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Ever wondered what’s in your hair products? Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what’s good for you, and what’s not, especially when a lot of marketing is involved. This can be confusing when you want to find out what’s really in your shampoo bottle, and whether you should be using it on your hair. Here is a list of common ingredients, and what they do:

Chemicals you may want to avoid:

Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing chemicals, such as: 5-bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, methylene glycol, oxomethane, and quaternium-15: Certain shampoos may contain preservatives that release formaldehyde. Formaldehyde can cause irritation of the skin, eyes, nose, and throat – high levels of exposure may cause some types of cancers! Similarly, hair smoothing treatments may contain methylene glycol or other ingredients that release formaldehyde gas when heated .

 Formaldehyde in hair smoothing products has also been associated with a number of reactions, such as rash, eye problems, headaches, dizziness, and vomiting. Ask your stylist if he or she knows whether a product contains ingredients that release formaldehyde or other ingredients you may want to avoid—or, even better, look it up ahead of time. At Hairloom, we do not use products that contain formaldehyde.


Any product with a scent will most likely have “Fragrance” on its label, which can include a mixture of ingredients that makes your conditioner smell like ocean breeze or vanilla or any number of things. However, businesses are not required to declare what goes into these fragrances as they are considered proprietary – which is why if you have an allergic reaction to a product, fragrances are probably responsible. Look out for products labeled “fragrance-free” if you’re sensitive.


Parabens such as methylparaben and propylparaben is commonly used as a preservative for various hair and beauty products by preventing bacteria and mold growth. Some studies suggest they may contribute to breast cancer development, though they were tests done on animal studies or in vitro studies on cell cultures in the lab. For now, it’s not entirely clear how parabens affect breast cancer risk in humans.
Chemicals that are generally safe:
  1. Cetyl, oleyl, and stearyl alcohols: These fatty alcohols give shampoo and conditioner their thick, creamy consistency. They also have softening properties, making your hair feel smooth and supple. Generally low in toxicity, these compounds are pretty common and hard to avoid.

2. Diethanolamine (DEA): Thickening agent in shampoos and conditioners, helps to form a foamy lather.

3. Mineral oil: Mineral oil, also listed as paraffin oil or white mineral oil, forms a protective coating over hair that locks in moisture.

​4. Petrolatum: Like mineral oil, petrolatum—also listed as white petrolatum and petroleum jelly—is a petroleum distillate, but has a more viscous consistency. Widely used as a topical ointment, it forms a protective coating that traps moisture, and adds body and shine.

5. Pthalates: Diethyl phthalate (DEP), the only phthalate still widely used in beauty products, acts as a solvent for fragrances. According to the FDA website, “based on available safety information, DEP does not pose known risks for human health as it is currently used in cosmetics and fragrances.” But if you still prefer to steer clear of products containing DEP, shop for those whose list of ingredients doesn’t include fragrances.

6. Propylene glycol: Propylene glycol is an alcohol that helps hair absorb and trap moisture, and can function as a solvent for other ingredients.

7. Silk protein: A protein spun by the silkworm, silk acts as a conditioning agent and adds bulk to products. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review has concluded that eight silk proteins—fibroin, hydrolyzed fibroin, sericin, hydrolyzed sericin, silk, hydrolyzed silk, silk extract and silk powder—are safe as used in beauty products.

And chemicals you may want to reconsider:

Sulfates: Often in the form of sodium laureth sulfate and sodium lauryl sulfate, sulfates give shampoo its sudsy-ness, and cut through grease and dirt. But they can also strip away natural oils in the process, which can lead to frizzy, dried-out strands, and an irritated scalp. Many shampoos now are created to be sulfate-free as a result of this.

Silicones: Silicones—whose names often end in –methicone or –oxane—form a waterproof coating over hair that keeps it from soaking up humidity, making them common in straightening and smoothing products. The coating also seals moisture inside the hair, and makes it shiny and easier to comb. But some silicones, like dimethicone, can also cause heavy buildup that leaves strands limp and dull. A class of silicones known as cyclosiloxanes is gaining growing attention from the research community, who has begun investigating concerns about whether they can cause cancer or disrupt the endocrine system.

​It can be confusing when shopping for hair products! However putting in a little more effort to read the label when you’re out shopping can help you make better and safer decisions. When in doubt, speak to your stylist about what you’re looking out for; our stylists are always here to help!

Information adapted from

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