Hair Care – The Ingredients to Avoid and How to Choose Safely

By on July 14, 2011

I’ve had several friends come to me for advice on how to choose a safe and green hair product, so I’m dedicating this article to them…and to all of you!

Shampoos can contain many different chemicals, emulsifiers and surfactants which create the “foam” produced while washing hair. Sadly, the most common ingredients are the ones you want to avoid: sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate, DEA (diethanolamine), fragrances and parabens.  These ingredients are known to possibly be carcinogenic to the body after prolonged periods of use, which is very scary because most of us use these products daily.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) /Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)

Both SLS and SLES are common ingredients in hair products, soaps, detergents and even toothpaste.  What you might not know is that it’s also used to clean garage floors, wash cars and degrease car engines.  It works on your hair by dissolving oils…the same way it dissolves grease on car engines, essentially cleaning by erosion.

I found the following quote in the Journal of the American College of Toxicology report:

Carcinogenic nitrates can form in the manufacturing of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate or by its inter-reaction with other nitrogen bearing ingredients within a formulation utilizing this ingredient.

Tests show permanent eye damage in young animals from skin contact in non eye areas. Studies at Georgia Medical College indicated Sodium Lauryl Sulfate kept young eyes from developing properly by possibly denaturing the proteins and not allowing for proper structural formation. This damage was permanent.

Other studies have indicated that Sodium Lauryl Sulfate enters and maintains residual levels in the heart, the liver, the lungs and the brain from skin contact. This poses questions of it being a serious potential health threat to its use in shampoos, cleansers, and tooth pastes.

Other possible dangers: hair loss, rashes, eye irritation, scalp irritation, tangled hair, hormonal imbalance, swelling of the hands, face and arms and split/frizzy hair.

Sodium Laureth Sulfate is somewhat less irritating than SLS, but it cannot be metabolized by the liver, therefore its effects are much longer-lasting. This not only means it stays in the body tissues for longer, but it takes more energy to get rid of it.

DEA (Diethanolamine)

This ingredient is widely used in our products to provide rich lather in our shampoos and to keep a favorable consistency in our lotions.  By itself it’s not dangerous, but when it’s sitting on the store shelves or hanging out in your shower or cabinets it can react with other ingredients in the product.  This reaction forms an extremely potent carcinogen by the name of nitrosodiethanolamine (NDEA) and is absorbed through our skin.  It has been linked to stomach, bladder, liver and esophagus cancers.

According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), “There is sufficient evidence of a carcinogenic effect of N-nitrosodiethanolamine — .” (1) ARC recommends that NDEA should be treated as if it were a carcinogen in humans. The National Toxicology Program similarly concluded: “There is sufficient evidence for the carcinogenicity of N-nitrosodiethanolamine in experimental animals.”(2) Of over 44 different species in which N-nitroso compounds have been tested, all have been susceptible.(3) Humans are most unlikely to be the only exception to this trend.

As of now, there isn’t a way of knowing whether a particular product has been contaminated with NDEA. The best way to go about this is to avoid products containing DEA.  The following ingredients are among those contaminated with DEA:

  • Cocamide DEA or Cocamide Diethanolamine
  • DEA Lauryl Sulfate or Diethanolamine Lauryl Sulfate
  • Lauramide DEA or Lauramide Diethanolamine
  • Linoleamide DEA or Linoleamide Diethanolamine
  • Oleamide DEA or Oleamide Diethanolamine
  • Any product containing TEA or Triethanolamine


Fragrances are added to almost all personal care items, including shampoos, deodorants, sunscreens, skin care, body care and baby products.  Several compounds in fragrances are considered carcinogenic. When the word “fragrance” appears on a product label that can mean up to 4,000 separate chemical ingredients are present…and most of them are synthetic.

Clinical observation by medical doctors have shown that “exposure to fragrances can affect the central nervous system, causing depression, hyperactivity, irritability, inability to cope, and other behavioral changes,” (Home Safe Home).

According to an article on by Julia Kendall, 95 percent of chemicals used in fragrances are derived from petroleum and these compounds are capable of causing cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions.


Parabens are a preservative used in hair care and other cosmetics.  You can recognize them by these names: “methylparaben, propylparaben, benzylparaben and butylparaben,” they all end in “paraben,” so they’re easy to spot.

Parabens have a strong estrogen-like activity in the body and excess estrogen activity has been linked to breast cancer.

What do we do?

Why isn’t anyone doing anything about this, you might ask? Well, sadly, the cosmetics industry is the least regulated jurisdiction in the FDA.  The FDA can make recommendations but has very little power to enforce them.  In 1979 the FDA ordered the industry to eliminate NDEA from their products. In 1992, the FDA tested 12 products for NDEA contamination and found that 8 of them still contained this potent carcinogen. (source)

There are other ingredients I’d love to discuss, but unfortunately only have so much space to write.  I found a great list of other ingredients to avoid here.

We as consumers can make the choice to support non-toxic products.  My favorite brand of haircare is Desert Essence.  The Coconut Shampoo  ($8.99) and conditioner ($8.99) smell amazing!!  Please add a comment if you have some (safe) favorites!

Happy Shopping!




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