In 2012, the United States Environmental Protection Agency reported that only 11 percent of the 10,500 chemical ingredients used in personal care products had been assessed for safety. While steadily increasing awareness of harmful chemicals has caused many hair care manufacturers to turn to safer ingredients, some products still contain small amounts of toxic chemicals, which slowly accumulate in your body over time and lead to everything from inflammation to an increased risk of cancer. Arm yourself with knowledge about the ingredients of hair care products to make the safest possible choices.
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A Look at Labels
A close look at a product's label serves as the most effective way to select the safest hair care items. Be wary of hair care product labels, however; the word “natural” on the label does not guarantee safety, as many harmful chemicals are naturally occurring substances. Look past the buzzwords and pay close attention to the actual ingredients list. Keep in mind, however, the word “fragrances” on the ingredients list may refer to potentially toxic chemicals, as hair care manufacturers are not required to divulge the contents of their scents.
What to Avoid
In shampoos, formaldehyde, diethanolamine, monoethanolamine, ethanolamine, triethanolamine and lauramide DEA all raise red flags, as elevated exposures of these chemicals may lead to edema of the pulmonary system and irritation of the eyes, skin and nose, among other dangers. Hair dyes and lighteners can be a hotbed of harmful chemicals; avoid any dyes that contain lead, dermatitis-causing paraphenylenediamine or hydroquinone, associated with tinnitus, nausea and irritation. Steer clear of relaxers with corrosive, tissue-damaging sodium hydroxide and avoid hair products scented with dibutyl phthalates, linked to gastrointestinal distress. Propylene glycol and hydantoin -- found in gels and children's shampoos, respectively -- may lead to irritation and edema while coal tar acts as a carcinogen.
What to Embrace
Although the list of “no-nos” may seem intimidating, the EPA recommends plenty of safe, natural hair care ingredients. Natural oils -- such as avocado, sunflower and olive oils -- condition and moisturize hair while providing it with plenty of vitamins. Flavonoid-rich chamomile acts as a purifying agent while shea butter moisturizes and protects the hair, shielding it from damaging UV rays. Honey, common in conditioners and pomades, serves as an antiseptic and helps your locks retain moisture. For cleansing the scalp and fighting dandruff, the EPA suggests products with witch hazel, which acts as a natural astringent.
The EPA-recommended GoodGuide group, a nonprofit scientific organization that rates household products based on environmental friendliness and personal safety, scores shampoos such as Burt's Bees Rosemary Mint Shampoo Bar, Natura Ekos Refreshing Pitanga Shampoo and Aubrey Organics J.A.Y. Desert Herb Revitalizing Shampoo perfect 10s in the Health category, as of 2014. Other perfect health scores include KMS Haircare Liquid Assets, Natura Ekos Refreshing Pitanga Shampoo and Aubrey Organics White Camellia Oil, as well as L'Oreal Elnett Strong Hold, Aubrey Organics Men's Stock Organic Hair Control and Tigi Catwalk Your Highness Weightless Shine Spray hairsprays.
For maximum safety, always research hair care products and ingredients before you make your purchase. The Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database offers a searchable catalog of 72,000 products, scoring them based on their overall hazard, cancer risk, developmental toxicity and allergen levels. GoodGuide rates more than 145,000 products -- including hair care items -- on similar merits, with the inclusion of environmental impact. Stay up-to-date on recent developments in the cosmetics industry's drive toward nontoxic products at the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics home page.