We're constantly hearing that certain chemicals in our hair products are damaging, some even dangerous. From parabens to sulfates, labels on our fave shampoos or conditioners may say they've avoided using a chemical to keep your hair healthy, but what actually is the risk? Which chemicals should we be avoiding, and which may actually help our hair?
According to Al-Nisa Ward, a cosmetic chemist and president and owner of Cosmetic Science and Innovation, there are several chemicals you want to avoid completely, but others depend on your hair type. Some haircare products and cosmetics contain MEA, TEA and DEA, which are known to cause cancer. Originally used to increase the viscosity of shampoos and conditioners, Al-Nisa says there have been several instances where ethanolamine compounds (the name of this chemical group) cannot be processed by the liver. As a result, Safe Cosmetics.org says there are several cases where these chemicals have led to liver tumors.
"Also avoid preservatives that are formaldehyde releasers, such as Diazolidinyl Urea and DMDM Hydantoin," Al-Nisa told us. Formaldehyde releasers have been known to cause allergic reactions in users, and almost 20 percent of U.S. cosmetics and personal care products contain this ingredient.
For other chemicals, the way your hair reacts depends mostly on your hair's texture.
If your hair is drier or you apply heat to your hair during your styling routines, you're going to want to avoid alcohol-based products.
"You want to use a gentle shampoo and avoid using sulfates because they are harsher," Al-Nisa said. Also, be sure to check the contents of your styling products because many gels and hairsprays are also alcohol-based, which can further dry out your hair. Moisturizing creams and conditioners with lighter weight formulas will help to reduce dryness in your hair overall.
For oily hair, Al-Nisa says the rule of thumb is to go heavy on your shampoo but light on the conditioner. Thoroughly shampooing will help to get rid of unwanted oil excess, and a lighter conditioner formula will prevent your hair from retaining oil. Lighter formulas for styling products is also ideal because similar to conditioner, it will not weigh your hair down. Unlike dry hair, you don't have to avoid alcohol-based products completely, but since some can be very drying, be mindful of how much and how often you use them.
As far as whether to avoid sulfates, that depends on your preference.
Thick, Coarse or Curly Hair
The key to healthy, bouncy curls or tending to your thicker hair is moisture. To treat your full, luscious locks opt for shampoos and conditioners that have that moisturizing component, like products with natural oils, butters and deep conditioners. All those products out there that now feature argon oil will totally be your best friend. Al-Nisa also says to consider a hot oil treatment, because that will keep moisture in your hair for longer. As far as cleansing, go for something a little bit gentler; you may even want to forgo a shampoo altogether and co-wash, meaning washing with just your conditioner. This way, your hair won't be stripped of its natural oils.
Fine hair is at greater risk of becoming oily, so your best bet would be to avoid formulas consisting of oils or heavy creams. Instead, seek out shampoo and conditioner products that contain a light silicone formula or the chemical dimethicone, another silicone-based chemical, to condition your hair without weighing it down. For styling products, go with any light, volumizing formulas and stay away from heavy oils or butters.
If you're concerned about any of the other chemicals in your hair products, the Environmental Working Group has a database called "Skin deep" that allows you to search the chemicals in your products to learn more about them. They will give you a comprehensive overview of how many products use the chemical, and whether or not the chemical is potentially harmful to you or to the environment. Because most chemicals in our favorite products are not as regulated as the things that go into our food, the EWG is a perfect source to find out more details about the products you are using.