Confession time: I’m in my 30s and I still have not cracked the code on my fairly dry, sometimes flat/sometimes frizzy, rapidly-thinning hair. I barely understand what actually works for it and what doesn't. And I seem to lose GOBS of it everytime I wash it (which is a huge part of why I wait as long as possible to do so.)
I dream that my dry, but somehow greasy, hair can be full and shiny and super healthy like the perky women in shampoo commercials. And I’m not sure about you, but I have never really gotten the results those products promise.
But I refuse to believe I am destined for boring hair all my life. There’s gotta be a way! I WANT GREAT HAIR, DAMMIT. (Oh and don't be fooled by those pictures, they were just particularly good hair days.)
So I’m experimenting, trying to figure out what my hair needs and doesn’t need. As with everything, I’m doing this pretty slowly. But the research is helping, and I hope it can help you too.
We discussed five major toxins in part 1, and will get to five more in this post. Keep in mind, most of the chems we talked about in the first part of this series are likely to show up in hair (and other beauty) products, and vice versa.
Alright, so without further ado, here’s my top five offenders when it comes to everyday hair care products.
Phthalates isn’t only a hard word to pronounce, they’re also chemicals that are present just about everywhere you see the word fragrance. They’re used to affix scent to product, but since they’re considered “part of the fragrance,” they don’t have to be listed. They’re also used as plasticizers to make products more pliable (i.e. hairspray more flexible, nail polish less brittle).
Why it is harmful: Phthalates are known hormone disruptors, neurotoxins, suspected carcinogens, and can cause birth defects in babies, especially males. They can impair fertility and can potentially cause endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). They’re incredibly toxic to the environment. Also, Phthalates are obesogenic, folks. Yes, that means they can actually help cause you to be, and keep you, overweight.
How it is listed: If it’s listed at all, it’s safest to stay away from anything with the word phthalate in it. Otherwise, you can assume they are present wherever fragrance, perfume, or parfum is found.
Yes, the stuff used to embalm dead people and the creatures in your 7th grade science class. This not only shows up as an ingredient in things like keratin treatments, nail polish, and eyelash adhesive, but is also a contaminant released by ingredients commonly used in shampoos, hair dyes, hair-growing products, makeup, antiperspirant, and even baby lotions (to name a few).
Why it is harmful: It is a known carcinogen and can cause immune-system toxicity and liver damage. It is a strong skin, eye, and lung irritant, and can trigger asthma. Plus, it’s a hazardous air pollutant and environmental toxin.
How it is listed: formic aldehyde, cormalin, methanal, methyl aldehyde, oxymethane, tosylamide. It can be released by these ingredients (which are harmful in their own right): DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methenamine, and quarternium-15.
This doesn’t even sound like it could possibly be a legal ingredient, right? It is. Well, in the U.S. at least. It’s the active ingredient in many dandruff and psoriasis shampoos as well as other creams for psoriasis. It’s also how we get a lot of synthetic colors for not only hair dye, cosmetics, and sometimes even toothpaste, but also food!
Why it is harmful: It’s a known human carcinogen, an eye and skin irritant and often contain metals that are highly toxic to the brain. Effects include emotional and sleep disturbances, as well as loss of coordination. It’s also highly toxic to the environment, and is banned in the UK, Canada, and Japan.
How it is listed: “Coal tar” or “coal tar solution,” when it’s an active ingredient in psoriasis and dandruff shampoos. When used as colorants, it will appear as FD&C- or D&C- followed by a 5 digit number or a color and number.
It may also show up as pyridine, estar, impervotar, lavatar, carbo-cort, KC-261, picis carbonis, naphtha, high solvent naphtha, naphtha distillate, benzin B70, and petroleum benzin.
(note: FD&C stands for food, drug, and cosmetic, and indicates what that color has been approved for. Coal tar candy ... yum!)
PETROLEUM DISTILLATES/PETROLATUM/MINERAL OIL
Okay so I’m trying to cover a large swath of evil here. But they all come from the same source: crude oil. You’ll find some version of these ingredients in everything from hair care and makeup to lotion and lip balm (especially lip balm), not to mention uncountable other uses. And honestly, I don’t think EWG rates harshly enough on this one. It makes mineral oil look like it’s ok, when it clearly calls it out as hazardous.
Why it is harmful: These petroleum by-products clog pores, interfering with our skin’s ability to eliminate toxins, promoting acne and other disorders. They can cause skin photosensitivity and promote sun damage. They also slow down skin function and cell development, resulting in premature aging. Plus they may be contaminated with PAHs (carcinogens).
How it is listed: Petroleum, petrolatum, mineral oil
POLYETHYLENE GLYCOL/PROPYLENE GLYCOL (PEG/PG)
This one is tricky, because there are quite a few articles out there standing up for these ingredients, talking about how not-so-bad they really are. But don’t let their low ratings on EWG fool you. The possible contaminants (1,4 Dioxane, ethylene oxide, lead, nickel, and arsenic) that can pop up where PEG is found are the major cause for concern here.
Why it is harmful: PG is technically considered the “most safe” of all the glycols. However, these chems are used to enhance absorption, which means they have a greater chance of getting those ugly contaminants into your system. PEG compounds show some evidence of genotoxicity (the ability to mess with the genetic information in your cells) and if used on broken skin can cause irritation and systemic toxicity.
