Personal care products, including shampoo, are a multi billion dollar industry.  Each company is trying to seduce you into choosing their products, promising beauty and stronger, shinier, healthier hair.  These products are advertised using glitzy packaging and beautiful and often famous women.  But beware, as there are thousands of chemicals used in personal care products and shampoo that can be harmful to your health.  Testing is not required by the US government.  Even products labelled as “natural” can contain toxic chemicals, and “organic” does not have any meaning in personal care products.

If you really understood how toxic many of the ingredients in your shampoo are, would you pay more attention to what you use?  Many of these chemicals can affect your hormones, damage your liver, kidneys, and lungs, cause skin and eye irritation, potentially cause cancer, and more.

The most common toxic ingredients in shampoo

  • Phthalates

This group of chemical are known as “plasticizers” because they are used to soften plastic. They have many uses and are now found in many places.  They are in shampoo indirectly from leaching from the plastic container.  They are also added directly to help fragrances last longer and as viscosity, gelling,  emulsifying, and suspending agents.  They are rarely listed as ingredients, as it is not required.  The two most common are Diethyl Phthalate (DEP) and Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP).  Many phthalates disrupt your endocrine system.  This affects the reproductive development of our children and the sexual function of both women and men.  Phthalates are associated with liver, kidney and lung damage and are classified as possible carcinogens.

  • Sodium Laurel Sulfate

This is a detergent, used to bind oil and dirt so they can be rinsed away.  Common detergents in shampoos include sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, ammonium lauryl sulfate, ammonium laureth sulfate, and others.   Detergents also produce the foam consumers have come to expect.  However, these ingredients can irritate your skin and eyes, even causing sores on your scalp.  They damage your hair follicles and may cause hair loss.  They are so strong that they strip your hair of its natural, protective moisture.  Furthermore, they are also potential carcinogens.

  • Triethanolamine

Another detergent found in shampoo is Triethanolamine (TEA). It can cause eye irritation as well as dry hair and skin. TEA is restricted in Europe because of possible carcinogenic effects. Possible increased risk of kidney or liver cancer may be associated with long-term absorption of TEA into the skin.

  • Formaldehyde

Dead bodies in your shampoo? Formaldehyde is best known for its use in embalming dead bodies.  In shampoo it is used as a preservative and disinfectant.  It can cause damage to your DNA, contribute to hair loss, and is a possible carcinogen.  Formaldehyde is formed from preservatives in shampoos–DMDM hydantoin methylparaben, sodium benzoate and imidazolidinyl urea.  This is particularly true of infant shampoo, so beware.

  • Fragrances

Manufacturers often add synthetic and artificial scents to cover the smell of chemicals in the product.  The simple word “fragrance” can hide the presence of up to 4,000 different chemicals, including acetone and formaldehyde.  Most chemical scents are derived from petroleum and these compounds are capable of causing cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions.  Even those originally derived from natural sources can be dangerous.  Fragrance chemicals can cause skin irritation, scalp sores and harm your immune system.

  • Colors

That attention grabbing color may make a product unique and memorable.  But you should avoid these synthetic chemicals, as many of them may increase your risk of cancer.  They are also suspected of affecting the nervous system, such as with hyperactivity and attention disorders.  Colors are noted on your shampoo’s ingredient list as D&C or FD&C, followed by a color and number. For example, it may read: “FD&C Red No. 6.”

  • Penetration Enhancers

These ingredients chemically alter the structure of the hair to allow chemical moisturizers to penetrate the hair shaft.  Absorption enhancers include propylene glycol, ammonium glycolate, disodium EDTA and lecithin.  Unfortunately, they may also allow harmful chemicals to penetrate more easily through your skin and into your body.  These ingredients often also function as moisturizers or preservatives. They may cause long-term damage to your skin and hair, because they allow chemicals to penetrate where they normally would not. They may cause dryness, sores, rashes and an overall feeling of pain or itchiness.

  • Methylchloroisothiazolinone and Methylisothiazolinone

Manufacturers add methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI) and methylisothiazolinone (MIT) as biocides and preservatives.  They are used in shampoo to kill fungi and bacteria and extend the shampoo’s shelf life.  They may be toxic to your skin, nervous system, immune system, and other organs and may be carcinogenic.  Their use is either restricted or prohibited in many countries like Japan and Canada, though they are widely used in the United States

  • Diethanolamine

DEA or diethanolamine is a wetting, foaming and emulsifying agent.  Look for lauramide DEA or cocamide DEA on the label.  DEA is harmful when mixed with other chemicals and ingredients commonly found in personal care products. Carcinogenic compounds are created, called NDEA or nitrosodiethanolamine.  NDEA is absorbed through the skin and can be damaging and carcinogenic to the stomach, esophagus, liver, kidneys and bladder.

What should you do?

Choose the least toxic shampoo and conditioner that you can find.  You may have to change your expectations of foaming, thickness, color and fragrance. Shampoos that do not foam well can clean just fine.  Consumers have come to expect shampoo to be thick, and equate it with richness.  However, shampoos that are thinner may actually be more effective.

Consider that everything you put on your skin should be safe enough to eat.  The skin is highly absorptive and what you put on it will potentially end up inside of you.  Also, these chemicals end up in our waterways, and then we are exposed again through our drinking and shower water.

Visit the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep cosmetics database to see what toxic ingredients may be in your favorite shampoo.

Terrestials has put together an excellent list of common shampoo ingredients: Ingredients Reference Guide.

Bright Earth Soap Nut Shampoo

The Bright Earth soap nut shampoo is made without toxic chemicals. It contains beneficial probiotic microbes, which may help protect the scalp and hair. Natural fermentation is used to extract the saponins which help clean the hair without harsh and toxic detergents. It does not contain any of the toxins discussed above, it is made from plant-based ingredients, it is naturally pH balanced, and is biodegradable.

Bright Earth is one of the most natural shampoos currently on the market.