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Did you know that L'Oreal, the famous cosmetics manufacturer, makes a 'Kids 2 in 1' shampoo for children, marketed as "extra gentle"? What do you imagine it contains? Since it's for kids, you'd think it would be using only the safest ingredients

Did you know that L'Oreal, the famous cosmetics manufacturer, makes a 'Kids 2 in 1' shampoo for children, marketed as "extra gentle"? What do you imagine it contains? Since it's for kids, you'd think it would be using only the safest ingredients. And since it claims to be 'extra gentle', you'd expect it to be made up of the finest, least hazardous ingredients.

Wrong on all counts. Astonishingly, 'L'Oreal Kids 2 in 1 shampoo, extra gentle, burst of fruity apricot' is among the most toxic shampoos on the market.

For a start, it's chock-full of lauryl sulphates, one of the most potentially carcinogenic compounds in the entire 'personal-care' industry and, yet, one that is found in almost every leading shampoo. What do the lauryl sulphates do? In the trade, they are known as surfactant or detergent 'degreasers'; they also make shampoo nice and foamy. But, in fact, they're far from nice. A Cornell University report published 20 years ago warned hairdressers to beware of sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS), the most commonly used surfactant, as it is "too harsh" on the skin (Health Hazard Manual for Cosmetologists, Hairdressers, Beauticians and Barbers. Cornell University, 1987). SLS is just one of the many toxic compounds that cause hairdressers to have significantly higher rates of cancer than the rest of the population.

However, despite this information, SLS is still widely used today - as we've seen, even in so-called 'gentle' shampoos for children. In fact, a recent survey by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington-based group of concerned scientists, found that 93 per cent of shampoos "possibly contain harmful impurities linked to cancer or other health problems" (Skin Deep. EWG, 2004).

Besides SLS, other frequently used toxic shampoo ingredients include PEG (polyethylene glycol), a foaming agent. According to Professor Samuel Epstein, a leading expert in environmental medicine, PEG compounds are often contaminated by two carcinogens: dioxane and ethylene oxide. Both have been linked to leukaemia, and brain, uterine and breast cancers (Int J Toxicol, 2001; 20 [Suppl 4]: 13-26). The fact that PEG should never be used on damaged skin says it all.

A related common shampoo ingredient is propylene glycol, a wetting agent used to dissolve oil and grease. Derived from petrochemicals (it's also found in the antifreeze that you use in your car), it is known to penetrate the skin rapidly. In animals, it has caused liver and kidney damage at high doses (Natl Toxicol Program Tech Rep Ser, 2004; [511]: 6-260) and central nervous system toxicity (J Pediatr, 1978; 93: 515-6).

And don't imagine that products marketed as 'natural' or 'herbal' are exempt either. Take Alberto VO5's Free Me Freesia Moisturizing Herbal Shampoo, for example. What could be more innocuous-sounding than that? But it's sheer window-dressing. A study by the EWG found that the ingredients in this product could cause "cancer, developmental/reproductive toxicity, allergies/immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity, organ system toxicity (non-reproductive), and irritation (skin, eyes, or lungs)".

In fact, of all hair-care products, shampoos reportedly cause the most adverse reactions.

Alternative shampoos

Fortunately, there's now a rapidly growing range of shampoos for the safety-conscious consumer. But are these so-called 'green' or 'organic' alternatives all they're cracked up to be?

We tested seven of the leading non-toxic shampoos in the UK, asking four questions: What are they like to use? Do they really work? How safe are their ingredients? Are they good value for money? A hand-picked panel of average consumers helped us to answer the first two questions, and we scoured the latest toxicological information to answer the third.
In terms of their pricetags, none of these alternatives comes cheap; in fact, they tend to be much more expensive than the usual options. Also, of course, none of those ultra-value supermarket own-label brands is included in the alternative shampoo market.

If you're really hard up, but want to protect your health, you can always try what people did in the days before the invention of shampoo. Wash your hair with the mildest, least toxic bar of soap you can find, then sluice your head with a large jug of hand-hot water into which you have squeezed the juice of half a lemon. This will leave your hair shiny and feeling, almost literally, squeaky clean.

There's a further, more intangible benefit with avoiding shampoos altogether - you'll be indirectly helping to spare the suffering of laboratory animals. This is because in the effort to protect our safety, virtually every ingredient used in shampoos has been tested on thousands of rabbits, rats and mice - sometimes by force-feeding. Think about that the next time you're luxuriating under the shower.


The principal ingredient in all shampoos is water, but this has been ignored in our analyses.

Avalon Organics Lavender Nourishing Shampoo
Price: lb5.49 for 325 mL
Rating: ****

"Nourishing beta-glucan (oats), vitamins and certified organic lavender cleanse and fortify while energizing your scalp for strong, healthy-looking hair", says Avalon - and our panel tended to agree, giving the product an overall average score of 80-per-cent satisfaction. There was disagreement over the lavender scent, however: some found it "overpowering", while others thought it "lovely" and "authentic". The ingredients are generally good, although two of its main ingredients are the detergent cocamidopropyl betaine, a coconut derivative that is a potential skin irritant (Am J Contact Dermatol, 2001; 12: 223-4), and the foaming agent sodium cocoyl sarcosinate. Both are known as 'penetration enhancers', which means that they can increase the toxicity of any other ingredients - a worrying thought as cocamidopropyl betaine itself may be contaminated with nitrosamines. So these could be considered questionable ingredients in a product marketed as containing 'natural botanicals', with all the implied health benefits.

The best value-for-money product in our survey, it's only slightly let down by its less than 100-per-cent non-toxic credentials.

