Finding a Safe Shampoo, and What Ingredients to Avoid

We recently posted an article about the harmful ingredients in shampoos. As an active reader pointed out, we left out some important information — and just didn’t give you much help in picking a safe one. So we did a little research, and wrote this follow-up post to answer her questions.

Many of the ingredients listed in popular shampoos, such as Garnier Fructis, Suave, and Head & Shoulders are toxic. Read on for a list of specific chemicals, and make sure your shampoo isn’t exposing you to unnecessary health risks.

Sodium Laureth Sulfate is found in almost every popular brand of shampoo and body wash.  This chemical, while not itself cancer-causing, is associated with probable carcinogens in some products. Coincidentally, it is also the major component of the actual hair-cleansing part of shampoo (the detergent). It is known to cause skin and eye irritation, though it varies widely, which can exacerbate exposure to other chemicals.

Methylchloroisothiazolinone (say that five times fast!) is a preservative – it keeps other stuff fresh. There’s good evidence that it harms the skin, and may contribute to immune system problems. The United States, Canada, and Japan have restricted its use in cosmetics, though it’s still present in many “wash-off” chemicals. This ingredient is often found in lots of shampoos. (See a list here!)

Ammonium Chloride can be harmful if swallowed and can cause serious eye irritation. It may also be harmful if inhaled.

Propylene Glycol, which is used to moisturize, is a skin irritant, and has been linked to increased risk of developing numerous respiratory and immune disorders in children.

Strong Fragrance or Parfum is a label often used as a catch-all on ingredient labels for many different chemicals. As a result, they can vary widely. Many are a risk for allergic reaction; some may be more dangerous.

The Bottom Line here is that some chemicals are tested, and the ones that are definitely harmful tend to be restricted — at least in countries with strong health regulations, like Japan or the European Union. But lots more are not tested, or are not tested in conjunction with each other. And always remember that different people react differently to chemicals. Your best bet is generally to opt for products with fewer, and better understood, chemicals. Or just find a brand you trust!

Garnier Fructis: What’s the Story?

Our reader asked why we singled out Garnier as a particularly harmful brand of shampoo.  We used Garnier as an example of poor government testing, mostly because the brand sells and markets shampoos in which only 9 out of 22 ingredients have been assessed for safe use. To make matters worse, in one type of Garnier Fructis shampoo, six ingredients were labeled “health concerns” and three were labeled “violations, restrictions, and warnings.” Read more about Garnier’s products here.

Finding an Alternative Shampoo
Since most popular shampoo brands tend to contain at least one of these chemicals, we recommend buying a plant oil-based and petroleum-free organic shampoo. Although these shampoos tend to produce minimal lather (since they are not synthetic) they cause minimal harm to the environment and to you. However, it is also important to remember that these shampoos sometimes cost more.

Any time you have a question about toxics in cosmetics, we recommend the excellent “Skin Deep” database from the Environmental Working Group. For shampoo, check out their database and tips on how to find a safe brand.

38 thoughts on “Finding a Safe Shampoo, and What Ingredients to Avoid

  1. Carol L. Haddad

    I make my own shampoo. Take 1/2 cup vegetable glycerin, 1/2 cup distilled water, 1/2 cup Bragg’s apple cider vinegar, and 1/2 cup Eco Store dish wash liquid ( all plant based). Mix together and put in pint bottle. It makes the most wonderful shampoo – shiny hair – no tangles. Can be used on pets also.

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  3. Hari Ohm

    i actually use shielo’s hydrate line of shampoos (which are sulfate free) to wash my hair. It doesnt have any of those harmful ingredients. I used to have the worst hair, and now I ALWAYS get complements when using the shielo shampoo. Worth the price. . .

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  5. Salmiak

    Erm. Ammonium Chloride is hardly “extremely harmful if swallowed”. It’s quite commonly used as flavouring in sweets (candy) in several countries – these sweets are usually known as salmiac, salmiak, salty licorice, etc. I’m not sure where people got this idea of it being higly toxic. Sure, a serious overdose could be harmful; but none of the websites I’ve seen used as references about its dangers in _normal_ doses seem to actually support these claims (and that includes the link provided in the above post).

  6. Jeff Gang

    @Salmiak – Thanks for the heads-up. “Extremely harmful” is an overstatement. But, note that it’s a HIGH concern for “Irritation (skin, eyes, or lungs), Occupational hazards, Persistence and bioaccumulation.” So, it’s certainly better to avoid when possible.

  7. Eric

    There is a company on Vancouver Island in Canada that produces and sources products that are completely dolphin and ocean (also people & Earth) friendly – genuine sustainably made with care. All of their products contain (and will never):

    NO laurel/laureth sulphates, NO parabens, NO DEA/MEA/TEA, NO glycols, NO EDTA, NO silicones, NO mineral oil, NO Phenoxyethanol, NO GMOs, NO urea, NO perfume/fragrances, NO animal byproducts or testing, ever… nor over 4000 other harmful “industry” synthetics or petro-chemicals.

