Skin of Color

No Sulfates, No Parabens, and the “No-Poo” Method: A New Patient Perspective on Common Shampoo Ingredients

In Collaboration with the Skin of Color Society

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The ingredients in shampoos and other cosmetic products have become scrutinized by the general public and the Internet has contributed to misinformation about certain shampoos. Dermatologists must be prepared to acknowledge the concerns that their patients have about common shampoo ingredients to dispel the myths that may misinform patient decision-making. This article reviews the controversy surrounding the use of sulfates and parabens in shampoos, as well as commonly used shampoo alternatives, often called the “no-poo” method.

Practice Points

  • The ingredients in shampoos and other cosmetic products have become scrutinized by the general public and the Internet has contributed to misinformation about certain shampoos.
  • Dermatologists must be prepared to acknowledge the concerns that their patients have about common shampoo ingredients to dispel the myths that may misinform patient decision-making.
  • This article reviews the controversy surrounding the use of sulfates and parabens in shampoos, as well as commonly used shampoo alternatives, often called the “no-poo” method.


 

References

Shampoo is a staple in hair grooming that is ever-evolving along with cultural trends. The global shampoo market is expected to reach an estimated value of $25.73 billion by 2019. A major driver of this upward trend in market growth is the increasing demand for natural and organic hair shampoos.1 Society today has a growing fixation on healthy living practices, and as of late, the ingredients in shampoos and other cosmetic products have become one of the latest targets in the health-consciousness craze. In the age of the Internet where information—and misinformation—is widely accessible and dispersed, the general public often strives to self-educate on specialized matters that are out of their expertise. As a result, individuals have developed an aversion to using certain shampoos out of fear that the ingredients, often referred to as “chemicals” by patients due to their complex names, are unnatural and therefore unhealthy.1,2 Product developers are working to meet the demand by reformulating shampoos with labels that indicate sulfate free or paraben free, despite the lack of proof that these formulations are an improvement over traditional approaches to hair health. Additionally, alternative methods of cleansing the hair and scalp, also known as the no-shampoo or “no-poo” method, have begun to gain popularity.2,3

It is essential that dermatologists acknowledge the concerns that their patients have about common shampoo ingredients to dispel the myths that may misinform patient decision-making. This article reviews the controversy surrounding the use of sulfates and parabens in shampoos as well as commonly used shampoo alternatives. Due to the increased prevalence of dry hair shafts in the skin of color population, especially black women, this group is particularly interested in products that will minimize breakage and dryness of the hair. To that end, this population has great interest in the removal of chemical ingredients that may cause damage to the hair shafts, despite the lack of data to support sulfates and paraben damage to hair shafts or scalp skin. Blogs and uninformed hairstylists may propagate these beliefs in a group of consumers who are desperate for new approaches to hair fragility and breakage.

Surfactants and Sulfates

The cleansing ability of a shampoo depends on the surface activity of its detergents. Surface-active ingredients, or surfactants, reduce the surface tension between water and dirt, thus facilitating the removal of environmental dirt from the hair and scalp,4 which is achieved by a molecular structure containing both a hydrophilic and a lipophilic group. Sebum and dirt are bound by the lipophilic ends of the surfactant, becoming the center of a micelle structure with the hydrophilic molecule ends pointing outward. Dirt particles become water soluble and are removed from the scalp and hair shaft upon rinsing with water.4

Surfactants are classified according to the electric charge of the hydrophilic polar group as either anionic, cationic, amphoteric (zwitterionic), or nonionic.5 Each possesses different hair conditioning and cleansing qualities, and multiple surfactants are used in shampoos in differing ratios to accommodate different hair types. In most shampoos, the base consists of anionic and amphoteric surfactants. Depending on individual product requirements, nonionic and cationic surfactants are used to either modify the effects of the surfactants or as conditioning agents.4,5

