Ingredients 101 – Sulphate, Paraben, and Silicones

These days it’s not unusual to see Sulphate Free, Paraben-Free, and Silicon-Free in bold across the front of a bottle of shampoo or conditioner – this blog highlights the facts about these compounds so that you can make sure the products you choose are free from harmful chemicals.

What are Sulphates?

Sulphates, also spelled sulfates, are the scientific names for general detergents/ foaming agents.  This article is looking only at sulfates used in hair care products – produced from petroleum and plant oils, the most used are:

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)

Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)

Others that you might see on the ingredients list are:

Lauryl Sulfoacetate Sodium

Lauroyl Isethionate

Sodium Lauroyl Taurate

Other products that contain sulfates include toothpaste, dishwasher, laundry, and hand-washing products.

Sulfates are the ingredient that produces a thick lather during the cleansing process.  They strip away grime and grease quickly, making them seem efficient and effective, and they’re cheap for manufacturers to produce. Sulfates attract both oil and water removing unwanted product build-up and debris, but in doing this they also strip away natural oils making hair unnecessarily dry or even brittle and in the winter flyaway, static, and tangled.  Sulfates also speed up colour fade.  The vigorous stripping action of sulfates in shampoo can damage hair shafts, causing the outer cuticle layer to crack so that synthetic colour molecules are lost. Unfortunately, sulfates can also cause discomfort and irritation for folk with scalp concerns such as eczema and psoriasis. Others with sensitive skin may experience itching, cracking skin, and reddening.

In recent years concern about SLS being in hair care products has surfaced, as this sulfate has been identified as having the potential to be an endocrine disruptor that specifically mimics the hormone oestrogen and therefore interferes with hormone activity. There are also concerns about its toxicity when combined with other ingredients. SLS has been suspected to be linked to neurotoxicity, organ toxicity, as well as skin irritation, and even cancer.

If you choose products containing sulfates, make sure you thoroughly rinse your skin, and hair and rehydrate your hair after every shampoo.

What are Parabens?

Parabens are preservatives that have been used for decades in cosmetics to give personal care products like lipsticks, shampoo, moisturisers, and deodorants a longer shelf life.  They are a chemical compound of para-hydroxybenzoic acid.

Parabens most used in hair care products are:

Butylparaben

Methylparaben

Isoparaben

Propylparaben.

There are others that are easily spotted on the ingredients list because they end in ‘paraben’.

A few other products (there are hundreds) that contain parabens are glues, soft drinks, sauces, processed meats. These preservatives control the growth of any bacteria and mould, and prevent product discolouration of product in its container.

Recently concern has surfaced about parabens being in personal care products, as a reaction to reports that traces of parabens have been identified in breast cancer tumors. This fact has been reported following a study that didn’t prove that parabens can cause cancer but identified that the parabens were able to penetrate the skin and remain within the tissue. Parabens are also believed to have the potential to be an endocrine disruptor, that interferes with hormone activity by mimicing the hormone oestrogen.

How dangerous are Sulphates & Parabens?​

So far these concerning facts have been reported following many studies but without definitive links to evidence, meaning many people have doubts and are confused by the fact that the concern is only treated as a myth by the authorities. The ‘no harm from use’ restrictions on ingredients in approved hair care products means that people can exceed the recommended daily intake/contact amount of SLS and Parabens, due to their use of more than one product containing the compounds.

Greenwashing

As many people are now choosing to avoid sulfates and parabens, cosmetic manufacturers are now advertising Sulfate and Paraben-Free alternatives. These are generally hair cleansing products that have the added benefit of a really effective moisturising/hydrating quality. There are numerous sulfate and paraben-free products to choose from.  Some of these also contain an impressive cocktail of vitamins and organic ingredients, however, not all of the claims mean that the products are free from synthetic chemicals.  If you do your research and stay a little suspicious before you buy you should be able to identify which companies are responding to the health concerns and which are only greenwashing with advertising.

A quick reminder of the fact that the mid-lengths and ends of the hair shaft are dead so can’t absorb sulfates or parabens into the circulation, nor can hair lengths metabolise the vast array of nutritious vitamins in products, as its only the hair root in the follicle under the scalp surface that’s attached to the blood supply that can do this.

What are Silicons?

Silicone is a synthetic polymer (protein) made up of Silicon.

If you follow a vegan diet or are allergic or intolerant to gluten you might like to stay away from products that contain wheat or animal-derived proteins. Looking for products that contain water-soluble silicones or silicone-free products may be helpful.

I’m personally not convinced that when a shampoo or conditioner containing wheat has contact with the scalp and hair root it will trigger a reaction. As I explained above the irritant would have to be absorbed before it can cause a problem. Generally, shampoo is diluted by water and rinsed off the scalp within seconds, so not really in contact with the hair follicle long enough to be absorbed.

Animal proteins, however, do tend to be heavy on hair, so rather than risk turning your freshly cleansed and water hydrated hair into a limp, or lank flop, it may be wise to avoid products that contain animal-derived and silicone in-soluble ingredients.

Making sense of the ingredients list on a product isn’t simple, mainly because there are so many ingredients that can be intermixed to create numerous ingredients to make a variety of products that impact hair and scalp differently.  An excellent place to start is by knowing what to look for.  The following may help you identify whether ingredients are water-soluble silicones or in fact whether there are any silicones at all. 

Silicones are often proteins in shampoo/conditioner. Words such as Cocodimonium, Hydroxypropyl, Hydrolysed and Lauryidimonium are all followed by the protein source. More specifically look for products that contain small or Nano proteins; Hydrolysed………. will be followed by a protein, amino acids, or peptide.  Their description may look something like the following;  

Hydrolyzed (wheat, oat, soy) protein


Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein


Hydrolyzed keratin


Hydrolyzed collagen


Amino acids (Silk, milk, wheat, etc.)


Cystine Bis-PG-Propyl Silanetriol (Derivative of keratin protein)


Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein PG-Propyl Silanetriol (Silicone modified wheat protein)


Cocodimonium Hydroxypropyl Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein (Quaternized wheat protein)

All of the above are proteins that have been modified to bond to hair better.

Alternatives to water-soluble silicones could be water-soluble oils. Organic hair oils such as Jojoba, Aloe Vera, and Olive all of which are more like the natural sebum produced by the glands in your skin – these oils are water-soluble options. However, If you choose products containing oils make sure you apply a heat protector to your hair before using a hairdryer or straighteners – when exposed to high heat oils have been known to cook or burn the hair.  

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