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What’s Really Not True about Your Shampoo

Left Brain laments…

I read this shampoo post over at Salon and was outraged that a credible site like that would pass on such nonsense. I am a cosmetic chemist. I’m a scientist. I’ve formulated shampoos. And I can say that many of the things claimed in the article are just wrong. For example…

Shampoo Ingredients

Let’s ignore the blatantly false sub-headline calling shampoos virtual toxic dumps and move along to the initial claim. According to the author

“Of the 22 ingredients in this bottle of shampoo, three clean hair. The rest are in the bottle for the psychology of the person using it.”

Here is the list of ingredients taken right from a Pantene Shampoo bottle.

Water, Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate, Ammonium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Chloride, Cocamide MEA, Glycol Distearate, Dimethicone, Fragrance, Panthenol, Panthenyl Ethyl Ether, Cetyl Alcohol, Polyquaternium-10, Sodium Citrate, Sodium Benzoate, Ammonium Xylenesulfonate, Disodium EDTA, PEG-7M, Citric Acid, Methylchloroisothiazolinone, Methylisothiazolinone

The first part of the claim is almost true. Really only 2 ingredients in the formula, Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate, Ammonium Laureth Sulfate, clean your hair. Cocamide MEA might have some cleansing ability but that is not why it is in the formula. Ammonium Xylenesulfonate could also clean hair but it is not used at a high enough level.

The second part of the claim “The rest are in the bottle for the psychology of the person using it” is not true.

The preservatives (Methylchloroisothiazolinone, Methylisothiazolinone, Sodium Benzoate) are put in to protect you from potential disease-causing microbes. These things can & do contaminate the detergents. If manufacturers didn’t have to use these ingredients, they wouldn’t. There is no benefit to the user’s psychology.

The ingredients added for formula adjustment are also not added for the user’s psychological benefit. Ingredients such as Disodium EDTA, Citric Acid, and Sodium Citrate help to adjust the shampoo pH so it cleans properly, remains stable and free of microbial contamination.

The only ingredients put in purely for “psychological” reasons are the Fragrance, Panthenol, and Panthenyl Ethyl Ether. Not quite the 19 claimed by the author.

What do you need?

The next claim is that “One shampoo ingredient is all you need: detergent”. This is also not true. In reality, you don’t “need” to wash your hair at all. Plenty of people go through life without washing their hair and they are perfectly healthy.

But if you want your hair to look better than what nature will give you, you’ll need more than just detergents. True, detergents will remove the oil and dirt but they will also leave your hair tangled and dull. To get the hair style you want, you “need” the conditioning ingredients such as Dimethicone and Polyquaternium-10 too.

Does Shampoo Need to Be Thick?

The claims about why shampoos are thick is just silly. It is not true that “Thickness guarantees people use more than necessary”! A thick product gives you better control over how much you use. The detergents are naturally thin. Imagine how much you would waste if shampoo was water thin. Half the product would end up on your shower floor.

The thickeners are also added to the formula to help suspend the Dimethicone. Without those thickeners, this conditioning ingredient would separate out and not be effective.

And another thing, Cocamide MEA is not toxic!

Shampoo Fragrance

The author complains about fragrance in shampoos. Clearly, he hasn’t smelled the detergents in their natural state. Fragrance is important because the odor of surfactants is not pleasant. Would you really want your hair to smell like a melted crayon?

And complaints about fragrance safety are never supported by actual data. Sadly, this author relies on the public’s natural chemical ignorance and fear to create a sensational story.

Animal Ingredients

Few shampoos actually use animal derived ingredients any more. Not that there’s anything wrong with it as it seems a useful application of the waste from a slaughter house, but we can ignore that for the moment. No brand wants to be associated with animal products so most have stopped using animal derived ingredients.

Chemical Labeling

The author makes the claim that most shampoo ingredients have “several aliases and fake IDs” – This is BS. You can find the chemical listing of any ingredient in your shampoo listed in the INCI dictionary. While some smaller manufacturers mislabel their products, big companies like the ones who sell at Target and Walmart follow the industry rules.

Beauty Brains bottom line

Don’t worry about the ingredients in your shampoo. Despite what this author and other chemical fear mongers want you to believe, there is no evidence that using shampoo is going to cause you significant health problems.

Are you afraid of the ingredients in your shampoo? Leave a comment and let the rest of the Beauty Brains community know what you think.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • janet September 8, 2014, 9:05 am

    I thought that the ingredient ether that is used in Pantene was used in the medical field years ago to put people to sleep for surgery . When I saw this in the shampoo I was a little afraid to use it. Is it the same as medical ether?

    • Randy Schueller September 8, 2014, 10:36 am

      Janet: “Ether” gas that is used as an anesthetic is NOT the same as the “ether” part of Panthenyl Ethyl Ether. There’s no need at all to be concerned about it.

  • Leah December 29, 2015, 12:25 pm

    I’ve heard that panthenyl ethyl ether is derived from peanut oil. Is that true? If so… Would a peanut allergic individual react to this?

    • Randy Schueller December 29, 2015, 3:35 pm

      Hi Leah. I’m not an organic chemist but I don’t think that peanut oil is used in the production of panthenol derivatives. To make sure, I’m checking with one of the manufacturers of panthenyl ethyl ether. If they respond, I’ll let you know. (In the meantime, stay away from products containing this ingredient if you’re worried about an allergic response.)

  • Mark September 13, 2016, 1:42 pm

    Just swallowed 6 tablets 3 yesterday 3 today of a hair product that i now realized are capsules designed to put directly on the hair, yes silly me!

    Well the ingredients are

    Cyclopentasiloxane, Cyclotetrasiloxane, Dimethiconol, Tocopheryl acetate, Ascorbyl palmitate, Retinyl palmitate Helanithus annuus seed Polysilicone-15 Panithenyl ethyl ether Argania spinosa oil, Amodimethicone.

    Anyway information or advice you could tell me would be greatly appreciated,

    thank you kindly


  • Jim H. February 6, 2017, 12:08 pm

    While I agree that the author was mistaken about the ingredients I believe both Panthenol and Panthenyl Ethyl Ether are added to strengthen and moisturize the hair and add gloss although the amounts used may have little effect.

  • Jen February 9, 2019, 9:09 am

    Hi Randy, you state – there is no evidence that using shampoo is going to cause you significant health problems. But are there any scientifically sound studies out there proving they don’t? Another concern i have is that while the toxins/carcinogens/etc in some of the ingredients are at levels that are considered safe, the levels are adding up from all the different chemicals we apply to our bodies and consume as well and those cumulative levels are now at a not safe level. Thoughts?