Learn about common ingredients and contact a licensed professional for advice
Look at the back of your shampoo bottle, and what do you see? A list of ingredients that, more often than not, seems to be in a different language. But what do all the confusing terms mean?
- Detergents or surfactants—These primary ingredients remove dirt, oil, styling products, and skin scales from your hair and scalp. Common ingredients performing this purpose are sodium laureth sulfate and sodium laurel sulfate, TEA lauryl sulfate, ammonium laureth sulfate, ammonium lauryl sulfate, DEA lauryl sulfate, and sodium olefin sulfonate.
- Conditioners—These substances help hair feel soft and smooth once the detergents have done their job. Common conditioning ingredients include hydrolyzed silk and animal protein, glycerin, dimethicone, simethicone, polyvinylpyrrolidone, propylene glycol, stearal-konium chloride, and trichoptilosis.
- Thickeners—Thickening agents don’t have any effect on your hair: They’re just there to make the shampoo look and feel better to consumers. Thickeners include glycol distearate, salt (sodium chloride), and PEG-150 distearate (polyethylene glycol).
- Preservatives—Typical preservatives in shampoos include sodium benzoate, parabens, tetrasodium EDTA (ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid), methylisothiazolinone, or MIT and Quaternium-15. These ingredients help prevent fungal and microbial contamination of the shampoo before and after opening the bottle.
- Sequestering agents—Sequestering agents like polyphosphates and ethylenediaminetetra-acetic acid are used to remove any of the detergents’ remaining soap scum.
Other shampoo substances include fragrances, opacifiers (which, like thickeners, are just there to make shampoo look more attractive), and specialty additives.
While these chemical-based terms can look intimidating and even a bit concerning, shampoo products are by and large very safe to use. However, be aware that some shampoo ingredients currently are getting another look—or even are being phased out—by many companies, including:
- Parabens—These preservatives are xenoestrogens, which means that they have a similar composition to hormones found in the human body. Xenoestrogens are thought to disrupt hormones and could even pose a cancer risk.
- Sulfates—While sulfates are effective detergents, they, like parabens, may carry some hormone-disrupting agents in the form of dioxane, a known carcinogen.
- Polyethylene glycol—This thickener may interfere with human development and is also known to be contaminated with dioxane, in a manner similar to sulfates.
CONTACT A LICENSED PROFESSIONAL
So what’s a consumer to do to break through the ingredient jargon and ensure shampoos are both safe and effective? You can make your own, or, for expert insight, contact a professional licensed by the Department of Consumer Affairs’ Board of Barbering and Cosmetology to find out what shampoo is right for you; check a professional’s license at https://search.dca.ca.gov.