Clean Haircare Ingredient Swaps: Shampoo Ingredients

Clean Haircare Ingredient Swaps: Shampoo Ingredients

Conventional shampoos do a great job of ridding hair of dirt, pollutants, and oils, but they can also cause serious harm in more ways than one. Not only can toxic ingredients and harsh chemicals cause damage to the scalp, skin, lungs, and hair, but they can also be detrimental to the environment.

The push for hair care ingredients that are natural, organic, and clean is stronger now than ever before. 

In conventional products, ingredients are added to perform certain jobs, such as moisturizing the hair follicles and cleansing excess oils from the scalp. 

For shampoos with clean ingredients to effectively perform as well as (or better than) those with chemical ingredients, the clean substitutes must be comparable. Preferably, these substitute ingredients will also be non-bioaccumulative and biodegradable.

Anionic Surfactants

Anionic surfactants (or “surface acting agents”) are the main effective hair cleaning ingredients in shampoos. However, many of the chemical anionic surfactants found in these hair care products are also found in the following household items:

  • Laundry detergents
  • Kitchen cleaners
  • Toothpaste
  • Hand soaps
  • Dish soaps
  • Bathroom cleaners

These surfactants have a negative charge on the hydrophilic end, which helps them attract and lift dirt and oils from the hair. 

Anionic surfactants are versatile and are the most widely used kind of surfactant. The most common are sodium sulfates and ammonium sulfates.

Avoid Sodium and Ammonium Sulfates

Avoid using shampoos that contain sodium or ammonium sulfates; instead, look for these gentler anionic surfactants:

  • Sodium methyl cocoyl taurate
  • Sodium cocoyl isethionate
  • Sodium C14-16 olefin sulfonate

The most common use for ammonium sulfate is as a fertilizer. However, it is toxic to humans in high quantities. It can irritate the throat and nose, cause coughing and wheezing, and cause eye discoloration with prolonged exposure. High exposure can also lead to stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea, and nausea.

Sodium sulfates are also toxic and can slowly build up in the body. These anionic surfactants can irritate the skin, lungs, mouth, and eyes, and lead to inflammation of the mucous membranes of the nose. They also cause damage to hair follicles over time. While sodium sulfates do lift dirt and oils from hair, they are also known to cause hair to become frizzy.

Secondary Surfactants

Secondary surfactants work by teaming up with primary surfactants to balance the cleansing that is delivered by a product. These secondary surfactants sometimes work alongside the anionic surfactants to thicken shampoo.

Avoid Amine Oxides 

Amine oxides can be found in conventional shampoos, and they are also used as crop treatments, in the oil and gasoline industries, in the home care market, and for industrial applications. Some pesticides and cleaners contain amine oxides as well.

In hair care products, amine oxides are used as emulsifiers, antistatic agents, emulsion stabilizers, foam boosters, and thickeners. However, these oxides can cause eye and skin irritation. 

If inhaled, they can irritate the lungs, potentially causing coughing and shortness of breath. High exposures can cause pulmonary edema (fluid buildup in the lungs), which is a medical emergency. 

Instead of amine oxides, clean shampoos and hair care products should contain decyl glucoside, coco-glucoside, or cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine.


Probably the most important thing to keep in mind regarding fragrance is to avoid products that simply say “fragrance” on the label. The blanket term “fragrance” can represent up to 200 different chemicals, many of which are toxic irritants.

Use Shampoos with Full Ingredient Lists

Instead, use hypoallergenic shampoos, unscented shampoos, biodegradable shampoos, or simply shampoos that disclose the full list of components that create their scents. This transparency allows consumers to choose for themselves which fragrance components they want to use and which ones they want to avoid.

You’ll notice that at Kavella, we never put the word “fragrance” on our ingredient panels. We always include the full list of components. Many people also enjoy using hair care product options that are fragrance-free, such as Kavella’s unscented Healing Tea Shampoo.


