Ingredients You Should Avoid In Your Haircare Products

Human beings have been washing their hair for thousands of years with a variety of animal, vegetable, and mineral products. Everything from animal fats boiled with ashes to concoctions made from sweet bay oil, water, and lye have been used to remove dirt and oil from the scalp. However, the modern understanding of shampoo and its necessity for hygiene purposes is only about a century old.

According to, the shampoo formulation we use today was first created in the 1920s by Procter & Gamble. Other shampoos existed in the market, but this particular blend was a sulfate-based shampoo that worked well at attracting oil on your scalp and removing it. Over the decades, rhetoric from celebrities and famous hairdressers conditioned the public to think shampooing your hair daily was the only way to achieve beautiful, healthy hair. More and more products entered the scene, promising to solve a number of hair problems in response.

However, as shampoo and hair care products have evolved, so too has the number of questionable ingredients in them. A typical shampoo consists of 10 to 30 ingredients including cleansing agents, additives, conditioning agents, and specific ingredients meant to target scalp and hair issues like breakage or dandruff (via PubMed). Many of these ingredients and man-made chemicals present in our hair care products are damaging, not only to your scalp and hair but also to your entire body. If you're thinking about switching to a different shampoo, hairspray, or conditioner, consider staying away from the following ingredients.


Parabens are man-made chemicals commonly found in pharmaceuticals, foods, beverages, and cosmetics. They act as artificial preservatives that prevent the growth of mold and harmful bacteria in biodegradable ingredients, making them more shelf-stable (via EWG). Products like shaving cream, makeup, lotion and moisturizers, and numerous haircare products contain parabens. They are also commonly found in shampoos, conditioners, deodorants, toothpaste, and sunscreens — products that are used by most people on a daily basis. Parabens enter the body through the skin or when swallowed or eaten and are quickly excreted through urine.

Over the years, numerous research studies have taken place to determine the safety of parabens. The most recent study by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) and the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) concluded that parabens are safe for use in cosmetics and haircare products, per In Vivo Pharma Intelligence. However, other scientific studies suggest that long-chain parabens may act as hormone disruptors that largely affect the reproductive organs and may cause cancer. Furthermore, parabens can have a harmful impact on the environment. Not only have they been found in fish and surface water but they also have the potential to kill coral.

Many major retailers in the United States have committed to removing products with certain parabens in them from their shelves, despite the regulatory assertion that they are safe. According to CIR, the European Union (EU) has also banned the use of isopropyl-, isobutyl-, phenyl- benzyl-, and pentylparaben in cosmetics.


Sulfates have come under scrutiny for their safety in hair care products as well. Sulfates, which are derived from petroleum, were once perceived as cancer-causing ingredients causing many people to boycott them (via Healthline). This has been proven false, and they are considered safe to use. However, they are still considered a controversial ingredient for their effect on the eyes, skin, and lungs, as well as their negative environmental impact.

Sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate are two common chemical foaming agents used in many shampoo products. According to For Hims, these surfactants reduce surface tension between your skin and the shampoo, allowing it to clean your hair and scalp better. However, regular use contributes to the stripping of natural oils and proteins in the hair, creating dry, dull, and brittle hair that is prone to breakage. Furthermore, products containing sulfates are often tested on animals due to their irritation level, leading more people to seek out sulfate-free products.

Many cosmetic companies have answered the call by producing "sulfate-free" shampoos, citing a gentler clean for dry, damaged hair. Some worry these products won't get their hair truly clean. Eric Schweiger, M.D., told Self, "It is possible to get clean hair without sulfates. With the lather from a sulfate, you don't have to work as hard to cleanse your scalp. With a product that does not contain sulfates, you will need to do more of a rigorous massage on the scalp in order to get it clean."


Triclosan is a broad-spectrum antimicrobial and antifungal agent added to personal care and cosmetic products. The compound was first introduced into healthcare products in the 1970s and has been used regularly as an antiseptic and disinfectant (via PubMed). Its efficacy in the medical setting quickly led to being added to products like toothpaste to prevent cavities and gingivitis. It is also commonly found in antiperspirants, detergents, and antiseptic soaps, despite the fact that there is no evidence antiseptic soap works better than plain water and soap for removing germs, per the FDA.

It is currently a regulated substance by the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and is generally considered to be safe and well-tolerated by the human body. However, long-term exposure to triclosan is linked to a number of health issues. According to Beyond Pesticides, over-the-counter products containing triclosan may cause issues with thyroid hormone metabolism, weakened immune systems, decreased fertility, birth defects, miscarriage risk, and cancer. As an antiseptic, it can also lead to bacterial resistance.

