What’s in YOUR Shampoo? How to Pick Healthier Products & Go Sulfate-Free

My path to healthier living started as a teeny tiny little idea to put better things in our bodies. This quickly evolved into us taking precaution that the things that go on our bodies (which, in turn, also equals in our bodies) are safe, quality products as well.

I’ve been hitting it hard, looking for safer options to replace dangerous everyday beauty products that I’m exposed to frequently. I’m very excited that I’ve found and successfully test-driven some fabulous makeup, and will very soon have a post sharing that as well – stay tuned! Today, though, I have some products – one in particular – that I’m pretty darn excited to share in the area of healthier hair care!


WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL?

I always like to explain why I care, and why you should too. If you’re interested to read the basis behind a lot of my product choices, this guide gives you a really great overview of 17 chemicals you’re wise to avoid in all beauty products.

My quest for safe shampoo involves avoiding all of them, especially sulfates, parabens, formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (like DMDM Hydantoin and various Ureas), PEGs, BHA/BHT and DEA/MEA/TEA compounds. The shampoos we had sitting in our shower had all of these chemicals, collectively. Scary, right?

You know, I’m no chemist, but when you take the time to start Googling different ingredients, you really do start to get a feel for at least what a chemical is and why companies use it, but also why some are bad. Very bad. I feel we grow up trained to believe that whatever’s in there is okay, because, gee, how could the FDA allow anything that’s not okay?

The more you research ingredients in personal care products, the more you will absolutely loathe the FDA. Essentially, they’re perfectly okay with us slowly drowning ourselves in a vat of chemicals. So, that being said, you have to do the thinking for you. Don’t let the FDA do your thinking for you.

I’m going to get down off my pulpit now before this gets ugly! Moving on…

Anyway, I used to work in a salon, so I know that using quality shampoo is important. But even salon shampoos contain dangerous ingredients! Shampoo shouldn’t just be “good quality” in terms of how hair looks and feels, but in how safe it is ingredient-wise for the body too. You don’t have to rob Peter to pay Paul on this one – you can have both!


THE HEALTHIER SHAMPOO MOVEMENT

A quick Google or Pinterest search for “healthy shampoo” shows that this truly has become a movement all its own. Millions of people are looking for more natural ways to maintain their hair. As a result, many natural and organic companies are churning out way higher-quality products.

Homemade is an option, though I started looking into it and balked – there is just so much to know and so many ingredient choices, and huge potential for messing it up. Tons of sellers on Etsy have a big following with faithful, happy customers, so your choices are plentiful if you want to avoid store-bought!

There’s also a big trend in “low-poo” and “no-poo” care that advocates using baking soda/vinegar or even plain water. I understand the goal (no more harsh sulfates or unsafe chemicals) but I raise the caution flag for that. I’ve seen arguments on both side of the movement – some swear by it, but others are now reporting that baking soda is simply too damaging for hair (and are even seeing hair loss). Yikes.


MY HAIR + WHAT I WANT FROM A SHAMPOO

My hair is thick, naturally straight, and currently shoulder length, though I usually wear it longer.  I used to color and/or highlight my hair, but I now am 100% natural since late 2014-ish (which I did for many reasons, i.e. chemical exposure, hair quality, convenience, cost, curiosity to see my natural color).

I’ve always been a greasy gal post-puberty, and it was much worse during my teens. I’m 29 now, so it’s much calmer. Within the last couple years, I started shampooing only every other day, which has helped too. I’ve used a wide variety of shampoos in my day, both salon and grocery store brands, with varying levels of results, but nothing ever tamed my greasiness. (Until now, that is.)

My personal preference is to use some form of shampoo, just not one with sulfates, or any of the other 17 chemicals to avoid, especially parabens. And, while there is a long list of chemicals I want to avoid, I also want an ingredient list full of beneficial, natural ingredients that will nourish my scalp and hair.

We are all different, so what works for my hair might not automatically work for yours, and vice versa. Unfortunately, some trial and error is necessary. If nothing else, I just want to inspire you to find your own fit, to know that you are not trapped using the same shampoos, and that you can have great results with cleaner products.


WITHOUT FURTHER ADO…

Behold, I’d like to introduce my favorite new shampoo, the champion after trying my fair share of other natural brands (see below for more on that):

Shea Moisture: Superfruit Complex 10-in-1 Renewal Shampoo

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This shampoo boasts an impressive list of perks that aren’t overstated in the least, based on its performance results:

  • Superfruit – A blend of Red Raspberry, Ketones, Goji, Acai and Guava Extracts rich in anti-aging antioxidants.
  • Marula Oil – Contains natural plant peptides that help support hair’s elasticity.
  • Biotin – Nourishes individual strands for thicker, stronger hair.
  • Shea Butter – Deeply moisturizes while conditioning hair and scalp.

