There are seriously few better feelings in this world (apart from all the naughty stuff) than having clean, silky, freshly washed and (blow) dried hair. I love it! It’s my happy place. Especially, when my hair comes out soft, de-tangled and smelling nice.
A well formulated shampoo is good to find. Except when they discontinue it 🙁 Many people (and hairdressers) still believe the only quality shampoos and conditioners are found in the salon or salon supplier. I firmly believe, that is not the case. I can hear a rabble of angry hairdressers and salon habitués slashing the seats with their perfectly shellacked acrylics in protest. Professionals spend many hours every year listening to the sales spiel of their brand reps. The dogma gets drilled into them, re-enforced by their managers and passed onto the consumer. A lot of the science is correct. A lot of the hard sell is propaganda. After all, it is a business.
Hair, skin and make-up are consumer driven industries. They thrive on new sales. It’s part of commercial enterprise and simply affording your life. Very few industries do it like beauty though. In 2016, cosmetics were one of the biggest markets worldwide, and the United States held the mantle with an estimated 62.46 billion US dollars in revenue and employed 62,816 workers. In order to continue thriving, innovation and new products are key.
Every few days a new product arrives on the market place, after having gone through batteries of lab test and met regulation standards in multiple facets over months or years. There is so much choice, it’s difficult to discern the good from the not so good. The beneficial and innovative from marketing hyperbole.
That’s where people like me come in. I see so much BS from people who should really know better, or people that simply make a personal profit from promoting expensive, dysfunctional and/or poorly formulated products. I can’t help but intervene.
There are a number of things consumers look for in a shampoo, some properties will differ from person to person, but I’ve rarely met someone who wanted rough, dull, unmanageable hair that broke easily and was never really clean. Occasionally an Emo in the early 2000’s, but you can’t please everybody.
We all mostly want the same effects of a shampoo regardless of hair ‘type’ (oily/dry/damaged), and that is for it to:
- Clean hair
- Maintain moisture balance
- Maintain softness and manageability
- Be easy to work into the hair
- Be easily rinsed out without build-up
- Not irritate eyes or skin
- Leave hair smelling fresh and looking healthy
Lets look at that wish list and examine the main factors and ingredients that maintain or compromise those goals. A lot of the information provided in the next section can also be attributed to any cleanser of skin and hair: face wash, body wash, hand wash etc.
If you wish to skip all the sciency details, you can always jump to the TLDR (summary) at the end of the article.
How are dirt and oils removed from the hair? Have you heard of Micella water? Yep, that terminology has been around for way longer than Garnier or Bioderma have been making a buck off it. Basicly, Micelle molecules have a hydrophobic/lipophilic or oil-loving head, which attracts oil and dirt and a hydrophilic or water-loving tail which is attracted to water. The tail attaches itself to the oil and dirt and when they come into contact with water the head attached to the water molecule, they form a circular micelle with the dirt secured at the tail end inside the micelle (see diagram) and are carried away from the hair and down the drain.
There are two types of cleansers in the world of shampoos (any cleanser for that matter: facial, bodywash and shampoo). They are soap based cleansers also known as anionic surfactants and synthetic detergents.
Soap based cleansers tend to be formulated by treating natural fats and oils with alkaline and have a pH of 8-10, which swell the hair shaft and strip the hair of more oils, leaving it dull, brittle and susceptible to further damage. Additionally, hard water which contain magnesium and calcium salts, when combined with soap shampoos cause insoluble deposits to build up on the hair leaving it weighed down, dull and greasy. To remove the build up a chelating shampoos is required to strip the build-up but require an intense conditioning treatment straight after to counteract the dryness caused by the chelating shampoo.
Soap based cleansers are derived from tallow, olive oil, coconut, and palm oil among others and are treated with sodium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide, ammonia and triethanolamine to produce the product. Now when I say soap, I do mean bars of soap (which are generally bad for skin and hair for many reasons), however, technically, anionic surfactants are often classified as soaps as they behave like soaps and have a similar manufacturing process. Among these are specifically sulphates which get the most amount of flack and for good reason.
