When it comes to haircare, knowing what’s in your products is essential. If they contain these five offenders, they may be doing more harm to your locks than good.
- Alcohol: While there are several types of alcohol used in haircare products—some of which can actually be beneficial—most of the forms found in styling products can cause dryness when used every day. “Gels and sprays containing high amounts of alcohol are bad,” says Paul Labrecque of the eponymous salon in New York City. He adds that if a person comes to his salon with damaged hair, these products never get used. Swearing off styling products can be tough, though: If you need the hold, look for products that list alcohol lower on the ingredient list or that contain moisturizing pro vitamin B5 (panthenol) and silk proteins to offset the alcohol and keep hair from becoming dehydrated. You can also try L’Oreal EverStyle Alcohol-Free styling products, including their Curl-Activating Mousse ($6.99) and Strong Hold Styling Spray ($6.99, mass retailers).
- PEG compounds: An abbreviation for polyethylene glycol, PEG compounds are used as cleansing ingredients and to thicken product formulas. They can easily strip hair of its naturally protective oils, though. Stacy Malkan, founder of the Environmental Working Group’s Cosmetics Database, agrees that they are one of the “dirty dozen” ingredients found in beauty products: PEGs are possible carcinogens that are contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a solvent for resins, oils, waxes and other compounds, both organic and inorganic. For PEG-free cleansing, try Jonathan Product’s Green Rootine Nourishing Shampoo ($20, www.jonathanproduct.com).
- Sulfates: Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) are surfactant ingredients that give shampoos their sudsiness. Products that are sulfate-free have become very popular over the past few years, as the ingredient can be drying if overused. “There are many alternatives and consumers just have to get used to less lather,” explains Labrecque, who adds that sulfates are also known as possible carcinogens. One sulfate-free wash to try: EO Sulfate Free Keratin Shampoo ($8.99, www.eoproducts.com).
- DEA: You often see these letters DEA (an abbreviation for diethanolamine) following another ingredient—cocamide DEA or Lauramide DEA, for example. That means the preceding ingredient was chemically neutralized. DEA chemicals are usually found in products that lather or bubble and they are another of Malkan’s problematic and potentially hazardous haircare ingredients; DEAs are hormone disruptors and may increase the incidence of both liver and kidney cancer.
- Coal Tar: The name alone makes coal tar-derived ingredients sound like something we’d never want in our hair, yet dyes—especially those for darkening hair—often contain this cancer-causer. “Coal tar is a carcinogen that you also find in dandruff shampoos,” according to Malkan, who notes that the long-term safety of using these products has not been adequately tested. If you must go dark to hide grays, talk to your stylist about using coal tar-free products. Highlights and lowlights are also safer options, as the dye never comes in contact with your scalp.