At a time when drip-dry hair is almost unfathomable, when some of the most committed naturals shoppers have colored, straightened or permed hair, a shower full of styling products and a blow dryer holstered and ready to go, the search for nonchemical ways to shampoo and condition stressed tresses is on.
There's more at stake here than soft, bouncy hair. According to a U.S. Geological Survey study conducted last year, a variety of chemicals from personal care products make up a percentage of the 95 contaminants found in U.S. waterways. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that because these chemicals are replenished every time soap or shampoo is washed down the drain, aquatic life undergoes constant exposure to synthetic ingredients.
Not only are trout and turtles feeling the effects of chemical shampoos and conditioners, so are humans. Peter Lamas, founder of Los Angeles-based Lamas Beauty International, points out that because a strand of hair is made up of hundreds of scalelike cuticles, "the texture of hair will absorb [shampoo and conditioner] ingredients and hold them there. The hair is like a straw. Anything put on it can back up into the system," entering the skin through the hair follicle.
This accumulation of ingredients not only makes hair look lifeless and dull, it also can affect a person's health. Some studies have concluded that synthetic shampoo ingredients such as sodium lauryl sulfate and paraben increase estrogen production and disrupt the endocrine system, although other studies dispute those findings.
Despite scientific advances and more product knowledge, shampoo and conditioner manufacturers face a challenge. It's almost impossible to avoid nonorganic ingredients and still make a product that actually cleans hair, let alone makes it softer, less frizzy, thicker or any of the myriad expectations consumers have of hair care products.
In A Lather
Herbs, oils and vitamins can help create desired hair conditions, but for a shampoo to lather and clean, it needs a surfactant. Surfactants also help oil, water and other ingredients blend and form the creamy consistency consumers expect in shampoos and conditioners.
"Usually, a concentration of 12 percent to 20 percent surfactant is required to develop an acceptable lather, even though this level is far in excess of that required to clean the hair," says Stuart Hutchinson, brand manager of Fort Collins, Colo.-based Shaman Beauty Products, a division of Jason Natural Cosmetics. Too much surfactant, Hutchinson says, produces that squeaky-clean feeling but strips hair of fats, which can make hair difficult to comb and give it a fly-away texture. So manufacturers add extra oils, herbs and botanicals to replace the lost fats.
Most synthetic shampoos use ingredients such as sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate and diethanolamine as surfactants. These can be synthetic or coconut-derived, although the process used to produce a coconut-based surfactant can require petroleum, formaldehyde or other nonnatural substances. And as if that weren't bad enough, Lamas points out that synthetic sodium laureth sulfate is "what they use in Ajax to create lathering. It gets rid of grease quick."
Lamas' hair care products contain olefin, a coconut oil-based surfactant that he says is more natural than sodium lauryl sulfate. Sun Dog, a Westby, Wis.-based manufacturer of hemp oil shampoos and conditioners, also uses olefin. "Coconut and palm oils tend to be lathery anyway," says Sun Dog owner Sue Kastensen.
"Coconut oil is very stable—it won't fall apart, won't separate and it's fairly inexpensive. That's why it's used so much in shampoos and conditioners," Hutchinson says.
Shaman relies on sodium lauroyl sarcosinate, a coconut-based surfactant that is less alkaline and therefore less irritating than sodium laureth sulfate, Hutchinson says. But Modern Organic Products has had good results from coconut-based sodium laureth sulfate, says Robin Olsen, director of marketing for the Boulder, Colo.-based company.
What Condition My Conditioner Is In
The active ingredients in conditioners are emollients or humectants, which trap moisture in the hair shaft, seal the cuticle and make hair seem thicker, smoother and softer.
It's easy to add natural and organic ingredients to conditioners. Oils and waxes are emollients, as are proteins such as wheat and soy. Glycerin, either vegetable or synthetic, serves as a barrier, keeping water in the hair shaft. Wheat amino acids fill in cracks in the hair shaft, Hutchinson says, and vitamin B adds about 10 percent to each strand's diameter. Other synthetic-sounding emollients that really are natural are cetearyl alcohol glycerin, which is solid coconut and palm oil cut with alcohol for smoother consistency; and dimethicone copolyol, a silicone derived from sand that repels water.
A shampoo or conditioner needs preservatives so it can sit on a store shelf or a bathtub ledge more than a few months without turning into a medium for bacterial growth. Preservatives are also needed because most shampoos and conditioners are more than half water, so the natural preservatives some oils, vitamins or herbs may contribute have a minimal effect because they make up such a small portion of a shampoo's or conditioner's volume.
The debate over which preservatives are the most natural is ferocious. Many nonnatural shampoos rely on methyl or propyl paraben as preservatives. Paraben can be synthetically produced or derived from vegetable ingredients. But as with surfactants, even if a paraben is vegetable-based, the formulation process can involve petroleum, formaldehyde or other nonnatural substances.
The most effective all-natural shampoo or conditioner preservative is a citrus extract, such as grapefruit seed, combined with antiseptic essential oils, such as chamomile and echinacea, and spiked with antioxidant E vitamins. But that combination only assures a shampoo or conditioner remains bacteria-, E. coli-, staph-, mold- and fungus-free for 120 days, says Tim Schaeffer, spokesman for Petaluma, Calif.-based Avalon Natural Products.
The preservative issue could be solved if shampoos were refrigerated or had expiration dates. But Schaeffer believes no matter how organically conscious a consumer is, "way less than half of even organic consumers would allow themselves the inconvenience" of adhering to sell-by dates. "It all boils down to that we like to leave our products on shelves, at room temperature," he says.
Avalon opts for methylparaben because a strong preservative is essential for a water-based product, Schaeffer says. So does Modern Organic Products. "I've been asking every chemist I've worked with how we can get away from parabens," MOP's Olsen says, "but we can't find anything else that preserves as long." Paraben-based preservatives assure a shampoo or conditioner a shelf life of about two years.
Other companies choose more natural preservatives that give their shampoos and conditioners shorter shelf lives. This is feasible for smaller companies that make small batches, ship them promptly and frequently don't rely on distributors. Lamas' hair products have a grapefruit extract preservative that lasts one year. "As we grow, we're going to have to keep track of this," Lamas admits. "As you get bigger and bigger you don't have the option of keeping a small inventory."
Sun Dog and Shaman rely on sodium hydroxy methylglycinate, a preservative derived from the amino acids in sugars from vegetables and other plants. This has a shelf life of less than two years, says Sun Dog's Kastensen.
Natural shampoo and conditioner manufacturers agree the idea behind their products is to restore hair to the most natural state possible. As Lamas says, "We've shown that hair can be as shiny, healthy and full of life as nature intended without these chemicals and artificial additives."
Vicky Uhland is a Denver-based freelance writer. She may be reached at [email protected].
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 3/p. 98
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 3/p. 98