This sort of research + opinion article is all very theoretical. A lot of it is up for interpretation. The source you consume from needs to align with your personal values. I’ve done my best to explain my stance + list my sources.
Ingredients in red rank high on the Environmental Working Groups substance list as toxic, I would personally avoid them. Underlined ingredients rank low.
- Surfactants: They grab the oily/dirt material from the surface of the hair, allowing it to be washed away by water, therefore making this the important – cleansing ingredient.
- AVOID: Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate, Lauramine Oxide, Sodium Coco Sulfate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Sodium Dodecylbenzenesulfonate, Laureth-6, Laureth-7, Alcohol Ethyoxylates (C10-12, C9-11, C10-16, Linear), Sodium Dodecylbenzenesulfonate. You’ll notice most of the avoid category has to do with “sulfates”. It’s a good rule of thumb to just avoid any ingredient with “sulfate” in it, though there are a few exceptions.
- BETTER ALTERNATIVES: Decyl Glucoside (non-ionic), Coco Glucoside (non-ionic), Caprylyl Glucoside (non-ionic), Lauryl Glucoside (non-ionic)
- GOLD STANDARD: Saponified Oils
- Foaming Agents: Create the glorious lather that leads you to believe your hair is being cleaned. Unfortunately, the amount of lather / foam / bubbles is not indicative to the cleaning power of the shampoo in the slightest sense. Foaming agents are actually not necessary for performance of shampoo, but they can act as a thickener in some instances.
- Thickeners: For liquid shampoos, viscosity is often increased to make use easier + waste less (imagine squirting a liquid shampoo into your palm + it being the consistency of water). Bar shampoos do not need thickeners. Liquid shampoos can be placed in a pump container + pumped directly onto the scalp, if you’d like to avoid this ingredient as well.
- AVOID: Pthalates
- Conditioners: Sometimes added directly into the shampoo because some surfactants are so harsh / drying that these are necessary. If you have a dry scalp, dry hair – you may seek out a shampoo with conditioning (moisturizing) attributes. A typical conditioning additive is a silicone, most ingredients that fall under the spectrum of “silicone” have the affix -cone. It’s important to note that these ingredients don’t generally penetrate the hair, but sit on the outside to improve feel + reduce static cling. Look for conditioning agents in the form of natural butters or oils.
- Fragrance, Colorants, Dyes: Completely unnecessary for performance. Smelling clean does not mean your hair is actually clean. Seek Organic Essential Oils as the GOLD STANDARD for added scent if it is a necessity for you + you do not have sensitive skin. If you have dyed hair + you tone it at home with a purple shampoo, I’m unaware of a non-toxic ingredient to replace this at-home treatment.
- Preservatives: Added to increase shelf stability + microbe growth.
- AVOID: Formaldehyde, Parabens, Hexachlorophene
- GOLD STANDARD: Vitamin E (Tocopherol), Grapefruit Seed Oil
- Others: Modifiers are added to “improve” certain characteristics such as the pearlescent look some brands have; this is not necessary for performance. There are some modifiers that aid with the issue of hard water, though a softener is a better fix. pH balancers like citric acid are added to adjust pH to allow for the shampoo to do its best work. Sequestering agents can be added to reduce build-up on the hair follicle.
Shampoo Adders for Specific Hair Issues / Types
The ingredients below will be marked Gold Standard or “Better”. I’ve completely left out any toxic options in this section.
- Hair Loss / Thinning Hair
- Niacin (5): Could possibly aid with this due to improved circulation increasing the flow of nutrients to the hair follicle
- Lavender Essential Oil (6): Found to be effective in Mice; significantly increasing hair follicle number, dermal thickness and hair follicle depth
- Peppermint Essential Oil (7): Found to be effective in Mice; significantly increasing dermal thickness, follicle number, and follicle depth.
- Histadine (8): An amino acid found to absorb excess copper in hair, leading to less UV damage.
- Curly Hair: Avoid sulfates at all costs, as they are excessively drying + will lend to frizz. The curlier the hair, the heavier on the moisturizing ingredients you need to go.
- Glycerin (9, 10): Draws moisture from the air, the hair then retains it.
