Shampoos were designed to remove oil, dirt, and skin debris from the hair. Early shampoos were made of strong, inexpensive chemicals that stripped the hair and scalp. They were formulated to produce lots of suds and foam and leave the hair squeaky clean. It was great for the industry: the synthetic ingredients cost pennies.
We know better now. Hair is not separate from the scalp, the scalp is not separate from the skin, and skin is the biggest organ in the body. Shampoos and conditioners can contribute greatly to hair and scalp health—or harm it. It depends on what you use. If you are looking for natural shampoo and conditioners click here.
Shampoos and conditioners can be divided roughly into two categories. The first are formulations that rely on synthetic chemicals, compounds designed by chemists to clean and condition, compounds that provide the user with sensuous, silky, foamy, scented lather that slithers on and off the hair like satin. Companies know that women associate the sensual qualities as being a mark of quality. That is categorically not true but we are all trained to respond to hair and skin products based on our sensation of them.
The compounds used in chemical formulations are closer to hair make-up than hair wash or rinses. They contain what people who make these products call “toxic film formers”, chemicals that coat (and clog) the hair and follicles. Silicones and ammonia salts lead the way.
Silicones are ubiquitous in hair products. In shampoos and conditioners, silicones produce shiny Kardashian locks that gleam in the sun. It is a coating. It is not your hair. Or hers. Men use the same chemicals to preserve tires and dashboards of their cars.
Ammonia salts that are in most shampoos and conditioners are biocides, invented as disinfectants, used to kill germs and algae. Chemists being chemists, it wasn’t long before they discovered that ammonia salts, nicknamed “quats,” imparted a slippery feel to your hair and skin. If you see an ingredient in your shampoo or conditioner ending in “ium,” it is a quat.
The second type of shampoo and conditioner contain botanical extracts that are known or thought to contribute to hair strength and sheen, scalp health and nourishment. These products have ingredient labels that you can at least partly understand.
Botanicals and chemicals are opposites. When you see the name of a chemical, like polyethylene glycol (PEG), that is exactly what you are getting, one chemical. Botanicals are complex, just like your body.
Botanicals are derived from different parts of plants and trees. They can be roots, bark, berries, leaves, seeds, petals, oils, and fruits. Depending on the variety, they can contain a dozen to over 100 different phytonutrients, complex molecules that were created by the plant to defend itself from mold, viruses, bacteria predators, UV, drought, insects, and more.
Ultimately the question you have to ask is whether you want to feed your scalp and hair with petroleum-based chemistry or feed them the same way your body is nourished— nature.
The industry is asking the same question, thus the market is moving to nature. Virtually every big cosmetic company is changing their marketing to address the move to healthy lifestyles and products. However, most of the products are natural in name only. Here’s what to look out for when purchasing a shampoo or conditioner:
1. Ignore foam. Thick suds, lather, and bubbles have no function and are unnecessary. They are there for psychology only. Shampoo foam is not a way to evaluate a product’s efficacy.
2. Read the label. Chemical formulations place a few drops of an ingredient into the tank, and it magically becomes Argan Shampoo. Don’t be fooled. Unless the charismatic ingredient is one of the top three or four ingredients, the name is there to get you to think it is natural.
3. Pixie Dust: This is another term used by the people who make shampoo. It refers to putting inconsequential amounts of botanicals into a formula. If you see a long list of 15 botanical ingredients, the sum total of all of them may be less than 1%. By combining many ingredients into one ingredient, one ingredient can be listed with all its components. How to determine if this is so? Ask the manufacturer if their botanicals are over 1% of the total formula. Chances are they won’t tell you. That tells you a lot. Natural shampoo and conditioner makers are proud of the product and do not hide their good efforts.
4. Gentle: Be sure to buy the mildest, most hypoallergenic surfactants. The gentlest surfactants are sugar based: decyl glucoside, coco glucoside, and lauryl glucosides. Other mild surfactants include amino acid-based glutamates, as well as betaines, and sodium cocoamphoacetate. Better shampoo that is too mild than too strong. Excessive use of surfactants strips the hair and scalp overstimulate sebum production, the very thing you are trying to calm and reduce. By using a gentle shampoo, your scalp will calm down, and you will not need to shampoo as much.
5. Not too many ingredients. Shampoo and conditioners are 60-80% water. Surfactants comprise 20-30%, leaving 10% or less for botanicals, oils, preservatives, and viscosity builders. When you see labels with 30-35 ingredients, it means most of the ingredients are barely there at all. A total of 10-15 ingredients is the right number for a natural shampoo.
6. “It does not contain…” Ignore those lists. What matters in shampoo is what it does contain, not what it doesn’t.
7. Edible: When you read the ingredient list, think about whether you would eat them. And please do not try it. What you are looking for are plant-based ingredients you recognize and know to be edible in some form. Otherwise, don’t put it on your scalp because your skin is the body’s largest organ and it will absorb the ingredients to one degree or another. Remember, this is your body you are shampooing, not just your hair.
8. Always think follicle. Think of your hair like grass growing in a field. To make grass healthier, you wouldn’t put chemical compounds on the blades of grass. You would feed the soil and roots with nourishment. Your follicle is both soil and root. Silicone and quats slough down the shaft of the hair and block the follicle. Botanicals and pure unrefined oils nourish and feed the follicle.