Why Natural Shampoo and Conditioner is a Healthy Choice

From allergens to endocrine disrupters and carcinogens, hair care products are a chemical cocktail of toxins and contaminants. Using a natural shampoo and conditioner can keep your hair looking great while protecting your health.

Why Shampoos and Conditioners are so Toxic

When you look at the individual chemicals in shampoo and conditioners, most are only moderately hazardous. Plus the amounts of the chemicals used in these products are monitored by the FDA. I believe, though, that there are still plenty of health reasons to switch to natural shampoos and conditioners.

What ups the ante are the mixtures of chemicals (synergy), the number of products they are found in (multiple and additive effect) and the processing of these chemicals (contamination). According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR):

“People are exposed to thousands of chemicals in different combinations every day in the home, the environment, and the workplace. Some of these chemicals have similar mechanisms of action or affect the same organ or tissue, so interactions between these chemicals are possible.”


Chemicals are tested for safety individually, not in combination with other chemicals. So synergy, when the combined action of two things is greater than the sum of their effects individually (1 + 1 > 2), is not taken into account when testing the safety of chemicals.

An example of synergy is the reaction of Cocamide DEA with some preservatives in personal care products. This reaction results in the formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines.

Multiple Exposures 

So you use shampoo, conditioner, and styling products. Maybe you dye your hair. Then there’s your skin cleansing routine. Although the amount of each chemical in a product that you use is considered safe, the same toxins are found in many types of products. So you may be exposed to the same chemical many times in one day, adding up to levels that are above safe limits.

Additive Effect

Exposure to similar chemicals in many different products can have an additive effect. Greenfacts.org defines the additive effect as the overall consequence which is the result of two chemicals acting together and which is the simple sum of the effects of the chemicals acting independently.

An example of the additive effect would be the presence of different endocrine disrupting chemicals in the same product or in several products that you use.

Contamination Toxins

Additional toxins that don’t appear on the product labels can end up in shampoos and conditioners through contamination. Contaminates are toxic residues left behind from the manufacturing process.

For example, sodium laurel sulfate is too harsh to use on skin so companies use the carcinogen ethylene oxide to turn it into sodium laureth sulfate. The process, called ethoxylation, creates the contaminant 1,4-dioxane, which is a probable carcinogen. 1,4-dioxane is an impurity in almost half of all cosmetics and can be absorbed through the skin in toxic amounts.

Toxic Ingredients to Avoid

How many of these ingredients are in the personal care products you currently use?

1. Propylparaben

Parabens are used to kill bacteria in food and personal care products.

Health Effects

Endocrine disruption, cancer, reproductive toxicity, immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity and skin irritation.

Check the label for: anything ending in paraben.

2. Coal Tar

Coal tar is a complex chemical mixture derived from burning coal. (Yes, you read that right). It includes a number of suspected and known carcinogens, such as benzene, toluene, and naphthalene.

Coal tar is found in shampoos and scalp treatments, soap, hair dyes, and lotions.

Health Effects

Known carcinogen

Check the label for: Coal tar, tar, coal, coal tar solution, crude coal tar, estar, impervotar, KC 261, lavatar, picis carbonis, naphtha, high solvent naphtha, naphtha distillate, benzin B70, petroleum ben

3. Anything that ends in Urea like Diazolidinyl Urea:

Used as a preservative that works by forming formaldehyde in cosmetic products.

Health Effects

Formaldehyde releaser – carcinogen

Check the label for: anything that ends in urea.

4. Retinyl Palmitate:

Used as a skin conditioner.

Health Effects

 “ When exposed to UV light, retinol compounds break down and produce toxic free radicals that can damage DNA and cause gene mutations, a precursor to cancer. Recently available data from an FDA study indicate that retinyl palmitate, when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight, may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions.” (Environmental Working Group).

Check label for: Vitamin A Palmitate, Retinyl Palmitate

5. Diethanolamine (DEA) and Triethanolamine (TEA).

Used as foaming agents in shampoos, soaps and body washes.

Health Effects

Possible carcinogen

Synergistic - combines with other chemicals to create carcinogenic nitrosamines.

Check labels for: ingredients that end in DEA or TEA (example- Cocamide DEA)

6. PEG/ PPG-18/ 18 Dimethicone

Used as a foaming agent and an emulsifying agent.

Health Effects

Moderately hazardous combination of polyethylene glycol (PEG)-polypropylene glycol (PPG) and dimethicone.

Contamination - 1,4-dioxane (a probable carcinogen).

Check labels for:  sodium laureth sulfate, PEG compounds, PPG and chemicals that include the clauses xynol, ceteareth and oleth.

7. Fragrance

There is an estimated 4,000 plus separate ingredients that can make up a fragrance.

Health Effects

Fragrance is an undisclosed chemical mixture so health effects unknown. Some fragrance ingredients are linked to allergies, asthma, and endocrine disruption.

What to look for on the label - fragrance. (I've seen products labeled as fragrance-free that have fragrance on the ingredient list).

Natural Shampoo and Conditioner

I have a very simple hair care routine because I long ago gave up on making my hair do anything it didn’t want to do. I grew up in the 70’s. The decade of stick straight, long hair parted in the middle. My hair is thick, curly and often frizzy. Peer pressure got the best of me and I tried really hard to tame my hair to the trend.

Back then if you wanted straight hair you had to literally iron it, not with a flat iron but with an actual iron. Then there were the gigantic soup-can curlers. I tried it all to no avail. Five minutes outside on a humid day and I was right back at square one. Now I’m a wash and go girl. 

My favorite natural shampoo comes in a bar. I started using shampoo bars years ago when I was making my own soap. I would whip up bars full of nourishing oils for my dry hair. Now I buy good homemade soap to use as shampoo. Other bar options I like are A Soap for Goodness Sake and J.R. Liggett Bar Shampoos.

I found that I don’t have to wash my hair as much and don’t always need to use conditioner with shampoo bars. But if you can’t wrap your head around using soap to wash your hair there are other great natural shampoo and conditioner options.

Hugo Naturals offers a non toxic line of shampoo and conditioners at reasonable prices. I’ve used their conditioners but haven’t tried their shampoos. If you use styling products, Pureology offers natural shampoos, conditioners and styling products.

If have dandruff, non toxic hair products will help alleviate the problem by restoring your scalp's natural oils and pH balance. Try natural shampoos and conditioners with coconut oil or tea tree oil. Or add several drops of tea tree oil to your shampoo. There are also some natural dandruff remedies you can try that will help restore balance to your scalp.

With all the natural shampoo and conditioner options available today, it is so easy to avoid this source of toxin exposure. So give some non toxic hair products a try. I think you'll be surprised at how great your hair will look.

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