Even as consumers become more informed, it can be tough to tell which hair styling product ingredients should be avoided and which ones are probably fine.
Luckily, Dr. Tess Marshall, ND, Nutrafol’s Director of Product Science & Marketing, is on hand to dispel some myths and explain which chemicals you actually don’t want to put in your hair.
“Overall, we know an effective way to promote hair growth comes from within,” Dr. Tess says. “There are many pathways and systems tied to the hair follicle. When these pathways and signals from immune or hormonal systems are abnormal, we can see changes in the way hair grows and the way it looks.”
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Because of this, some hair products can exacerbate issues — and it’s even worse for consumers who believe piling on the products will solve every issue.
“Most commonly, we find people thinking the best way to care for their hair is from the outside-in, leading to overstyling and product overuse,” Dr. Marshall says. “Often these products are synthetically derived and filled with substances that actually can harm the hair (and the body). Unfortunately people have a very hard time avoiding these types of products because of the short-term, temporary effects on hair styling.”
And these products won’t just wreak long-term effects on your hair, but also possibly your body.
“Using products with harmful ingredients contributes mostly to immune system havoc and can mess up hormones,” Dr. Marshall says. “The hair follicle is surrounded with tiny immune cells and if they are disrupted, the signals transmitted to the hair follicle is not correct. This is the game of telephone – a message comes in and goes through a series of ‘middle men’ before delivering the final message to the follicle for its function. If one of the middle men get is wrong, the whole cycle is messed up.”
Yikes. And to make matters worse, the US is not the most proactive country when it comes to banning these harmful chemicals. Europe and Canada have banned hundreds of ingredients that are still allowed in the US market, Dr. Marshall points out.
Dr. Marshall laid out nine of the most harmful ingredients in hair styling products for us. Of course, there are dozens more potentially harmful ingredients where these come from. For that reason, Dr. Marshall recommends downloading the Think Dirty app to research your favorite products. The app lays out all the potential risks associated with the ingredients in a given product and offers alternative solutions.
Here are nine ingredients to avoid in your hair styling products:
Mineral oil and petrolatum
These are two different ingredients, but they come from the same source and have similar risks, according to Dr. Marshall. These ingredients have both been potentially linked to cancer, she explains, due to PAHs (polyaromatic hydrocarbons). Because cancer “usually means some sort of dysregulated immune signaling,” Dr. Marshall says, even a small amount of these ingredients might be harmful to the hair cells. This is because immune signaling “is crucial in a healthy cycling follicle.”
Sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate
These ingredients “can be very drying, stripping, and irritating for the scalp,” Dr. Marshall says. Sulfates, as they’re known, are common in everything from beauty products to food. The FDA doesn’t consider sulfates harmful — but certain concentrations have been found to cause “mild to moderate” irritation in some people. So if you’ve got sensitive skin, it might be worth limiting your exposure to sulfates.
Similar to mineral oil and petrolatum, Benzene is an immune-signaling disrupter, Dr. Marshall says. And it’s also got a pretty clear link to cancers, including leukemia. The chemical “is known to cause cancer, based on evidence from studies in both people and lab animals,” according to the American Cancer Society. “The link between benzene and cancer has largely focused on leukemia and other cancers of blood cells.”
Benzene is still used in many consumer products. In fact, it’s one of the 20 most common chemicals in the U.S. So vigilance is key.
These chemicals “secretly make their way into products under the non-regulated term “fragrance,” Dr. Marshall says, “and have been found to be endocrine hormone disruptors.” As she explains, “Our hair cycle is very sensitive to changes in our endocrine hormones like estrogen, progesterone, cortisol, testosterone, insulin, and thyroid hormones.”
Similar to phthalates, parabens are also “endocrine disruptors,” Dr. Marshall says. They can pop up on an ingredients list as methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and isobutylparaben, etc. What’s more, parabens are present not only in beauty products but also in household products. This means that people may become exposed to parabens even if they avoid them in the beauty aisle, according to Scientific American.
Synthetic colors and dyes
These are rife in beauty products, and can “harm the hair cuticle, leaving it susceptible to oxidative damage,” Dr. Tess says. This is doubly undesirable if you color your hair.