Rating Distribution

Shopping Tips for Shampoo

The issues:

The average U.S. consumer uses about 10 cosmetic products every day, including soap, shampoo, lotions, deodorants and fragrances. These products can contain hundreds of ingredients, and their regular use can result in chronic exposures to low levels of potential hazards. The most important issues associated with shampoos include:

Health concernsShampoo ingredients can pose potential human health hazards. In most cases, a chemical that provides a shampoo with a desired hair care property may also exhibit hazard profiles that risk-averse consumers would prefer to avoid. In the worst cases, poor product stewardship results in some manufacturers formulating shampoos to include recognized carcinogens like phenolphthalein or butylated hydroxyanisole.

Ingredient disclosureComplete lists of shampoo ingredient lists are often unavailable, creating a significant barrier to assessing the safety of personal care products. Although companies are required to disclose the ingredients in personal care products, these lists rarely contain information about percent composition (needed to assess potential exposures) and often rely on generic terms like “fragrance,” which make it impossible to assess whether there are any problematic ingredients present.

Contamination concerns — The Food and Drug Administration only requires cosmetic firms to list “intended” ingredients in products, which allows manufacturers to hide the presence of other ingredients from consumers. For example, shampoos that use sodium laureth sulfate as a foaming agent, are often contaminated with the recognized carcinogen 1,4-dioxane, a byproduct of a chemical processing technique called ethoxylation. Only after consumer organizations tested products have manufacturers committed to reformulate their shampoos to reduce levels of this shampoo ingredient. Similar concerns exist in products that contain formaldehyde-generating ingredients like DMDM, hydantoin or nitrosamine-generating ingredients like diethanolamine (DEA) and triethanolamine (TEA).

Inadequate regulationPersonal care products are not subject to safety reviews by the FDA before they are put on the market, and the agency is frequently criticized for its lax approach to regulation. The European Union, for example, has banned the use of more than 1,000 substances in cosmetics; in contrast, the FDA has only prohibited the use of eight substances in cosmetics. There is widespread skepticism that the current regulatory system is sufficiently protective of human health.

What to look for:

Look for shampoos that are certified as sustainable by Cradle-to-Cradle or as compliant with the standards set by EcoLogo or the Natural Products Association for personal care products. Also keep an eye out for other certifications like the NSF “Made with Organic” and Quality Assurance International seals, which focus on ensuring that “organic” marketing claims are valid for an entire product rather than just a few constituents.

Products that contain no ingredients of health concern, or only ingredients of low health concern. Note that you may want to avoid even low concern ingredients if you want to avoid exposures to shampoo ingredients like monoethanolamine that could cause asthma.

Products that are minimally packaged with recyclable materials.

GoodGuide Recommendations:

Avoid shampoo ingredients that GoodGuide classifies as high health concern. GoodGuide lists the Ingredients to Watch for in Shampoos below.

Remember that companies advertising “natural” or “organic” hair care products are not subject to strict rules about the marketing claims they can make. Unless a third party has verified a product’s marketing claims, the presence of such buzzwords should not be equated with being “safe.”

The most important thing you can do to reduce the environmental impacts of bathing products is to reduce your water and energy use by taking shorter showers. Read the directions and don’t use too much shampoo, which will also save money.

Looking just at shampoos as a product, life cycle impacts studies indicate that manufacturing of accounts for 60% of a shampoo’s environmental impact. In comparison, making the plastic bottle is only 15 percent of the impact. Look for shampoos without ammonium or petroleum-based ingredients if you want to reduce these impacts. Look for companies with good environmental scores.

Use GoodGuide’s Not Tested on Animals filter if you want to ensure your product choice does not harm animal welfare.

Use GoodGuide’s Fragrance-Free filter if you want to avoid potentially hazardous shampoo ingredients (like phthalates) that are a common component of fragrances.

More Information...

Scoring Personal Care and Household Chemical Products

GoodGuide counts the number of ingredients in each product that are categorized as low, medium or high health concern. We then factor in other negative information (such as regulatory restrictions) and any available positive information (such as third-party certifications) to assign product scores.


To rate a personal care or household chemical product on Health, GoodGuide utilizes the following attributes:

  • A health hazard score based on the number of product ingredients that are categorized as low, medium or high health concern.
  • Indicators that the product exhibits other negative aspects (e.g., does the product contain ingredients that have been banned or subjected to regulatory restrictions).
  • Indicators that the product is among the best on the market in its category (e.g., has the product been certified as safe or healthy by a credible third-party).
  • Indicators of data gaps that preclude evaluation of the product (e.g., no or inadequate disclosure of product ingredients).

