Woman shampooing hair


Do you feel like you need a Ph.D. in cosmetics to read a shampoo label and make a smart choice? How can you be sure there aren’t harsh additives that could potentially be harmful?

Today, we’re taking baby steps and focusing on two of the biggest controversies in shampoo in recent years: parabens and sulfates. Many consumers avoid these ingredients because they believe they’re too harsh or even carcinogenic. Have you wondered if the internet-hype is just a scare tactic or if there’s any truth to it?

Welllll…friends…I’ve been reading up on parabens and sulfates until my head is spinning and I’m happy to share what I’ve learned so you don’t have to go down that dizzying road. [A disclaimer: I’m not a chemist or cosmetics expert…I’m just an interested consumer like you, trying to make sense of it all.]

What’s our end goal here? I think we all want a gentle and safe shampoo that leaves our hair manageable and beautiful. We don’t want to worry about “harmful substances” while we’re in the shower.

Why Are We Having This Conversation? Hasn’t This Been Settled?

If a shampoo is for sale at our local drugstore or department store — hasn’t it already been deemed safe for consumer use by a government testing agency?

Unfortunately, if you’re in the U.S., the short answer is “no.” The U.S. government doesn’t require cosmetic companies to submit their formulas for review before their products are marketed. In our country, the cosmetics industry is largely self-regulated; the government typically only gets involved if a consumer reports a problem with a product.

This is in sharp contrast to Canada and the European Union where beauty brands are required to receive government approval for their formulas before their products can be sold. The list of banned chemicals in these countries is also about 10 times longer than the list in the United States.

Now that we know it’s “consumer-beware…”
Are You Ready to Take a Closer Look at Parabens + Sulfates in Shampoo?
What Are Parabens?

In simple terms, parabens are preservatives. They’re commonly used in foods, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

Since the bulk of your shampoo is water (or occasionally another liquid like aloe), a preservative of some type is a must because fungus and bacteria can easily grow in water-based products.

How Are Parabens Listed on a Shampoo Label?

Most include “paraben” in their name. You’ll see ingredients like methylparaben, ethylparaben, proplyparaben, isopropylparaben — you get the idea!

Why Are Consumers Wary of Parabens? Are They Really Bad?

Here’s what I learned from my layperson’s look at the scientific literature on parabens:

  • Parabens can release a substance that mimics low levels of estrogen and in at least one small study, they were found in breast cancer tumors.
  • Despite 20 years of study, however, no direct link has ever been established between parabens and breast cancer.
  • Parabens were found to have antiandrogenic effects when studied in a small number of rats. Translation? At very high levels, they decreased sperm counts and testorone levels in rats. These results haven’t been duplicated in larger studies.
  • The Euopean Union has banned certain parabens due to a lack of available data to evaluate their risk to humans.
  • Some parabens have been deemed safe only when used at 10% or less of a formula.
  • Health Canada is currently taking a hard look at specific parabens to see if they should be banned, based on suspected concerns.

My personal take-away? I choose to stay away from parabens — in large part because I was treated for estrogen-positive breast cancer many years ago. This one’s a no-brainer for me!

Even if you’ve never had breast cancer, you’ll need to weigh the lingering questions and concerns about this class of preservatives. The bottom line is that some parabens have been deemed safe; some are okay when used at low levels and others haven’t been studied well enough to calm any fears. Who has time to sort through all this?

The easiest solution, as I see it, is to look for paraben-free shampoo — especially since there are many natural alternatives available. Just look for a brand that clearly says “paraben-free” on the label.

Now on to sulfates in shampoo:
What Are Sulfates?

Sulfates are found in some synthetic detergents, also called surfactants. Surfactants clean your hair and scalp by breaking the surface tension of water.

One of the main purposes of sulfates is to create foamy lather. BUT…lather isn’t necessary at all to get your hair clean. In fact, companies add foamy lather because consumers think it means the product is working.

This is a good time to discuss who’s driving the bus. Consumers get misinformation on the internet and based on that, they decide an ingredient is good or bad. And then, you’ll see companies formulating sulfate-free shampoos, for example — even if there’s no hard scientific data to support it.

Turns out cosmetic companies are driven by consumer demand, even when those consumers are misinformed.

How Are Sulfates Listed on a Shampoo Label?

There are a number of sulfates used in shampoo, with some of the most common ones being: sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, ammonium laureth sulfate, TEA lauryl sulfate, and DEA lauryl sulfate.

Why Are Consumers Wary of Sulfates? Are They Really Bad for Us?

Some internet articles claim sulfates can cause cataracts, corneal damage or even blindness. Others imply they cause cancer. Let’s look a little closer at this:

Here’s what I’ve learned about sulfates from scientific studies:

  • Much of the testing on sulfates has focused on what happens when they’re introduced directly into the eye. One study looked at corneal damage from an extremely high exposure to sulfates. Another study exposed animals to a more normal level of sulfates, but did so repeatedly over a 14-day period.