Although triclosan is an effective antimicrobial agent, experts agree that it isn't a necessary addition to everyday personal care products. The evidence supporting its toxicity is also causing many companies to remove triclosan from their products.

Synthetic fragrances

According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC), many personal care products list "fragrance" on their ingredients list but fail to disclose exactly what makes up said fragrance. You might not think there is anything wrong with using a shampoo that smells fruity or perfumed. After all, it makes you smell nice and gets your hair clean, which is the whole point. However, synthetic fragrances are often made up of proprietary blends with thousands of ingredients, some of which potentially have serious health effects.

Exposure to synthetic fragrances can cause serious gastrointestinal and cardiovascular problems. Certain chemicals used to craft these signature fragrances contain toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which have adverse health effects on the kidneys, the nervous system, and the reproductive system. Many are considered to be carcinogens, including benzophenone and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA). Women's Voices for the Earth notes that fragrances found in cosmetic products can also cause allergies, exacerbate asthma and other respiratory issues, and cause migraines. Certain synthetic fragrances are also damaging to the environment.

If you want to avoid products with synthetic fragrances, look for the terms "fragrance" or "parfum" on the ingredients list. Furthermore, just because a product says it is "unscented" does not mean it is free of synthetic fragrances, per Lather. Look for natural fragrances made with pure essential oils like rose, peppermint, lemon, or lavender. Always do a patch test on the skin before using it to ensure you aren't allergic to the essential oil.


Silicones are a commonly used but semi-controversial ingredient found in hair care products. According to the haircare brand Prose, silicones are flexible polymers that are found naturally in things like sand or quartz. They are considered synthetic ingredients because they are worked with in a lab setting in order to make them usable in hair care products. Generally, the presence of silicones helps make hair shiny, soft, and easier to manage. Silicones are good for detangling frizzy or curly hair, while also acting as a heat protectant for blow drying or straightening.

Silicones are not considered to be a toxic ingredient. However, many people choose to use hair products that don't have them simply because they are trying to avoid man-made or synthetic chemicals. They also can cause unwanted build-up. Dr. Orit Markowitz, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, told Byrdie, "Hair products with silicone leave behind a residue in your hair and scalp which weighs it down, blocks your hair follicles, and can cause hair loss."

However, not all silicones are made equal. Some silicones are water-soluble, meaning they are easy to wash out of your hair and won't lead to undesirable buildup. Water-soluble silicones are typically lightweight, moisturizing, and less likely to cause dry or dull hair after continued use. Silicone-free product alternatives like natural hair oils and serums can also provide the moisture, shine, and protection you want without the potential for buildup or dehydration.


The presence of alcohol in hair care products is alarming to many people trying to understand what exactly they're putting on their heads. However, like silicones, not all alcohols found in your hair care products are bad for your hair. In fact, many alcohols work to nourish, thicken, and emulsify your hair.

According to Monpure, short-chain alcohols have drying properties that can have a negative impact on your scalp and hair. These short-chain alcohols contain fewer carbon atoms, which makes them evaporate faster, something that is useful for products like hairspray. They are also good for soaking up excess dirt and oil which is why they are commonly found in dry shampoos. However, continual use of products with short-chain alcohols can cause frizz, brittle hair, and a dry, itchy, flaky scalp. This is often a particular concern for people with curly or natural hair. If this is a concern for you, consider avoiding products with isopropyl, ethanol, propanol, benzyl, and SD alcohols.

On the other hand, long-chain alcohols are considered to be both safe and good for your hair. They contain fatty acids and are normally derived from plants like coconut or palm oil, per NaturallyCurly. These alcohols moisturize by drawing water into the hair shaft and provide enough slip for gentle detangling. They aren't good for cleansing the hair because they can't penetrate the hair shaft on their own. However, when combined with other ingredients in conditioners, they allow hair to feel softer and lay flat.


Formaldehyde is added to water-based hair care products to prevent microbes from growing in them. According to the CSC, it is a known human carcinogen recognized by the United States Toxicology Program, prohibited in toiletries and cosmetics in Japan and Sweden, and severely restricted in the EU and Canada. This chemical is primarily found in shampoos and conditioners, but it can also be present in body soap, hair gel, and hair-smoothing products.

The FDA notes that formaldehyde exposure can cause both short- and long-term health effects. If released into the air as a gas, it can irritate the eyes, nose, and lungs. It can also cause allergies or dermatitis. Higher concentrations and longer exposure to formaldehyde may cause dizziness, headaches, chest pain, nausea, and vomiting. In extremely high concentrations it can also cause chemical burns, which is more of a concern for stylists and people who work in salons.