Another major perk? This shampoo is 100% sulfate-free! The main cleansing agent in this shampoo Decyl Glucoside, which offers a much gentler cleaning than any type of sulfate. Whereas sulfates are irritating and strip your hair/scalp of their natural, beneficial oils, glucosides provide a safer, non-irritating clean. (If you have colored hair, this is the route for you! Glucosides are color-safe, whereas sulfates will fade your color faster!)

While going sulfate-free was one goal, it was part of the bigger picture: have safer shampoo all-around. Unfortunately, shampoos can be sulfate-free, but still have other concerns lurking in the bottle, like parabens. Or, they can be sulfate-free, but be lacking in nourishing, natural ingredients. This product ended up being my winner because it does a wonderful job safely, and has so much to offer my hair.

Here are the ingredients, with the natural/beneficial ingredients for your hair bolded:

Water, Decyl Glucoside, Sodium Lauroyl Lactylate, Glycol Stearate, Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, Panthenol [form of Vitamin B5], Biotin, Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea) Butter*, Fragrance (Essential Oil Blend), Sclerocarya Birrea Seed Oil, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Rubus Idaeus (Raspberry) Fruit Extract, Lycium Barbarum Fruit Extract, Euterpe Oleracea Fruit Extract, Psidium Guajava Fruit Extract, Hydrolyzed Rice Protein, Stearamide AMP, Glycerin (Vegetable), Caprylhydroxamic Acid, Caprylyl Glycol, Citric Acid, Sodium Citrate, Ipomoea Batatas Extract, Cinnamidopropyltrimonium Chloride.  *Certified Organic Ingredient

[I’ve looked up the other ingredients, and although they are lengthy and a tad suspicious-looking, I can’t find any reason to be concerned about them being carcinogens or irritants.]

I love how amazingly clean, but not stripped, this shampoo leaves my hair. My hair and scalp feel refreshed, and it shows. My hair is worlds less oily, and is full of body and natural shine. Even the color seems to radiate in a way it hasn’t before. Not to mention, it’s been growing super fast in just a short time. It’s amazing what your hair can do when you give it wonderful, natural ingredients to work with. Total bonus points for this shampoo smelling fresh and phenomenal!

Another perk? This 10-in-1 shampoo is so wonderfully moisturizing with organic shea butter that it leaves little need for me to condition with each wash. Shea Moisture does make a companion 10-in-1 conditioner, though its ingredients are super similar to the shampoo except for adding coconut oil. So I’m thinking I may as well just skip buying the conditioner and instead occasionally deep-condition my hair with organic coconut oil, if need be.

At $10.99 for 13 oz (84 cents/oz) or $11.99 for 16 oz (75 cents/oz) it’s kind of middle ground price-wise (compared to other shampoos I tried). But, especially when you shampoo every other day, it’s going to last you. So far so good on that!

This product gets high marks for availability, as I know that it’s widely carried by Target and Target.com, and is for sale by many retailers like CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart. My Bed Bath & Beyond actually carries this too, so that’s fabulous, since I’m constantly receiving BB&B coupons in my mail and via text.

Shea Moisture has a broad offering of shampoos and conditioners for various needs, including curly hair and fine, breakage-prone hair. They’re all sulfate-free, but each line has different ingredients. For the most part, the ones I’ve looked at are pretty darn safe, but a few had a couple undesirable ingredients (like sodium benzoate) here or there, so beware. Bonus points for them also offering a safe Kids’ line, which is sorely lacking among mainstream products. [Side note: Even Johnson’s Baby Shampoo is utter and complete garbage – toss it right now. Johnson’s released a much better Natural Baby Shampoo free of most of the junk in their original products (but still with some icky undesirables), which clearly shows they realize their normal stuff is junk. And yet they claim they care about kids! Makes me furious.]


TRIAL + ERROR: OTHER SHAMPOOS I TRIED

This post has been months in the making, let me tell ya. Shea Moisture’s Superfruit Complex 10-in-1 wasn’t BY FAR the first product I’ve tried, so I’ve sure had some interesting adventures along the way!

Here are my experiences, starting with what I tried first and so on. Of course, keep in mind that these are all perfectly good, safe choices, and just because they weren’t my perfect fit, it doesn’t mean they won’t be for you!