    Yes, sulfates can sting your eyes and cause irritation. But they’re not designed to go in your eyes! Even if you get shampoo in your eye, you’re not repeatedly introducing a high level of sulfates for two solid weeks.

    Bottom line: The studies on sulfates and eye damage are not representative of how sulfate products are used by consumers. We don’t put them directly in our eyes at extemely high doses, day after day.
  • What about cancer and sulfates? I went digging, but couldn’t find any credible evidence linking sulfates to cancer. Apparently, they’ve been used as a solvent (or carrying agent) in some studies of other chemicals with links to cancer. It’s possible that’s how the cancer myth about sulfates got started.

My take-away? As a class of ingredients, sulfates have been studied for many years and have been deemed safe by the U.S., Canada and the European Union — when used appropriately.

Let’s keep in mind, however, that every substance on the planet is an allergen or irritant to someone, somewhere. Common sense says if you or someone you love reacts negatively to sulfates, of course you’ll want to steer clear of them.

There are also instances when you might want to try a sulfate-free shampoo, depending on your hair type or skin condition — so keep reading for more on that.

shampoo bottle
Should We Look for Sulfate-Free Shampoo?

For some of us, the answer is maybe. For others, the answer is “don’t bother” — especially when you consider that sulfate-free shampoos tend to be more expensive.

Sulfates clean by stripping oils from your scalp and hair — so they can be drying or irritating, particularly if you have sensitive skin, eczema, psoriasis or something similar. In that case, you could experiment with sulfate-free shampoo to see if it improves the condition.

According to the experts, you also might consider a sulfate-free shampoo if you have:

  • Dry, frizzy or curly hair
  • A dry, itchy scalp
  • Color-treated hair

There’s no harm in trying a sulfate-free shampoo — except you’ll likely spend more for it, sometimes five to tens times more! I did find one bargain brand (below), but there’s a few reasons I wasn’t enamored with it.

My mini-case study on sulfate-free shampoo

Since I still color my hair (yes, harsh chemicals…gulp), I recently tried sulfate-free Love, Beauty and Planet shampoo for two weeks. As a side note, it took a lot of digging to find an affordable sulfate-free brand. Many of them sell between $25 to $40! This one was $6 at Target for 13 oz…phew!

Anyway, I discovered there’s a learning curve when using sulfate-free shampoo because there’s less lather and the shampoo doesn’t “spread” as easily on your hair. You need to use more water, for sure.

I gave up on Love, Beauty and Planet after a short trial because I wasn’t sold on the benefits and apparently I’m not ready to give up lather (even though we don’t need it).

I also prefer brands with easy recycling options and less plastic waste — and this wasn’t going to work out with Love, Beauty and Planet. After reading their label closely and digging into their website…I realized they could be the poster child for “green-washing” and this was a turn-off for me.

Green-washing is when a company pretends to be environmentally friendly but is just using all the buzz words and faking it, sort to speak.

Bottom line…I tried but failed to find a shampoo that’s paraben and sulfate-free, affordable and environmentally friendly. [If you have one, please leave a comment…as I’d love to know.] For now, I’m sticking with paraben-free Garnier-Fructis, which has worked well for me for the last ten years or so.

Finally…Here’s a Bonus Tip I Learned While Researching Shampoo

Most beauty brands design their shampoos and conditioners as a system, intended to be used together. So if their shampoo goes a little overboard in cleaning (i.e., stripping the oils from your hair), the conditioner will restore the balance. [I don’t think this is strictly a marketing ploy to sell more products…but I’m not 100% sure.]

Anyway, I abandoned conditioners many years ago because I thought they weren’t necessary. But now I’m re-thinking this decision and will probably give wash-off conditioners a second look.

And That’s a Wrap

I tried to give some basic, easy-to-understand information here so you can have more peace of mind when choosing your shampoo. Please leave a comment or question below if you have a favorite brand to recommend or have different views on parabens and sulfates.

Wondering Where I Got My Information for This Post?

If you google “parabens in shampoo,” you’ll come up with 14 million results. Yikes! Many bloggers and even well-respected health sites repeat what someone else wrote online and don’t question their sources. There’s no question the internet is an echo chamber.

Well, I try hard not to be part of that. In this case, I looked at published scientific studies on parabens and sulfates on sites like Pub Med, The National Institutes for Health, Health Canada and others.

Just be aware I’m not a scientist, so I’m interpreting these studies through the eyes of a layperson. My goal was simply to take time to dig beyond the internet scare headlines and share what I learned with you. I hope you found this helpful.

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