UPDATED: January 2016
Around the time I first started writing this section back in 2011, I also stopped using shampoo, and was closeted “no-pooer” for a while. (You can read more about the no poo method here.) Despite the fact that my hair genuinely looks better when I’m not washing it, I can’t seem to stick with it and really miss a nice lather when I’m in the shower.
If you don’t want to skip the suds yourself, you might want to become familiar with the problematic ingredients in conventional—and many of the “natural”—shampoos on the market:
- Surfactants. All soaps and detergents need a surfactant to be effective (surfactants basically facilitate water’s ability to do its dirt-removing job). Many surfactants found in conventional shampoos–such as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), cocamidopropyl betaine, and cocamide DEA—come with environmental and human health concerns. Some natural shampoos use these questionable surfactants as well; safer surfactants include decyl glucoside and laurel glucoside. (Note: I am personally fine with SLS from a safety standpoint, but I know some of my readers are not, so I have chosen not to carry shampoos in our online store that contain this ingredient.)
- Preservatives. To extend shelf life, shampoos typically contain controversial preservatives, such as parabens, benzyl alcohol, methylisothiazolinone, and methylchloroisothiazonlinone. Click any of those hyperlinks to go to our glossary and read all the scary details about these chemicals.
- Fragrance. After my husband showers each morning, the lush, floral scent of Biolage lingers in the apartment for hours. Unfortunately, that strong smell is probably the result of phthalates, which usually hide in “fragrance” or “parfum” in a shampoo ingredients list, unless the label specifically says something like “scented with only essential oils” or “100% natural.” Phthaltes are known hormone disruptors and hard to avoid–but an easy way to slash your exposure is by avoiding scented personal care products. UPDATE: Daylon has found a natural shampoo that he loves!
- Retinyl Palmitate: Most shampoos on the market contain the probable carcinogen retinyl palmitate, which is a synthetic form of palm oil.
- Sulfates. Many of our readers ask about sulfate-free shampoos. Most shampoos contain sulfates, which are types of surfactants (see above). A “sulfate-free” shampoo probably doesn’t contain any of the three most common sulfates: Sodium laurel (SLS), sodium laureth (SLES), and ammonia laureth (ALS). Sulfates can be natural or synthetic, and aren’t necessarily bad and in and of themselves. SLES is the most concerning sulfate in my opinion, as it is often contaminated with carcinogenic 1-4, dioxane. The same concern exists to a lesser degree about ALS. To make it simple, you can rest assured that all of the Good Stuff below are sulfate-free shampoos.
The Good Stuff
The brands listed below are some of the only truly safe shampoos out there–they are free of phthalates, parabens, SLES/SLS, and toxic preservatives. The truth is that my hair looks best using the no poo method, but when I’m too lazy to deal with that, I reach for one of these guys.
Hugo Naturals shampoos are available at Whole Foods, Amazon, and a variety of natural foods stores for around $10 for 12 ounces. I find that when I use this shampoo I have to wash my hair more frequently.
John Masters provided me with samples of their shampoo and conditioner, but as always, samples don’t affect my reviews. I love John Masters products. You’ll pay $16 for an 8-ounce bottle of shampoo, and you can buy it on Amazon, as well as in select natural foods stores and salons.
Acure shampoos are available in our online store and cost $9.99 for a 8-ounce bottle. I have found that Acure provides the best lather of the natural bunch, and all of them smell delicious. I use the Moroccan Argan Oil & Stem Cell formula since my hair tends toward being dry.
I love the way Beautycounter’s shampoo smells, and it’s solid in the performance department, too. The only ingredient of concern is the sodium benzoate; it’s a food grade preservative that I don’t like in products that I use for my kids, but which I’m okay with in stuff for myself. Beautycounter shampoo has a long ingredients list, and a lot of it is not natural. That said, Beautycounter tests all their products for purity after production, and carefully researches every single thing that goes into their line.
