Are Clean Shampoo And Conditioner Actually Bad For Your Hair?

The terms organic, natural, and clean all sound enticing when trying to live a healthy lifestyle, but when it comes to shampoo and conditioner – beware.

By Hannah Leah4 min read
shutterstock 2166217221
Shutterstock/Andrey Sayfutdinov

Big Pharma is out to make us sicker, the American food industry just aims to make us fatter to benefit Big Pharma, and the products marketed to us are bad for our skin and health. This can make someone want to go all natural, with everything from the things we eat to the things we use on our bodies. But proceed with caution with shampoos and conditioners labeled as “clean,” “natural,” or “organic,” because not all of these products are actually good for your hair.

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What Are Clean Shampoo and Conditioner?

There is no absolute definition for clean hair products. In fact, the government (or any industry for that matter) does not regulate what determines a natural hair product, so companies can slap that label on just about anything. This alone should make you cautious when picking up the first thing on the shelf that claims to be good for you. But most hair products that claim to be clean will substitute cleaning agent ingredients with other natural ingredients, which can still contain plenty of chemicals. 

As a hairstylist, I always warn my clients to buy quality shampoo and conditioner after getting their hair colored or lightened. If you pay a pretty penny for your hair service, it's worth it to also invest in the products you use so you can maintain the integrity of your hair and keep the color vibrant for as long as possible. Cheap shampoos like Suave or Pantene market themselves as giving you shiny, clean hair, but many of them contain harsh chemicals that simply strip the hair of its color or cause build-up on the hair as time goes on. But clean shampoo might not be the best alternative. 

The Problem with Clean Shampoo 

You would think that a shampoo made of clean ingredients would be the best option, but is it really? Because “clean” is so subjective, it really comes down to the individual product. The benefits of a natural shampoo might be that it has fewer ingredients or fewer harmful ingredients, but this all depends on the product. Hair care brand Color Wow explains the basis of clean, or natural, shampoo, saying, “While these ingredients may clean the hair, and are derived from natural ingredients, they have been synthetically modified so they are no longer 100% ‘natural.’ The term 'clean' is often just a marketing tool and ingredients found in organic and natural products can still contain many chemicals." 

IDiva uses the example of “all natural lemon.” You might think “all natural lemon” is simply a lemon, but take a look at just some of the compounds found in “all natural lemon”: Aspartic Acid, Histidine, Leucine, Lysine, Phenylalanine, Arginine, Valine, Alanine, Serine, Glycine, Threonine, Isoleucine, Proline, Tryptophan, Cystine, Tyrosine, Methionine, Stearic Acid, Myristic Acid, Phylloquinone, Perillyl Alcohol, Thiamin, Niacin, Hesperidin, Eriocitrin, Rutin, Limonene, Beta-Pinene, Gamma- Terpinene, Alpha-Pinene, Geranial, etc.

“Clean” doesn’t always mean that the label is 100% transparent or that the product is regulated or not harmful.

IDiva makes the point, “Brands which peddle ‘clean beauty’ will just mention all these chemicals in one as ‘lemon extract’ to confuse us so we won’t know how many potential allergens are lurking in a formula.”

This isn’t to say that natural products are bad or should be avoided, but simply that people should understand that “clean” doesn’t always mean that the label is 100% transparent or that the product is regulated, has been tested, or is not harmful. Board-certified dermatologist, Orit Markowitz, gives Allure his opinion on natural products, stating, “I’m not against ‘natural.’ Just understand the product, make sure you’ve done a little bit of research, and don't automatically assume that because something’s ‘natural,’ it's safe.” 

Surfactants Are Essential in Shampoos

One thing that many clean shampoos tend to lack is what’s called surfactants. These are the cleansing agents that are essential for removing dirt, pollutants, and product build-up to most effectively clean your hair and scalp. When a shampoo is marketed as “clean” or “organic,” it often lacks surfactants such as sulfates, parabens, and silicone, and is replaced with a natural ingredient (that we now know isn't completely natural). 

Shampoos must contain some form of surfactant in order to properly clean the hair. Joan Morais Cosmetic School says, “Surfactants are necessary to remove dirt, oil, and product build-up. They are surface-active agents. Surfactants alter and reduce the surface tension allowing for better penetration.” When products lack these essential ingredients, and replace them with something natural, not only is the shampoo not as effective, but the natural ingredients can sometimes have a negative effect.

With shampoo that is made of all natural ingredients and nothing else, it’s possible the hair is not being sufficiently cleansed. Color Wow asserts, “In many other cases, when a shampoo claims to be all natural, they typically substitute oils, honey, corn starch, essential oils, aloe, and other ingredients for cleansing agents. The problem with this approach is that none of these shampoo ingredients will remove grime, salts, or pollutants from the hair. In fact, instead of removing buildup, they adhere to the hair and scalp and are difficult to remove. It is critical to have a form of surfactant as a shampoo ingredient within a formula in order to maintain a healthy scalp and properly cleanse the hair.”

Leaving your hair unwashed for too long (or not washed properly) can lead to other issues like clogged hair follicles, dirt and oil build-up, and thinning hair. Giving your hair a good wash will allow the hair follicles to be stimulated and create a clean environment for hair to grow. 

What Kinds of Shampoos Are Safe?

This might make you feel like there are no good options out there for your hair, but not all hope is lost. The best option to promote healthy hair while maintaining the color from your hair service is sulfate-free surfactant shampoos. This kind of shampoo still contains surfactants that will properly clean the hair, but are milder and less irritating to the scalp. They are also less likely to quickly strip the color from your hair. 

Cosmetic Business explains, “‘Sulfate-free’ is a term that usually refers to anionic detergents that are not sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) or sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). Sulfate-free surfactants are generally milder to the hair and skin than SLS or SLES, which means that fresh hair color can last longer and skin may feel softer.” 

 Some sulfate-free shampoos you can check out are:

Closing Thoughts

While typically it’s smart to use things that are all natural and organic, clean shampoo and conditioner might be the exception. All natural ingredients may not completely remove dirt and oils and can actually be difficult to scrub from the scalp, which makes your hair and skin feel worse. For a safe and mild shampoo or conditioner, use a sulfate-free surfactant. This will help the color stay vibrant for longer while still properly cleaning the scalp. 

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