Wading through the shampoo options at your local big-box store can be an exhausting endeavor. Among the bottles in every shade of the rainbow lurk ingredients that could potentially cause harm to you or your family. But how do you know which ones those are? And how can you make sure you throw an all-natural shampoo in your basket? It’s enough to make you want to pull your hair out (and thus negate the need to wash it!).

Beware Deceptive Labeling

If you’re concerned about healthier options for your hair care, you’re likely drawn to all-natural brands. The labels on these shampoos promise natural ingredients that are healthier than the leading brands, but how can we be sure what is actually in the bottle? Unfortunately, the answer is a little disturbing. The problem with finding better personal care products is that the cosmetics industry is largely unregulated. There is no one making sure that there aren’t toxic chemicals in our shampoo, conditioner, and other products. The words herbal, natural, and organic don’t have any legal definition, which means that any personal care brand can make these claims about their product without having to provide any proof.

Want more information about the personal care product industry and the concerns about it? Watch The Story of Cosmetics and the documentary Stink!

Does the shampoo aisle confuse you? You're not alone. Photo credit: Radu Bercan / Shutterstock.com
Does the shampoo aisle confuse you? You’re not alone. Photo credit: Radu Bercan / Shutterstock.com

Ingredients of Concern

Start by avoiding ingredients that are known to be harmful. The nonpartisan Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment, has compiled a list of ingredients of concern that are known to cause negative human health effects. In fact, many of the listed ingredients (there are 112 pages of them) are banned in the European Union, Canada, and Japan. It’s interesting to note that U.S. companies that sell products on the global market are able to comply with these standards, but some continue to offer products with the worrisome ingredients in the U.S.

Here are just a few worth knowing about:

  • Parabens: According to Gimme the Good Stuff, an online resource for conscious moms and healthy kids, these “notorious and ubiquitous preservatives are found in nearly every type of cosmetic. Parabens mimic estrogen and are implicated in breast cancer, though no causal relationship has been established. On labels, parabens will show up as benzylparaben, butylparaben, ethylparaben, isobutylparaben, isopropylparaben, methylparaben and/or propylparaben.”
  • Fragrance: In a category all by itself is “fragrance.” Federal law doesn’t require companies to list on product labels any of the chemicals in their fragrance mixture. Recent research from EWG and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found an average of 14 chemicals in 17 name-brand fragrance products, none of them listed on the label. Fragrances can contain hormone disruptors and are among the top five allergens in the world.
  • Phthalates: This is a chemical that acts as a lubricant and is primarily used in plastics and many cosmetics. It has been linked to early puberty, autism, obesity, and birth defects. Phthalates are being phased out of children’s products in the U.S. and have been restricted in Europe since the 1990s due to a growing collection of studies that are shining a light on concerns associated with this chemical. Unfortunately, you won’t usually find phthalates listed separately on a label because they are one of many ingredients in the product’s “fragrance.”

View the EWG’s Unacceptable List in its entirety.

Hair Care Help

The EWG brings us a glimmer of hope. They have compiled a database, EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, which rates products based on their ingredients. You can go to the database, enter a product name, and find out whether it poses a low, moderate, or high hazard to your health.

EWG has recently taken the invaluable information they provide in their database a step further by offering companies a way to be transparent via their EWG Verified mark. EWG Verified products can’t contain any of the ingredients listed in the aforementioned Unacceptable List and must meet all of EWG’s rigorous criteria. The mark is valid for three years, after which time the product must go through the verification process again.

Make Smart Choices

Now that you’re armed with some ways to make better decisions regarding your personal care products, here are some additional things you can do to find a truly all-natural shampoo:

  • The ultimate way to know what ingredients are in your shampoo is to make your own. There are so many recipes out there depending on your hair type and scent preferences; this DIY dry shampoo tutorial is great for anyone whose tresses need a little pick-me-up in between washings.
  • Find shampoos that are EWG Verified or check to see how a product is rated by EWG’s Skin Deep.
  • Avoid “fragrance” in all your personal care products.
  • Read labels from brands you trust. I’m a big fan of Dr. Bronner’s Citrus Organic Hair Rinse because the company lists and explains all the ingredients they use.

Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock.com

By Wendy Gabriel

Wendy Gabriel is a freelance eco-writer based in California. Wendy's work has been featured in numerous publications and websites, including the Chicago Sun-Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Fox Business News and Mashable.com. For nearly six years, she was a weekly contributor on a popular radio talk show in the Upper Midwest with a segment titled “Simple Tips for Green Living.”