One subcategory of surfactants that receives much attention is the group of anionic surfactants known as sulfates. Sulfates, particularly sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), recently have developed a negative reputation as cosmetic ingredients, as reports from various unscientific sources have labeled them as hazardous to one’s health; SLS has been described as a skin and scalp irritant, has been linked to cataract formation, and has even been wrongly labeled as carcinogenic.6 The origins of some of these claims are not clear, though they likely arose from the misinterpretation of complex scientific studies that are easily accessible to laypeople. The link between SLS and ocular irritation or cataract formation is a good illustration of this unsubstantiated fear. A study by Green et al7 showed that corneal exposure to extremely high concentrations of SLS following physical or chemical damage to the eye can result in a slowed healing process. The results of this study have since been wrongly quoted to state that SLS-containing products lead to blindness or severe corneal damage.8 A different study tested for possible ocular irritation in vivo by submerging the lens of an eye into a 20% SLS solution, which accurately approximates the concentration of SLS in rinse-off consumer products.9 However, to achieve ocular irritation, the eyes of laboratory animals were exposed to SLS constantly for 14 days, which would not occur in practical use.9 Similarly, a third study achieved cataract formation in a laboratory only by immersing the lens of an eye into a highly concentrated solution of SLS.10 Such studies are not appropriate representations of how SLS-containing products are used by consumers and have unfortunately been vulnerable to misinterpretation by the general public.

There is no known study that has shown SLS to be carcinogenic. One possible origin of this idea may be from the wrongful interpretation of studies that used SLS as a vehicle substance to test agents that were deemed to be carcinogenic.11 Another possible source of the idea that SLS is carcinogenic comes from its association with 1,4-dioxane, a by-product of the synthesis of certain sulfates such as sodium laureth sulfate due to a process known as ethoxylation.6,12 Although SLS does not undergo this process in its formation and is not linked to 1,4-dioxane, there is potential for cross-contamination of SLS with 1,4-dioxane, which cannot be overlooked. 1,4-Dioxane is classified as “possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B)” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer,13 but screening of SLS for this substance prior to its use in commercial products is standard.

Sulfates are inexpensive detergents that are responsible for lather formation in shampoos as well as in many household cleaning agents.5 Sulfates, similar to all anionic surfactants, are characterized by a negatively charged hydrophilic polar group. The best-known and most commonly used anionic surfactants are sulfated fatty alcohols, alkyl sulfates, and their polyethoxylated analogues alkyl ether sulfates.5,6 Sodium lauryl sulfate (also known as sodium laurilsulfate or sodium dodecyl sulfate) is the most common of them all, found in shampoo and conditioner formulations. Ammonium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate are other sulfates commonly used in shampoos and household cleansing products. Sodium lauryl sulfate is a nonvolatile, water-soluble compound. Its partition coefficient (P0), a measure of a substance’s hydrophilic or lipophilic nature, is low at 1.6, making it a rather hydrophilic substance.6 Hydrophilic substances tend to have low bioaccumulation profiles in the body. Additionally, SLS is readily biodegradable. It can be derived from both synthetic and naturally occurring sources; for example, palm kernel oil, petrolatum, and coconut oil are all sources of lauric acid, the starting ingredient used to synthesize SLS. Sodium lauryl sulfate is created by reacting lauryl alcohol with sulfur trioxide gas, followed by neutralization with sodium carbonate (also a naturally occurring compound).6 Sodium lauryl sulfate and other sulfate-containing shampoos widely replaced the usage of traditional soaps formulated from animal or vegetable fats, as these latter formations created a film of insoluble calcium salts on the hair strands upon contact with water, resulting in tangled, dull-appearing hair.5 Additionally, sulfates were preferred to the alkaline pH of traditional soap, which can be harsh on hair strands and cause irritation of the skin and mucous membranes.14 Because they are highly water soluble, sulfates enable the formulation of clear shampoos. They exhibit remarkable cleaning properties and lather formation.5,14

Because sulfates are potent surfactants, they can remove dirt and debris as well as naturally produced healthy oils from the hair and scalp. As a result, sulfates can leave the hair feeling dry and stripped of moisture.4,5 Sulfates are used as the primary detergents in the formulation of deep-cleaning shampoos, which are designed for people who accumulate a heavy buildup of dirt, sebum, and debris from frequent use of styling products. Due to their potent detergency, these shampoos typically are not used on a daily basis but rather at longer intervals.15 A downside to sulfates is that they can have cosmetically unpleasant properties, which can be compensated for by including appropriate softening additives in shampoo formulations.4 A number of anionic surfactants such as olefin sulfonate, alkyl sulfosuccinate, acyl peptides, and alkyl ether carboxylates are well tolerated by the skin and are used together with other anionic and amphoteric surfactants to optimize shampoo properties. Alternatively, sulfate-free shampoos are cleansers compounded by the removal of the anionic group and switched for surfactants with less detergency.4,5

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