Choosing whether or not to go with a natural shampoo has typically boiled down to one question: How much do you like suds? Until recently, going the natural route meant living without them, because the chemicals left out also happen to be the main source of lather. Still, as good as you may feel in sparing your scalp a chemical bath, it’s hard to feel too smug when you wind up with limp, lank, or even greasy hair.
And that probably explains why most all-natural shampoos really aren’t. Many shampoo makers actually keep the sudsing chemicals, toss in some botanical ingredients, and call it “natural.” But consumers are getting more demanding: These days, they want something safe and sudsy. And a number of companies are obliging by trading harsh sudsing chemicals, like sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate, for gentler vegetable- and coconut-based latherers.
The result is a milder shampoo with lather. “Customers expect a great sudsing, foaming shampoo,” says Morris Shriftman, senior vice president of marketing at Avalon Natural Products in Petaluma, California, “so we gave it to them.”
Avalon, which recently teamed up with the Breast Cancer Fund in San Francisco to spread the word about environmentally safe cosmetics like its own, isn’t the only one charting this course. Blinc, Shikai Color Reflect, and Dr. Hauschka are among others that have kept the lather while removing what Shriftman terms “objectionable ingredients.”
So what exactly is the problem with these ingredients? Plenty, says Timothy Kropp, a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit research organization that focuses on health and environmental issues.
In a review last year of 413 shampoos, it found that 11 percent of products contained a known probable or possible carcinogen (including selenium sulfide and coal tar, found in some dandruff shampoos), 17 percent had ingredients that may be linked to breast cancer, and 82 percent had ingredients believed to help carcinogens penetrate the scalp (including EDTA, propylene glycol, urea, and PEG-7 glyceryl cocoate). There’s also the possibility that certain preservatives called parabens might present a health risk.
The standard rejoinder to such concerns has been to ask whether any of these chemicals is on your head long enough to actually penetrate your skin and produce health problems. In a report three years ago, the industry-supported Cosmetic Ingredient Review found that the lathering laureths, and other ingredients, are nothing to worry about.
“The levels used in shampoos are not harmful,” says Wilma F. Bergfeld, head of clinical research in the department of dermatology at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. “And with 10 to 16 ingredients in every shampoo, the laureths are diluted. None of these ingredients has been shown to cause a problem in studies. Also, no one would put anything into shampoo that is caustic or harmful and can produce cancer.”
Kropp begs to differ. He notes that sodium laureth can cause harm at high concentrations by physically breaking apart the cells on your skin. “While it’s true you don’t use all that much at a time, we don’t know what the acceptable concentrations are,” he says. And what penetrates the skin could enter the bloodstream. “A cause for still more concern,” says Kropp, “is that there are so many other ingredients in these shampoos that haven’t been studied.”
Paul Dompe, a naturopath and product review coordinator for Bastyr Center for Natural Health in Seattle, agrees that caution is called for. “While it’s true you don’t leave shampoo on your head all day, there’s an abundance of these chemicals in many of the other products we use every day,” he says. “And the cumulative exposure can add up. One day we may find that it represents a real health risk.”
Happily, those who don’t want to take any chances don’t have to. You can find a list of companies that have pledged not to use harsh chemicals in their shampoos, moisturizers, and makeup on the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics site, which was launched in 2002 by a coalition of non-profit health and environmental groups.
Many shampoo makers are also working to comply with the European Union’s directive for cosmetics, which bans chemicals known or strongly suspected to cause cancer or genetic mutations. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics plans to conduct its own oversight; this month it will publish a report card grading big-name U.S. companies on how successfully they’re reformulating products to avoid controversial chemicals. And many of their environmentally correct findings also give us suds. Now that’s heady news.
Keeping It Clean: How to wash with natural shampoos
You’d think the purest natural shampoos would leave your hair shimmering, too. But in reality, some can leave hair dull because of all those good nourishing oils and mild soaps. “You need to rinse them out more, because otherwise they may cling to hair,” says Anthony Rocanello, senior colorist at Julien Farel Salon in New York City. He recommends running water through your locks at least four times, ending with a cool rinse. “Just keep running water through it, as if you were standing under a waterfall,” he says.
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