JASON Plumeria & Sea Kelp Moisturizing Shampoo
Price: lb6.95 for 250 mL
Rating: ****

Sea kelp is believed to be a hair thickener, and 'Plumeria' is the genus name for the tropical flowering shrubs and trees also known as 'frangipani', although the main ingredients in this product are lavender, marigold and chamomile extracts. However, the detergent action comes from cocamidopropyl betaine, which has some safety question marks (see Avalon above). On the plus side, JASON also includes the milder (and more expensive) cocamidopropyl hydroxy sultaine detergent.

One curious ingredient is oxybenzone, a compound more usually found in sunscreens because of its ultraviolet radiation-absorbing effect. However, there is evidence that it may cause allergic skin reactions in some people (Acta Derm Venereol, 1999; 79: 211-3).

Our test panel had mixed views about this product, with "left my hair soft, shiny and manageable" pitted against "my hair felt unhealthy and malnourished, then it quickly turned greasy". Nevertheless, its overall satisfaction rating was a respectable 70 per cent.

Aubrey Organics GPB Glycogen Protein Balancing Shampoo
Price: lb8.99 for 325 mL
Rating: ****

"We believe that great ingredients make great products," says Aubrey Organics but, unfortunately, our panel didn't agree. None felt that the product was superior to their usual everyday shampoo; most complained that it was too runny and that a lot of it had to be used to make it effective. It's a pity, as the ingredients are first-rate. The cleaning action comes from saponin, a mild, natural detergent derived from coconut and corn oil. The product also contains a couple of natural moisturizers - aloe vera and shea butter (oil from the African shea tree) - plus soy and milk proteins, which are often used to strengthen hair. The thickening agent is a kind of seaweed called 'carrageenan'.

Nevertheless, the proof of the pudding is in the shampooing, and today's consumer has become accustomed to an effortless 'wash 'n' go' experience that even the finest natural ingredients apparently struggle to deliver. But we've given Aubrey high marks for trying.

Green People Aloe Vera Shampoo
Price: lb8.50 for 200 mL
Rating: ***

This product achieved an overall satisfaction rating of only about 60 per cent with our panel, although it was described as "nice and thick" and considered to have "lathered well". Price was mentioned as one of the downsides, so evidently the shampoo experience wasn't quite up to Rolls-Royce standard. Green People claims that their product "lasts 3 times as long as conventional brands", which our panel did not confirm, although the shampoo's 'staying power' was noted by some. Apart from a relatively small amount of cocamidopropyl betaine (see Avalon above), the ingredients are top-notch, and include lavender and olive oils as well as copious amounts of aloe vera, believed to act as a hair conditioner.

Dr Hauschka Macadamia and Orange Shampoo
Price: lb12 for 250 mL
Rating: ***

Not a great hit with our panel, despite its very high pricetag. Although the packaging was appreciated, the majority of our testers gave it a 'thumbs down' for the scent. Some found the 'runniness' difficult to cope with, and the comments were evenly split as to how manageable it made the hair. The ingredients label aroused suspicion but, in fact, the contents are rather good. In addition to macadamia oil, a highly prized (and expensive) nut oil that makes the hair feel silky, the product uses extracts of fenugreek, neem, rosemary and nettle, some of which are traditional ingredients in Indian hair oils (incidentally, India is where the word 'shampoo' comes from). There's also a natural thickening agent made from moss.
The only dubious ingredient is listed as 'betaine', which we presume is the ubiquitous cocamidopropyl betaine (see Avalon above).

Lavera Rose Milk Repair Shampoo
Price: lb6.75 for 250 mL
Rating: ***

Lavera has a huge reputation in the non-toxic cosmetics market, but this shampoo does not appear to be up to the mark. Although most of its detergent action comes from ultrasafe coconut derivatives, there is the issue of the addition of cocamidopropyl betaine (see Avalon above). The product also contains the conditioning agent hydroxypropyl guar hydroxpropyltrimonium chloride which, in high doses, may be neurotoxic (at least in animals), and squalene, a moisturizer, which is known to be carcinogenic - again in high doses and in mice, so it may not apply to humans (Japanese J Cancer Res, 1985; 76: 1021). Somewhat of greater concern is the inclusion of hydrogenated lecithin, a moisturizer that is a 'penetration enhancer', thus potentially exacerbating any toxic effects; it can also create carcinogenic nitrosamine compounds (Int J Toxicol, 2001; 20 [Suppl 1]: 21-45).

Our panel was divided as regards the product, with completely opposing views as to its scent and its effect on the hair.

Weleda Rosemary Shampoo
Price: lb3.99 for 250 mL
Rating: **

A blatant example of a 'window-dressing' product - one that hides a batch of potentially hazardous ingredients behind the innocent-sounding herbal headline - its major ingredient is sodium laureth sulphate (SLES), a known skin irritant. The upside is that the 'eth' ending makes it less damaging than sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) (Contact Dermatitis, 2003; 48: 26-32), but the downside is that it may be contaminated with carcinogenic 1,4-dioxane. Another surfactant ingredient is lauryl betaine; nowadays considered somewhat pass'e in the trade, it has been found to cause "general systemic toxicity" at high doses in laboratory animals (Fundament Appl Toxicol, 1981-97; 1-40), and so has safety question marks for humans.

One strange ingredient is common salt (sodium chloride) - totally safe, of course, but a questionable ingredient for other reasons. "Salt is an excellent thickener for surfactant systems, but is it good for hair?" asks industry-expert John Woodruff.

Our panel gave this shampoo an average set of marks, but some were suspicious that it lathered too readily, indicating less than ideal ingredients - a well-spotted observation.

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