Some sulphates have been proven to be sensitising to skin and scalp, sensitive skin and broken skin especially. This potentially means anyone with easily irritated skin, acne/pimples, rosacea, eczema, psoriasis, any open wounds, retinol users and after skin treatments like microdermabrasion or any treatment or procedure that is potentially invasive to the upper layer of the stratum corneum. That’s a lot of people. Aside from them being overly drying to skin and scalp which can lead to further inflammation, moisture loss and inhibit healing. What is NOT true is that sulphates are carcinogenic or cancer causing. Did everyone get that?? Sulphates do not cause cancer. Shampoos do not cause cancer. The regulatory bodies that govern what can or cannot be sold to the public safely such as the NICNAS (National Industrial Chemicals Notifications and Assessment Scheme) (Australia), FDA (Food and Drug Administration) (US) or the European Commission would not allow it.
Having said that, I have included a list of some sulphates you may choose to avoid due to sensitisation and some that are not worrisome, but big ‘chemical’ sounding words are scary to some people.
Lauryl sulphates are the ones you may want to avoid in cleansers of all kinds if you have the above skin conditions which are: Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), ammonium lauryl sulfate (ALS) and triethanolamine lauryl sulfate (TEA-LS) and are used in carpet cleaners[3,8]
Slightly gentler but still easily avoided are laureth sulphates also known as SLES or ALES. Most are tarred with the same brush as SLSs and ALSs because they use a similar acronym, are: Sodium laureth sulfate, ammonium laureth sulfate and triethanolamine laureth sulfate
Personally, I just avoid the above ingredients in all products and recommend the same to my students and clients. I find them personally irritating and I don’t have sensitive skin or scalp.
The sulphates that are not to be worried about:
Sarcosines are not great cleansers and are often combined with other surfactants to increase their cleansing abilities. These have also been used in dry shampoos are: Lauryl sarcosine and sodium lauryl sarcosinate
Sulfosuccinates are another stronger anionic surfactant but are considered mild by comparison to SLSs and ALSs and are frequently used in extra gentle baby shampoos, are: disodium oleaminesulfosuccinate and sodium dioctylsulfosuccinate
I have a rant here I need to get off my chest. A company I adore once supported this whole assertion of sulphates being irritating and sensitising. In recent years they have backtracked saying sulphates and their known sensitising properties are no big deal. It is when your skin feels inflamed and uncomfortable, I think that is a big deal.
Another issue with sulphates regarding hair is that due to their higher pH, they open up the cuticle which results in colour treated hair fading much quicker than it should. If you spend a hefty amount on colour treatments at your favourite salon monthly, you know the disappointment of seeing those dollars literally washed down the drain.
A quick lesson how hair works with colour: a permanent colour requires the cuticle to be opened up with ammonia (pH 11) or another such alkaline (very high pH) or acid (very low pH) that causes sufficient damage to swell the hair shaft and open the cuticle. Yes, all chemical hair treatments cause damage. Mostly irreparable. Hair is dead once it leaves the follicle. You can’t fix dead permanently. More on that later.
The colour molecules have to be deposited into the cortex, which is surrounded by a sheath of overlapping cuticle scales, where our natural pigment, melanin, resides. The higher or lower the pH is from the balanced pH of 4.5 of hair, the more the hair shaft swells and the cuticle opens. To maintain permanent hair colour, these cuticles need to stay as closed as possible and just open enough to deposit the molecules of artificial colour. Permanent artificial colour molecules do bind together into larger molecules but they do break down and some are washed from the hair. To deny that, is to ignore blatant visible facts. Hands up who’s ‘permanent’ hair colour has faded and needed re-touching at the next salon visit! *Both hands enthusiastically up. This is also supported scientifically. I’ve linked an excellent and comprehensive scientific journal article from 2015 if you want more details on what shampoos should contain from a dermatological perspective.
Soaps are alkaline with a pH of 8-10, and most synthetic detergents are balanced at 5.5 often due to the addition of citric acid. It has been suggested that shampoos above pH 5.5 can produce further damage.
