You’re probably already aware that conventional hair conditioners contain a slew of ingredients that are harmful to people and the environment.
Many ingredients are associated with a wide variety of health issues ranging from eye irritation to endocrine system disruption to possible links to cancer. Environmentally speaking, many are poisons that leach into the earth, never biodegrade, and accumulate in our lakes, rivers, streams, and oceans.
Making the switch from products with these chemicals to non-toxic versions can seem like a complex process requiring much research. We’ve done all that research for you.
Your scalp is up to four times more absorbent than the skin on your arms, which means that toxins in your hair conditioner can enter your body in higher concentrations, especially if you use conditioner all the way to the scalp.
The following are many conventional ingredients commonly found in hair conditioners, along with natural alternatives that provide the same benefits without the risks.
Conventional and biodegradable conditioners contain contents that are water-soluble and others that are oil-soluble. These are often called the “water phase” and the “oil phase” of the conditioner. Both phases need an emulsifier to blend together and form a creamy product that won’t separate.
There are many emulsifiers on the market, which can cause more damage than they “cure.” Some of these include PEGs, polysorbates, and ingredients with ceteareth and trideceth.
Polyethylene glycols (PEGs) are synthetic chemical compounds that are petroleum-based. While they are often used in hair conditioners to help the two phases (oil and water ingredients) mix, they can be harmful.
PEGs are often contaminated with a known human carcinogen called ethylene oxide, in addition to 1,4-dioxane, a suspected carcinogen. They can irritate the respiratory system, and long-term exposure can cause damage to a person’s nervous system.
The presence of polysorbates raises health concerns surrounding the same carcinogens that make PEGs a concern. These chemical compounds are toxic in very high amounts and can cause skin allergies, reproductive toxicity, and developmental toxicity.
Ceteareth- and Trideceth- Ingredients
These are two ingredient categories to avoid in biodegradable conditioners, unscented conditioners, hypoallergenic conditioners, and every other hair product you use. On ingredient labels, also look out for sodium laureth sulfate and any other ingredients that end with “eth.” They are commonly used as a penetration enhancer.
These are often contaminated with carcinogenic agents because of their manufacturing process. When chemical reactions with ethylene oxide occur, they produce these toxins.
Emulsifiers: Instead of Those, Look for These
You should keep an eye out for some excellent organic, natural substitutions for toxic emulsifiers. These healthier options include sorbitan oleate and glyceryl stearate. The most commonly used one is Cetearyl alcohol.
All of these natural emulsifiers help bind the ingredients in hair products together, maintaining the formula's integrity. They are also used in some products with fragrances because they help to evenly distribute aromas.
Technically speaking, ingredients that are listed as conditioning agents have the job of reducing tension when the hair is combed. In other words, these cationic ingredients are detanglers.
The most common toxic conditioning agents are PEG-altered ones. PEGs (and the closely related PPGs) are known for their low biodegradability. They can also build up in bodies of water — a big problem for products that end up going down the drain.
These PEG-altered agents can include ingredients like:
- PEG-40 stearate
- dihydroxy propyl PEG-5 linoleammonium chloride
- PEG-40 Hydrogenated castor oil
- PEG/PPG 17/18 dimethicone
- PPG-12/ PEG-50 lanolin
Unfortunately, in the United States, manufacturers are not required to list these altered conditioning agents on the products that contain them. In addition, their names can be listed with many different variations, resulting in literally hundreds of different combinations.
Instead of PEG-Altered Agents, Use These
Fortunately, there are several natural alternatives for the toxic conditioning agents that do an amazing job with detangling. These include guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride, distearoylethyl dimonium chloride, and behentrimonium methosulfate.
Behentrimonium methosulfate is not the same as the anionic “sulfates” in shampoos that should be avoided. Note that even though this alternative is non-toxic, it can still irritate those with very sensitive skin.
If you experience irritation with behentrimonium methosulfate, Kavella's Healing Tea Conditioner is a great hypoallergenic conditioner alternative. It uses distearoylethyl dimonium chloride, which is biodegradable and has a very low potential to cause irritation.
In many conventional scented and unscented conditioners, phthalates are used to improve the way the products spread. They also make the fragrance of products “stick” to the hair and scalp.
These toxic chemicals can disrupt the endocrine system, causing reduced sperm count in males and early puberty in girls. In addition, phthalates are extremely toxic to the environment. Instead, choose a hypoallergenic conditioner that avoids phthalates.
Emollients are the ingredients in conventional and biodegradable conditioners that add softness and shine to the hair. They are important components of hair care products and provide a protective barrier that smooths and moisturizes hair, too.
Different formulations for emollients are available, such as leave-in, rinse-off, and styling formulas. No matter what formulation they appear in, synthetic emollients can be dangerous.
These chemical emollients can cause a wide variety of problems for people and for the environment. Choose a biodegradable conditioner that avoids emollients such as PEGs and siloxanes.
The ingredients that fit into this category of toxic chemicals are siloxanes which are a volatile derivative of silicone. While siloxanes can add shine and reduce frizz, they are also bad for your health and the environment, especially when they are washed down the drain. Siloxanes bioaccumulate in marine life.
The most commonly used are:
You can look for chemical names that end in -siloxane to avoid as well.
Look for These Instead of Siloxanes
Fortunately, some excellent organic alternatives provide the same benefits as siloxanes. Look for non-toxic hydrocarbons, organic oils, natural esters like jojoba esters, and non-volatile silicones.