Healing Tea Shampoo


Have you ever tried to use a hydrating shampoo or mild shampoo (or any shampoo, for that matter) that had the consistency of water? It’s not easy! It’s also not easy to find a thickening shampoo with natural ingredients, either. Many thickening agents in conventional hair products are PEGs, which you want to avoid.

Avoid PEGs

PEGs, also known as polyethylene glycols, are used in conventional hair products for several reasons. These petroleum-based ingredients have several uses:

  • Thickeners
  • Moisture carriers
  • Solvents
  • Softeners
  • Lubrication

Synthetic ingredients like PEGs can cause harm to skin that is sensitive, broken, or damaged. And many people are concerned about the contamination of PEGs with carcinogen 1,4 dioxane that may occur as a byproduct during production. 

Avoid PEGs; instead, look for products that contain natural thickening agents. Xanthan gum is the most commonly used natural thickener. Hydroxyethylcellulose is another one. It may have a long name, but it is a benign and biodegradable polymer derived from wood pulp. The natural thickening actions between anionic and amphoteric surfactants are also beneficial.

Conditioning Agents (Conditioners)

Although conditioners are often sold as products separate from shampoos, most shampoos (especially hydrating shampoos and mild shampoos) still contain a small amount of conditioning agents. These keep hair from becoming knotty or matted while being cleansed.


One popular conditioning agent that is present in conventional shampoos is quaternium-15. This is an ammonium salt that has uses other than for conditioning; it also acts as a surfactant and a antimicrobial agent.

However, quaternium-15 is an allergen. Along with formaldehyde, it has been banned in the EU since 2017. In the United States, a bill that would ban this ingredient is also under consideration.

The use of quaternium-15 can cause contact dermatitis in some people with sensitive skin. At low pH levels, it can release significant amounts of formaldehyde. Therefore, there are many concerns about its safety since formaldehyde is a known carcinogen at high levels. 

In response to consumer pressure, some large manufacturers have elected to phase out the use of quaternium-15 in cosmetic products.


Siloxanes are ingredients in mainstream shampoos and many other hair products. They are often used in conventional mild shampoos and hydrating shampoos in particular because they add shine to hair and reduce frizziness. 

One of the biggest arguments against the use of siloxanes is that they have been found to be persistent and toxic to the endocrine system. Additionally, they have been linked to many fertility issues. Finally, some siloxanes are thought to negatively affect the nervous system.

Furthermore, siloxanes have the potential to bioaccumulate in aquatic organisms. They make any shampoo they are found in far from a biodegradable shampoo.

Look for Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride and Polyquaternium-10


Moisturizing Shampoo


Instead of using a shampoo with siloxanes or quaternium-15, go for products that contain guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride, which is safe and derived from guar beans. 

Another natural substitute is polyquaternium-10, which is derived from plants. An excellent hydrating shampoo that naturally conditions is Kavella’s Moisturizing Shampoo.

Volumizing Ingredients

Not everyone needs a voluminous shampoo or a shampoo for texture, but those who do often find harmful chemicals and compounds like sulfates in them. Sulfates are chemicals used as cleaners that are found in more than one shampoo for body and volume. In fact, they are some of the most common ingredients.


Sodium Lauryl Sulfate


The Dangers of Sulfates

Sulfates are added to products like voluminous shampoos to give the appearance of hair that is thicker, has more body, and is fuller. Unfortunately, this is because sulfates strip away healthy oils and moisture from the hair, too, leaving the cuticle raised for more friction between hair strands.

When sulfates strip too much moisture away, hair is left dry, brittle, and unhealthy. Dry hair can look fuller at first, but it does so at a great cost that can eventually have severe repercussions.

The two most common sulfates are sodium laureth sulfate and sodium lauryl sulfate, which are also anionic surfactants. They have the deepest cleansing effects but again, at quite a steep price. 