If you look at the ingredients list on most ‘professional’ or ‘salon only’ shampoos from Loreal to NAK, sodium lauryl sulphate is listed in at least the top three components. Ingredient labels by law have to list the highest amount of an ingredient first, followed by the lesser amounts until the least amount of an ingredient at the end. Admittedly most supermarket shampoos also contain SLSs and ALSs but considering they cost a fraction of the price of salon only brands, I have less of a beef with them. Add to this that some professional brands have begun selling in supermarkets and chemists/drug stores like KMS, Joico and Tigi, you can see the price comparison for yourself, even if you don’t purchase from your hairdresser directly.
I think I’ve beat that horse to death so lets go on.
Conditioners (Yes, they are in shampoos)
Have you ever tried a shampoo and while rinsing, your hair feels like straw and perhaps turns into a hay bale of knots? It means all the moisture has just been stripped from my hair and breakage is all but guaranteed. A good shampoo should not leave your hair feeling like that. Shampoos like that require a MUCH heavier conditioner to bring the hair back to a normal state of suppleness and often leave heavy deposits of waxes and oils in the hair, weighing it down. Conditioning agents are required in shampoo to impart manageability, softness and prevent static electricity.
Silicones such as dimethicone (heavier and longer lasting) and cyclomethecone (lighter and eventually evaporate) are used to give ‘slip’ to the hair. Slip allows the strands of hair to move against one another without snagging. It helps prevent mechanical damage to the cuticle, which contributes to split ends and hair breakage. They also help dry, damaged and chemically treated hair which means: coloured, chemically straightened or permed hair benefit from it.
Other ingredients such as glycerine, sorbitol, hyaluronic acid, PCA, propylene glycol etc., are humectants which retain moisture levels in the hair, and amino acids, panthenol, triglycerides, hydrolysed silks and proteins to temporarily bind and strengthen hair until the next shampoo. After all, hair is hard keratin (protein) and binds briefly to deposited proteins.
Foaming Agents and Thickeners
These ingredients are mostly included for the feel of the product in the hair. A great deal of people still believe the foaming ability (as well as thickness and or appearance of a shampoo) is directly related to how well it cleanses the hair. Point blank, they have no effect on cleansing whatsoever. But it does help with the spread of the product through the hair and the appeal of a product. Specifically addressing the myth of foaming equals a better cleanser, this is in part due to many, especially ‘professional’ shampoos, encouraging a second application of the shampoo in the directions of use.
You see, sebum or oil, produced by the scalp inhibits the foam formation of a shampoo, which is why one application doesn’t suds up as much as the second application. Do you really need to shampoo a second time? Not with modern formulations and not unless you use a lot of heavy styling products regularly, or you’ve just competed in Tough Mudder. What is does do is make you use the product twice as fast resulting in another sometimes unnecessarily costly purchase of at least a shampoo with your next salon visit at up to a 500% mark up. Salons make most of their money from selling products which is why you often get the hard sell while captively vulnerable in the chair with that cape strapped most unflatteringly around your throat. They are the authorities on the subject of what is best for your hair, right? I will preface this with #notallhairdressers.
Don’t get me wrong, salons need to make money in order to maintain their livelihood and provide a continuous service. As an ex-hairdresser, I know it isn’t the wages that are keeping salons from making money. Hairdressing is still the lowest paid trade, marginally in front of a beautician, in the apprenticeship world in Australia. I’ve heard the US and Europe is not too dissimilar.
What I’m saying is, often ‘professional’ products are not necessarily ‘better’ than supermarket brands and I do not believe they warrant the price tag that some retailers demand.
By all means, if your hairdresser is amazing and makes you feel important and glamorous when you leave the salon, and you want to support their business, go ahead and purchase their products from them. They won’t do you any harm, unless the above information about how the shampoo feels like it strips your hair is true.
