Shampoo choices

by Marilyn Walls, PCC Nutrition Educator

This article was originally published in February 2014

shampoo choices

Even the most dedicated food purist may ignore what is in shampoo if it makes hair look fabulous and smell like the commercials advertise. But you don’t have to choose between bouncy curls and harmful ingredients.

Hair care products with synthetic ingredients may cost a bit less, but the cost to you and our environment may not be what you bargained for.

The same reasons for selecting clean, organic food apply to hair care products. Think about it: almost everyone, even babies, use some sort of shampoo. Later in life a conditioner might be added, or hair color and other styling products.

Shampoos and all hair care products go first on the hair, then down the drain, and eventually into our waters. The environmental and reproductive risks don’t end with aquatic organisms but may affect anyone drinking water. Some pollutants can’t be filtered out.

Synthetic hair care ingredients can irritate human skin. Moreover, ingredients are absorbed through the skin and delivered into the body. This process often is explained as “what goes on the body goes in the body,” because substances and chemicals are able to penetrate the skin and reach the underlying tissues and blood vessels. Hair care products leave a sometimes foamy trail extending from the body’s cellular level to the health of our planet.


Body care products are among the least regulated products on the U.S. market. There are few meaningful laws about what can or cannot go into body care products. Consequently, conventional hair care products have few standards. In general, a manufacturer can use any ingredient in hair care products that is considered safe, properly labeled and not adulterated.

Who decides this? The manufacturer decides, and it does not have to share its data or studies with the Food and Drug Administration. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency website states that “of the 10,500 chemical ingredients used in personal care products, just 11 percent have been assessed for health and safety.” That leaves 89 percent unevaluated by independent scientists or institutions.

Conscious of this lack of standards, PCC looked for a way years ago to reassure customers about the body care products we sell. Although PCC never has allowed products tested on animals, there were few other standards for deciding what body care products were sold at PCC.

We implemented the Natural Product Association (NPA) standards for shampoo in 2010 because they are the strictest in the industry. NPA standards specify that ingredients must come from a renewable resource found in nature (flora, fauna, mineral) and prohibit petroleum compounds. (see Health and body care quality standards at PCC »)

All products labeled or branded “natural” must be made with at least 95 percent natural ingredients. Prohibited ingredients include parabens (synthetic preservatives that are potential endocrine disruptors), petrolatum/mineral oil/paraffin (non-renewable byproducts of crude oil with potentially dangerous impurities), and sodium lauryl sulfate (a harsh cleansing agent that’s potentially damaging and irritating to the skin).

PCC has asked the vendors of all our shampoo, skin, facial and body care products to comply with NPA standards. Many brands at PCC already comply and PCC is working with others that are striving to become compliant by reformulating. We discontinued brands and products that chose not to comply, including shampoos from Alba Botanica, Aloe 80 Organics, Giovanni, Shikai, Jason, Kiss My Face and Nature’s Gate.

By adopting NPA standards, PCC has the highest standards in our trade area for hair and body care ingredients. This has not been an easy transition for many PCC customers. Some go to other stores to find products that no longer are on PCC’s shelves, not realizing the health and environmental reasons for eliminating products with synthetic or toxic ingredients.

How to read labels

Reading hair care labels can be confusing, so many people simply ignore the ingredient content. The unfamiliar, unpronounceable words on hair care products usually are the scientific names of ingredients.

Oils such as argan, baobab, jojoba and shea butter enhance the hair’s moisture and shine.

The International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) established a directory of scientific names for cosmetic ingredients to provide uniform labeling for ease of identification. Perhaps the most misunderstood INCI name is “parfum” or “fragrance.” This description is a classification for any added scents, including natural essential oils, and naturally derived or synthetic aromas. PCC never allows synthetic fragrances. Each ingredient was checked to adhere to NPA guidelines.

Choosing hair care products

A familiar refrain of those who buy conventional shampoo is, “I can’t find a natural product that works for my hair.” Perhaps a different perspective would help.

Expectations for shampoos have increased from removing dirt, oil and product build-up to keeping hair strong and beautiful. Still, cleansing is the first job of a shampoo.

Gone from PCC shampoos are the several forms of sodium lauryl sulfate foaming agents that also are used in car washes and cannot be metabolized by the liver. It’s good to realize that foaming agents, which can be harsh and drying, are not needed to clean hair.

It’s worth the adjustment to learn to shampoo with less lather. It follows that a smaller amount of shampoo can be used. Also, not everyone’s hair needs daily washing, because it can strip the natural oils. Dry, damaged or curly hair will benefit from leaving those oils intact with less frequent washing.

The next consideration is selecting ingredients to support specific hair types. While botanicals and other natural properties may improve your hair’s look, nothing actually can repair the shaft: these are dead cells. New cell and hair growth only occurs at the root of the hair shaft where the hair follicle receives nourishment from the blood vessels.

Synthetic ingredients go down the drain into our water

Despite those dead hairs growing out of the human head, most people know the pleasure of discovering products that enhance hair’s loveliness. Replacements for damaging ingredients come mainly from the natural world of plants and minerals, proven through long traditions and new research to promote healthy hair. Botanicals and oils provide nourishment and moisture for hair.

Oils such as argan, baobab, jojoba and shea butter enhance the hair’s moisture and shine. These plants grow in hot, dry environments and the properties developed to survive the harsh elements can be passed on through hair care products.

Argan oil is sought after for its rich fatty acid content. This oil grows mainly in Morocco. When choosing argan oil, look for certified fair trade. As in many shea butter cooperatives, argan production remains the work of women, who provide for their families by harvesting and preparing argan oil with traditional methods.

While herbs have a long history of supporting human health and beauty, stem cell science is the latest advancement in the plant world. Amy Halman, president and formulator of Acure Organics, says plant stem cells, which can create all types of cells for the host plant, also can self-renew and never age. So, when biotechnology extracts these stem cells in a clean, contained environment, the plant does not have to be harvested, preserving even the rarest species for the future.

The potency within the stem cell goes into the product. Halman believes more clinical research is needed because not all stem cells are effective. But studies on argan stem cells found they do reach the hair’s follicle. This concentrated botanical power can strengthen the follicle and support healthy hair growth. Brands at PCC that use plant stem cell science include Acure Organics and Andalou Naturals.

Research shows natural ingredients promote healthy hair

Hair loss is a concern for both men and women. While losing 70 to 100 hairs a day is normal, hair growth and replacement can be affected by illness, thyroid, blood loss, prescription drugs, stress and restriction of calories or protein. Finding a gentle shampoo is essential, as is stimulating the follicles and creating a healthy scalp. Also, avoid products with sulfates as ingredients because the suds are drying. Traditionally, rosemary essential oil has been used as a scalp massage to help thinning hair and can be found in volumizing shampoos.

Hair speaks volumes about personal feelings, in a language of style, shine and scent. Experimenting with the safe hair care products at PCC expresses personal values of beauty and health. It matters what ingredients are in that favorite shampoo.

Choosing the right hair care products »
A chart on choosing shampoo and conditioner for your hair type.

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