What’s Really In That Shampoo?

Ever wonder what’s in the shampoo you use? I never gave it too much thought to be honest. I’ve noticed recently that my hair isn’t taking products very well. It’s either very oily or very dry, no matter the fact that the bottle tells me its contents are supposed to help me with: “dry hair” “oily hair”, “fine hair”, “volumizing”.

As I’m becoming more aware of what foods I put into my body, I’m beginning to wonder the same about products I put ON my body.  These days everyone is beginning to question nearly every product we use from household cleaners to deodorants to detergents. And rightfully so. Product manufacturers have been playing us all for years, knowing that we look for short term gratification-(does it smell good? Does it lather? Does it momentarily ‘do the trick’) And this has worked for the consumers for decades. It checks our boxes and we continue to buy. Meanwhile, manufacturers continue looking for the cheapest ingredients that will satisfy us enough to continue buying their product. I’m glad we are beginning to question ingredients, because eventually this is, hopefully, going to change the face of products we use.

As someone who enjoys research, I finally decided to sit down and try to figure out what exactly was in my little shampoo bottle. 

Plus, I think it’s important that as parents we are aware of products we use regularly, especially on our children. The best way to protect our family and ourselves is to be informed.

I’ve started to read labels on so many products I use daily. I picked up my Herbal Essence shampoo bottle in the shower and took a moment to read the long list of ingredients it contained.


  • sodium laureth sulfate
  • cocamidopropyl betaine
  • sodium lauryl sulfate
  • fragrance
  • cocus nucifera (coconut) fruit extract
  • histidine
  • aloe barbadensis leaf juice
  • ecklonia radiata extract
  • zea mays (corn)silk extract
  • orchis mascula flower extract,
  • stearyl alcohol
  • cetyl alcohol
  • glycol distearate
  • glycerin
  • dimethiconol
  • citric acid
  • sodium benzoate
  • dimethicone
  • guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride
  • tetrasodium edta
  • tea-dodecylbenzenesulfonate
  • polyquarternium-6
  • trihydroxystearin
  • trideceth-10
  • methylchloroisothiazolinone
  • methylisothiazolinone

As you can read, most are hard to pronounce, and I hardly knew what any of them were. I became curious and did my own research: ingredient by ingredient; chemical by chemical.  Here is what I found, along with my best interpretation of each after my research.

*Please note that I am NOT a doctor or scientist. I tried my best to understand and comprehend every piece of research. I also was careful about which websites I got my research from. I tried to stick to scholarly articles, or accredited websites. I included links of information throughout the article. I encourage you to do your own research as well!*

Following this are the ingredients found in the Herbal Essences shampoo…

Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)

creates the “foaming” effect of many personal care products. If you do enough research, you will find that products do not need to foam to keep you clean, however, it’s added into products because many people think that if it doesn’t foam, then cleaning isn’t taking place.  Forbes  reports that what while Sodium Laureth Sulfate isn’t necessarily harmful, people can develop reactions to it overtime.

What CAN cause sodium laureth sulfate to be harmful is when it’s contaminated with 1,4 dioxane, which is a chemical compound found in adhesives and sealants. It can be irritating to the eyes and upper respiratory tract. When a certain amount of 1,4 dioxane are exposed to air for a long period of time, there is the potential for an explosion of peroxides. The FDA does not have to state if sodium laureth sulfate has been contaminated by 1,4 dioxane and while the FDA tells product manufacturers to carefully test products to be sure they do not contain 1,4 dioxane, it is not federal law that the manufacturers test for it themselves.

(The FDA website itself says it’s monitoring but nothing more) Moreover, Wikipedia reports that 1,4 dioxane is found in many “organic” cosmetic products.  Found directly from the FDA website, (Looke under “What is FDA doing about 1,4-dioxane in cosmetics?”) “1,4-dioxane is a potential human carcinogen” (a “carcinogen” is the formation of cancer).