Preservatives prevent the shampoo (or product) from developing bacteria, fungi and microbes and the product from decomposing. How does bacteria and other nasties grow? For that you need moisture and heat. Your shower can provide both. So it goes without saying that your shampoo needs to have some preservatives to prevent them from developing. Commonly used preservatives are: sodium benzoate, parabens, 1,3-dimethylol-5,5-dimethyl (DMDM) hydantoin, tetrasodium EDTA, methylisothiazolinone, or MIT and Quaternium-15.
Before anyone needs a trigger warning, parabens are not the devil they have been vilified in the media for. The long and short of it is, studies were carried out that potentially linked parabens with hormone disruption and breast cancer claims. The study was poorly executed with no base controls (meaning they didn’t test non cancerous breast tissue for a base level of parabens, they only tested cancerous breast tissue and found parabens). A huge amount of criticism was heaped on the study and in conclusion, there was no conclusion. It proved nothing. As Kevin James Bennett said in an article dismissing the whole paranoid parabens debarcle: “If clinical testing finds the presence of parabens in both healthy AND diseased tissue, parabens cannot be the reason for the disease (cancer).” If you would like to get a perfectly delicious taste of reality on the subject of paraben paranoia check out Kevin’s blog KJ Bennett Beauty, link below .
Other Ingredients in Shampoos
Quarts or Quarternary ammonium compounds are responsible for detangling and allowing combs and brushes to glide through hair. They cling to hair very well and are rather helpful in shampoos. Some examples of this are: guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride, dicetyldimonium chloride, dihydrogenated tallow benzylmonium chloride, behentrimonium chloride, behenalkonium betaine, benzalkonium chloride, quaternium 18, stearalkonium chloride, cetrimonium chloride.
Volumising ingrdients coat the hair shaft with a thin film and can add the appearance and feel of thickness or fullness to individual strands for more overall volume. These are also used in conditioners and when used in both together can add a little too much weight to especially fine hair (ironically the target audience). These can build up over repeated use requiring a deep cleansing shampoo every couple of shampoos to prevent build up. I used to alternate one wash with a volumising shampoo and volumising conditioner and next wash was a non-volumising formula shampoo and conditioner. Alternatively you can use a non-volumising shampoo and a volumising conditoner which are easier to wash out of the hair.
This brings me to another myth that doesn’t really fit in anywhere else, alternating your shampoo and conditioner because your hair gets ‘used’ to it. Shall I repeat again that hair is dead once it leaves the follicle. Hair does not have consciousness. What can happen with poorly formulated shampoos is that they build up over time and therefore weigh the hair down, which then requires a deep cleansing shampoo to rid your hair of excess build up. Which is often what a second shampoo can do and what your hairdresser does before they cut your hair because they don’t trust you to wash it properly yourself (or with the ‘right’ shampoos) before a service. Again this hoax was repeatedly promoted by hairdressers to build sales. I am not saying all recommendations by your hairdresser or stylist are detrimental to anything but your wallet. I do suggest they are erroneous and unnecessary sales tactics and should be met with a healthy dose of scepticism.
Additional Ingredients that are Pure Marketing Hyperbole
Almost any cosmetic product that claims it is 100% natural and/or organic. Not only is this a total and utter lie, even a bar of soap requires chemical intervention to produce the end product. Arsenic is 100% natural and will kill you. Not everything natural is good for you. Water is 100% chemical, H2O dihydrogen monoxide, and only in vast quantities will it kill you, otherwise is very, very safe and recommended to ingest by every kind of doctor or scientist. Ergo, not all chemicals are bad for you.
Plant Extracts and Vitamins
I recall a television commercial back in the early to mid 2000’s where a smarmy Gia Carides sat munching on a vegetable declaring how she gets the nutrition she needs from the food she eats, and with a sarcastic snear touts: “I don’t need to put them on my hair”. I can’t recall the brand, possibly Pantene, but she was right. She doesn’t. Neither do you. Plant extracts and herbs in particular do not bond well to hair and are almost instantly rinsed away.
Vitamins are another widely held fallacy. Hair is dead, as I said before. Even if any vitamins could penetrate the scalp, what little vitamins are often included in formulas are unlikely sufficient to provide any benefit especially when they are washed off within minutes.
