Buying a shampoo can be a difficult task. Not only do you want your shampoo to leave your hair feeling clean, and looking healthier, softer and shinier, you also want to ensure it doesn’t contain any chemicals that may be doing more harm than good.

We are becoming more conscious about the ingredients that are in our cosmetic products and shampoo is something most of us use regularly so it’s important to understand common chemicals, what they are used for and their potential dangers.

Having an understanding of these ingredients may help you when it comes to choosing the best shampoo for your locks.


Sulfates are chemical foaming agents used in shampoo to help clean the dirt and oils out of your hair. The two most common sulfates are sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium dodecyl sulfate.

At low concentrations, sulfates are considered safe but there is some research to suggest that higher doses strip away the hair’s natural oils and proteins, and also cause damage to hair cells.

A 2005 study found that hair soaked in sodium dodecyl sulfate lost 7x more protein compared to hair soaked in water. This can lead to more split ends and breakage (1).

Some people are also allergic to sulfates and exposure to these chemicals can cause severe dermatitis, inflammation of the skin, or rashes.


Parabens are artificial preservatives commonly found in cosmetic products, particularly those that contain a lot of water, like shampoo. They are added to stop the growth of bacteria and mold to increase product shelf life.

Parabens can disrupt hormones, harm fertility, decrease birth rates, and increase the risk of certain types of cancer, such as breast cancer. They can harm female reproductive development and decrease sperm production and testosterone in men. They are also skin irritants (2).

The more products you use that contain parabens, the more likely you are to experience negative side effects. A 2006 study found parabens in all urine samples taken from US adults (3). They can accumulate in the fat tissue over time. It is best to avoid any products that contain parabens, including shampoo. 


Silicones are a class of ingredient that can lock in moisture in hair, acting almost as a raincoat for your hair. But, the problem is that after a while they also prevent any moisturizers from penetrating your hair, leaving it dry, dull, and flat.

Most silicones are not water soluble, so they can be difficult to wash out once they are in your hair. You will need to use a product with a strong surfactant to remove the silicone, which can further dry out hair.


Alcohol is a broad term for many different but similar substances, so a blanket statement about alcohol as an ingredient cannot be made. Some alcohols, like ethanol, are drying and can strip hair of natural moisture. Other alcohols, like cetyl alcohol, can add moisture to hair and make it shiny.

An alcohol-based shampoo can help the hair dry faster or stretch out your time between blow outs so, if your hair is naturally oily or you use a lot of hair products, an alcohol-based shampoo may work for you. However, if you have dry hair, it can make it brittle and increase static, particularly in the winter.

Using a shampoo that contains alcohol or not depends on your specific needs. Most shampoos do not contain the most drying types of short-chain alcohols, like ethanol. These are usually found in other hair care products like hair spray.

Synthetic Fragrances

Artificial or synthetic fragrances are chemicals created in a lab to mimic a particular smell. Most are made from modifying petroleum oil. Some of these chemicals can penetrate the scalp, can build up in the body, and act as endocrine disruptors (4).

Some fragrances can dry out the hair or scalp. They can cause skin irritation or allergic reactions. It is best to avoid products with synthetic fragrances all together.


Formaldehyde is a strong smelling chemical used to make a variety of products, from furniture to cosmetics. It acts as a preservative, so that products don’t go bad. This helps extend shelf life and prevent contamination by bacteria or fungus. 

Gas is the most dangerous form of formaldehyde, but you still don’t want it in your shampoo. It has been linked to cancer and skin irritation (5). It can build up over time and cause health problems. 

Mineral Oils

Mineral oil is a substance made from petroleum, similar to petroleum jelly. It can accumulate in the body’s tissues. There is some evidence that it may cause cancer, but mostly in people who have been exposed to high levels of mineral oils on the job (6).

As far as its use in shampoo, mineral oil can stop the body’s own natural moisturizing process, leading to a dry, flaky scalp. It can also clog the hair follicles, preventing hair growth. Since it clogs the follicles, it can also stop the skin from detoxifying naturally.

In Summary

These are just some of the ingredients you should be wary of when choosing a shampoo. Luckily, there are plenty of shampoos that use natural, non-toxic and organic ingredients so now might be a good time to switch things up.

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