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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.

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