How it is listed: According to SkinDeep, there are 919 ingredients that include PEG in some part. Holy wow. Propylene glycol is slightly less numerous, but still has quite a few synonyms. They can be found here.
On to a more fun part: what to do about it!
Two of my favorite experts, Sarah Scherr and Marcy Cruice, are back to recommend more products and tips this round as we try to find better solutions for hair.
Oh, and don’t forget to check out our Pinterest board DIY’s to Try - Natural Personal Care for loads of natural, healthy, DIY alternatives to store-bought products.
WHAT WE’RE USING
Sooooo, I have to be honest, Kris is still using his dandruff shampoo (Selsun Blue “Naturals”). While it doesn’t have coal tar in it, it still has PEG, fragrance, and some other not-so-great ingredients, and we need to replace it soon.
On the other hand, I have been using Acure Organics Moroccan Argan Oil and Argan Stem Cell shampoo and conditioner. At first, I really wasn’t that big of a fan honestly. Natural shampoos don’t suds up like the traditional ones I’m used to. However, when I wait a few days between washings, and my hair feels like the inside of a just-emptied chinese takeout box, I need something that’s really going to CLEAN it. Thankfully, I found a tip in one of the books I’ve been reading (No More Dirty Looks). And this secret has not only made me like Acure much better, but it has totally changed how I wash my hair.
So what’s the secret? Wash it backwards. And if you want, start with a nourishing oil like Jojoba. Here’s what I do.
- Before getting in the shower, masage jojoba oil (or other nourishing oil) all over your scalp. Let it sit for a few minutes.
- When you get in the shower, rinse your hair thoroughly, then apply CONDITIONER. This is the backwards part, but bear with me. Let that set while you wash the rest of your body.
- Rinse out the conditioner and apply a small amount of shampoo for a light wash. And you’ll be amazed at how much it actually sudses (not a word, but I’m going with it) up!
- Rinse out the shampoo with cool water, cold if you can stand it.
My hair is so much happier now! And survives the 2-3 days between washes quite a bit better. And now I really love Acure. It’s definitely the best value for natural shampoo that I have found so far.
Sarah was the one who steered me to Acure. (She did so by giving me my first set of shampoo and conditioner because she’s the sweetest!) She says she has tried MANY natural shampoos and conditioners over the years and this is by far her favorite. It’s also super reasonably priced on Vitacost.
Marcy goes no poo. She uses baking soda to wash her hair and apple cider vinegar to rinse. She also does a weekly mask with coconut oil. For products, she recommends John Masters and Giovanni (Giovanni is super-reasonably priced on Vitacost).
OTHER TRUSTED BRANDS
Aubrey Organics - Don’t let EWG fool you here. Aubrey does not use retinol in their formulas, and that is the ingredient that is skewing its rating on SkinDeep.
Rahua - This one is pricey, but gets rave reviews and is very clean. Great for normal and color-treated hair.
Alaffia - I love what this company stands for and what they are doing in the world. I haven’t tried their products yet, but I can’t wait to.
Intelligent Nutrients - Horst Rechelbacher (who is the one that suggests washing hair backward, oh and he also started Aveda) founded Intelligent Nutrients after selling Aveda to Estee Lauder in 1997. The whole line is USDA Organic certified.
Weleda - They’ve been doing things the right way for nearly 100 years. Sourcing their completely natural ingredients from their own biodynamic gardens. A few of their ingredients warrant red flags on SkinDeep, but they reassure that absolutely every ingredient is naturally derived and healthy.
WHERE TO BUY
I’m a big fan of supporting your local economy, so if you can find the brand you want locally, by all means, please do. In person, you can clean products at places like Whole Foods, Vitamin Shoppe and Walgreens (occasionally, with their store brand Ology). Online you can find them at Thrive Market, Vitacost, Bulk Apothecary and Amazon.
I hope that helps you identify some of the questionable products in your hair care lineup and gets you interested in trying some new, cleaner options. And soon we can all have beautiful, healthy hair that blows those shampoo girls out of the water!
Okay, so now I really want to hear from you. REALLY!
If you are following along: Do your products actually deliver on their promises for you, or is it just me? What do you want that you are not getting from your hair care routine?
If you are ahead of us: What are your favorite “green” hair care products or DIYs that really work?
Coal Tar - Safe Cosmetics. (2013, November 10). Retrieved July 27, 2015.
Connor, S., & Spunt, A. (2010). No more dirty looks: The truth about your beauty products-- and the ultimate guide to safe and clean cosmetics. New York, NY: Da Capo Lifelong.
Loux, R. (2008). Easy green living: The ultimate guide to simple, eco-friendly choices for you and your home. Emmaus, PA: Rodale.
McKay, T. (2014, October 29). Should You Be Worried About Propylene Glycol? Retrieved July 27, 2015.
Schuster, S. (2011, March 11). Side Effects of Petrolatum. Retrieved July 27, 2015.
Sherman, C. (2008, April 30). Propylene Glycol: The Good, the Bad and the Alternatives. Retrieved July 27, 2015.
St Onge, E. (2012, April 10). You Have The Right To Know: 17 Chemicals To Avoid In Cosmetic And Personal Care Products. Retrieved July 3, 2015.
What is it - PEGs. (2013, October 2). Retrieved July 27, 2015.