Harmful Chemicals in Shampoo

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Eco-coaching clients often ask me about personal care products, wanting to know which ones I buy for my family. Shampoos, conditioners, and cleansers are awash in synthetic and chemical ingredients. Yet most Americans continue to use them, buying these products in their local drug store. Do yourself a favor—break this habit.

Personal care products are among the least regulated consumer products sold in the U.S. (along with nutritional supplements, interestingly). Thanks to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, it’s easy to discover which products contain certain worrisome ingredients. Their database www.cosmeticsdatabase.com ranks products according to well-researched safety criteria. I’ve used this unique, valuable reference for many years; if you’re up for spring cupboard cleaning there’s no better place to start.

Many big-name companies don’t disclose all the ingredients in their moisturizers, cosmetics, etc. due to “proprietary trade secrets.” This concerns and disappoints me. When it comes to health, be your own well-informed advocate. Grandma was right—it’s better to choose products with fewer ingredients.

Another tip: look for as many certified organically sourced ingredients as possible. When reading labels, remember that the first ingredient listed is present in the product in the largest amount.

So you really want to know what’s in those sweet-smelling shampoos and body washes?

TOP 10 Ingredients to AVOID

1 & 2) Sodium Laurel Sulfate (SLS) & Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) Along with their chemical cousins, these are in just about every conventional commercial shampoo and body wash. The scientific jury is still out on whether these irritating detergents cause endocrine disruption; however several known carcinogens are by-products of their processing, 1,4 dioxane and nitrosamine.

3, 4 & 5) Parabens: methlyparaben, propylparaben, & ethylparaben are preservatives. They’re also likely hormone disruptors and environmental/potential human carcinogens. Avoid them.

6) Phthalates (fragrance). If your shampoo or body wash says ‘fragrance’ on it, it may contain these dangerous plasticizers. Yes, the same ones recently removed from baby bottles because of health concerns. These chemicals are immune system toxicants, and impact the reproductive system.

7) Formaldehyde. Formaldhyde often forms in processing or in use, and masquerades on labels as other named preservatives; doazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, quarternium-15. Reactions include allergies and neurotoxicity.

8) Toluene. An industrial solvent and VOC found in almost all nail polish and some hair coloring. Yuk!

9) Ethanolamines (diethanolamine/DEA, triethanolamine/TEA & monoethanolamine/MEA). These chemicals are emulsifiers and foaming agents, potentially toxic, and easily absorbed by the skin. They can cause liver and kidney damage, especially with repeated use. Avoid even the coconut-derived cocamide DEA/MEA, and lauramide DEA.

10) Propylene glycol. A key ingredient in brake fluid and antifreeze (not recommended for the skin).

So, what to use instead? I’m not out to endorse brands (or risk litigation), but next time I’ll post safe, effective personal care product ingredients that have been around for a long time. They help you look good while keeping the Earth green. Until then—enjoy the good green life.

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March 2023