When I wash my hair with shampoo, my main goal is to have my hair clean of excess oil and dust. What about you? I also want that my hair will “look good” – thick, frizz-free, shiny, easy to style, and healthy. These are all subjective descriptions of how I perceive my hair. They are important, however, when I make my choice of which shampoo to use, and my shampoo is likely to affect how my hair looks. In addition to how my hair looks, my shampoo may affect the health of my scalp, and prevent (or promote) itchy scalp, or other scalp problems, such as dandruff.
Depending on your hair and scalp situation, you’d select the shampoo that contains the best ingredients to achieve your needs.
As a recap, the main functions of shampoo ingredients are –
- Skin conditioning
- Hair conditioning and moisturizing
- Additional therapeutic functions such as treating dandruff, lice or other scalp problems
- Emulsifiers to give the shampoo uniform consistency
- Preservatives – to increase shampoo shelf life
- Other functions, for example fragrance.
Is there such a thing as a chemical free shampoo?
First off, let’s be clear what we mean by a “chemical free shampoo”. Is there such a thing at all? All shampoos contain “ingredients” with different functions. These ingredients can come from different sources. Shampoo ingredients can be synthesized in a chemical factory. Synthetic chemicals are often easy to produce in large quantities, and hence they are cheaper.
On the other hand, shampoo ingredients can come from natural sources, normally, extracted from plants. Because there is often a limitation on the amounts of plants that can be grown for cosmetics purposes, natural ingredients are often more expensive than synthetic ones, but that’s not always the case.
Organic ingredients are ingredients that come from plants that were grown organically, without use of pesticides and fertilizers. These are probably the most expensive, because it is difficult to grow plant quantities large enough.
There is one more group of shampoo ingredients – shampoo makers often use natural ingredients as a basis for further processes, making them something else in a chemical process. One example for this group of derivatives of natural ingredients is Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate that is produced by the chemical reaction between fatty acids from coconut oil and isoethionic acid.
We can say that all shampoo ingredients – synthetic, natural or organic are “chemicals”, so in the broad sense of the word, there is no such thing as a chemical free shampoo.
If you are reading this page, I guess what you are looking for is a shampoo without synthetic chemicals. Is that true? Please leave a comment to define what YOU mean by “chemical free shampoo”.
Let us, now, look at the pros and cons of synthetic ingredients vs. natural and organic ingredients. Is there a difference? We should probably compare the following categories –
- Function – is the ingredient good for its intended use?
- Safety – mostly to our body, but also to the environment.
Pros and Cons of synthetic chemicals, and chemically derived shampoo ingredients
As mentioned above, one of the main advantages of synthetic chemicals is that, often, they can be produced in large quantities, for a low price. This will eventually reduce the price of the shampoo. There are many synthetic ingredients that are very good for achieving their function. For example, let’s pick on sulfate-based detergents, again. These detergents are very good at cleaning the hair (maybe too good J). What about safety? Although, many synthetic ingredients are perfectly safe to our body and the environment, there are some naughty shampoo ingredients as well. Some, such as the sulfate detergents are only mildly bad to us – causing some skin irritation, but not much more. Others are known to cause cancer or more severe allergies. One of the best resources for checking the safety of your shampoo ingredients is Skin Deep Cosmetic database. Often, the ingredient itself is safe, but contaminants from the production process have damaging effects to our body.
Unfortunately, we cannot say that all synthetic shampoo ingredients are good or bad. There are some that are fairly beneficial, but others pose a safety concern, and should be avoided.
What about natural and organic shampoo ingredients?
Natural shampoos are often more expensive than synthetic ones, because the ingredients are often more expensive. Depending on the intended function natural ingredients may be superior, equal or inferior to the synthetic counterparts. For example, you can treat dandruff with synthetic ingredients such as zinc oxide fairly effectively. However, the natural alternative of tea tree oil is as efficient for treating dandruff, with the additional benefits of treating also head lice and using as a shampoo preservative. What about safety? Here again, it is hard to generalize. Most natural ingredients are safe to use, with no side effects whatsoever. However, we all know that there are some toxic plants in nature, so it is not a surprise that some of the natural ingredients also have some side effects. Even tea tree oil given above as an example may in rare situations cause an allergic reaction, when used in high concentration.
When using a commercial shampoo that claims it is natural, you also have to consider how the ingredients were extracted from the plant. Sometimes the process of extraction of a specific plant component, purifying and separating it from all of the others, may cause change, contamination or loss of function. Labeling a product as natural, only requires that the product contains ingredients from natural sources, not that it “all natural” (with only un-modified natural ingredients).
If you are ready for experimenting with making your own shampoo, read this comprehensive guide for making shampoo from natural ingredients you can trust.