To avoid this, look for ingredient names like formaldehyde, methylene glycol, formalin, quaternium-15, dimethyl-dimethyl (DMDM) hydantoin, and bromopol when purchasing hair care products you'll use at home.


According to the EPA, benzene, or benzol, is a colorless, flammable liquid chemical that evaporates quickly in the air. It has a sweet odor and is derived from petroleum. A number of products are made with benzene including styrofoam, plastics, resins, nylon, lubricants, dyes, pesticides, and certain drugs. Benzene is a known carcinogen that can cause blood cancers like leukemia and other blood disorders. There are currently no set limits for benzene in cosmetics regulated by the FDA.

Many popular cosmetic companies have come under fire in the past few months for having dry shampoo products contaminated with benzene. Time Magazine reported the benzene levels found in certain dry shampoos by a privately-funded analytical lab were concerning because of the daily-use nature of the product. It is difficult to know where the benzene contaminant entered these hair care products, although many affected brands explained the propellant used to spray the product out of the cans was likely to blame. Benzene is a known contaminant of propane and butane propellants used to expel dry shampoo.

Generally speaking, it is best to avoid aerosol dry shampoos and hairsprays, as well as products that contain synthetic fragrances, and talc. Instead, look for powdered dry shampoos that contain rice starch, cornstarch, baking soda, cocoa powder, or arrowroot powder (via The Filtery). These natural ingredients are all effective at absorbing oil and impurities.


Cosmetics Info explains that diethanolamine, or DEA, is an organic substance used as an emulsifier to create foam and rich lathers in personal care products. It can also adjust a product's pH levels. DEA-related ingredients make up a number of substances and are not normally added to cosmetics in large amounts. However, a 1998 study completed by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) and the FDA found a correlation between the topical application of DEA ingredients and cancer in lab animals. This study is often pointed to as a reason to avoid DEA and DEA-related ingredients like cocamide DEA, oleamide DEA, and triethanolamine.

Modern understanding of DEA is that, on its own, it does not pose any health risks. Not only is it rarely used, but it is primarily present in rinse-off applications in a stable form. However, it is possible that, when combined with other ingredients in shampoos or conditioners, it produces something called nitrosodiethanolamine, or NDEA. According to True Natural, this compound is a known carcinogen easily absorbed through the skin and responsible for bladder and stomach-related cancers in humans.


Phthalates have been present in a number of consumer products since the 1930s. According to the NRDC, these man-made chemicals are used to retain fragrances and help topical lotions and cosmetics penetrate the skin. Phthalates are found in hairspray, mousses, and conditioners as a way to increase their spreadability and improve absorption into the hair shaft (via Briogeo). They are also commonly used in products that come into contact with plastics during the production process.

Phthalates are known to mimic the body's natural hormones resulting in dangerous health effects. Despite their short half-lives, phthalates can wreak havoc on your body. For starters, they are known endocrine disruptors. They also have negative long-term effects on the reproductive system, organ function, and child development, per PubMed. They are thought to worsen allergy symptoms, contribute to insulin resistance, and cause asthma. Phthalates can also interact with each other once they are in the body, amplifying their harmful effects.

Phthalates are difficult to avoid because manufacturers don't have to list phthalates on their labels. Although they have been banned by the EU and Canada, the FDA does not regulate the use of phthalates in personal care products. To avoid products that use phthalates, keep an eye out for ingredients like DCP, DMP, DEP, DEHP, and BzBP.

Other hair product ingredients to avoid

When looking for hair products, you should avoid polyethylene glycol, or PEG, as it's a chemical currently being looked at by the state of California for its ability to interfere with human development (via the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment). According to Simply Organic, PEGs are synthetic petrochemicals that act as emulsifiers and simultaneously soften the feel of your hair. It is also added to shampoos to improve its texture. In addition to the negative health effects PEGs possess, they take a long time to degrade and therefore show up in high concentrations in groundwater.

It is also advisable to avoid hair care products that contain retinyl palmitate. According to Cosmetics Info, retinyl palmitate is the ester of retinol and palmitic acid. The oily substance is used to formulate a number of hair care and cosmetic products. It has the potential to cause red, scaly, peeling, or itchy skin on the scalp as well as reproductive problems or cancer. 

Ultimately, we must stay vigilant when uncovering the surprising ingredients in our hair products to ensure our tresses stay as healthy as possible. You can thank us later.