Chemical nasties to avoid in haircare

At Weleda our philosophy is to only use natural and organic ingredients, and we don’t feel the need to use synthetics because nature has a wealth of alternatives that work perfectly well – it just takes a little more effort, a little more care and skill, a little more time and investment, more belief and commitment.

Sulphates/Sulfates: Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) are surfactant ingredients (lathering detergents) that give shampoos their bubbles. Products that are sulphate-free have become very popular over the past few years, as this family of ingredients can be drying and potentially irritant. A double-blind randomised study, published in the British Journal of Dermatology 2004 concluded that SLS, SLES and MIPA laureth sulphate all caused varying degrees of skin irritation when used in bath and shower oils.  There is a very strong feeling among both retailers and consumers that SLS and SLES are ingredients that should be avoided in shampoos. It is the most frequently highlighted concern from both retailers and consumers in the UK. Some sulphates have also been identified as possible carcinogens (cancer causing ingredients).  

PEG compounds: PEG stands for polyethylene glycol. PEG compounds are used as cleansing ingredients and to thicken product formulas. They can easily strip hair of its naturally protective oils and have also been identified as possible carcinogens that are contaminated with 1,4-dioxane (a solvent).

DEA: DEA stands for diethanolamine, and these initials often follow another ingredient – cocamide DEA or lauramide DEA, for example. These are commonly called foam boosters. DEA chemicals are usually found in products that lather or bubble and they are another problematic and potentially hazardous ingredient. DEAs are hormone disruptors, and may also increase the incidence of both liver and kidney cancer.

Coal Tar: The name alone sounds like something we’d want to avoid putting on our hair, yet anti-dandruff shampoo often contains this ingredient (which is why it can only be bought from a pharmacy, and why the use of coal tar is banned in other cosmetics. This ingredient can block the pores of the scalp, leading to spots. Coal tar is a known carcinogen and literally comes from coal. Ingredients derived from coal tar are not eco-friendly, because they are not sustainable.

Zinc pyrithione: is commonly found in anti-dandruff shampoos to help prevent flaking.  It can potentially damage the skin’s DNA and also the keraticytes that form the skin’s natural protective barrier against pathogens, infections and UV radiation for example. EU law limits the amount of this synthetic preservative and anti-microbial being used in anti-dandruff shampoos to just 1% and it is prohibited from oral hygiene products altogether.

Silicones: The use of synthetic silicone polymers or quaterniums have good short-term conditioning properties in haircare, but are responsible for the build-up effect that can weigh down hair leaving it lank. Furthermore they are derived from mineral oils, so not sustainable, and they are not biodegradable. Silicones also contribute to the consistency of the product, and silicone-free haircare products are usually more liquid as a result. Sometimes when we stop using silicone-containing products, our hair can feel drier initially as the silicone ingredients have been masking the problem of dryness. After about a month of using all-natural ingredients, the hair recovers its naturally healthy shine.

Parabens: artificial preservatives not used in any Weleda products that increase the incidence of skin reactions. Methyl, butyl and propyl parabens have oestrogenic properties where they mimic the effect of oestrogen in the body, and are known as EDCs (Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals) which have an impact on our hormone production and reproductive health. EDCs interfere with hormone systems of animals and humans. Once they enter our systems, our bodies cannot process them or get rid of them, so they accumulate in little pockets and we don’t really know about the long-term effects. It is still a question of debate exactly what chemicals can affect the foetus, either during development or once fully formed. However, it is now widely accepted in the scientific world that bio accumulative and persistent chemicals are more likely to be present in a foetus. So genuinely natural and organic products are good to turn to during pregnancy.

 Azothiocyanins: artificial preservatives used as an alternative to parabens, that have been reported to cause allergic skin reactions.

Formaldehyde: is also a worrying preservative commonly found in shampoos. It is a known irritant, and a suspected carcinogen, and has been banned in Sweden and Japan.

Glyoxal: is another inexpensive synthetic preservative commonly used in haircare, instead of formaldehyde. This ingredient is a known irritant to both eyes and skin, causing dermatitis, and also harmful to the respiratory tract if swallowed.

Methylchloroisothiazolinone/methylisothiazolinone: rarely used in skincare today, these preservatives are still commonly found in water-based cosmetics such as shampoos and conditioners. They are allowed because these are rinse-off products only in contact with the skin for a limited time. However they are known irritants and can cause contact dermatitis, redness and itching – in high concentration, in detergents and paints for example, it can cause chemical burns.

Phthalates: Other ECDs to avoid are Phthalates which may also interfere with the natural hormone system. Phthalates may not be listed as an ingredient as they often be used in the manufacture of the plastic packaging, not as part of the formulation itself.

Artificial fragrances: evidence has shown that the majority of allergic skin reactions are due to artificial fragrances. A typical perfume may contain up to 100 of these classes of chemicals.

D-panthenol: this is an artificial conditioning agent which is manufactured chemically from crude oil fractions, despite occurring naturally in certain foods. 

Alcohol: Just a word about alcohol, which many people go out of their way to avoid because some alcohols are potentially drying ingredients. However the skin-friendly alcohols in Weleda haircare are not the same as the short-chain alcohols sometimes found in cosmetics such as nail polish remover (alcohol denat, SD alcohol or propyl alcohol) which evaporate quickly and are drying ingredients. Weleda does not use propyl alcohol which is derived from petroleum and which the body cannot break down. Weleda uses organic grain alcohol cultivated in Italy. Weleda also uses long-chain oily alcohols in the haircare range and these have a beneficial conditioning effect on the hair. Known as ‘fatty alcohols’, they contain oily molecules that give a smooth, soft feeling to the hair shaft by helping the cuticle to lie flat on the surface of the hair. These fatty alcohols are in fact conditioning ingredients to leave hair softer and more manageable. They are all derived from natural plant sources and also contribute emulsifying, stabilising or preservative properties to the product, so avoiding the need for artificial additives.


Check out Weleda’s chemical free range here: