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Do you know the ingredients in your shampoo?

In most households the shampoo is a basic necessity and one doesn’t normally give much thought as to what its ingredients are. However, it is now an established fact that most of the shampoos in the market are loaded with chemicals that have adverse effects on our health. Even the shampoos marketed as baby shampoos may have some harmful constituents. 

The word ‘shampoo’ is believed to be a modification of the Hindi word champ (meaning to press/knead the muscles). In ancient India, it was a common practice to use herbs and their extracts to wash the hair. Some common herbs used for this purpose were: sapindus fruit (commonly known as reetha); gooseberry, also known as amla; Acacia concinna, also known as shikakai; and hibiscus flowers, also known as gudhal ke phool.

Fragrances used in the cosmetic industry can be very toxic. Many of these fragrances are associated with allergies, liver toxicity, brain fatigue, mental confusion, obesity, asthma, headache, dermatitis, acute organ failure and cancer.

Here are some harmful ingredients that can be found in a shampoo as well as their side effects:

  • Sodium lauryl ether sulfate (SLES)

Also known as sodium laureth sulfate, it is an effective cleaning agent and is widely used in cosmetic products. It is also an active pesticide and is known to be a common eye and skin irritant. Some products containing SLES have been found to contain traces of 1,4-dioxane; this is formed as a byproduct during synthesis of SLES. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that these levels be monitored. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies 1,4-dioxane to be a probable human carcinogen.

  • Cocamidopropyl betaine

This is derived from coconut oil when it’s mixed with dimethylaminopropylamine. It is a foaming agent widely used in personal-care products. It is known as a common skin and eye irritant and is known to cause allergic-contact dermatitis.

  • Triclosan

Triclosan is used in many cosmetic products because of its antifungal and antibacterial properties. We are continuously exposed to triclosan while washing hands, brushing teeth, using mouthwash and washing utensils. It can enter our system either via skin absorption or when we accidentally swallow toothpaste or mouthwash.  From the human system, triclosan enters the environment through the sewage system and a re-exposure occurs due to soil contamination and by consuming fishes. It can accumulate in the fat tissues and cause toxicity. Some of the adverse effects of triclosan on health are cancer, skin allergy and endocrine-function disruption.

  • Polysorbates

Polysorbates are used as emulsifiers in cosmetic, food and pharma industries. The purpose is to dissolve the oil and water and it is commonly found in hair conditioners. Due to its texture and consistency, it’s difficult to remove it during hair wash. If left on the scalp, though, it can alter the skin’s natural pH and disrupt the skin barrier that is present naturally. Polysorbate 80 is specifically associated with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory intestinal disease. This can happen in people who are sensitive to polysorbate 80. It has also been associated with decreased fertility.

  • Polyethylene glycol (PEG)

It is used widely in the pharma and cosmetic industries. Often found in conditioners, PEGs contain highly toxic impurities – namely ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane.

  • Preservatives

Potassium sorbate, which is widely used as a preservative in the food and wine industry, is also found in cosmetic products, specifically in hair-care products. Potassium sorbate is a well-known skin, eye and respiratory irritant. Phenoxyethanol is another preservative used in cosmetics and hair-care products. It is known to cause organ-system toxicity. It is also a known skin, eye and respiratory irritant. Various studies suggest that exposure to this preservative is associated with diarrhoea, vomiting, dermatitis and central nervous system depression.

  • Retinyl palmitate

Retinyl palmitate is a synthetic alternative to vitamin A (retinol), and a component of many topically-applied skin-care products. It is also a common antioxidant used in the food industry. It is often added in dairy product to replace the vitamin A loss. Various studies, however, suggest that it enhances the speed of development of skin cancer in rats, making it a possible carcinogen. As a matter of fact, the Environmental Working Group’s cosmetics database has rated it a 9 on their 1–10 scale of health hazards.

  • Dimethicone

Dimethicone is used in the food industry as an anti-foaming agent and in the hair industry because it makes hair shiny and slippery. It is known to cause irritation in eyes, skin and scalp. It is also known to trap bacteria and sebum on the exterior of the skin. Finally, it is non-biodegradable and hence may have a negative effect on the environment.

  • Ammonium salts such as Behentrimonium Chloride and Quaternium-15

Behentrimonium chloride is a type of ammonium salt that is used as a preservative and surfactant in cosmetic products. It is a toxic compound. At concentrations of 0.1 per cent and higher, this toxic compound has been shown to damage the eyes. It is also a skin irritant and can cause skin inflammation.

Quaternium-15, another ammonium salt, is also used as a surfactant and preservative in cosmetic products. Some studies have classified it as carcinogenic.

Basically, we need to read the shampoo label very carefully. Take a close look at the ingredients list. Choose a shampoo that is free from the ingredients mentioned above. Such products are difficult to find but are available in the market. You can choose products with the claims ‘paraben-free’ and ‘sulphate-free’ to avoid paraben ( link Parabens or Preservatives: in your food and makeup) or sulphate exposure.

Beware of Claims such as ‘Herbal Shampoo’ or ‘All-Natural Shampoo’

When we read terms such as ‘herbal’ or ‘natural’ on a shampoo pack, we perceive it to be free from chemicals. However, before making such conclusions, it’s better to refer to the information given on the pack. Many herbal shampoos highlight their herbal ingredients and mention the chemicals as ‘other shampoo ingredients’. In some herbal shampoos the concentration of the chemicals could be up to 90 per cent, with only 10 per cent of the product being constituted of the herbs that are mentioned in the ingredients list.

Be wary of herbal shampoos that have a ‘lotion base’. These products only mention that the product has a lotion base. You can contact the customer care centre addressing the queries related to the product chosen by you. They can assist you in learning about the ingredients of the product.

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Divya Patwal


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