Product-level data on environmental performance are generally unavailable for personal care and household chemical products, so GoodGuide relies on company-level environmental scores to characterize the performance of a product on this dimension. 

Product-level data on social performance are generally unavailable for personal care and household chemical products, so GoodGuide relies on company-level social scores to characterize the performance of a product on this dimension.   

Categorizing Ingredients by Levels of Health Concern

Defining Levels of Health Concern

To identify ingredients of health concern, we employ the science of health hazard assessment and rely on lists of chemicals that have been labeled hazardous by various authoritative organizations.  GoodGuide tracks whether chemicals are recognized or suspected of causing any of twelve major types of human health problems, ranging from cancer to endocrine toxicity to skin or eye toxicity.  We combine this hazard data with information on how potent a chemical is, whether it is frequently detected in humans, and whether it has been adequately studied in toxicity tests in order to assign ingredients to four levels of health concern: none, low, medium and high.

 An ingredient raises no health concern if

  • It is not on any of GoodGuide’s lists of toxic chemicals which cause suspected or recognized health effects;
  • It has not been detected in human tissue or urine;
  • It is not a high production volume chemical that lacks safety data.

 An ingredient raises a low level of health concern if

  • It exhibits two or fewer suspected health effects; and/or
  • It has a relatively low toxic potency for inhalation and ingestion exposures, and/or
  • It is only occasionally detected in human tissue or urine; and/or
  • It lacks at least half of the six basic toxicity tests required to assess chemical safety.

An ingredient raises a medium level of health concern if

  • It exhibits three or more suspected health effects; and/or
  • It has a relatively moderate toxic potency for inhalation and ingestion exposures; and/or
  • It is regularly detected in human tissue or urine.

 An ingredient raises a high level of health concern if

  • It exhibits one or more recognized health effects; and/or
  • It has a relatively high toxic potency for inhalation and ingestion exposures; and/or
  • It is frequently detected in human tissue or urine

 The Difference Between Recognized and Suspected Health Effects

Chemicals are identified as recognized toxicants based on the hazard identification efforts of authoritative national and international scientific and regulatory agencies. To date, such efforts have been focused on only a few types of toxicity: GoodGuide utilizes lists developed under California's Proposition 65  to identify recognized carcinogens, reproductive toxicants, and developmental toxicants. We use a peer-reviewed article in the medical journal Lancet to identify recognized neurotoxicants. Chemicals are listed on Proposition 65 after scientific peer review and regulatory rulemaking, which incorporates the hazard identification efforts of a variety of other authoritative bodies like the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Toxicology Program. A substantial weight of toxicological or epidemiological evidence supports the decision to list a chemical as a recognized health hazard under Proposition 65. Stakeholders that believe a chemical does not cause a recognized health effect have the opportunity to argue that the evidence does not support identifying the chemical as a hazard. If a chemical is listed under Proposition 65, such arguments failed to convince neutral scientific and regulatory experts.

Chemicals are identified as suspected toxicants based on reports in the scientific or regulatory literature, or on information abstracted from major toxicological databases. Lists of suspected toxicants are available for twelve health effects. Suspected toxicants possess evidence that they can cause specific adverse health effects, but no authoritative hazard identification is currently conducted by regulatory agencies or scientific organizations for that health effect. Inclusion of a chemical on a "suspected" list should be viewed as a preliminary indication that the chemical may cause this effect, rather than a definitive finding that it does. To identify suspected toxicants, information was abstracted from the principal toxicology text books (such as Casarett and Doull's Toxicology), medical journal articles, regulatory actions, and international chemical hazard resources (such as the European Union). The weight of toxicological or epidemiological evidence supporting suspect hazard identification can vary significantly between chemicals. For example, evidence from two different laboratory species indicates that acetonitrile can cause cardiovascular toxicity. In contrast, there is overwhelming evidence that carbon monoxide causes cardiovascular toxicity in humans. On this website, these differing amounts of evidence both lead to designation as a "suspected" toxicant, because no agency authoritatively compiles lists of cardiovascular toxicants. Identifications made by regulatory agencies or scientific references have often undergone peer review, but no administrative process has occurred that allows debate over the toxicity of a chemical to be resolved conclusively.

Controversial Ingredients 

GoodGuide separates ingredients into two categories - "ingredients of health concern" and "controversial ingredients." Only the first category contributes to a product's rating.  To be labeled an ingredient of concern, the chemical at issue needs to have been identified as a potential health hazard by a source that GoodGuide judges authoritative (e.g., a regulatory agency like EPA or a scientific group like the National Toxicology Program). We do this to make sure our ratings are based on the best available scientific evidence.  In some cases, a chemical has not been identified as a hazard by authoritative sources, although it is the subject of current debate as to whether it might have adverse effects. Goodguide labels such chemicals as "controversial" ingredients which a consumer might be interested in avoiding, but because the evidence of hazard is inconclusive, this does not contribute to the product score. 