Note: While I’m not one to trust the FDA, if THEY are saying the potential is there for the formation of cancer, then that’s a big deal.  I will say that Sodium Laureth Sulfate is ONLY carcinogenc when it has come into contact with 1,4 dioxane–which seems to be hard to regulate when the FDA doesn’t monitor it.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)

-a chemical relative of Sodium Laureth Sulfate (above). Sodium Lauryl Sulfate is the reason you are encouraged not to swallow too much toothpaste, because it is an irritant. Long term use of it can cause itchy or cracked skin, especially to those who already have skin sensitivities. It is used in a lot of household products such as carpet cleaners, shampoos, soaps, and even engine degreasers.

SLS is considered a thickening agent, so it is also used in foods as an additive.

Some foods where you can find sodium lauryl sulfate, directly from the FDA website (you can alphabetically search for me using the link): egg white solids, Whipping agent in gelatin used in preparing marshmallows. As a surfactant, basically meaning it allows the wetting agent to spread easier. Dangers of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate: skin and eye irritation, organ system toxicity in animal studies, however, it’s been deemed safe in small doses. The CDC website itself lists some information in regards to its negative impacts.

Screenshot 2018-02-11 at 8.15.34 AM

Cocamidopropyl betaine (CAPB)

This ingredient is often disguised as “coconut based cleanser” in products. The use of anything coconut is appealing these days, because it makes us think that what we are using is more natural based. (I’ve been guilty, too!) But, even organic and natural products often contain CAPB. It’s also another foaming agent in products. It is considered a “tear free” product because it isn’t an irritant, and is therefore found in many children’s tear-free shampoos and washes.

CAPB is a common trigger for those who suffer from eczema, psoriasis, rosacea, and contact dermatitis.

By the way, if you suffer from “allergy eyes” and don’t have any underlying sinus symptoms, CAPB may be your culprit. I found this personally interesting because Blake suffers from eczema. After doing this research I took a closer look at his shampoo bottles. A few weeks ago when he was out of bodywash and shampoo, I purchased the cheap brand at the store because I thought I needed to be money savvy and I thought we had his eczema under control. I didn’t think it would hurt anything. I purchased Suave shampoo + body wash for him. His eczema slowly started to flare back up, but I thought maybe it was the colder weather.  Eventually, it got so bad that I returned to the store and purchased a product I knew had worked in the past, California Baby. His eczema has slowly improved recently, and his dry patches have slowly been going away. Here’s what I found in his Suave. Notice it’s “coconut”.



Then, the California Baby eczema relief.


CAPB is missing in the California Baby.  If you have skin issues, check for this ingredient! It is also used in contact lens solutions, and eye creams. So, if you are having skin issues in any of these areas, please check the label! Blake’s eczema has cleared up significantly since switching, by the way!

Back to Herbal Essences…


-The FDA does not require products to state which “fragrance” is being used in any one product. They say it’s because it could force a company to release trade secrets. I can understand this, though it leaves people to question what fragrances are being used, especially those who are sensitive to certain fragrances. My advice would be, if you are using a product and having ANY sort of reaction at all, then it could be due to an unlisted fragrant in any one product.

Two of the most common “fragrants” that aren’t stated on bottles are lavender and mint.

Cocos Nucifera (coconut) fruit extract

-It is a conditioning agent and an anti-oxidant. The name and description are pretty straight forward. This is not a harmful ingredient from any research that I found. It comes straight from the coconut itself.


-an amino acid, often used in medicines–helps with metabolic processes in the body and the processing of food into other areas of the body.  Histidine is metabolized into histamines, and histamines play important roles in immunity and gastric secretion. *I found the gastric secretion part especially interesting since I have been suffering for years with gastric issues and am slowly having to eliminate loads of foods in my diet due to gastric issues and irritations. (Histidines would be meant to help this, so I’m not saying it’s being caused by this, but it’s an interesting fact, nonetheless.)
The National Center for Biotechnology Information contains facts about histidine, and what too much or too little can do to the body. 

