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What's in Your Shampoo? Why You Should Find Out

Last in a series of guest blogs by best-selling author Dan Goleman

A friend who helped start a line of shampoos for a famous hairdresser confides that, truth to tell, every shampoo is built around just four basic types of chemicals. The first is surfactants, cleaning agents that strip dirt off hair. But surfactants are harsh and can leave hair dry and brittle, so formulators add a conditioning agent to rectify the Ph balance. Foaming agents make it bubbly; fragrances give a shampoo its unique identity.

Shampoos can have dozens and dozens of ingredients fine-tuning their unique appeal in these four basic categories. And not all those ingredients are necessarily benign. A biochemist told me, indignantly, that he had learned that the shampoo he and his wife use contains 1-4,dioxane, a suspected human carcinogen. That chemical is not listed in the ingredients; it’s there unintentionally in trace amounts as a residue from the chemical process used to make a foaming agent.

Here’s a tip: If you want to buy a completely safe shampoo, you might want to skip one that features a greenish-sounding name hinting at botanical wonders. Some of the fifty or so ingredients in this shampoo have been linked to cancer, reproductive toxicity in women, allergies, and disruptions of the immune and endocrine system – to name just a short part of a long list.

By contrast, Skin Free Extra Moisturizing Soap may be one of the safest shampoos around; its three simple ingredients — palm oil, cacao seed butter and coconut oil — pose no threat to the health of those who use it as a shampoo. Or so I learned from Skin Deep, a cosmetics hazard rating website created by the Environmental Working Group, which crusades against toxic ingredients in everyday stuff.

The average American woman applies one to two dozen personal care products daily, totaling hundreds of chemical compounds. EWG’s Skin Deep tells when some of these may contain chemicals that ought to be kept away from the body’s biggest organ, the skin.

Despite the aura of natural essences promoted by cosmetic packaging, beauty products depend greatly on synthetic chemicals for whatever elixir-like action they may have. In March 2005, the European Union implemented a rule requiring that any product placed on the body must be scientifically assessed for toxic effects. The chemicals in such products are gradually being tested for “CMRs” – carcinogens, mutagens, or reproductive toxins – and any suspect chemicals are to be banned from their ingredients or have their use severely restricted, at least in Europe.

But in the U.S., the safety of the estimated 10,500 chemicals used in personal care products and cosmetics has been largely taken for granted – even though around 90 percent have never been assessed by the FDA or the cosmetics industry. In the E.U., these chemicals are being rigorously assessed quarterly by a committee of toxicologists drawn from scientific labs across the continent.

Drawing on such research, as well as on years of previous studies, Skin Deep evaluates the health risks of cosmetic ingredients by matching each one to what medical databases reveal about its level of hazard or safety. Using this methodology, for example, the website rates the Skin Free Extra Moisturizing shampoo bar as being one of the top ten brands at the very safest level. In contrast, that shampoo with the eco-ish name languishes among the bottom ten of the 1,051 shampoos rated.

For example, BHA (a preservative that keeps the shampoo’s oils from going rancid) has been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, allergies and/or immunotoxicity and organ system toxicity, and it has been found to accumulate in tissue so that the more is used, the higher these risks become. On a hazard scale of 1 to 10, BHA rates a 10.

The fact that we can now know, thanks to Skin Deep, strikes me as having profound implications: It exemplifies what economists call “information symmetry,” a crucial ingredient of a healthy marketplace. Symmetry means that we buyers can know what sellers know.

So what’s information asymmetry? Think subprime mortgages and the market meltdown of these last years. When it comes to toxic chemicals in the stuff we put on our bodies and our children’s bodies, symmetry is vitally important.

Skin Deep levels the playing field, creating information symmetry between we shoppers and companies that sell to us when it comes to potential health risks in the  55,122 personal care products the site rates.

When I mentioned the website and its evaluations to a high-level executive of one shampoo brand, he had never heard of Skin Deep and was surprised to learn that customers were using this data. Skeptical, he asked me whether shoppers would actually bother to go to a website to check on the safety of cosmetics they buy, let alone let it guide their choices.

Apparently they would. As of the most recent day I checked, since the website launched in 2004 there had been 160,483,159 searches.

How many of those hits are from shoppers, and how many from cosmetics brand managers checking their products’ ratings or shampoo formulators, no one can say. In an ecologically intelligent world, all three would be numbered among those millions.

[Adapted from Daniel Goleman, Ecological Intelligence: The Hidden Impacts of What We Buy. Daniel Goleman blogs at, and his conversations with experts on ecological transparency can be heard at:]


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