
#17 Petroleum & Mineral Oil
Both petroleum and mineral oil are derived from petrochemicals. Mineral oil is commonly used as a detangler in hair conditioners.
However, both of the ingredients are linked to nonmelanoma skin cancer due to containing extremely high levels of PAHs (polyaromatic hydrocarbons). They can also cause acne, difficulty in skin respiration, imbalance of oil levels in the scalp, and skin irritation.
#18 Coal Tar
Coal tar, just like petroleum and mineral oils, is derived from petroleum. Coal tar is often found in hair dyes, anti-dandruff shampoos, and anti-itch creams. It’s known to cause skin irritation, rashes, photosensitivity, and folliculitis.
Dyes that are derived from coal tar are used to provide coloring in cosmetics and can contain other chemicals and metals, such as an aluminum substrate. These extra chemicals are known for cancer and brain damage.
Coal tars are also known as P-phenylenediamine, C.I. (followed by a five-digit number), FD&C, or D&C (followed by a color name and number).
More Harmful Chemicals You Should Keep An Eye Out For
Some chemicals that aren’t as common but can still cause a lot of damage to your hair and your body are listed below:
- Methylisothiazolinone: Methylisothiazolinone is a known preservative used in a lot of hair products. It is linked to lung toxicity, allergic reactions, and even possible neurotoxicity.
- Hydroquinone: Hydroquinone is found in skin lightening products and hair dyes and can cause skin irritation, rashes, and photosensitivity.
- Para-Phenylenediamine (PPD): PPD is a chemical compound most commonly found in semi-permanent and permanent hair dyes bought from drugstores or salons. It reacts with the hair cuticle to open it up and allow the dye to penetrate the cortex of the hair. It is known to cause allergic reactions and increase UV sensitivity. Therefore, it should be avoided by anyone who has skin or scalp sensitivity.
- Resorcinol: Resorcinol is another common ingredient found in hair dyes and bleaching agents. It can cause skin irritation and functional disabilities of the immune system.
- Selenium Sulfide: Selenium sulfide is a known carcinogen with lab tests done on mice that show the development of tumors due to the chemical.
- Propylene Glycol: This chemical is most commonly found in almost every hair care product there is. It can act as a skin conditioning agent that creates the appearance of smooth and shiny hair. However, it can cause the hair to become brittle and skin irritation.
- PVP/VA Copolymer: This is a commonly found ingredient in hair care products. It provides the capability to hold the hair in place however, it is a known toxic chemical derived from petroleum and can cause scalp irritation and respiratory issues.
- Sodium Hydroxide: Sodium hydroxide or NaOH is used for hair straightening treatments and to adjust the acidity levels in the hair. However, it can damage the hair if used in high concentrations or at a high pH.
- Hexachlorophene: This is an antiseptic agent found in cosmetic products. It is known to cause eye and skin irritation and nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea if swallowed. It can also cause skin redness, dryness, scaling, skin swelling, and sensitivity to light.
Harmless Ingredients For Your Hair
Apart from keeping an eye out for all of the chemicals and ingredients mentioned above, the best way to get all the nutrients for your hair is to look for products that use completely natural ingredients.
A sulfate-free product or a product containing coconut oil, quaternium salts, and silicon oils can keep your hair soft, conditioned, and shiny.
You can also keep an eye out for olive oil, jojoba oil, and palm oil in your conditioners. Hydrolyzed keratin can also help repair your hair from damage.
Mango and she butter can also help provide a protective layer around the hair cuticle, and Vitamin E, Argan oil, and vitamin B5 can provide nourishment and conditioning to your hair. Other ingredients such as aloe, chamomile, organic honey, essential oils, fruit, and root extracts can go a long way to keep your hair healthy.
Tips For Healthy Hair
We can imagine how hard it must be to remember all these ingredients, let alone avoid using hair products containing the aforementioned chemicals. While you keep an eye out for these ingredients, here are some tips to keep your hair healthy if you do end up using some of them.
- Avoid chemical hair straighteners and keep your hair natural as much as possible. If you add chemical hair straighteners, make sure to cut and trim your damaged hair regularly.
- If you have to use shampoos containing sulfates, try to keep the usage limited to a month.
- Use hair gels, mousses, and creams that don’t contain propylene glycol. Isopropyl myristate is a safer alternative.
- If you’re into dyeing your hair, make sure to do it every 8 to 12 weeks instead of 4 to 6 weeks. Use touch-up sprays, hair clips, scarves, and headbands during the transition phase.
As we’ve seen, there are plenty of ingredients that companies manufacturing hair care products add into their formulae that are not safe for the human body and hair. There are legal loopholes as well that these companies use to avoid transparency with their consumers. So it’s up to us to be aware of what is in the products that we use on our hair and our bodies. Keeping that in mind, always read the labels and the ingredients list before you buy any hair care products for yourself.