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  • Writer's pictureKat

What Chemicals Are Lurking In Your Hair Products?

How many times have you stood in the shower, glancing at the ingredients on your shampoo bottle, and actually knew what you were reading? When it comes to food, it's important to know what we put in our bodies. But it's just as important to know what we put on our bodies.

I want to use these weird times we are in to educate. As human beings and consumers, we have a responsibility to take care of our bodies and the environment in which we thrive. You only have one body (unless you're a body snatcher) and one planet (unless you're a space martian), and a little knowledge can go a long way. Now more than ever it is apparent that some things are completely out of our control, but if we take the right steps we can create a healthier world.

SO, let's chat about hair.

Most of us cannot get a haircut right now. Our roots are growing, our ends are splitting, it's a hair-tastrophe. I think it's safe to say most of us have no clue what those chemicals listed on our shampoo bottles really are. So let's break down some of the important ones that you should know about.


  • What they are: synthetic chemicals derived from a naturally occurring chemical, PHBA.

  • What they do: Parabens are preservatives added to products to extend their shelf life. They can effect hormones and the reproductive system (in women and men) because parabens act like estrogen in the body - they have been linked to breast cancer. On top of the harm parabens can cause to our bodies, they have also been found in marine life (no doubt from entering the water via our shower drains).

  • What to look for: propylparaben, butylparaben, benzylparaben, methylparaben, anything with "paraben" in the name.

  • Conclusion: Check your labels and avoid this.


  • What it is: a chemical derived from petroleum and used in many products, from building materials and pesticides, products?

  • What it does: You guessed it, if you're morbid like me (and study death science recreationally) then you know formaldehyde is an ingredient in embalming fluid. It is used as a preservative, and is an irritant and can cause cancer when exposed to high levels. But wait, there's more. There are some preservatives that are "formaldehyde-releasers" meaning they release formaldehyde over time.

  • What to look for: formaldehyde, ethylene oxide, DMDM hydantoin, quaternium-15, glyoxal, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, polyoxymethylene urea, methylene glycol, bromopol.

  • Conclusion: Check your labels and avoid this.

polyethylene glycol (PEG)

  • What is it: a synthetic petrochemical made of a mixture of compounds.

  • What it does: PEGs act as emulsifiers and soften hair. They can be found in styling products, hair dyes, and a lot of other beauty products. The issue is that PEGs can contain ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane which are known carcinogens - aka they cause cancer.

  • What to look for: polyethylene glycol, PEG, PEG is sometimes followed by a number.

  • Conclusion: Check your labels and avoid this.

cocamide DEA/cocamide MEA

  • What they are: cocamide diethanolamine (DEA) and cocamide monoethanolamine (MEA); chemicals made using coconut oils.

  • What they do: they are foaming agents and stabilizers, contributing to that foamy lather. Just because coconut oil is involved does not mean it is good for you - the end result is a carcinogen.

  • What to look for: cocamide DEA, cocamide MEA, lauramide DEA, linoleamide MEA, oleamide DEA, stereamide MEA, TEA lauryl-sulfate, DEA-cetyl phosphate

  • Conclusion: Check your labels and avoid this.


  • What they are: a cleaning agent; a surfactant.

  • What they do: These chemicals act like a detergent and are added to products like shampoo to create that nice lather that makes you feel squeaky clean. They are derived from petroleum and coconut or palm oil. They strip your hair of dirt and oil, however they also strip the good natural oils and can dry your hair out. They are known irritants and may not be good for those with sensitive skin.

  • What to look for: sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, sodium myreth sulfate, ammonium lauryl sulfate, ammonium laureth sulfate, TEA-lauryl sulfate, (things ending in -ate are a good tip off).

  • Conclusion: Not necessarily dangerous to our health, but could be damaging to hair, so find what works best for your hair-type.


  • What it is: a silicone.

  • What it does: This and other silicones are added to shampoo to lock moisture in and give that nice silky shine. Though it locks moisture in, it also can lock moisture out. Dimethicone is not water-soluble so it may also cause buildup on your hair over time, weighing it down and causing damage in the long run.

  • What to look for: Dimethicone, cetearyl methicone, stearyl dimethicone, dimethiconol, and phenyl trimethicone. Honestly look for anything ending in "-cone."

  • Conclusion: Not necessarily dangerous to our health, but could be damaging to hair, so find what works best for your hair-type.

sodium chloride

  • What is it: table salt.

  • What it does: It is added to shampoo to thicken it. However, it can be an irritant and can dry out your hair and scalp. Sodium chloride can damage hair, strip it of oils and even of it's color. This will undo keratin treatments as well.

  • What to look for: sodium chloride

  • Conclusion: Not necessarily dangerous to our health, but could be damaging to hair, so find what works best for your hair-type.

Should you use natural hair products?

Natural products do not contain these harsh and potentially dangerous chemicals, and are therefore much more gentle on your hair. There is a lot of controversy and studies circulating about these chemicals and additives, and if they really pose a threat to our health, but I personally would like to come in contact with as few dangerous chemicals as possible. This may not be everyone's view, and honestly, people with different hair types may have different results! It really comes down to what you are comfortable with. Make informed decisions.

Please note that even natural hair products have a list of ingredients that look like a bunch of similar chemicals. The importance is in knowing what ones to avoid, and understanding that some of these chemicals are much more mild, gentle, natural, and safe for long term use.

If you decide to switch to natural shampoos and conditioners, please know there is going to be a transition period. After years and years of all the product buildup, your hair needs time to adjust to this new routine. Your hair may seem extra greasy because your head is overcompensating with natural oils. Or your hair may seem extra dry. It's basically going through a detox. Give it some time with these natural products - and if you're stuck in quarantine, NOW IS THE TIME! No one will see you and think you haven't showered in weeks (hey, maybe you haven't).

So next time you are buying hair products, keep an eye out for some of these hidden nasties and don't forget to make sure it's certified vegan and cruelty free too! Check out these brands below:

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