What is in Shampoo that’s so harmful to your hair?

We have all heard it time and time again, to skip the shampooing in order to keep natural oils on your head. We’ve heard sulfates are enemies, and sulfate-free shampoos are becoming more and more popular. But is skipping the suds really useful? What is in Shampoo that’s harmful to your hair and what should we try and avoid?

Why are sulfates in hair products so bad?

Start with what a sulfate is: they produce the lather in a variety of beauty products and they are detergents. (They are commonly found in shampoo, soaps and body washes).

A sulfate is what breaks up the grease and oil in one’s hair, and rinses it away. Sulfates have become so hated in shampoos because they remove natural oils, dirt and hair product residue, and can be harsh on skin, strip color and make your hair dry.

Sulfate-free products are better for people with sensitive skin. It is a common misconception that switching to a sulfate-free product will change your hair completely, but all shampoos strip the hair of natural oils, which leaves your hair drier than before. The reason many have adopted the no-shampoo method is because it adds moisture (especially to curly and long hair) and it keeps the hair overall healthier.

A common misconception is that sulfates are proven to cause cancer, but there is no direct correlation to cancer or any other health problems.

Some shampoo ingredients to avoid:

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate:

They change the surface tension of water using negatively charged ions and it allows dirt and oil to stick to the cleanser before washing away. These are sulfates, which cause the shampoo to foam up. They are harsh on your hair and both sodium and ammonium lauryl sulfates cause skin and eye irritation. They are harsh chemicals, and can dry your hair too much which leads to damage and breakage.

Fragrance: (or “parfum”):

These are harsh chemicals in many shampooos that are made to resemble a natural smell. The term “fragrance” or “parfum” can indicate up to 4,000 different chemical ingredients. Acetone (nail polish remover) and Formaldehyde (a tissue preservative), ethanol, and alcohol are some of the chemical ingredients involved. All of these chemicals strip your hair of natural oils and cause damage to the hair folicle.

Propylene Glycol:

This allows the ingredients in the shampoo to penetrate into your hair shaft. It makes hair look and feel healthier at first, but after repeated and continuous use it can damage the strucutre of the hair folicle and hair overtime. (This same chemical is industrially used as anti-freeze in cars). The chemical is a petroleum by-product and cosmetic and industrial propylene glycol don’t differ all that much.

DEA – Diethanolamine, MEA and TEA

They help with the lathering effect and is used alongside other compounds such as Cocamide DEA or Lauramide DEA. It is a chemical that when combined forms nitrates and nitrosamines. When a DEA-based detergent is repeatedly applied, it can result in a major increase in liver or kidney failures.

Polyethelyne Glycol (PEG, polyethelyne, polyoxyethelyne)

It is a thickening agent that strips hair and skin of its natural moisture. It also contains 1,4 dioxane which causes liver and kidney damage according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. It can also irritate the eyes and nose of people inhaling it in the shower.

Butylated Hydroxytoluene:

It is used as a preservative, and keeps the shampoo from spoiling or losing its color, but it is a skin and eye irritant.

Stearalkonium Chloride:

Used as a conditioning agent, which started as a clothing fabric softener, causes toxic allergic reactions on people when exposed to your scalp.

Coal Tar:

This is used to treat scalp problems such as dandruff, and although the evidence is not proven, the Northwestern Health Sciences University warns that it increases your risks of cancer. (European Union has restricted its use in over-the-counter shampoo since 2004).

Sodium Chloride:

It is also known as table salt, and is used as a thickener in shampoos and conditioners that contain sodium lauryl sulfate. It is a contributing factor to eye irratation and also causes dry and itchy scalp. Salt may also cause hair loss.

Artificial Colors:

A shampoo may add colors by the use of syntethic coloring, and the Organic Consumers Association says you should avoid these colors at all costs. They may raise your risks of contracting various forms of cancer, and are noted on your shampoo’s ingredient list as D&C or FD&C and followed by both a color and a numer. (Ex.: FD&C Red No. 3).


This is added to a shampoo to kill fungi and bacteria to help preserve the shelf life of the product. It may be toxic for your skin and immune system and the Environmental Working Group says it has been linked to organ system toxicity and may cause cancer. (Many countries like Japan and Canada have banned and restricted the use, but it’s widely used in the U.S.).

Salicylic Acid:

It a common ingredient in anti-dandruff shampoos and it is a potentially dangerous with side effects including dizziness and difficulty breathing. There are more mild and more common side-effects which include a stinging feeling on your scalp and/or rashes.


These are generally added to shampoos to help protect your hair from ultraviolet rays and unfortunately they may accumulate on your skin over time, acting as an endocrine disrupter.

The listing on the back of the shampoo bottles may seem hard to navigate, but with the knowledge of what’s harmful for you can help making your choices easier. Certain shampoo ingredients are obviously more desirable than others. It should be obvious that parabens, phthalates, propylene glycol, butyl/ethyl acetate are all shampoo and cosmetic ingredients one should avoid. These chemicals are absorbed not only into one’s hair, but into the bloodstream.

Here’s a small list of safe shampoo ingredients that give your hair a healthy clean shine without the chemical hazards.

USDA Certified Organic Ingredients:

The USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) certifies that food products meet rigid chemical-free standards before being deemed as organic. Many of these organic products become ingredients in natural shampoos, and these are recommended because your hair products should be as healthy as the food we eat because they are absorbed into the skin. They contain safe ingredients such as sunflower or an olive oil base, with natural colors, grapes or beet juice and natural essential oil fragrances.

Plant Extracts:

These are free from chemical processing agents, which cause allergic reactions or contain possible cancer related problems. Plant extracts include: gingko, aloe vera, sage, and grape seeds to encourage hair’s growth. The extracts of sage, rosemary, thyme and garlic are used as anti-dandruff treatments.


Falls under two categories: detergents and soaps. Detergents are synethic and chemical-based products, and soaps are made from vegetable oils or animal fats. Organic shampoos feature soaps rather than detergents. Coconut oil, olive oil, sunflower oil and beef fat are all viable ingredients in organic shampoos.


Glycerin is a natural byproduct of soapmaking, and many manufactures just include in as a moisturizing ingredient. The same oils used to make the cleanser may be used to add moisture as well — olive oil, jojjoba oil, goat’s milk, honey and hemp seed oil.

It is important to feed your hair naturally because your overall hair and scalp health is at stake here. If you want to grow stronger and healthier hair it doesn’t matter how clean you keep it… if you’re using the wrong shampoo ingredients than it can be harmful. Stay educated.