You use hair care and styling products every day — but do you even know what’s actually in them? Take a look inside your bathroom cabinets and drawers. Chances are, you have a collection of hair products that are synthetically derived and filled with substances that can potentially harm your hair. That’s because the United States isn’t the most aggressive country when it comes to banning harmful chemicals in hair products: Europe and Canada have banned hundreds of ingredients that are unfortunately still permitted in the US market. This makes it especially important for American consumers to be aware of what ingredients are in their products.
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Not sure what to look out for? The experts at Nutrafol came up with a list of ingredients you should avoid putting in your hair. If you see any of these listed as an ingredient on a hair product, think twice before purchasing:
1. Mineral oil
With its smoothing properties, mineral oil performs well as a detangler or hair conditioner. But mineral oil contains significant levels of PAHs (polyaromatic hydrocarbons), potentially linking it to nonmelanoma skin cancer. Because cancer usually means some sort of dysregulated immune signaling — and immune signaling is crucial in a healthy cycling follicle — even a small amount of this ingredient could be harmful to hair cells.
2. Petroleum jelly
Petroleum jelly comes from the same source as mineral oil and poses similar risks. This ingredient may be associated with an increased risk of cancer due to PAHs.
3. PVP/ VA copolymer
PVP/VA copolymer is the ingredient found in most hair care products that provides the “hold factor.” (Think: hairsprays.) It is another toxic chemical derived from petroleum that’s known to cause irritation to the scalp, as well as respiratory issues in some people.
4. Sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate
Known as “sulfates,” these ingredients are used as cleansing or foaming agents in hair products. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t officially deemed sulfates “harmful,” but they can be drying to the scalp and strip hair from its natural moisture. Certain concentrations have been found to cause moderate irritation, especially in those with sensitive skin or skin conditions.
5. Polyethylene glycol
Polyethylene glycol (PEGs) are included in many hair care products as a thickening agent; however they tend to strip the hair of its natural moisture. Users then need to add silicone to make the hair feel soft again. According to a report by the International Journal of Toxicology by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, carcinogenic (cancer-causing) ingredients were found in various PEG compounds, some of which have also been classified as a “developmental toxicant” (meaning they may interfere with human development).
Benzene is another immune-signaling disrupter commonly found in hair dyes. According to the American Cancer Society, benzene is known to cause cancers, including leukemia. Studies have shown there’s a strong link between benzene, immune system toxicity, leukemia, and other cancers of the blood cells. Research also supports that an expectant mother’s exposure to benzene may cause developmental damage to the fetus. Despite these risks, benzene is still one of the 20 most common chemicals in the US, which is why it’s so important to read the list of ingredients on every hair product bottle.
Though this group of chemicals is often sneakily disguised as “fragrance,” phthalates are used in a number of hair products. They help reduce stiffness in products like hairsprays, allowing them to form a flexible film. But studies have found that phthalates interfere with our endocrine hormones, which is bad news for our hair. The hair growth cycle is sensitive to changes in our endocrine hormones like estrogen, progesterone, cortisol, testosterone, insulin, and thyroid hormones.
Similar to phthalates, parabens are also endocrine disruptors. Used to prolong the shelf-life of hair products, they can appear on ingredients lists as methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, isobutylparaben, etc. Parabens are easily absorbed by the human body when applied to the skin or scalp, which puts your endocrine system — and the health of your hair — at immediate risk.
Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen and, like parabens, it’s been proven to be absorbed through the skin in animal testing. Manufacturers often add it to hair products, such as shampoo, or Brazilian/keratin blowout treatments to work as a preservative.
10. Synthetic colors and dyes
Many hair dyes and other hair products use an abundance of synthetic colors and dyes. These toxins and chemicals can harm the hair cuticle, leaving it susceptible to oxidative damage. Many artificial colors and dyes are also made of coal tar, which may contain heavy metal salts like arsenic and lead that can deposit toxicity onto the scalp.
11. Sodium hydroxide
Sodium hydroxide (NaOH) is used in hair products — especially ones that serve as straightening treatments — to adjust pH, or the acidity. But NaOH can actually damage your hair when used at high concentrations and at high pH.
Alcohol is added to hair products to help hair retain moisture; however, many alcohols have a drying effect that can damage delicate strands — and the higher up that “alcohol” appears in the ingredient list, the more of it the product contains. Tip: The alcohols that wreak havoc on dry hair usually have a “prop” in their name, like Isopropyl alcohol or propanol.
13. Cocamidopropyl betaine
Cocamidopropyl betaine is a popular cleansing agent and foam booster. Although it’s derived from coconut oil, it can cause skin irritation. Anyone with rosacea, eczema, or skin allergies should steer clear of hair products containing cocamidopropyl betaine.
Diethanolamine (DEA) is also a foam agent that reduces surface tension so water-soluble and oil-soluble ingredients can blend together. About 20 years ago, researchers found a link between the topical application of DEA and cancer in animals (however, the effects on humans are unclear). Although DEA can still be used in American hair care products, European Commission actually banned DEA in cosmetics.
Triclosan is added to many haircare products to prevent bacterial contamination, but it’s a skin irritant and suspected carcinogen. Even in the United States, the antibacterial agent triclosan is banned from being used in antibacterial soaps; however, it is still allowed in shampoos. This ingredient is known to cause hormone disruptions, which can lead to cancer and affect fetal development.
Dimethicone is a type of silicone that is used in an array of hair products. Since dimethicone acts as a protecting cover on the surface of the hair, it contributes to product buildup and can actually prevent moisture and nutrients from coming in. Instead, it collects dirt and residue, clogs the pores on the scalp and causes skin irritation.
Natural is key
With so many products and ingredients out there on the market, keeping it as simple as possible is your best bet to ensure you know exactly what’s going on your scalp. Try to only use hair products that are made with natural, non-toxic ingredients, such as shea butter, coconut oil, aloe vera, tea tree oil, apple cider vinegar, or argan oil. And to really make sure your hair is getting the nourishment it needs to fight off any chemicals or toxins it encounters, consider implementing an all-natural, plant-derived supplement, like Nutrafol, into your hair care routine. Made with vitamins like biotin along with ashwagandha, tocotrienols, curcumin, and saw palmetto, Nutrafol supports healthy hair growth — 100% drug-free.