- Keratin (Be very picky with Keratin, as a treatment it’s often not divulged that Formaldehyde is paired with it)
- Oils + Butters: Shea Butter, Jojoba Seed Oil (not hydrogenated), Coconut Oil (not fractionated), Abyssinian Seed Oil, Grapeseed Oil, Blackseed Oil, Sunflower Oil, Argan Oil,
- Be careful not to confuse any of the above for a chemically processed version of the whole food ingredients. If it’s fractionated, hydrogenated, followed by a number or “PEG” it is likely a more toxic choice.
- Straight Hair: Seeking Volume
- Proteins create fullness: Rice Starch, Corn Starch,
- Keratin: Hydrolyzed or the amino acid
- Oils + Vitamins: Coconut Oil, Soybean Oil, Sweet Almond Oil, Sunflower Oil, Vitamins B5 (Panthenol), C (Ascorbic Acid), E (Tocopherol or Extract)
- Hair Breakage
- Rice Water (11) is historically known to increase hair strength + length
- Dyed or Dry Hair: Looking for mild surfactants + lots of added conditioners. Look for oils, as named above, and Glycerin
- Dandruff: Tea Tree Oil, Apple Cider Vinegar, Sodium Bicarbonate (Baking Soda), Mustard Seed Extract, Epsom Salt. These are all Natural Remedies, none of the fungicides in medical grade shampoos are anywhere near Gold Standard, so you may not have a “better” or non-toxic option – it may warrant personal research. Some other natural remedies people have had success with are: adding fermented foods to their diet + taking cold showers, oil of oregano capsules.
Is my shampoo “green-washed” or is it actually safer per the guidelines set forth above?
Here are a few brand breakdowns for commonly used shampoos that were submitted to me via Instagram as thought to be non-toxic / “clean”. In order of most used per that survey:
- Acure: Looking at a number of their products, they include Sodium Hydroxide, which is a big no-no for me unless it’s being used for saponification. This ingredient receives the worst ranking on EWG due to evidence of skin irritation/allergies/damage; respiratory effects; damage to vision. The products that don’t include this ingredient include a slew of “middle-of-the-line” ingredients that aren’t necessarily great. As always, if there’s a better option – is it worth the risk?
- Shea Moisture: I couldn’t go through every single shampoo they offer, but I saw a common theme of “middle-of-the-line” ingredients. It appears they are a smidge better than Acure, but some offerings still have poor ingredient choices per the EWG, like Sodium Phytate. They also have a slew of newer ingredients with zero research. If you are going to use this shampoo, I’d suggest their shampoo bars or baby shampoo, but neither make my “better list”.
- Young Living: I was surprised to see Sodium Phytate among their ingredient list and a slew of “middle-of-the-line” ingredients. I also found PEG-8 Dimethicone and a Pthalate in their volumizing option, which is surprising and a big no from me. Their KidScents line uses Cetyl Betaine, which is a “middle-of-the-line” ingredient I may be okay with in adult shampoos, but not children’s. Same with their Seedlings line for babies, Glyceryl Caprylate has possible links to developmental/endocrine/reproductive effects. It also contains other ingredients with no info, which may be fine for adults, but I’d personally not be okay with that for my baby.
- Honest Co.: Inspecting the ingredients in their Purely Sensitive, Fragrance Free Baby option (I assume this to be the cleanest) – I found a “middle-of-the-line” ingredient I’d be okay with in adult shampoo: Capryl Glycol, but not a baby shampoo.
- Innersense: Only finding a few (two to be exact: Sodium Lauroyl Methyl Isethionate, Potassium Sorbate), possibly worrisome ingredients – I’d say their Hydrating Cream Hairbath is a great option for the “better” list. Their color shampoo and Pure Harmony options have a few too many “questionables”, for me.
- Beautycounter: Some “middle-of-the-line” ingredients, nothing horrible: Sodium Lauroyl Methyl Isethionate, Glyceryl Caprylate, Tetrasodium Glutamate Diacetate. Too many though for my “better” list in comparison to the other available options.
- Arbonne: Their True Hair Daily shampoo was looking pretty good until I ran across Sodium Hydroxide among a couple of questionable ingredients. Their baby shampoo has a few middle-of-the-line ingredients and some without info, I’d personally not use this on my baby.