Scoring Methodology

Core Score Components

  • Health Hazard Score: Products that contains one or more ingredients that raise a high level of health concern are scored 0 - 1; products that contains one or more ingredients that raise a medium level of health concern are scored 2 – 4; products that contains four or more ingredients that raise a low level of health concern are scored 5 – 6;  products that contains one to three ingredients that raise a low level of health concern are scored 7-8; and products that contain no ingredients of concern are scored 10. 
  • Other Negative Aspect Score: Products that contain an ingredient that has been banned from that category by regulatory agencies in the U.S., Canada, Japan or the European Union score 0.  Products that contain an ingredient that is being targeted for elimination by regulatory agencies also score 0.  Scores for products that contain an ingredient that is subject to regulatory restrictions in a category are capped at 8 unless the product label or its manufacturer provides data documenting that the product is in compliance with the applicable restriction.   
  • Product Management Score: Products that have been certified as safe or healthy by a credible third-party (e.g., EPA Design for the Environment) score 10.   If the relevant certification has involved a comprehensive evaluation and approval of a product's formulation, those ingredients' contribution to a product's Health Hazard Score will also be suppressed.

Adjusting Scores to Account for Data Gaps

GoodGuide adjusts a product's health score if information is missing that is required to evaluate its potential impact.  Our health hazard evaluation requires 1) a complete list of a product's ingredients (with sufficient detail about chemical identity to allow ingredients to be checked against hazard lists) and 2) information about the percent composition of a product (to characterize potential exposures and evaluate compliance with regulatory restrictions). Unfortunately, manufacturers are generally not required to provide both of these types of information for most consumer products.     

1) Adjustment for products that lack full ingredient data. For household chemical products, there is no current regulatory requirement that companies disclose full ingredient lists.  For personal care products, ingredient disclosure is required, although it may include generic ingredient names that are not specific enough to support hazard evaluation.  To create an incentive for full ingredient disclosure, GoodGuide caps a product’s score if it lacks complete ingredient data or lists generic names that do not support chemical-specific evaluations.  The caps applied are described in the following table:

Rating Cap
Amount of Ingredient Information Available
0 No information available

 Some ingredient information available, but list includes generic categories (e.g., surfactants) that are not sufficiently specific to identify actual ingredients

8 All ingredients are disclosed with the exception of fragrance, which is listed as a generic category

 All ingredients are disclosed including fragrance constituents (or the company warrants that its fragrance is formulated in compliance with strict European Union requirements and contains no phthalates or parabens)

 2) Adjustment for products that lack percent composition data. For household chemical products and most personal care products (with the exception of sunscreens), there is no current regulatory requirement that companies disclose percent composition data.  This precludes evaluating whether a product is a potentially significant source of exposure to a chemical (e.g., presence of an ingredient at less than 0.1% of a formulation is unlikely to pose a risk, while presence of that ingredient at 10% of a formulation could be a significant source of human exposure).  The absence of percent composition data also complicates the evaluation of whether a product is in compliance with applicable regulatory restrictions.  Both regulatory agencies and trade associations manage the potential health risks of products by defining thresholds below which an ingredient is deemed safe as used (e.g., use of an ingredient is acceptable provided that it does not exceed 5% of a product's formulation).  Unless a product label discloses the percent composition data required to evaluate compliance, GoodGuide caps a product's score at 8 if it contains ingredients that have been restricted by regulatory agencies or trade associations.

Adjusting Scores if Ingredients are "Below Threshold"

GoodGuide adjusts a product's health score upward if information indicates that an ingredient does not pose a health or regulatory concern as it is used in a product.  This adjustment has the effect of suppressing the contribution of that ingredient to the product's health score.  Such adjustments are indicated in the "Product Ingredient List" section of GoodGuide product pages with a "Below Threshold" icon and an explanation of the basis for suppressing an ingredient.   Scores may be adjusted for the following reasons:

  • An authoritative third-party (such as EPA's Design for the Environment program) has reviewed a product and approved its formulation.
  • An authoritative third-party (such as a regulatory agency) has reviewed the ingredient and determined that its use in a certain type of product (e.g., rinse-off hair products) does not result in significant exposure or health risk.
  • Percent composition data indicate the level of the ingredient is below the most stringent regulatory or trade association threshold level that defines safe use; the applicable threshold is not the subject of substantial critique in regard to its health protectiveness; and the ingredient is not authoritatively linked to a health endpoint expected to pose low dose risk.


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