Is “sulfate-free” a good thing? What’s up with parabens? What are the ingredients we should be avoiding completely? Most of us don’t read the entire list of ingredients in our hair products but these labels raise more questions than answers. We are going to take a quick run through of common hair product ingredients, what they do, and what we know so far about their harmful effects if any.
Here is a list of common ingredients with the basics of what we know about each one.
DEA acts as a thickening agent in shampoos and conditioners and allows them to form a foamy lather. Based on studies, we know that cocamide DEA can cause cancer under certain conditions. This is based on testing on rodents and using high toxicity of DEA.
Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing chemicals
Shampoos may contain preservatives that release formaldehyde. The primary health concern is skin reaction, skin sensitization, or an allergic reaction to something after it comes into contact with skin.
You’d be hard-pressed not to spot the word “fragrance” printed on a hair product label. “Fragrance” can include a mixture of ingredients that makes your conditioner smell like coconut or “morning dew”, but regardless, the FDA doesn’t require companies to specify them, since this information is often proprietary and therefore outside government purview. If you have an allergic reaction to a product, fragrances are probably responsible.
Mineral oil, also listed as paraffin oil or white mineral oil, forms a protective coating over hair that locks in moisture. Some worry that it could cause cancer since it’s distilled from petroleum, produced during the refining of crude oil—and mildly or untreated mineral oil is known to be a carcinogen. But highly refined, cosmetic-grade mineral oil and other cosmetic-grade petroleum distillates, like petrolatum, are generally of low concern.
Parabens such as methylparaben and propylparaben prolong the shelf life of hair and other beauty products by preventing bacteria and mold growth. Some evidence suggests they may contribute to breast cancer development, but most of what we know from parabens come from either animal studies or in vitro studies—cell cultures in the lab. It’s not entirely clear how parabens affect breast cancer risk in humans. If you’re concerned, choose products labeled “paraben-free.”
Propylene glycol is an alcohol that helps hair absorb and trap moisture, and can function as a solvent for other ingredients. Compared to other common ingredients, there’s not a lot of concern about toxicity or hazard for propylene glycol.
Often in the form of sodium laureth sulfate and sodium lauryl sulfate, sulfates give shampoo its sudsy-ness, and cut through grease and dirt. But they can also strip away natural oils in the process, which can lead to frizzy, dried-out strands, and an irritated scalp. There are not any large hazard concerns with them, but the trend seems to be to find less harsh ingredients.
Silicones—whose names often end in –methicone or –oxane—form a waterproof coating over hair that keeps it from soaking up humidity, making them common in straightening and smoothing products. The coating also seals moisture inside the hair and makes it shiny and easier to comb. But some silicones, like dimethicone, can also cause heavy buildup that leaves strands limp and dull.
To state the obvious, whether or not you buy products with the ingredients mentioned below comes down to personal choice and how comfortable you are with the potential risks outlined. For instance, while the connections between parabens and breast cancer risk aren’t clear yet, you can choose to avoid products that contain parabens if you’re particularly concerned about them. At Legends Salon of Hillsborough, we want you to feel safe with our products. We will always disclose the ingredients and recommend products that are safe for you, your hair and the environment.
Visit or call Legends Salon of Hillsborough today!