I’ll try not to go on with this one for too long but there needs to be some address to the unnecessary addition of especially ‘essential oils’ and other irritants such as tea tree, menthol, peppermint, eucalyptus, any alcohol excluding cetyl alcohol or stearyl alcohol which are thickeners and non-harmful, witch hazel, wintergreen, lavender oil, patchouli, ylang ylang, bergamot, camphor, lemon myrtle, citrus juices and oils, clove, and synthetic fragrances etc etc etc.
By and large, people like things that smell nice, especially if they are going to linger on you. Fragrances in products are often implemented to cover up the ‘chemical’ smell of products, however, for some brands it is a staple of their identity. They are known for their fragrant concoctions and consumers flock to them for their exclusivity and indulgence, and often price tag. Cos expensive is better, right? #eyeroll
Well if your one of the lucky ones, or not so lucky, and have a sensitive scalp or skin, that tingling sensation you get from your minty fresh or heavily perfumed shampoo is actually irritation. Irritation causes inflammation, impedes healing, create rashes, itchiness, flaking, blocked follicles and more alarmingly can break down the natural protective barrier your skin and scalp provide, allowing bacteria to get in, causing further irritation which can lead to chronic inflammation or just a run of the mill infection.
Bottom line, if it doesn’t bother you and you like it, keep using it. If you notice that it leaves your head itchy after shampooing, provides a tingling or burning sensation to either face or scalp, you’re getting dandruff when you didn’t before you might want to reconsider that fabulous shampoo ‘made from organic natural ingredients and 100% pure essential oils’. I took that last quote directly from an advertisement from one such product. To the untrained ear that sounds like damned dream in a bottle doesn’t it? All I read is ‘made from bulltish, bulltish, bulltish, 100% irritation’.
Okay BH, if you’re so smart, what DO you recommend?
My current favourite shampoo (and conditioner, never leave home without both) is:
OGX Coconut Miracle Oil Shampoo
- No SLSs, ALSs etc
- pH balanced between pH 4.0-6.5
- Zero animal testing
- Packaging is environmentally friendly
- Moisturises and strengthens hair
- Smells beautiful
- Leaves hair feeling silky soft and manageable
- Thick formula means a little goes a long way
- Available in supermarkets and department stores (Almost anywhere)
- Contains coconut oil (See ‘bonus round’ below)
I do not necessarily endorse all OGX products but I do like their business philosophy and many of their shampoos and conditioners are quite good. For more information about OGX products see their website FAQs
The only negative thing I will say about the shampoo is also a plus, the formula is very thick so a little goes a long way, however, it can be tricky to spread through your hair. I usually mix a bit of water into it to emulsify it and help distribute it more evenly.
Organic Care Colour Shield and Coconut Repair shampoos – similar to OGX in business philosophy: environmentally sustainable and animal friendly, and one of the cheapest shampoos and conditioners on the market! Conditioner can build up a little over time.
Evo Ritual Salvation Repairing shamoo (professional/salon only) – well formulated shampoo and conditioner, amusing marketing
A reluctant addition because L’Oreal test on animals in China, but their EverPure Moisturising Sulphate Free Shampoo is quite good
Toning Shampoos for Blonde Hair ( I used to be blonde and searched the universe for a good shampoo and conditioner)
Catwalk Fashionista Violet shampoo and conditioner – well formulated coloured shampoo and conditioner
VitaFive CPR Always Blonde shampoo – well formulated coloured shampoo and conditioner: violet shampoo, blue conditioner, smells like blueberries 🙂
Bonus Round – Coconut oil and avocado oil are some of the ONLY ingredients proven to strengthen hair. According to the Beauty Brains they can actually penetrate the cuticle to strengthen the cortex. If you don’t know who The Beauty Brains are, check out my article: The Beauty Heretic – Why I Critique the Beauty Industry. In a nutshell, the Beauty Brains are cosmetic chemists. You know, the guys who research and formulate cosmetics for companies.
