Lather, rinse, repeat: Who hasn’t followed those instructions on pretty much every shampoo bottle?
And since washing your hair is an unremarkable part of your daily routine, you might not give much thought to the ingredients that give your favorite brand its color, scent or lathering properties.
The problem is that some of those ingredients have the potential to wreak havoc on your well-being. Methylparaben, dibutyl phthalate and other substances have been linked to health problems ranging from skin irritation and allergies to endocrine issues such as early puberty, infertility and endometriosis.
Hair dyes can also pose hazards. “Even when hair dyes are used as directed, harmful health effects are possible. Up to 25 different ingredients in hair dyes can cause harmful skin effects,” states the National Capital Poison Center. The group notes that while some dye ingredients have been suspected of causing cancer, “there are currently no well-done, human studies that show a definite, increased cancer risk.”
“People are attached to their products and often use them every day for long periods of time,” notes Johanna Congleton, MSPH, PhD, a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group. “When you’re applying products directly to your skin, it’s important to know what’s in them.”
Ingredient Reading 101
Janice Cox, author of Natural Beauty at Home (Holt Paperbacks), advises taking the same approach with shampoos and hair dyes that you do with food: Read the labels.
“The smaller the list of ingredients, the simpler the product,” Cox says. “If you don’t recognize the ingredients, skip the brand.”
Federal regulations require all beauty products to list ingredients on their packaging, so a quick read can help you identify any toxins.
Unfortunately, even products that seem to be safe can contain powerful chemicals, thanks to a loophole in the guidelines under which manufacturers aren’t required to list the chemicals used in listed fragrances. Congleton notes that phthalates, toxins linked to health issues such as asthma, type 2 diabetes, fertility issues and obesity, are “almost certainly” lurking in fragrances.
Fragrance-free formulations are a good option (look for “fragrance free” on the label) or read the labels for ingredients that contain natural scents like essential oils.
The Good Stuff
Sarah Berro, 25, an American expatriate living in Dubai, started seeking out shampoo alternatives to minimize her exposure to chemicals. After experimenting with multiple brands, Berro stopped using commercial shampoo on her naturally curly hair.
“I had some reservations,” she admits. “I thought my hair might look greasy or smell weird.”
Of course, ditching shampoo doesn’t mean that Berro doesn’t wash her hair.
Instead of using a traditional shampoo/conditioner combination, Berro switched to a gentle conditioner with natural cleansers. It gets rid of the sweat, dirt and smell of unwashed hair; what’s more, it contains none of the harsh chemicals (or silicon and waxes) that used to strip her hair of moisture and shine.
“I noticed a difference after one week,” Berro says. “My hair is a lot more moisturized, and it calmed down the frizz.” Best of all? “I’m not putting any toxic chemicals on my scalp.”
Ingredients are listed on a product label in quantity order, from largest to smallest. Look for formulations that include water as first ingredient followed by a natural cleanser, such as castile soap, and natural moisturizers, such as olive oil and coconut oil.
“Manufacturers often use Latin or chemical names for their ingredients,” Cox cautions. “You might have to do a bit of research to decipher what the ingredients really mean.”
For instance, sodium chloride might sound scary, but it’s simply a salt formulation that’s used to thicken shampoo. Citric acid is another example; it’s a natural fruit derivative that helps lower pH balance.
You should do the same detective work when purchasing hair dyes.
Seek out vegan offerings that don’t contain ammonia, parabens, nickel or resorcinol, and that use a very low concentration of hydrogen peroxide. Instead, look for products that use natural extracts such as aloe, birch, cinchona, echinacea, meadowfoam, rhubarb, walnut and witch hazel. And always perform a 48-hour sensitivity test on a small patch of skin first before using.
Remember, switching to natural products will take some getting used to. For example, “people spend a lot of money on really expensive shampoos that create a lot of lather and wash out in a few seconds,” says Cox. “Lather doesn’t have an impact on cleaning. You can get the same results with natural shampoo even though there is very little lather.”
Whether you’re cleaning hair or dying it, be careful about what you put on your head. “What you use to wash your hair can have a huge impact on your health,” Cox says.