From this site

Elevated blood histidine is accompanied by a wide range of symptoms, from mental and physical retardation to poor intellectual functioning, emotional instability, tremor, ataxia and psychosis.

When I first researched this I was really unsure of why any non-medicinal product would have Histidine in its product, however, it seems to be because it encourages hair growth. One would be more tempted to return to a product if it was making their hair full. I noticed the bottle of this shampoo also makes it sound as if it will “renew” hair–because the histidine can strengthen hair.

Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice

-Another name for aloe-vera. Because aloe vera is a soothing plant, it would be my guess (and only my guess) that it is used in shampoos to combat the other harmful ingredients that can cause skin irritations (such as SLS and SLES)

Ecklonia Radiata Extract

-This is actually advertised on the outside of the bottle, “Kelp”. It is a seaweed used in many hair care products and is not harmful. It is simply used to moisturize hair.

Zea Mays (corn)silk extract

-This is the yellow threads that are found on corn husks and are often used for medicinal purposes, such as treating urinary tract infections. It’s also used to help treat people with hyperglycemia. For cosmetic products, the husk threads are extracted by heat (or some way similar) and it’s used for the purpose of slowing down the loss of moisture. Basically, not leaving hair dry. It isn’t harmful except when ingested in large amounts. (You can put corn silk in hot tea to help with colds and flu, but in moderation.)

Orchis Mascula flower extract

-Orchid flower extract isn’t harmful and is often used in cosmetic products as a moisturizer and anti-aging ingredient.

Stearyl Alcohol and Cetyl Alcohol

-recorded as having a low toxicity, most often refers to a fatty substance that gives the hair that smooth and shiny look after its washed. Both alcohols used to be derived from animals but now they come from coconut plants, are can be made synthetically. Cetyl Alcohol is what helps the conditioning part of shampoo to spread in hair more easily, otherwise it may clump or separate. It is used in food additives, cosmetics, lubricants, and over the counter drugs. Low toxicity is considered at a consumer rate of less than 8%. I’m not sure how much this shampoo bottle had. There is between 2 and 4% of stearyl alcohol in shampoo. My question is if we are consuming it via multiple avenues (medication, cosmetics, etc.), the percentage rises, and at what point do we reach toxic levels of consumption? Contrarily to above ingredient which were used to create foam, stearyl alcohol is an anti-foaming agent.

Both alcohols are comedogenic, which means they can clog pores. This makes sense if you notice your hair is getting oily, simply, the product is causing build-up to occur. Additionally, for those with sensitive, allergy-prone or acne-prone skin, skin reactions are greater.

Glycol Distearate

This is what gives our products that “pearly white” look.

I couldn’t find much information stating that this product was unsafe. – cosmeticsinfo.org is a great website where you can look up ingredients found in cosmetic products, known as a humectant.

Glycerin (or Glycerol)

Glycerin is the most commonly used product in cosmetics, toothpaste, and hair care products, after water.

Glycerin helps products from drying out, and simply moisturizes them so that we can continue using them with ease.


Dimenthiconol (not be confused with Dimethicone) is a synthetic silicone that adds shine and softness to products you use. For skincare products, it adds a protective layer and fills in lines to TEMPORARILY reduce the look of fine lines and wrinkles. It’s anti-foaming agent (to counteract all the other actual foaming agents?), an antistatic agent, helping to prevent buildup of static electricity, and it dries to create a protective thin layer where it touches known as a “film former”  The problem with dimethiconol is that if it’s used regularly without another product to remove buildup, then it can cause greasiness.  In order to get rid of the greasiness, you will need to use a clarifying shampoo product.  There was nothing that was found dangerous about this product.

Common uses

  • Shamppos
  • Conditioners
  • Cosmetic creams
  • Lotions
  • Suntan products
  • Bath soaps
  • Lipsticks/Chapsticks

In short, it’s okay to use products with dimethiconol for a sleek and shine look, but if you start to notice greasiness of any kind then you will want to use a product to remove the build up.  I would use sparingly for this reason.