Click the arrow to open up my review of each product. 

 Aubrey Organics – GPB Balancing Protein Shampoo
  • OVERALL – Yes, I recommend, even though it wasn’t for me.
  • PRICE:  $10.48 for 11 oz (95 cents/oz)
  • HUNTING IT DOWN: I had an unbelievably hard time actually locating them in a brick-and-mortar store because their store locator was horribly outdated. Finally found them in a health food store, but they didn’t carry the line I wanted (for oily hair). Later, I discovered that our Whole Foods carries many Aubrey products, even though they weren’t listed on the store locator. Whoops!
  • REVIEW: I really wanted to love this product, truly. User reviews were fantastic, the ingredients are great (many are organic and/or non-GMO), it smelled great, and I thought maybe it would bring balance to my hair and scalp despite it not being for oily hair. But it just wasn’t jiving for me. It’s quite thin and runny, and produced minimal lather. I felt like I was using a ton and not even getting my hair 50% clean, and multiple tries showed no improvement. It wouldn’t spread in my hair at all, so I was almost damaging my hair trying to work it in. My hair post-wash felt stiff and heavy, just totally full of build-up. It clearly works for plenty of other people out there, and my husband used it just fine, so it might be worth a try. [Note – This was prior to our Brita filter shower head, so I’d be curious to see if I had an easier go of this now that we have it.]
Not Your Mother’s – Clean Freak Shampoo
  • OVERALL – Love the results, but ingredients could be safer, so I can’t exactly say I recommend, per se. But hey, it’s still safer than many others!
  • PRICE: Pricing at my Target is $4.89 for 8 oz (61 cents/oz).
  • HUNTING IT DOWN: Super easy to get – carried by many retailers like Target, CVS, Walgreen’s, some Walmarts, and some Kmarts. [Side note: NYM’s makes several other shampoo/conditioner lines, but some products have way more chemicals than this line, so beware.]
  • REVIEW: This shampoo is sulfate, paraben, and dye-free, which is awesome, and it has a rather short ingredient list compared to most traditional shampoos. I’ll admit, I love this product. LOVE. However, the ingredient list is a little more synthetic than I’d like, and lacks beneficial natural ingredients. One ingredient especially freaks me out a bit: PEG-150 Distearate. This ingredient can potentially be contaminated with ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, two chemicals which have been classified as a “known human carcinogen” and “a possible human carcinogen”, respectively. It also contains two iffy preservatives, methylchloroisothiazolinone and methylisothiazolinone. These two ingredients have recently received a lot of attention, not for their toxicity per se, but for their potential to cause allergic reactions in some individuals, depending on the concentration (which in this product probably isn’t a ton, since they’re listed last on the ingredients list). I want to be 100% confident in my shampoo and be proud to recommend it to others, so this one would not fall into that category.
Desert Essence – Island Mango Shampoo
  • OVERALL: Yes, I recommend, unless you are allergic to hemp oil or committed to being free of all types of sulfates.
  • PRICE: $8.99 for 8 oz  ($1.12/oz)
  • HUNTING IT DOWN: Only Whole Foods carries this near me, but it’s available on Desert Essence’s website as well.
  • REVIEW: I really enjoyed using this shampoo, loved the long list of fantastic ingredients and oils that are mainly organic, and adored the soft, shiny hair I got from even just one use. It smells fantastic to boot. Sadly, I cannot use this shampoo because I’m allergic to hemp oil, which this product unfortunately contains – chalk this up to a normally eagle-eyed label reader having a lapse! Within 6 hours of using this, my scalp was on fire (my usual reaction from hemp oil, which feels like a chemical burn). Oh, another thing – I discovered after using it that I really didn’t read the label well, because it has sodium coco sulfate (SCS). This is often toted as a “gentler” sulfate, better than sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate, but there is so much conflicting info online on this (and few unbiased opinions). But my conclusion (and that of many others) is if you truly want to be sulfate-free, you should also avoid SCS, as it’s just another branch of the same tree.
Everyday Shea – Vanilla Mint Shampoo
  • OVERALL: No, I don’t recommend due to performance. Try at your own risk!
  • PRICE: $9.99 for 32 oz (31 cents/oz)
  • HUNTING IT DOWN: Honestly, I didn’t hunt this one at all. I just so happened to see it while reading labels at Whole Foods and bought on an impulse. Carried widely online by wellness stores.
  • REVIEW: I hate to tell anyone that a product isn’t worth his or her time, because results vary by individual. This, though, is a deal-breaker. This shampoo left me looking like the hottest mess for miles. I had high hopes for this product because, well, at 31 cents/oz and in a nice big bottle (with a pump!), it seemed super affordable and convenient. I also liked that this product uses saponified shea butter and coconut oil, which I’ve read is a nice alternative to sulfates (in short, saponified means “turned into soap through a chemical reaction”).  But in performance, this shampoo couldn’t have been worse. It smells terrible, like old people dunked in chai tea and then sprinkled with mint gum, but I would’ve been willing to overlook that if performance/results were good. Getting it into my hair was okay. Lathering was a little tough. But when I tried to rinse, it all went downhill. This shampoo refused to come out, and left my hair feeling simply disgusting – thick, heavy, waxy, piecey. The first wash was an utter fail, and my hair refused to get more than 50% dry. I tried to be fair and give it a second shot. Since I was wondering if our hard water was to blame, I said, “No time like the present!” and bought the wonderful Brita filter shower head that we’d been eyeing. Doing so made my second shampoo go a tad easier, but my hair still came out waxy and gross and didn’t want to dry – not even close to passable in public. My guess? My hair doesn’t like the alkaline PH of saponified anything. That’s why this failed just like the one shampoo bar I tried many moons ago. Lesson learned. I would not recommend this shampoo, but if you’ve used (and liked) saponified products before, more power to you!

