What are the most potentially harmful ingredients in conventional shampoo?

The marriage between modern science and commerce has produced some beautiful children over the years. For example, space rockets, segways and Michael Jackson. But of course science and capitalism have also produced some weird children too. That’s right, we’re looking at you, cosmetics industry.

Over the last 100 years or so big companies have enlisted the help of the best geeks to produce products that make our lips more luscious, the angle of our cheekbones more acute, and of course our hair more vibrant. Because these scientists have also been instructed to keep costs low, eventually society has ended up with a whole bunch of chemicals that may do all of the above, but at considerable risk to our health. In other words: while they were focusing on the cosmetic aspects, some health concerns may have fallen by the wayside. Below is a brief overview of two of the most worrying ingredients found in your shampoo.

Sulfate self-hate

Sulfates are a frothing ingredient found in many cosmetics and cleaning materials. They will usually be listed as SLS (sodium lauryl sulfate), sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), or ammonium laureth sulfate (ALS) — all words worth at least 35 points in scrabble. Basically, they are used to dislodge dirt and oil from your hair.

SLS and ALS are both considered anionic surfactants but are quite different in their molecular structures. ALS is much larger which means that it’s less likely to penetrate your pores. SLS, on the other hand, is the chemical that often gets written about because it is small enough to literally get under your skin and possibly cause irritation, reddening and erythema of the epidermis.

In America the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has required that manufacturers carry a warning label about the dangers of swallowing too much toothpaste (which contains SLS) because of the risk of diarrhea. Also, some studies have shown that SLS has been linked to irritation of the skin and eyes, organ toxicity, developmental/reproductive toxicity, neurotoxicity, endocrine disruption, ecotoxicology, and biochemical or cellular changes.

To be fair, when it comes to toxicity you have to keep dosage and exposure in mind. After all, high concentrations of cinnamon oil would be toxic on your skin. A shampoo containing 15 percent SLS can be sold to the public because it generally comes into contact with your skin for just a few minutes and is diluted by water. Still, these levels are broadly determined with the average person in mind. The fact that you’re reading this probably means that you have had some kind of negative reactions on your skin as a result of using conventional products, which means you have reason to be more cautious than most.

Parabens bans

Parabens belong to the family of esters of para-hydroxybenzoic acid. There are all sorts of technical names for the various kinds, such as methylparaben (E218), ethylparaben (E214), propylparaben (E216) and butylparaben, which are the most common. They are antibacterial and antifungal agents, which is why they are used as preservatives. They can even be found naturally in food such as strawberries or peaches, as well as in the human body.

Like sulphates the toxicity of industrially produced parabens depends on the degree to which you are exposed to them. Though each product typically stays within government stipulated limits, it becomes harder to track the cumulative effect of these products given that they are found in so many products. In other words: Using one manufacturer’s products won’t be very problematic. Using many different ones over a lifetime could start to add up.

Parabens are worrying because they tend to disrupt hormone function, an effect which some have linked to breast cancer and reproductive toxicity, according to the NGO Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC). Parabens function as estrogen mimics. That means your body perceives an increase of estrogen levels which is said to trigger a more rapid division of breast cells. It must be said that new research suggests that the link between parabens and cancer is inconclusive. But this is not just a matter scientific “he said, she said”. At the end of the day, the risk parabens pose is so severe that in 2014 the EU banned five specific parabens from being used commercially.

Bottom line

There probably isn’t a mass conspiracy to give you cancer through your shampoo. Regulators are very careful about the concentration of chemicals that they allow you to get exposed to. At the same time, specifically sulphates and parabens have made their way into so much of our everyday products that the cumulative effect is beginning to be problem — especially when it comes to a product that some literally use every day. Fortunately there are a number of natural alternatives that clean you well without incurring unnecessary risks.

So what are the safe alternatives? Well yes, this is the part where we make a shameless promotion of our products because they are safe, natural alternatives. Have a read about them here, or first read on about the wonders of natural alternatives.