Truth is, many of us are washing our hair with dirty shampoo… even when we’re spending a small fortune on high-end products from the salon. Yep! No matter the price, nearly all the shampoos at the supermarket, the mall — and even the fancy pants salons — are filled with nasty chemicals.
In fact, many commercial shampoos don’t have a single natural ingredient in them — they are 0% all-natural and 100% all-chemical. Or if they do tout natural ingredients on the label, they are typically at the bottom of the ingredients list, which means there isn’t much of them — just enough to market them on the front of the label. Bummer.
But worry not! With so many cleaner shampoos available these days, it’s easy to skip the bad stuff and swap it out for the good. I mean the “truly” good, which doesn’t have to mean “break the bank” good.
Health food stores and online are your best bet. But don’t assume that just because a brand is carried by a certain store or says “all-natural” on the bottle, that it’s ok. Always read the ingredients label.
Here are a few easy tips on what ingredients to avoid and what to look for in their place.
Common ingredients to avoid
- Sulfates can cause rashes, allergic reactions and severe irritation to the eyes.
- Cocamidopropyl betaine (or coco-betain) is derived from coconut oil and often found in coconut-based shampoos. It is known to cause allergies, as well as skin and eye irritation.
- Parabens are a family of chemical preservatives that mimic the natural estrogen in our body and can interfere with reproductive functions. They have also been found in human breast cancer tissues.
- MEA, DEA and TEA help to blend oil and water in shampoo and liquid soaps. These synthetic ingredients can irritate the eyes, skin and respiratory tract and may increase the incidence of tumor growth in the liver. They also make hair dry and brittle.
- PEG thickens shampoo and helps it to penetrate the hair. But PEG strips the hair and scalp of their natural moisture and is often contaminated with known carcinogens. PEG and its less harmful alternative (notice I didn’t say “healthy alternative”) PG are known skin and eye irritants.
- Fragrance/parfum is a mix of hundreds (often thousands) of unknown synthetic ingredients that are not required to be listed on the label. Synthetic fragrances are also a common source of phthalates, which are known endocrine disruptors and may cause damage to the liver, kidneys, and lungs. Synthetic fragrances can also cause or contribute to allergic skin reactions, asthma, headaches and dizziness.
- Artificial colors are often made from coal tar, which is a known carcinogen. Avoid labels that list D&C or FD&C colors as an ingredient.
- Alcohol does a great job of cutting through oil, but it can strip your hair of moisture, leaving it frizzy and damaged. Alcohol is difficult to avoid entirely, because it is found in nearly every commercial shampoo, including many natural shampoos. If you can’t avoid it entirely, make sure it isn’t listed as one of the first four ingredients.
Natural Shampoo Alternatives
Let’s break down the alternatives in terms of the ingredients that clean and soften your hair, as well as what naturally preserves, tints, and scents the shampoo.
Natural cleansers (surfactants)
Natural surfactants cleanse and nourish your hair and scalp without irritation and without stripping your hair’s natural oils. They may not lather up as chemical surfactants do, but they are just as effective in cleaning your hair.
Look for natural cleansers such as coconut oil**, soapwort, soap bark, soap berry, yucca, horse chestnut, soap lily, and buffaloberry. (** Look for actual coconut oil, not “derived from coconut oil“.)
Good to know
A strong lather makes us think a shampoo or soap is doing a good job, because that’s what TV commercials and magazine ads have told us. Don’t believe the hype!
In reality, the lather serves absolutely, positively ZERO purpose in actually cleaning your hair or body. Its ONLY purpose is to look good in pictures and help marketers to sell their product.
Natural preservatives will extend the shelf life of your shampoo, though not indefinitely. Seeing an expiration date on natural products is a good sign the ingredients are truly 100% natural. To help extend the life of your natural shampoos, refrigerate them until you’re ready to use them.
The most common natural(ish) preservatives I see in shampoo are citric acid or alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E). They’re not the worst options out there, but just so you are aware, they do often come from genetically modified (GMO) sources.
I prefer natural preservatives with a higher vibe. If you do too, then look for ingredients such as tea tree oil, thyme oil, rosemary oil, cinnamon bark extract, turmeric oil, honey, or salt.
Natural softeners, emulsifiers & thickeners
- Look for natural emollients such as olive oil, argan oil, aloe vera, shea butter, coconut oil, avocado oil, or jojoba oil.
- Natural emulsifiers are safe and non-irritating. Look for lecithin*, beeswax or candelilla wax.
- Look for natural thickeners such as xanthan gum or guar guar gum.
Natural scents & colors
- Look for natural scents from essential oils such as lavender, ylang ylang, lemon, peppermint, vanilla, chamomile, or rose.
- You may not care if your natural shampoos looks like brewed tea, but your kid’s shampoo may need some added fun. Natural colors can come from a variety of plant and herbal extracts including beets, carrots, grapes, berries, pomegranates, and turmeric.
The (Nearly) Inevitable Compromise
It can be difficult to find the right shampoo that is completely free of synthetics, mainly because fruits, herbs and other plant-based ingredients don’t last forever on a store’s shelves and are more expensive than their chemical alternatives.
The absolute best way to ensure a completely natural shampoo is to make it yourself. Refrigerate the larger bottle and keep just a few days worth in the shower at a time.
The second best way is to buy homemade shampoos online or from your local farmer’s market — though do still ask about the ingredients.
When you can’t avoid synthetics altogether, aim for shampoos that:
- Do not include any of the harsh ingredients listed above
- Have as few synthetic ingredients as possible
- List fruits, roots or other botanicals as at least the first 3 to 4 ingredients
- Freely disclose their ingredients
Good To Know
Shampoo bars are a solid alternative (“solid”, get it? ha!) to chemical ingredients in shampoo and are what we used to wash our hair before liquid soaps were invented (which was around WWII, in case you’re curious). It takes some time for hair to adjust to producing its own oils again, but users swear by the results.
Added benefits: Shampoo bars are more economical than liquid shampoo, lasting at least twice as long. They typically have minimal to no packaging, so they’re a great plastic-free alternative. And since they contain no water, you don’t have to take your shampoo bar out for airport security.
Natural Living Guide
Find practical tips & natural alternatives to the everyday chemicals that invade our lives.