Some other brands I’d personally not use: Tubby Todd for babies, Aveda, Navy Hair Care, Briogeo, Andalou, Function Of, Hello Bello, Monat, HiBar, Ethique, ThinkBaby Shampoo for babies, Original Sprout, Fairy Tales, Prose, Derma-E, Trader Joe’s Tea Tree Tingle, Mustela, Lush, Alpine Provisions, Love Beauty and Planet (“coming soon” for online ingredient list…), dōTERRA, Puracy
The “Gold Standard” for Non-Toxic:
These are brands I would personally buy for my family (including babies/children):
- Camamu (All Options): My #1 pick for a few reasons. This shampoo bar is cost-effective, great for air travel, fully bio-degradable, vegan, gluten-free and all natural. I keep mine in a glass jar with some stones in the bottom to allow it to dry out between uses. They have options for strengthening hair, promoting growth, dandruff, soothing/gentle options, deep conditioning, a baby option that soothes cradle cap + even one to help with lice. TASHA15 will get you 15% off on their website. Their customer service is something I’ve never experienced before; if you have questions, they have answers.
- Dr. Alkaitis Organic Herbal Shampoo: Deeply hydrating, gentle cleansing – encourages hair growth (All hair types)
- Living Libations Seabuckthorn Shampoo: For all hair types
- Yarok Feed Your Volume Shampoo
- Alaffia (A Few Options):
- Real Purity Chamomile Shampoo (For Oily Hair): Only option not containing Potassium Sorbate, all others fall under the “better” list.
- Christina Moss Naturals Original Hair Shampoo: Certified Organic
- Under Luna (All Options)
For Baby? Dr. Bronners 4-in-1 Organic Sugar Soap
What if I’m not ready for “Gold Standard”, what’s a “better” option? :
These options are likely more similar in the way you use them, to big commercial brands. I would not use these for babies/children. These are in order of cleanest per my opinion:
- Alaffia (All Other Options): Baobab Baby has Cetyl Alcohol, which is why it’s not a Gold Standard. The rest utilize Coco Betaine, which isn’t an awful ingredient by any means, but there are other options.
- Bottle None be YOU Shampoo Bar: Great option for sustainability, only cautious ingredients is the cetyl alcohol.
- Real Purity: All options not already on the Gold Standard list above. Most contain Potassium Sorbate and Silica, which there are safer options for.
- Yarok Feed Your Moisture Shampoo
- Naples Soap Company Unscented Shampoo Bar: They utilize Sodium Coco-Sulfate, not the best option.
- Suds & Co: Their shampoo bars utilize Sodium Coco-Sulfate as the surfactant, which is not the best option out there.
- Attitude Living: They utilize Sodium Coco-Sulfate as their surfactant, but regardless are EWG verified. It’s a middle-of-the-line surfactant, could definitely be better. There are a few other “could be better” ingredients, but this is a great option though outside of that – their entire line.
- Rahua Classic and Color Full Shampoo: Contains Coco Betaine and Potassium Sorbate – two ingredients that could be better, but is still better than most!
- Norwex Lysere Daily Hair Shampoo
For Baby? Pipette Fragrance-Free: The only thing keeping this from the Gold Standard list is an unknown ingredient.
Helpful Tips For Purchase
- Avoid Sulfates as a general rule, though all are not equal in terms of safety.
- “Free and Clear” is often a big misnomer / green-washing phrase in my opinion (so I don’t get sued), pay close attention to those ingredients.
- Don’t wholeheartedly rely on apps / websites such as Think Dirty or EWG, as demonstrated above – some higher ranking options have some scary ingredients.
- “Plant-Derived” is not necessarily a good thing + often a big misnomer / green-washing phrase in my opinion (so I don’t get sued), pay close attention to those ingredients.
- “Coco” or “Coca” in the ingredient list followed by “Derived from coconuts” is misleading + eludes to a natural ingredient, most coconut derived ingredients are on my personal toxic list – this is not a hard fast rule, though.
- Baby shampoo does not automatically mean clean. In fact, it’s often far from it per the criteria above.