Non-volatile silicones (high-molecular silicones) are excellent for adding shine, softness, luster, and slip, and also provide reliable heat protection in products intended to provide thermal protection. Volatile silicones spread quickly, dry quickly, and can have a light, somewhat powdery feel.
Some popular natural ingredients to smooth hair and add shine include Moroccan argan oil, daikon seed extract, marula tetradecane, and hydrogenated olive oils. Look for these ingredients the next time you’re shopping for biodegradable conditioners or hypoallergenic conditioners.
You might be under the impression that preservatives are only found in food products; however, in reality, any product that contains water and is not refrigerated needs them.
This is because these products can easily become breeding grounds for bacteria. Preservatives are added to these products to inhibit bacteria growth. Hair care products have pH levels that favor bacteria, too. Even products that don’t contain water need preservatives because of the pH level and temperature.
Preservatives also help products last longer by protecting them from rancidity, oxidation, yeast, mold, microbes, and fungi.
You may have heard of parabens before; these are chemicals that are common preservatives in many conventional skin and hair products. They are often easy to identify by their names. Some of the most commonly used parabens in hair care products are:
These and other parabens have been used for several decades. However, they do more than just preserve products and shield them from bacteria. They have a tendency to mimic estrogen.
This means they may disrupt the functions of hormone systems in people. In addition, there have been studies that have shown traces of parabens in breast cancer tissue.
Other preservatives used in non-biodegradable conditioners include formaldehyde, which is used in building materials and household products. It’s also found in industrial cleaning products, cigarettes, and some e-cigarettes. You might also already know that formaldehyde in its liquid form is used to preserve cadavers.
Formaldehyde is a strong irritant that is also carcinogenic. This includes formaldehyde-releasing preservatives. Some keratin treatments contain formaldehyde releasers, as do some straightening products and older Brazilian blowout products.
Formaldehyde releasers to watch out for include:
- DMDM hydantoin
- Diazolidinyl urea
- Methylene glycol
- Quaternium 15
- 3 dioxane
- Imidazolidinyl urea
An additional chemical preservative to watch for is propylene glycol. It’s also used as a food additive, emulsifier, and texturizer.
Propylene glycol is “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA, but toxicity can occur when it is used in high doses or for prolonged periods of time. The damaging effects of propylene glycol that have been reported include seizures, hemolysis, cardiac arrhythmia, lactic acidosis, and central nervous system toxicity.
This synthetic liquid absorbs water and can also cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, lightheadedness, dizziness, and respiratory suppression.
Natural Preservatives to Look for Instead
The need for organic alternatives to chemical preservatives is extremely important. Look for food-grade preservatives like sodium benzoate. Sodium benzoate is a salt that is naturally found in cranberries, apples, cinnamon, and plums.
You can also use products that contain nature-derived biodegradable ingredients like caprylhydroxamic acid, glyceryl caprylate, and caprylyl glycol. Potassium sorbate is a preservative that is actually a natural white salt. It is antimicrobial and natural enough to be used in food.
Many people prefer a scented product over an unscented conditioner. Unfortunately, so many of the conventional products available on store shelves contain a staggering number of chemical ingredients that are designed to simulate various scents and fragrances.
A good rule of thumb when it comes to fragrances is to avoid products that use the blanket term “fragrance” on their ingredients lists and labels. You usually won’t find this listed on unscented conditioners.
There are over 200 different toxic chemicals that are currently used to create “fragrance” and thousands of possible combinations of toxins. Many of these synthetic chemicals are derived from petroleum.
Some specific fragrance chemicals to watch out for include:
- Amyl cinnamal
- Benzyl salicylate
Unlike unscented conditioners, these and other chemicals are used to add fragrance to scented hair conditioners (even hypoallergenic conditioners) and can lead to hair that is easily tangled, frizzy, dry, or greasy. In addition, they can strip the natural protective oils from your hair, causing breakage and potentially making any dandruff issues worse.
Unscented conditioners tend to avoid many of these ingredients.
Look for This Instead of “Fragrance”
Always only use products that list the entire list of scent components on the labels of their products. When consumers have this kind of transparency from trustworthy companies, they are able to decide for themselves which components they want to use.
Kavella will never use the blanket term “fragrance” in our ingredient lists. We always provide full disclosure so our customers can be informed of everything in our products. This makes our entire product line ideal for anyone looking for an unscented conditioner, hypoallergenic conditioner, or biodegradable conditioner.
One of our best-selling hypoallergenic conditioner products, Healing Tea Conditioner, is fragrance-free. It also is formulated with a perfectly balanced pH to make your hair strong, shiny, easy to comb, and clean! Additionally, it is non-irritating and vegan, which means it’s the perfect biodegradable conditioner for all hair types.
Additional Synthetic Ingredients to Avoid in Conditioners
The list of potentially harmful ingredients you won’t find in biodegradable conditioners is extensive. A few more of the most commonly used harmful ingredients still found in many products include triclosan, retinyl palmitate, selenium sulfide, resorcinol, and toluene.
Choose natural, hypoallergenic conditioners that are sulfate-free and formulated with natural oils, butters, hydrolyzed ingredients, natural salts, and humectants like coconut oils. These natural alternatives to their chemical counterparts perform just as well, making hair soft, smooth, healthy, and shiny.
The difference is, of course, that the natural ingredients do it all without any of the adverse side effects that synthetic toxins can cause.
The regulatory bodies in the United States are not as strict as in many other countries, so you must be familiar with ingredients to watch out for on product labels to take care of yourself and the environment.