What’s in my shampoo?

Centuries ago the only soap available was made of ashes and animal fat. Nowadays, an average shampoo contains almost 30 ingredients and I have no idea why, so I decided to figure it out.

I currently use Garnier Fructis for Normal hair, which contains 29 ingredients. That’s a lot. I went on a search for each of these ingredients to find out what it does.

Ingredients have to be listed according to their percentage of the total, so the ingredient that takes up most of the shampoo is listed first.

Why are there 29 ingredients in my shampoo?

29 ingredients, one shampoo

The first ingredient is water. Then comes Sodium laureth sulfate, which is a common ingredient in soap and shampoo. It is a detergent and a surfactant, as well as a very effective foaming agent. In other words, it’s a foamy soap. My search on the internet found that this ingredient may or may not cause cancer, but it wasn’t completely sure. After some research I have come to the conclusion that it is a bit of a dodgy ingredient that is mostly used because it’s cheap and does the job, but should be avoided. Hmm…

Next on the list is something called Coco-betaine, which used to be derived from coconut oil but I’m pretty sure is now chemically manufactured. It’s a foam boaster. Since the first ingredient was also a foam boaster I suppose foam is very important for the shampoo.

Then we have glycerin, which is actually something that is always formed in the normal soap making processes. It’s also used in a ton of other applications, but here it improves the smoothness of the shampoo.

Ingredient number six, Glycol distearate, is there to produce a pearlescent effect. Without Glycol distearate, no shiny shampoo!

Salt, hidden under the fancy name Sodium chloride is the next ingredient, followed by Naicinamide, which is apparently some sort of vitamin B3. Yay, vitamins! According to its description it increases body, suppleness and sheen and improves the textures of damaged hair. Sounds great!

Effective and cheap: felines can just lick themselves to stay pretty. Image credit: OnceAndFutureLaura via Flickr [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]
Cocomide MIPA is the next ingredient, and from what the name sounds like it has something to do with coconuts. It does indeed, but it is like a far cousin from the actual coconut. It emulsifies and thickens the shampoo, is an anticorrosive agent and foams – because more foam is what we need.

The next ingredient sound a little bit less scary; it’s sugar cane extract. It exfoliates the scalp and that makes your hair grow more. That’s nice, I like that.

Sodium Benzoate is preservative. Of course, because we don’t want the shampoo to go bad. I would be a bit disappointed if I were washing my hair and it looks all moldy because the shampoo was off.

This old-fashioned soap bar contains only 7 ingredients. Image credit: Dale Calder via Flickr [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

Cool, just nineteen more to go!

Next up are two more sodium-thingies, Sodium Cocoate, which does some more cleaning and emulsifying and Sodium Hydroxide , a.k.a. lye which is bad for you so I don’t know why that is in my shampoo. It’s a superbasic ingredient used for making soap, as you can see from the nice diagram from the start of this post.

Than comes the wonderfully named PPG-5-Ceteth-20. I think it is in there just to confuse people. No, just kidding. It’s a moisturizer and surfactant.

Number 14 is Polyquaternium-10, which reduces static electricity and enhances appearance and feel of the hair. Yay for Polyquaternium-10!

Salicylic acid is the next ingredient, and it reduces dandruff. I don’t know why this is in my shampoo, as I bought shampoo for normal hair. There must be a secret reason for it which I can’t find.

Sea foam is caused by dissolved organic matter that works as a surfactant. I wonder if washing my hair with this foam would work too… Image credit: Steve Jurvetson via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]
The next one is quite funny. It’s an antifoaming agent called Dimethicone. After three foaming agents apparently it was time for some antifoaming. Why?! Dimethicone’s other job is to protect your skin, so that’s nice.

Camellas sinensis leaf extract comes next. In normal words this is green tea extract. It is an antioxidant, but I haven’t been able to find if it actually does anything for the hair.

After that follow a whole lot of ingredient with similar roles to the ones above, including preservatives, emulsion stabilizers, hair conditioners, four fragrances and a skin protector.

Shampoo summarized

So it looks like there are a few ingredients that actually function as soap (e.g. sodium laureth sulfate, some that make your hair pretty (e.g. polyquaternium-10, niacinamide), some that make your hair smells good (all the fragrances) and a whole lot that just make shampoo look nice (the other ingredients, about 13 of them).

What shampoo will you be buying next time? Image credit: Diueine Monteiro via Flickr [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

Do we need all of these ingredients?

I think that is a very personal question. If you just want clean hair, the answer is no. All you need is soap to clean your hair. But if you want your shampoo to make your hair pretty and smell nice, you will need a lot more ingredients. And who is going to buy a shampoo that goes off, doesn’t look shiny or isn’t easy to apply to your hair? So that’s why all the other ingredients are added.

You do have to keep in mind that it is not actually known completely how all these ingredients affect your health and the environment in the long-term. Also, don’t base your shampoo choice on this information. I’m not a chemist and am definitely not a hairdresser, so if you want more information, have a look at the EWG Cosmetics Database here or download the ThinkDirty app, which allows you to scroll through a list of products and their ingredients.

5 Responses to “What’s in my shampoo?”

  1. Olivia Campbell says:

    I would much rather have less chemicals on me then have the shampoo lotion look good!

  2. rosannav says:

    @rajar, Good question, I don’t know! I didn’t read anything about it, but I guess it depends on what types of shampoo it would be.

    @arosdah, I have never heard of it, but I think that if you are allergic to a particular ingredient it might have bad effects for you hair.

    @robertsf, Thanks! Yea that should work. I’ve heard of people who only wash it with vinegar or baking soda

  3. robertsf says:

    great article Rosanna! Although its making me want to try that ‘self regulating thing’ where you don’t wash your hair for 6 weeks and its supposed to look after itself!

  4. arosdah says:

    what coincidence. It was just yesterday when me and my friends had conversations about shampoo. Anyway, great post rosannav! I don’t think we really need all of those ingredients.

    By the way, some say that you ought to be careful in choosing your shampoo as it can cause hair loss. Do you think it has something to do with a particular main ingredient in shampoo?

  5. rajar says:

    very interesting post! I’ve tried quite a few brands of shampoo and but still couldn’t figure out what is the best one for me. I guess different people have different reaction/tolerance towards those ingredient. Btw, do you know if there is any effect if we keep on changing our shampoo brand? will it give bad effect on our hair or scalp?