Natural and Safe Hair Care Ingredients

We’ve all gazed in admiration at the gorgeous girl in the shampoo commercial who tosses her long, lustrous, shiny hair. However, in our quest for beautiful hair, we may be unknowingly using products that contain harmful synthetic chemicals — some of which can damage our skin, scalp, and eyes. Here is some info on a few of the most widely used chemicals and their effects, and also some news on the healthiest, most beautifying natural alternatives.

The Food & Drug Administration’s Consumer Magazine recently wrote that shampoos, rinses and conditioners can cause eye problems that range from irritation, all the way to permanent eye damage. One common irritant in shampoos is sodium lauryl sulfate or SLS. The FDA requires companies to list their ingredients in hair care products in descending order, with the most abundant ingredient first.

SLS is usually one of the first listed ingredients in hair care products. It is a strong detergent which is also used in dish soap (1). According to the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, SLS produces skin and hair damage, including cracking and severe inflammation of tissue. Skin layers can separate and inflame due to its protein-damaging properties (2).

Another frequent chemical used in shampoos is methyl paraben. It is a synthetic preservative derived from a petroleum or gasoline base (1). Parabens are known to be weakly estrogenic. They can be absorbed through the skin, where they may then act as an alien female hormone (4). A male exposed to this hormone as a fetus may develop fertility problems as an adult.

The DEA, MEA and TEA-related ingredients are another group of toxic chemicals. Some of these include Cocamide DEA, Stearamide MEA, and TEA-Lauryl Sulfate. The National Toxicology Program completed a study that found a relationship between the topical skin application of these ingredients and the development of liver and kidney cancer in laboratory animals. (3). These are almost always contained in products that foam and lather up, such as shampoos, bubble bath, body wash, liquid soap and facial cleansers.

While wholly natural hair care products cannot usually be found on the shelves of grocery stores and drug stores, they are readily available at health food stores and at health-minded product manufacturer’s web sites. Natural product alternatives may not overflow with the lather or suds produced from artificial chemicals, but they do provide an effective cleansing and conditioning of the hair and scalp and without health risks to the skin, eyes, or hormones.

Coconut Oil, Corn Oil and Olive Oil-based soaps are good replacements for the harsher detergents such as sodium lauryl sulfate and cocamide DEA. Natural oils from herbs and plants, like almond oil, primrose oil and sunflower oil, are excellent additions to shampoos and conditioners as they are softening and soothing to the skin. These are easily dissolved in the oils of the skin and absorbed (5). Good substitutes for synthetic paraben preservatives are Vitamins A, C and E, as well as citrus seed extract and tea tree oil.

The aloe vera plant is widely used in natural products. It resembles a cactus and contains a clear gel inside its leaves. As opposed to the synthetics that cause dry, cracked and inflamed skin, aloe is a moisturizing healer that has been proven to cure psoriasis. Psoriasis is a chronic skin disease that consists of dry red patches and scales that frequently occur on the scalp and behind the ears. In one study, researchers showed that aloe cream applied to the skin, successfully treated psoriasis with no toxic effects. In this study, aloe cured 25 of 30 subjects, compared to the placebo cure rate of 2 out of 30 people (From “Tropical Medicine and International Health”, 1996, vol. 1).

Treat yourself well. Look for and use these safer ingredients in hair care products.


1.FDA Consumer Magazine – May 1994

2. Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 32-581, 1959 “Denaturation of Epidermal Keratin by Surface Active Agents”.

3. U. S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Office of Cosmetics Fact Sheet December 9, 1999

4. “Some alkyl hydroxy benzoate preservatives (Parabens) are estrogenic”, Toxicology of Applied Pharmacology, 1998: 153:12-19

5. Ziboh V. The significance of polyunsaturated fatty acids in cutaneous biology. Lipids 1996;31(Suppl):249-53.