Check The Label: The 10 Scariest Ingredients In Your Hair Products

It’s not news that our generation is embracing healthier lifestyles, with the words detox, organic, and natural gaining momentum and greater significance. Many people, when considering the importance of healthy living, examine their diet first. Then, they may start to think about removing harmful chemicals from their household and cosmetic products.
According to New York City dermatologist Anne Chapas, MD, "The FDA doesn't provide guidance on natural personal-care products, be they toothpaste or mascara…In fact, the cosmetic industry has generally been self-regulated since 1938. Currently, manufacturers of cosmetic products are not subject to inspection or review before going public.”
Basically, it’s up to us to check our own labels. And, if you’ve glanced at the back of your shampoo bottle in the shower lately, you may have noticed a long list of even longer, scary-sounding names. This guide will tell you which of these ingredients you should steer clear of.
Iodopropynyl Butylcarbamate This water-based preservative emerged in the wood and paint industries before making its way to cosmetics, where it's used in creams and lotions to prevent mold, bacteria, and other germs from spreading. Is it really harmful? Well, Japan seems to think so since it has banned the substance, and The Cosmetic Ingredient Review — an independent review panel — limits its use in cosmetics to .1% or less due to the potential to irritate skin in concentrations of .5% and above. Other allegations include quick absorption into the bloodstream, as well as dermal and inhalation toxicity. The CIR also notes that it should never be used in aerosol products because of inhalation risks.

Watch out for these terms:
IPBC, 3-iodo-2-propynyl butylcarbamate, carbamic acid, Glycacil®, and IodoCarb®

Natural alternatives: Natural preservative alternatives with anti-microbial properties include grapefruit seed and rosemary extracts; tea tree, neem seed, and thyme essential oils; vitamin E and vitamin C are also options. These natural alternatives prevent oils and fats from becoming rancid; however, their drawback is their shorter shelf life.
Lead Acetate This is a very common color additive in modern hair dye products and — the big "C" word — a possible carcinogen. It has been banned in the European Union and Canada, and, according to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC), it's one of the most dangerous chemicals found in skin care because it's "a known reproductive and developmental toxin linked to infertility, birth defects, and developmental delays.”

However, in 2002, the American FDA concluded that, “According to safety tests, no significant increase in blood levels of lead was seen in trial subjects and the lead was not shown to be absorbed into the body through such use." Therefore, the FDA determined lead acetate to be safe when specific instructions listed on the packaging are followed.
Therefore, you may begin to notice the following on products containing lead acetate: "Caution: Contains lead acetate. For external use only. Keep this product out of children's reach. Do not use on cut or abraded scalp. If skin irritation develops, discontinue use. Do not use to color mustaches, eyelashes, eyebrows, or hair on parts of the body other than the scalp. Do not get in eyes. Follow instructions carefully and wash hands thoroughly after use."

Lanolin is the purified secretory product of the sheep sebaceous gland — or, more plainly sheep sweat. This slightly unpleasant origin has earned the ingredient bad press as a scary ingredient in the past, but it is actually not dangerous if it's purified lanolin. Although lanolin has been known to cause an allergic response in a very small percentage of people, purified lanolin is a clean, healthy product to use. Extensive research by the CIR deemed lanolin to have "low acute toxicity based on available animal data and human experience," and went on to say that lanolin and related lanolin materials are safe for human topical application. This is good news considering its moisturizing benefits.


In hair products, phthalates are used primarily as hair-gelling agents in products. You will notice this by the term “fragrance” in your ingredient list. These phthalates, often simply labeled as "fragrance," are known and praised for making product scents last longer, but they may not be entirely safe.

While phthalates have been accused of hormone tampering, a study by the University of Michigan found decreased testosterone in young boys exposed to high levels of phthalates. The United States is slowly learning of the harm phthalates can cause, but Canada has already placed strict regulations on the ingredient.

PEG-3 Cocamide

This is a foaming agent used in hair products to produce the common mousse-like consistency. The National Library of Medicine, HazMap, notes that this ingredient is a human immune system toxicant; moreover, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Pesticide Programs, says that this ingredient may be a cause of cancer to humans. Although research for the cause of cancer is lacking, it is probably best to steer clear of this ingredient, anyway, especially as it is not essential to the effectiveness of the product. Instead, choose a similar product in a cream base rather than in foam-form.

Amino Methyl Propanol

This active ingredient is used as a pH adjuster that is generally considered safe at levels of concentrations below 2%. Unfortunately, many hair products, especially those requiring a strong pH adjuster (think chemically altering hair straighteners or hair dyes) require concentrations well above 12%, which could cause irritation, speficically affecting the eye area. Because of this possible irritation, some people may wish to to use natural products that temporarily alter the state of their hair rather than products that aim to permanently alter it, since the latter carries a greater risk.


Nitrosamines are formed when certain compounds (typically TEA and DEA) are used with certain preservatives that can break down into nitrates. TEA and DEA are typically used as wetting agents or pH adjusters in cosmetic products. Specifically DEA is used as an emulsifier in shampoos, cleaners, and detergents providing rich later and highly desired consistencies, while TEA is used as fragrance, pH adjuster and emulsifying agent.

However, when mixed with particular substances these can break down into nitrosamines. The UK’s Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform describes nitrosamines as “more toxic to animal species than any other category of chemical carcinogen.” Canada has banned and found them unsafe for use in cosmetics. While common in American cosmetics, nitrosamines are not listed on product labels because they are impurities, so look to avoid ingredients like: triethanolamine, diethanolamine, DEA, TEA, cocamide DEA, cocamide MEA, DEA-cetyl phosphate, DEA oleth-3 phosphate, lauramide DEA, linoleamide MEA, myristamide DEA, oleamide DEA, stearamide MEA, TEA-lauryl sulfate.

Parabens (methyl, butyl, ethyl, propyl)
This sneaky ingredient is used in products as a preservative, yet is rarely labeled correctly.
The easiest way to avoid this ingredient is to use products labeled "paraben-free." Although parabens are typically found in breast cancer tumors, more research is still needed to determine if parabens actually cause breast cancer. Still, many women are choosing to go the paraben-free route and opting for products containing natural preservatives. The downside to natural preservatives is that the they don’t preserve products for very long, so your beauty products will have a shorter shelf life than you're used to.

Best Practices
It's important to make informed decisions about what you put on your hair and body, but in order to do that, you've got to have at least a basic understanding of what ingredients you may want to avoid. Keeping an eye out for the substances listed above is a great start.

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