  8. Bryan Landry

    I have recently been experiencing extreme allergies (breathing problems, itchy throat and eyes etc). I had similar symptoms a few months ago but they went away.
    Given the severity this time around I began to think about what was different in my life.That led me to this site. I used Garnier Fructis hair product for a little while and then suddenly I couldnt find it anymore. I liked it but couldn’t find it anywhere. I began using some other product.Then months later the hair product from Garnier comes back on the shelves with a new packaging. I buy and and low and behold… Allergies worse than ever. I’m not positive of the link but after sitting and doing a timeline of when I felt awful.. When using this hair product, my allergies are unbearable….when I stopped, they went away, then came back when i used it again. Wondering if anyone else has experienced similar issues b/c this time around I am very sick…… Stopping used tomorrow!!!

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  10. Jeff

    My family uses products that are not only safe for our family but also saving us money; the best part is they work better than what we were using when we put our kids at risk with what we were buying in the store. We love sharing them with people because we love how they have helped out family and our friends as well. My email is

  11. Jess

    Garnier, loreal, herbal essence, dove, tresseme, and many other hair care brands cause severe contact dermatitis and allergic skin reactions for me.

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  14. iluckhun

    Need your view on the following:
    Sodium C14-16 olefin sulfonate, Aqua, Lauramidopropyl betaine, PEG-80 sorbitan
    laurate, Sodium trideceth sulfate, PEG-150 distearate, Cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine, Disodium lauroamphodiacetate,
    Sodium laureth-13 carboxylate, Simmondsia chinensis (Jojoba) seed oil, Panthenol, Bis-PEG / PPG-20 / 20 dimethicone,
    Sodium cloride, Phenoxyethanol, Methylisothiazolinone, Ascorbic Acid, Citric Acid, Parfum.

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  16. Jesse Gilbride

    I’ve had good success with just making a paste of baking soda and water, getting it all over your hair (and scalp), dousing/rinsing with vinegar (apple is my choice), and then rinse with water. No smell left behind at all, just clean and soft hair.

    Though my hair is a short (men’s) length, and I’ve heard longer hair should get a treatment of coconut oil to moisturize — perhaps after the vinegar? I imagine a you could add an essential/fragrant oil to that, such as that of a flower like lavender.

    1. Susan

      I tried baking soda to clean, and then apple cider vinegar (from Walmart) to rinse. I don’t know if it was the quality of the vinegar, but it did NOT leave my hair soft. My hard was hard, did not like texture. We also have chloramines (chlorine + ammonia) in our city water here, so that doesn’t help.

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  18. Kim Morrell

    I am currently experiencing a reaction from using Garnier Fructis shampoo & conditioner (the one for oily roots & dry ends). I have used these products about 6 times in the last two weeks and I have an itchy red rash on my legs, feet and back. I have raised bumps around my hairline that are sore and itchy. I also have red blotches on my face that look like the marks left by acne. I have read tonight of other people having a similar reaction to these products. I suspect it’s the lemon that my skin is reacting to, as I made an egg white & lemon face mask at home a few months ago and my skin reacted badly. I have no problem with eating lemons but I will be avoiding it (and other citrus ingredients) in all skin and hair products from now on.

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  20. Judi Madigan

    I found a terrific product line called Shea Moisture. while it targets African Americans the shampoos, conditioners and soaps are terrific and this very waspy girl loves the stuff and has found my hair is in better shape now using these products.

  21. Chris

    Can anyone recommend a shampoo which doesn’t irritate the eyes. My teenage son has had constant problems with eyes and has numerous visits to eye casualty. they think its an allergy. Has used garnier fructis but tried johnsons baby shampoo still gets constant very itchy eyes. Has tried many of the usual supermarket brands.

  22. Lara

    Shea Moisture is wonderful! Try their African Black Soap Deep Cleansing Shampoo if you have dermatitis or sensitive skin. It will not lather like traditional shampoos (which is a good thing, by the way) and you will notice your hair is softer, shinier and it will feel healthier. I’ve also been using SHE Aromatherapy Shampoo with Argan Oil (anything with Argan Oil is magical) along with the conditioner, and this too has proven to be a great product. I have enough hair on my head to make at least 2 full wigs and I wash/blow dry it twice a week. Changing to products with less harsh chemicals in the last 3 years has made a tremendous difference in my hair’s manageability. I used to have greasy, unruly hair, but being more aware of what is in the products I use has changed my hair for the better! Go to TJMaxx for bargain prices on amazing hair products you can’t always find everywhere! T I meantihe products I mentioned above were all purchased there, each under $10.

  23. Jenn

    Every time I use fructice my scalp breaks out. I love how it makes my hair feel but can’t deal with the break outs. I use Dr Brommees Castile soap. It can be used for everything from shampoo to tooth paste to laundry soap. I do have to use coconut oil for a conditioner.

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  26. Steven

    Im sick and tired of these companies
    Marketing their shampoos as Eco friendly
    Green or organic and claiming they’re better safer
    And less irritating
    I’ve got an entire bathroom full of these
    Very expensive dermatologically tested pops
    And every one has irritated my eyes skin or
    Scalp and in most cases caused hair fall

    I’ve found supermarket poos at bargain prices
    Cause less issues

    It doesn’t matter what shampoo it is
    If you have an allergy to an ingredient or chemical
    In the shampoo be it natural or otherwise
    It will make it worse
    I’ve got 12 years experience suffering with
    It .
    I’m close to madness and just washing with
    Water !

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