Citric Acid

Citric acid is used as a preservative in foods and is naturally occurring. If you’ve heard the term “alpha hydroxy”, this is where it comes from, used in things like chemical peels. In products like shampoos, it’s used to help make it more acidic, helping to balance pH levels to make the shampoo less acidic (since it is a solvent–used to dissolve other substances). In cleaning, it is used to  help “wash away/destroy” microorganism. It’s a mild acid, so I couldn’t find any provable negative affects of it. If it weren’t mild, we wouldn’t be able to eat oranges without danger. 😉

Sodium Benzoate

Sodium Benzoate is an organic alcohol naturally found in some fruits and teas, and is used as a fragrant, to help cover up chemical smells in shampoos and cosmetics. It also acts as a preservative, helping to prevent the growth of bacteria, mold, or yeast. If sodium benzoate reacts with ascorbic acid (also known as Vitamin C-a natural acid found in most fruits) it has the potential to become carcinogenic when these two mix together in soft drinks, because they form benzene, which is a known human carconigen.  Many articles state that the levels of sodium benzoate are too low to cause any harm when in contact with Vitamin C


Dimethicone is an anti foaming agent that is man made in a laboratory. It’s used as a hair conditioner. It’s used in a lot of cosmetics because it’s easy to spread and can fill in lines (wrinkles). It’s FDA approved because it’s been found to improve inflammation and irritation to the skin. Crazy to think we are putting something on our hair that is used to treat inflammation in cream form.

Guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride

This is a conditioning thickening and foam enhancer. (Noticed how many foam enhancers and then anti foaming agents are present?) It’s used in many shampoos, conditioners, and gels. It’s largest purpose in shampoos is to help with static and tangling.

Tetrasodium edta

Also known as Ethylenediaminetetraacetic Acid is used industrially and medically. One of its purposes is to dissolve limescale. So, why are we using it in our hair?! In the medical industry it is used to treat mercury and metal poisoning.


In high concentration, this can be an irritant because it is an aroma compound and is known to cause problems with asthma.


Used as a conditioning agent, prevents static (also), and helps your hair to shine. Basically, it’s what gives it that silky effect.


Also used in cosmetics, it helps to thicken the product. In make-up it slows the process of water that can form and creates a barrier between the skin and the product. My research shows that it isn’t harmful and is not detected on human tissue, at least!


Trideceth-10 is used as an emulsifying and cleansing agent. It’s also used as a food additive, food packaging, paper products. Supposedly it’s non irritating, but thinking that I am putting something in my hair that’s also used on paper products is a little unsettling.

Methylchloroisothiazolinone &


Methylchloroisothiazolinone (also known as CMIT) and Methylisothiazolinone (MIT) are a preservative. Safe Cosmetics reports that it can result in allergies, inhalation toxicity, and neurotoxicity (nerve damage). If you feel you are having any sort of allergic reactions to products, but don’t know which ingredient, look for this one! Due to recent complaints of irritants, many products have begun removing it from their ingredients. They are used in laundry detergents, cosmetics, shampoos and household cleaners.

The FDA says:

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) permits the use of Methylisothiazolinone (2-methyl-4-isothiazoline-3-one) and Methylchloroisothiazolinone (5-Chloro-2-methyl-4-isothiazolin-3-one) as indirect food additives, as antimicrobial agents, as components of adhesives and as components of coatings.

The last part has me scratching my head. Methylchloroisothiazolinone kills off bacteria, which is good, but when you think of medicines like antibiotics also using this it becomes slightly alarming.

It was very surprising to me to see how many emulsifying, preservatives, and skin irritants were (possibly) in ONE bottle of shampoo. I am going to continue to keep my eyes open on products and do my best to stay informed. I tend to look, these days, for the product with the FEWEST ingredients. Easy to research and keep up with that way!

Which products do you use that have minimal ingredients?



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