TIPS FOR GOING SULFATE-FREE

I’ve been sulfate-free for about three months now. As you can see above, I’ve test-driven quite a few shampoos. It sure wasn’t smooth sailing from the get-go. My hair and scalp had to adjust, plus I had to learn how to wash a tad differently using sulfate-free products. Here are some things to remember:

  • Give it time! If you feel like your product shows promise, give it a couple washes to see. Any improvement the second time around probably means it’s going to keep getting better! (This is also true if you switch from one natural brand to another.)
  • Don’t get frustrated by initial greasiness. Your first wash might leave you feeling not-so-clean, even a little greasy. It’s okay, it’ll get better.
  • Don’t let initial dandruff deter you. This seems to be a natural way the scalp adjusts, so don’t freak out, and don’t use dandruff shampoo. That will only defeat your purpose to bring balance to your scalp. It will go away shortly.
  • Shake it up! The less chemical junk in your shampoo, the more it’s going to need a good shake before every use, to ensure everything’s mixed.
  • Be sure to emulsify (lather) the product in your hands before applying. This is good practice with any shampoo, but is even more important with sulfate-free shampoos, since sulfates are what’s usually responsible for the bulk of your lather. Plain and simple, a sulfate-free shampoo will not lather on your head like one that has sulfates in it!
  • Attack the main zones first, independently. If you’re like me, you’re used to putting one big blob of shampoo on the top of your head, then lathering and smearing it all over. This is way harder to do with a no-sulfate shampoo. I’m sure the longer your hair is, the more this is true. What’s been working awesome for me is taking smaller amounts separately, and applying them to the key areas: front/sides around my face, base of the neck, and back of my head. A little gob for each area, then it’s super easy to lather everything up into one unified shampoo.
  • Get a shower head filter. If you’ve got very hard or very chlorinated water, this will likely affect the performance of any shampoo/soap, especially natural ones. Remember, natural shampoos aren’t loaded with all the super-strong synthetic cleansing agents that regular shampoos are. Hard water and chlorine result in a harder time lathering and rinsing, and affect your product’s performance. Eliminating that problem will get you better results and use less product. For more on this, see my post about filtering your water.

THE TAKE-AWAY

Overall, I’m super happy with my journey into cleaner, safer, sulfate-free shampoo thus far. It hasn’t been pretty at some moments, and was a little frustrating at times (even tempting to just say screw it, I’m going back to regular shampoo). But, I’m really glad I stuck it out.

I’m so happy to learn that I can be successful using sulfate-free, healthier shampoo, and I’m already seeing such fabulous results from my hair and scalp. My hair is so much less greasy, and it’s growing like a weed!

When it comes down to the nitty gritty, finding a good natural shampoo feels a heck of a lot harder than it initially sounds. As I mentioned, there are so, so many choices out there, which is a great thing, but it can also feel like a daunting, frustrating thing.

Hang in there – you’ll eventually find the right match for your hair. Hopefully it’s Shea Moisture or one of the others I reviewed, but no matter what, I hope this post inspires you to find it. That’s what it’s all about – finding a healthier, happier you!

Your Turn: Have you gone sulfate-free? What’s your favorite natural shampoo? Feel free to share or ask questions!

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