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Avoid These 12 Ingredients in Your Shampoo

Do you have a minute or two? Grab your shampoo and take a look at the ingredients. Do you spot any of the ingredients listed below?

Did you know that what you put on your skin (and on your hair) gets absorbed into your body, much like what you put in your mouth! That is why it is so important to do your due diligence into the products you use - you might be surprised at what you find in the ingredient list...and not in a "good surprise" way.
There's good news though! Gone are the days where you had to pick between ethical, cleaner, less toxic products, and high-quality, strong performing hair products. You can have both! You just have to know what to look for (5 Fab Cruelty-Free Shampoos That Work), and more importantly, what to avoid.
The following are 12 ingredients that you should try to avoid, followed by their toxicity rating by Environmental Working Group (EWG). (EWG's Skin Deep database is a great place to to find out what's in your beauty products and their toxicity levels.)


1. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)

Sulfates are surfactants which are compounds that lower the surface tension between two liquids in this case, oil and water. One end of the molecule clings to the oily dirt, while the other clings to water. They are used to lift the grease and grime off your skin and hair, dissolve it into solution and then rinse everything down the drain. They are powerful, inexpensive, and are responsible for the foaming lather we've come to associate with being clean. The most common sulfates are Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES). 

Most standard shampoos rely on sulfates to de-grease your hair. However, at the same time, they over-strip and dehydrate your biome, lift the cuticle of your hair and leave a negative electrostatic charge on both the hair and scalp. As a result, your natural protective oils and peptides are removed and can’t protect you from moisture loss, bacteria imbalances and exposure. The lifted cuticle weakens the structure of your hair and causes dryness, frizz and color fade. And the negatively charged residue attracts more dirt, product buildup and environmental contaminants.

EWG Score: 1-2

2. Parabens

Parabens are a group of synthetic compounds commonly used as preservatives in a wide range of health, beauty and personal care products. If you see methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben or isobutylparaben as an ingredient, it has parabens.

These ingredients are added to deodorants, toothpastes, shampoos, conditioners, body lotions and makeups, among other products, to stop the growth of fungus, bacteria and other potentially damaging microbes. 

While individual products may contain limited amounts of parabens within safe limits set by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), cumulative exposure to the chemicals from several different products could be overloading our bodies and contributing to a wide range of health problems.

“Of greatest concern is that parabens are known to disrupt hormone function, an effect that is linked to increased risk of breast cancer and reproductive toxicity,” reports the non-profit Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC).

EWG Score: 1-8 (varies)

EWG Score: 3

3. Diethanolamine (DEA)

DEA (diethanolamine) is a “wetting” agent and is primarily used in shampoos and lotions to provide a lathering effect. It can also be found in brake fluid, degreasers and antifreeze. This chemical is not too harmful on its own, but it can react negatively with other chemicals in products and can create a very potent carcinogen called nitrosodiethanolamine (NDEA), which is readily absorbed through the skin and has been linked with stomach, esophagus, liver and bladder cancers. 

EWG Score: 10 

4. Triethanolamine (TEA)

Its main purpose is to balance the pH level of products, but it also helps to emulsify ingredients that usually do not blend well. This ensures they spread smoothly on skin and hair and prolongs shelf-life. Additionally, Triethanolamine is sometimes used as a foaming agent and adds fragrance to products.

Triethanolamine can be found in up to 40% of beauty items currently on the market. These include perfumes and other fragrances, hair products, shower gel, shaving creams and gels, skin creams and lotions, eye serums, skin cleansers and makeup.

While federal regulations allow small doses of Triethanolamine in beauty and personal care items, they have proved hazardous short term and long term effects ranging from skin and eye irritation, to damaging the respiratory and immune systems and being linked to cancer.

EWG Score: 5

5. Dimethicone

Dimethicone is a silicone oil, that makes products easily spreadable, and achieves that feeling of the lotion or cream gliding over your skin. Dimethicone also helps form a protective barrier on the skin, and can fill in the fine lines and wrinkles on the face.