A sulfate-free gentle shampoo for fine hair is recommended for people who have contact dermatitis, rosacea, eczema, or sensitive skin; irritation and even allergic reactions can be caused by sulfates. It’s also recommended that anyone with fine or dry hair avoid these ingredients, as well. 

While there is some debate as to whether sulfates are carcinogenic, it is best for everyone to avoid shampoos that contain them. At the very least, they strip the natural oils hair needs, along with the color from color-treated hair, while increasing frizziness.

Opt for Hydrolyzed Rice Protein

If you’re looking for the best volumizing gentle shampoo for fine hair, choose one that contains hydrolyzed rice protein, such as Kavella’s Volumizing Shampoo. Hydrolyzed rice protein is a natural ingredient that not only adds a natural shine to the hair but also significantly increases total hair volume.

This protein increases the ability of hair to bind moisture, which improves hair’s tensile strength and flexibility. In other words, it’s a powerful natural moisturizer that contains amino acids to repair hair and encourage its growth.


People who need a clarifying shampoo and those with heavy buildup issues benefit from shampoos that contain chelating ingredients. These cleanse the hair by binding to and detoxifying heavy metals, removing impurities, dirt, deposits of minerals, and residue. However, not all chelators are created equal.

Ethylenediaminetetraacetic Acid (EDTA)

One of the main chelators in conventional shampoos, EDTA, should be avoided. disodium EDTA and tetrasodium EDTA, along with sodium citrate, are common agents listed on shampoo bottles. Tetrasodium EDTA, in particular, is shockingly toxic; it’s made from sodium cyanide and formaldehyde.

EDTA has been found in some animal studies to have adverse effects on the reproductive system at high doses. High doses are also thought to extract zinc from the body, which can weaken the immune system.

Natural Alternatives

Instead of shampoos that contain EDTA, use products that contain alternatives like gluconolactone or tetrasodium glutamate diacetate. These ingredients perform as natural chelating agents without the dangerous potential side effects of their toxic chemical counterparts.


Preservatives are necessary ingredients in shampoos. Any product that is not refrigerated and contains water can breed bacteria. There are many different preservatives that are used in shampoos, with three of the most common being propylene glycol, formaldehyde donors, and parabens.

Propylene glycol is a penetration enhancer. It’s a carrier for ingredients and other chemicals in shampoos and is a known skin irritant. Propylene glycol is also a possible endocrine disruptor and neurotoxin and has been shown to cause cancer in lab tests. 

Formaldehyde donors are common preservatives and yes, they deliver a small amount of formaldehyde to the shampoos that contain them. Also called formaldehyde releasers, these include the following:

  • Quaternium-15
  • DMDM hydantoin
  • Formaldehyde
  • Diazolidinyl urea
  • Imidazolidinyl urea
  • Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate
  • Polyoxymethylene urea
  • Bronopol
  • 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1
  • Glyoxal

These chemicals are banned in Japan and Sweden. In Canada and the EU, concentrations are restricted. Look for products that contain food-grade preservatives instead, such as sodium benzoate. 

Hypoallergenic shampoos that contain nature-derived and biodegradable ingredients like glyceryl caprylate. Caprylyl glycol and caprylhydroxamic acid are also excellent alternatives.

Organic, Natural, Biodegradable Shampoos

Whether you need a hypoallergenic shampoo, an unscented shampoo, a shampoo for texture, a gentle shampoo for fine hair, or any other kind, make sure that it’s natural and biodegradable. While everyone has a responsibility to maintain their health and well-being (along with great hair), everyone also has a responsibility to the planet.

Using organic shampoos can improve scalp health and naturally help your hair retain moisture, lose dirt and grime, and even stimulate hair growth. They can do all this without putting you at risk for lung damage, skin irritation, vomiting, or even cancer.

Natural shampoos are not only safe to use, but they are also gentle on your hair, skin, and scalp. Using the best natural shampoos will help you retain color longer — and it will also spare the environment from the toxic chemicals of conventional shampoos. Take the time to read labels and become familiar with ingredients; the effort is well worth it.

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