ingredients to avoid in hair products

Read any beauty product label and you will see that they’re all proud to make the statement “free of” and include a laundry list of controversial ingredients. Some of them and their functions may be familiar to curlies in the know – like silicones (occlusive and potential irritant”>, sulfates (drying surfactant”>, mineral oil and petrolatum (occlusive and potential irritant”>, and parabens (potentially toxic and carcenogenic antibacterial agents”>. But there were others, like phthalates and PABA that I wasn’t quite familiar with – so I had to do my homework. Here is a list of 5 less commonly discussed controversial ingredients to look out for when purchasing hair products:

1. DEA

Diethanolamine (can have any variations including Cocamide, Lauryl Sulfate, Lauramide, TEA, and more”>. A chemical used as a wetting agent and pH balancer in shampoos, conditioners, and other cosmetic products. It provides a rich lather in shampoos, and helps maintain the creamy consistency in lotions, conditioners, and creams. DEA in and of itself is not a harmful ingredient, but it has the potential to be. If the product containing DEA (or TEA/triethanolamine”> also contains amino acids (which are the building blocks of proteins”>, in the right conditions and over time, the ingredients can break down and recombine as nitrosamines which are highly carcinogenic. So much in fact that nitrosamines have been listed by the US EPA, US National Toxicology Program Report on Carcinogens, and in California under Prop 65 (which identifies chemicals known to cause cancer and birth defects”>.

2. DMDM Hydantoin

Dimethyl Imidazoldinedione (can have any variation of number combinations around or between the words, is similar in function and concern to Imodiazolidinyl/Diazolidinyl Urea”>. A formaldehyde releasing antimicrobial agent used in hair products and cosmetics to increase shelf life. Because of the formaldehyde that is released in the product preservation process, it is believed to be of moderate to high concern according to the Environmental Working Group Skin Deep Cosmetic Database. DMDM Hydantoin is known to cause eye, skin, and lung irritation (if areated”>, as well as immunotoxicity in humans. DMDM Hydantoin is banned for use in Japan.


Para-Aminobenzoic Acid (can come in many different “aminobenzoic” formulations”>. It functions as a UV absorber, filter, and sunscreen agent. Once a popular ingredient in sunscreen products in the 70’s, it was phased out because it commonly caused allergic dermatitis (skin”> reactions and photosensitivity. In truth, PABA hasn’t been used for years — but cosmetic and hair companies like to use “PABA-free” as a selling point to have consumers believe they are somehow purchasing a superior, more natural, or less harmful product.

4. Phthalates

A chemical group used in hundreds of plastic products (toys, vinyl, food packaging, pharmaceuticals, etc.”> and in hair and skin products including hair sprays, soaps, and shampoos. The most common phthalates used are dibutylphthalate (DBP”>, dimethylphthalate (DMP”>, and diethylphthalate (DEP”>. Phthalates are plasticizers (dispersants”> in products that reduce brittleness/cracking/stiffness in products like nail polish and hair spray, allowing them to form a flexible film. Phthalates are also used as solvents and perfume (fragrance”> fixatives in many hair and cosmetic products. Research has shown phthalates to interfere with reproductive function and hormonal systems (including male infertility and reduced sex hormones”>, as well as cause birth defects. Phthalates have also been noticed to cause proliferation of breast tumor cells, and render certain anti-estrogen treatments less effective against tumors.

5. Fragrance/Parfum

Although this isn’t a specified ingredient (we will learn why soon”>, it does pose some significant health concerns. The primary concern is that there is no full ingredient disclosure when “fragrance” or “parfum” is listed on a hair or cosmetic product. The source, and what the ingredient is comprised of, and at what concentration is unknown to the consumer. This lack of disclosure casts a wide net of health concerns, ranging from skin, respiratory, and eye allergies, to dermatitis and potential reproductive effects. Although artificial fragrances are hard to avoid, being mindful of where they fall in the ingredient list can help determine how much is present. Aim for products where fragrance is low on the list (close to last”> for a better chance at reducing potential irritation and side effects.

If you can’t avoid them…

It may be a downer to realize that some of your favorite hair and beauty products contain these ingredients. Even if you can’t totally avoid products with these ingredients, here are a few tips for safer use:

  • Generally speaking, hair products ingredients are listed in order by quantity/concentration. The lower on the list these ingredients are, the less they will contain – thereby reducing your risk.

  • If your product does contain these ingredients, be sure to rinse it off well after use.

  • If you are using a shampoo or conditioner containing any of these ingredients, cooler water during cleansing and conditioning can help reduce the amount of chemicals that are absorbed into the skin/scalp.

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