Is your shampoo poisoning the environment?

First published December 2006, last updated February 2012

I used to be a hair products sort of guy back in the day. Expensive shampoos, conditioners, gel, mousse – everything. Priorities and perceptions change, so most of the hair products went by the wayside until all I was left with was shampoo.

Good for me, I was doing my bit for the environment and saving cash to boot.  But I took a close look at the brand of shampoo I was using at the time and my hair stood on end. The front label stated “Vitamin E Moisture Rich Shampoo – Professional performance formula”, but what I read on the back made me wonder about the volume of potential environmental toxins I had been washing down the drain over the last 3 decades plus, simply through washing my hair.

Having a blackwater system at the time for recycling household waste water also made me a little more conscious about this kind of thing. By sending chemicals down the drains that upset the good bacteria, they couldn’t do their job properly in chewing up all the nasties. Throw it out of balance, and restoring the balance can take a long while.

Here were the ingredients of my shampoo and what I discovered about them:

Sodium Laureth Sulfate – used in clinical testing as a primary skin irritant. Tests on lab animals indicate material may cause mutagenic effects.

Cocamidopropyl Betaine – potential irritant and potentially contaminated with or breaking down into chemicals linked to cancer,

Ammonium Chloride – Harmful if swallowed. May be harmful by inhalation. Skin, eye and respiratory irritant

Tocopheryl Acetate – Vitamin E

Camellia Sensis Leaf Extract – OK depending on extraction process

Fennel – OK depending on extraction process

Fruit Extract – Hrm.. depending on extraction process

Epilobium Angustifolium Extract – OK depending on extraction process

Sunflower Extract – OK depending on extraction process

Hazel leaf Extract – OK depending on extraction process

Sweet Almond fruit extract – OK depending on extraction process

Panthenol –  Vitamin B5

Cocodimonium Hydroxypropyl Hydrolized wheat protein – not sure

Quaternium-22 – May contain harmful impurities or form toxic breakdown products

Butylene Glycol – not assessed for safety by Cosmetics Ingredient Review board

Propylene Glycol –  allows other chemicals to penetrate into the skin, suspected Respiratory, Skin or sense organ, Immunotoxicity and neurotoxicity hazards

Polyquaternium-10 – a mildly irritating toxic polymer

Sodium Chloride – common salt

Tetrasodium EDTA – allows other chemicals to penetrate into the skin

Citric Acid – OK depending on extraction process

Hexylene Glycol – neurotoxin, sensitizer and irritant

Triethanolomine – may contain residual levels of nitrosamines, a carcinogen

Methylchloroisothiazolinone -immune system toxin, lung sensitizer,

Geraniol – not assessed for safety by Cosmetics Ingredient Review board

Butylphenyl Methylpropional – not assessed for safety by Cosmetics Ingredient Review board

Linalool – not assessed for safety by Cosmetics Ingredient Review board

Hexyl Cinnamal – not assessed for safety by Cosmetics Ingredient Review board

Limonene – extracted from citrus rind, but can pose potential risks to wildlife and the environment through water contamination. Carcinogen to some animals

Fragrance (I hate to think)

30+ ingredients!

OK, so before I start sounding overly paranoid, I’m well aware that everything is made up of chemicals – even natural ingredients; and “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean non-toxic

Two potentially nasty chemicals can also combine to make something quite stable  and useful – e.g.; sodium + chloride = salt. The type and level of chemical hazard also greatly depends on quantity and manufacturing – but the point is, they are being manufactured; in bulk – and that in itself requires huge energy inputs and poses risks for the environment. Nature may produce similar chemicals, but it’s a natural process in harmony with the planet and environment.

Like so many other products in our modern lives, many chemicals used in shampoos have their origins as derivatives of crude oil.

Do we really need so many additives in shampoo, natural or synthetic?

I wound up made a switch to a very simple castile soap; which is a type of soap based on vegetable oil. I can’t comment on “body and bounce” as my hair is short these days, but it feels soft and looks clean. The wonderful thing about liquid castile soap is that it has far more uses than just a hair and body wash!

While castile soap won’t suit everyone’s hair; if you’re concerned about the amount of chemicals in the products you buy, perhaps it’s worth a try – there are also other more environmentally friendly shampoos now on the market.

But don’t be fooled. Greenwashing is rampant when it comes to personal care products.

A green-themed ad for shampoo on I saw recently on TV was extolling the virtue of the product containing 90% biodegradable ingredients. Only 90%? It might sound good, but think of how many litres or gallons of shampoo you might go through a year and consider how many people on this planet use shampoos – even a 10% non-biodegradable component isn’t insignificant.

What does your shampoo bottle say? Could you be unwittingly poisoning yourself and the environment? Research the ingredients listed on your shampoo bottle.