Harmful Hidden Ingredients in Hair Products

A close-up of a person shampooing their hair. The background is pink.

When you head to your local drugstore or favorite shopping center to pick up shampoo, conditioner, and other hair care products, chances are that you have a list of requirements the hair products need to meet. You want them to smell good, you want them to work with your unique type of hair, and you want them to fit within your budget. If you aren’t also paying attention to the ingredients in your hair products, you should be. There are harmful ingredients in some hair products. The ingredients that make the shampoo very foamy or make your hair smell wonderful can be toxic. When you’re shopping for hair care products, closely read the labels for these harmful ingredients.


You have to be careful with sulfates in shampoo. Sulfates are surfactants and they help your shampoo do its job much more effectively, but some sulfates are linked to skin irritation and may contain carcinogens. You’ll want to avoid ammonium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, and sodium lauryl sulfate.


Parabens are a harmful preservative. They come in many forms, but you’ll typically see them with the ending “ethyl,” “butyl,” “methyl,” and “propyl.” Parabens are so harmful because they can mimic estrogen. They’ve even been linked to an increase in breast cancer cells.

Thankfully, many brands are removing parabens from their products nowadays. However, just because a product is paraben-free doesn’t mean that it is totally safe. It may still have other harmful, toxic chemicals.


Phthalates are chemicals used to make plastic more durable. Sometimes referred to as “plasticizers,” these chemicals are linked to harmful health effects. Phthalates are linked to an increased risk of developing breast cancer and birth defects. They’re often found in hairspray and fragrance added to hair products.

Silicone Oils

Silicone oils, like dimethicone, will make your hair feel smooth and shiny, but they can build up on the scalp and can cause irritation. They are also not biodegradable ingredients and it’s not good for them to get into our water.

Fragrance and Synthetic Color

Synthetic fragrances can have a wide range of undisclosed ingredients, because they’re just listed as “fragrance” in the ingredient list. There may be phthalates in the fragrance or other harmful carcinogenic chemicals. Synthetic color is similarly harmful. Artificial dyes that are banned in food due to health risks are the same dyes used in some hair care products and cosmetics. Avoid coal tar-derived dyes, chemicals “FD&C” or “D&C” paired with a number, or the name of a color followed by a number.

You’ll also want to avoid diethanolamine, triethanolamine, formaldehyde, denatured alcohols, para-phenylenediamine, benzene, triclosan, and mineral oil.  Remember to be careful when a product claims to be “natural” or “organic.” These products are largely unregulated, so the label can be put on a product that still isn’t safe for you to use. Natural doesn’t necessarily mean safe. When in doubt, ask your hair care expert at your favorite green salon, like Arbor Hair Studio, for recommendations. You can also use an app like Think Dirty to scan beauty products, hair care products, and household products for toxic ingredients.



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