Most of wash us our hair daily, and apply liberal quantities of shampoo, conditioner and other hair products without giving them a moment’s thought as we seek to achieve that look only trained beauticians seem to be able to nail.
A look at the ingredients labels on those products, however, might come as quite a shock, as most contain a long list of chemicals with quite alarming names. Many well-known products contain ingredients such as phthalates and sodium lauryl sulphate, added by manufacturers as an inexpensive way to treat common hair care issues. Over a long period, however, these chemicals can actually do more harm than good, leaving hair dried out and brittle.
The chemicals in these products could actually be doing even more harm than simply damaging your hair. Many of these ingredients have been linked to other health issues such as eye problems, skin conditions and cancer. The problem is so serious that it has prompted the CEO of Breast Cancer UK, Lynn Ladbrook, to voice concerns about the widespread use of such ingredients within the hair care industry.
It’s not just our own health that is at risk from these chemicals, as they cause significant pollution issues, once washed down the plughole.
Consumers need to educate themselves, in order to make informed choices about the products they use and support hairdressers that are looking to deal with this issue head-on (no pun intended). This guide should help identify the chemicals to avoid, and the healthier alternatives that are available.
Avoiding harmful chemicals
The ingredients listed on shampoos and other products are deemed by the authorities to be safe, at the levels used in the products. However, legislation varies from country to country, and new restrictions are introduced all the time, pushing some chemicals from the “safe” list to the “banned” list.
Whilst not exhaustive, the following list covers some of the key chemicals commonly found in hair care products that could be cause for concern.
Parabens are added to products to extend their lifespan. However, a number of parabens have been linked to breast cancer and other conditions, and some have already been banned by the EU for use in toiletries and personal care products. Check labels for butylparaben, propylparaben, heptylparaben, methylparaben and ethylparaben.
Sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulphate (SLES) are routinely found in many shampoos. They’re used because they are inexpensive and produce a good lather. However, consumers might not be so keen to use their regular shampoo if they knew that these sulphates were so powerful that they were also used in washing powder and for automotive degreasing.
SLS works by removing the natural oils from hair. This sounds ideal for greasy hair, but in fact, it can either dry your hair out too much, or cause even more oil to be produced. It can also cause eye irritation and exacerbate skin conditions like psoriasis or eczema. Switching to a shampoo that is free of sulphates could really help sufferers of these conditions. Bear in mind too, that every time you shampoo your hair, you’re sending these harmful chemicals out into our rivers and watercourses, where they can do untold damage to marine life.
Added to toiletries and cosmetics as solvents and to prevent fragrances from fading, phthalates are, quite literally, everywhere, from shampoo to plastics. The range of health issues that phthalates have been linked to is a long one, and it includes ADHD, asthma, cancer and birth defects. To avoid them, look for products that are described as “phthalate-free”.
Used as an agent to help other ingredients combine properly, isopropyl alcohol can actually dry out your hair, because it is so harsh. It can also cause skin complaints.
Most of us have heard of this chemical, as it’s used to preserve dead bodies. Incredible as it seems, formaldehyde is also a common ingredient in many toiletries. It can cause allergies and skin irritations, and has even been linked to a heightened risk of cancer.
Whilst it isn’t as bad as some of the other chemicals listed in this guide, propylene glycol can still cause skin and eye irritation.
Switching to natural alternatives
Trying to avoid these chemicals by checking the labels on regular brand shampoos would be a thankless task, and it’s not as simple as just switching to products marked as “natural”, since there is very little regulation on using terms like this. However, the brands referenced below are all ethical producers of toiletries and cosmetics that are free of harmful chemicals.
Celebrating 20 years in business this year, Green People is a British brand that produces a range of shampoos and other products. Try the Intensive Repair shampoo, to get your hair back in shape.
Aussie brand, Jason, specialises in hair care products. Super Shine Apricot is a popular choice, for a light, healthy shine.
Faith in Nature
This Manchester-based firm has been in business for over 30 years, creating a range of natural skin care and hair care products. Their Lavender and Geranium range has won awards, and justly so.
Heavily based on natural plant extracts, Organic Surge’s products are great for problem hair, such as frizzy or dry locks.
One of the more well-known names on the list, Weleda has been making natural products for almost a century.
For dandruff or dry, itchy scalp conditions, try Avalon’s Tea Tree Scalp Treatment for a fast-acting solution.
Using Ayurvedic recipes and natural ingredients, Saach Organics has built a solid reputation for quality hair care products. Try the Hair Strengthening Shampoo and the Nourishment Conditioner, to see a real difference in your hair.
Of course, producing natural, environmentally-friendly products usually goes hand in hand with having high ethical standards. All of the brands listed above are also committed to preventing animal cruelty, and they produce products that are suitable for vegetarians. To check on a product’s cruelty-free status, visit the Leaping Bunny website, which lists all products that have been certified as cruelty-free.
It’s easy to think that choosing natural hair care products is all there is to it, but that’s not the case, as some natural ingredients have a serious environmental impact. Palm oil, for example, is considered a natural product, but its widespread use has resulted in vast areas of tropical rainforest being felled, to make way for palm oil production.
Another environmental concern is the amount of plastic needed to produce so many hair and skin care products. It’s estimated that over 35 million plastic bottles are used each day in the UK, with many of them heading straight to landfill. Currently, the global recycling rate for plastic packaging stands at just 14%. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation suggests that this could rise to 70%, if consumers, manufacturers and governments all played their part.
As well as recycling as much plastic as possible, consumers should actively look for products that are produced in recycled plastic, and plastics that are fully recyclable. Knowing exactly what plastic containers can be recycled isn’t easy, as the symbols used are confusing. Here are some of the labels to look out for:
This is the well-known recycling symbol, and shows that the item can be recycled, although you still need to check that your local council actually accepts that type of recycling. If the symbol contains a percentage figure in the middle, it means that the packaging has that amount of recyclable material in it, along with other materials that cannot be recycled.
This symbol identifies the type of plastic used in the packaging. A number, between 1 and 7, is enclosed by an arrow symbol. The number identifies which plastic is used, and can be referenced against your local council’s recycling policy.
Perhaps less well-known than some of the other symbols on the list, this one means that the manufacturer has made some kind of financial contribution towards recycling and recovery of their packaging. Whilst it’s a worthy thing, it doesn’t indicate that the packaging is made or recycled materials, or that it is recyclable.
This symbol is usually used simply to encourage consumers to be responsible with their litter. However, it is sometimes used to indicate that the item cannot be recycled, and should be thrown away with general waste.