Also, Argan Oil does sweet bugger all for hair strength or repair. It moisturises like any other scentless plant oil but it ain’t no magic elixir. Just like Bio-oil does NOT cure stretch marks, or anything else but moisturise the skin. Boy do I get in trouble for that one! Soz. Truth hurts.
There is no reason in the world to not condition after shampooing. Even if you are like me and have the oiliest skin and scalp ever to be deemed oily by the oil king! Condition the mid-lengths and ends like a good hairdresser would advise and keep it away from your roots.
How often should you shampoo? Leave it as long as you can stand. 2-3 days if you have an oily scalp, 3-4 if dry. Never leave it longer than a week. Bacteria builds up on your scalp and multiplies. You know it’s happening cos your head gets itchy. That’s bacteria making sweet love and babies on your scalp.
Wetting your hair (shampooing or swimming) breaks hydrogen bonds and makes your hair weaker, the less you wet it, the less damage you cause. Don’t pull it up when it’s wet and don’t brush the bejezzez out of it, it causes breakage.
And for god’s sake use a wide tooth comb when distributing conditioner through your hair, not your fingers, you’ll ruin your nails and if you get a snag, you’ll break off more hair. Start from the ends and slowly work towards your roots.
- Not all salon only or ‘professional’ shampoos are good and most contain sodium/ammonium lauryl/laureth sulphate (SLS/ALS)
- Soap is bad for your skin and hair, SLSs and ALSs are considered soaps as they are anionic surfactants
- SLSs and ALSs are drying to hair and skin, will make your hair colour fade quicker and are known sensitisers to skin and scalp, best avoided in any cleanser
- Conditioning agents in shampoos are good for your hair. Look for ingredients that end in -cone. Full list of good ones above.
- How much your shampoo foams has nothing to do with it’s ability to clean hair, but it does help shampoo spread and feel nice
- You don’t need to shampoo twice unless your competing in Tough Mudder
- You need preservatives in your shampoo. Get over your fear of parabens!
- Your hair does NOT get used to a product, it’s just retains build-up with bad products
- Marketing BS to make you buy include: vitamins, plant extracts and herbs. They rinse off and do not do ANYTHING! Hair is dead once it leaves the scalp and cannot be permanently repaired nor take in nutrients.
- Fragrance is one of the leading causes of irritation in shampoos, especially ‘essential’ oils and ‘minty’ additions. If it makes your head itch or tingle, stop using it.
- If you like your expensive, fragrant, salon exclusive shampoo and it gives you no issues at all, keep using it! You do you!
- OGX Coconut Miracle Oil is really good. Try it.
- Shampoos and conditioners with coconut oil or avocado oil will strengthen hair
- Argan Oil is a marketing ploy and does not strengthen or repair hair, it just moisturises like all oils do
- Condition after every shampoo for protection and manageability
- Shampoo as little as often, try and leave it at least 2-3 days between washes as it will dry out your scalp and hair and see below point
- Be gentle with your hair when it’s wet, it’s most vulnerable to damage when wet
- Use a wide tooth comb when wet and not your fingers, minimise tugging and breakage
What did you think of all this? Have you had any experiences with the ‘bad’ sulphates? Does your partner still use Dove to wash their hair? What is your happy place? What shampoos do you like? Let me know in the comments below!
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FYI, none of the products listed here have any affiliation with The Beauty Heretic and no re-numeration was obtained from them in any form.
- D and Williams. J, 1986, Simplified Hairdressing Science, Saliam Books, Narabeen, Australia
- D’Souza, P., & Rathi, S. K. (2015). Shampoo and Conditioners: What a Dermatologist Should Know?Indian Journal of Dermatology, 60(3), 248–254. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4458934/
- Deepika, k. Tyagi, Volume 55 (2006)Sulfosuccinates asMild Surfactants. Journal of Oleo Science, Issue 9 Pages 429-439 https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/jos/55/9/55_9_429/_pdf
- Begoun, P. 2004, Don’t Go Shopping for Hair-Care Products Without Me, Beginning Press, Seattle, Washington
- Begoun, P. 2009, The Original Beauty Bible, Beginning Press, Seattle Washington