Carina sent me some samples of their shampoo–which of course did not affect my positive review, as I don’t accept product samples that contain ingredients I consider Bad or Sneaky Stuff. I like this shampoo, although my husband wasn’t a huge fan, preferring Acure. Carina’s vegan, sulfate-free shampoo is made with organic ingredients, and unlike most shampoos—even some of those that I consider the Good Stuff—Carina’s line is 100% natural. The Extra Gentle formulation is perfect for babies and kids.
You’ll pay around $20 for a bottle of Carina Organics shampoo.
Juice Organics’ line of sulfate-free shampoos contain natural and organic ingredients, none of which rank higher than a 1 on Skin Deep.
A bottle of Juice Organics shampoo costs around $10.
People ask about Shea Moisture products all the time, and while I wouldn’t call the entire line Good Stuff, I do like their sulfate-free shampoos. These all contain organic ingredients, and not too many of them.
You’ll pay around $12 for a bottle of Shea Moisture shampoo.
(Don’t forget to scroll up now and click on the Bad Stuff and Sneaky Stuff tabs!)
The Bad Stuff
It’s interesting that the expensive brands that you might only find in a salon seem to be among the most toxic shampoos on the market.
A bottle of Frederic Fekkai shampoo, for which I religiously shelled out $30 for years (including during the beginning of my pregnancy—yikes!), contains all the usual suspects: parabens, retinyl palmitate, and fragrance (the smell was, in fact, what hooked me). It also has a couple of those nefarious preservatives I mentioned before–methylisothiazolinone and methylchloroisothiazolinone.
Bumble and Bumble, c. Booth, Phyto, Fresh, and Nexxus all make shampoos that garner a whopping 9 or 10 on Skin Deep’s toxicity scale.
The lower-end brands (Pantene, Garnier Fructis, Suave) tend to get scores of between 5 and 7 from Skin Deep, containing fragrance, methylisothiazolinone, and methylchloroisothiazolinone, among other chemicals.
The Sneaky Stuff
Alterna Hemp with Organics Repair Shampoo sounds, well, alternative, but considering it contains parabens, fragrance, retinyl palmitate, methylisothiazolinone, and methylchloroisothiazolinone, I’d say it’s pretty mainstream. It gets a 9 from Skin Deep, and the rest of Alterna’s hair products score at least a 6.
Avalon Organics line of shampoos contain benzyl alcohol and sodium benzoate. These aren’t the worst ingredients—so I would call Avalon Okay Stuff to use in a pinch…but not Good Stuff.
Aveeno Active Naturals shampoo is another case of greenwashing, since almost none of the ingredients is natural. Phenoxyethanol and cocamidopropyl betaine make an appearance on this label, but worse is the synthetic fragrance, rated a 9 out of 10 on Skin Deep.
Giovvani‘s line of haircare always looks weird to me in Whole Foods–its packaging is much more cheesy salon brand than natural brand, but the ingredients aren’t terrible. Still, none of it is organic, and it’s again got phenoxyethanol and cocamidopropyl betaine, so I still consider it Sneaky Stuff.
Jason Natural Tea Tree Scalp Normalizing Shampoo contains fragrance, retinyl palmitate, cocamidoproply betaine, and benzyl alcohol. It also packs in four more ingredients that Skin Deep considers moderately hazardous: benzyl salicylate, benzyl benzoate, lyral, and hydroxycitronellal. The rest of Jason shampoos are only slightly better, and not any safer than your average drug store brand.
Nature’s Gate Organics Organic Herbal Blends Soothing Shampoo, Tea Tree & Blue Cypress gets a 9 on Skin Deep, thanks to parabens, fragrance, PEG-150 distearate (which earns a 6 from Skin Deep), cocamidopropyl betaine, and diazolidinyl urea. The rest of Nature’s Gate shampoos score a 6 or the occasional 7 on Skin Deep.
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