Like petroleum products, silicone oils can actually make dry skin worse over time. Instead of sinking into skin and nourishing it from the inside out, like healthy ingredients do, it forms a barrier on the outside of the skin. This barrier traps everything under it—including bacteria, sebum, and impurities—which could lead to increased breakouts and blackheads. It also prevents the skin from performing its normal activities—like sweating, temperature regulating, sloughing off dead skin cells, etc. Prolonged exposure to dimethicone can actually increase skin irritation, due to the coating property and because dimethicone is listed as a possible skin and eye irritant and can cause an allergic reaction for those with sensitive or reactive skin. Dimethicone is also a non-biodegradable chemical, so it is bad for the environment

EWG Score: 3

6. Formaldehyde

According to data from the federal Food and Drug Administration, nearly 1 in 5 cosmetic products contains a substance that generates formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen, as a form of preservative. It is also known to be a respiratory irritant that can causes chest pain, shortness of breath, coughing, and nose and throat irritation.

Cosmetics companies generally don’t use pure formaldehyde, but instead use what they call “preservative systems”, that employ any one of several chemicals, called “formaldehyde releasers,” such as:  

DMDM hydantoin
Imidazolidinyl urea
Diazolidinyl urea
Bronopol (2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol )

A safer substitute for this ingredient is sodium benzoate.

EWG Score: 6-10

7. Polyethylene Glycols (PEG)

PEGs are petroleum-based compounds that are widely used in cosmetics as thickeners, solvents, softeners, and moisture-carriers. They help balance pH levels in products, moisturize, thicken products and encourage skin penetration.

Manufacturers use PEGs to help their products absorb deeply into skin to increase their effectiveness. While the product itself may penetrate the skin more easily with PEGs, so will the chemicals that PEGs may contain, such as ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane. 

8. Retinyl Palmitate

Retinyl palmitate is considered to be a gentler, milder form of vitamin A. A combination of retinol and palmitic acid, it has been found in studies to be an effective antioxidant. The skin must first convert it to retinol, then retinoic acid, for it to have the same anti-aging effects, so higher concentrations are used to stimulate skin repair.

A study in 2005 by U.S. government scientists suggests that retinyl palmitate may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight.

EWG Score: 9

9. Synthetic Fragrances

Many products list “fragrance” on the label, but very few name the specific ingredients that make up a “fragrance.” This lack of disclosure prevents consumers from knowing the full list of ingredients in their products. While most fragrance chemicals are not disclosed, we do know that some are linked to serious health problems such as cancer, reproductive and developmental toxicity, allergies and sensitivities.

EWG Score: 8 

10. Synthetic Colors

Artificial colors and dyes are chemical additives that change the shade of soaps, lotions, shower gels, face creams, shampoos, styling products, and more. These dyes are often made up from a variety of synthetic chemicals. You can find dozens of chemicals in a single dye, making it difficult to know exactly what you’re exposing your body to. 

EWG Score: Varies

11. Triclosan

Triclosan is an ingredient added to many consumer products intended to reduce or prevent bacterial contamination. 

It is an endocrine disruptor, meaning it interferes with important hormone functions, which can directly affect the brain in addition to our immune and reproductive systems. Specifically, the chemical disturbs thyroid, testosterone, and estrogen regulation, which can create a host of issues including early puberty, poor sperm quality, infertility, obesity, and cancer. Studies have also shown it can lead to impaired learning and memory, exacerbate allergies, and weaken muscle function. The impacts of prolonged exposure during fetal development, infancy, and childhood can be particularly severe, resulting in permanent damage.

Some short-term animal studies have shown that exposure to high doses of triclosan is associated with a decrease in the levels of some thyroid hormones. Other studies have raised the possibility that exposure to triclosan contributes to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

EWG Score: 7 

12. Alcohol

Skincare and makeup products often use a drying type of alcohol such as SD alcohol, denatured alcohol, or ispropyl alcohol. These types of alcohols give products a quick-drying finish, immediately de-grease skin, and feel weightless on skin, which makes them popular in skincare products.

When you see these names of alcohol listed among the first six ingredients on an ingredient label, it should be a warning that the product will probably aggravate your skin. Consequences include dryness, erosion of the surface of skin , and a strain on how skin replenishes, renews, and rejuvenates itself. 

There are other types of alcohols, which include cetyl, stearyl, and cetearyl alcohol, known as fatty alcohols, which are non-irritating and can be beneficial for skin. These are good ingredients for dry skin, and in small amounts are fine for any skin type as they give a pleasing texture and help keep ingredients stable in products.

EWG Score: 2-5

This is a great place to start in beginning to detoxify your beauty routine. For a more thorough list of ingredients you probably don't want on your skin, check out our banned ingredient list!

You won't find any of them in any of the products on our site so you can shop happy and confident that what you're looking at is free of harsh chemicals.

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