February 17, 2022

The Beginner’s Guide to Paraben and Sulfate-Free Hair Products

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Did you know that about 41% of women purchasing beauty products never bother to read the ingredient labels first? For the 59% who check the ingredients labels in beauty products before they buy, 29% indicate they would avoid products with sulfates, and 22% said they do not buy products containing parabens.     

But what are sulfates and parabens? Why do people want to avoid them? If sulfates and parabens are so harmful that they would deter a purchase, why are they still being used in hair and beauty products? Can I get paraben and sulfate-free hair products in regular beauty stores? 

In this article, we answer all the questions above and more. We hope that by the time you get to the end of the piece, you will understand why you should join the 51% that already care about the ingredients in the hair products they purchase.  

What Are Parabens?

Parabens are chemicals usually used to preserve food, drugs, cosmetics, and personal care products. Their main job is to prevent microbes and increase the shelf life of products.

According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “Product ingredient labels typically list more than one paraben in a product, and parabens are often used in combination with other types of preservatives to better protect against a broad range of microorganisms.”

The FDA adds, “The parabens used most commonly in cosmetics are methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and ethylparaben.” 

The Harmful Effects of Parabens 

While they are beneficial in preserving many products, parabens may have harmful side effects. 

An article published by the provider of medically reviewed information, Verywellhealth.com, reports, “The use of parabens became quite controversial after being found in the cells of breast cancers patients.” The same source adds, “Early research showed parabens affect hormone function.” 

The idea that parabens could have harmful health effects is supported by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). This organization uses research to empower consumers to make informed choices. 

The EWG writes, “Parabens can act like the hormone estrogen in the body and disrupt the normal function of hormone systems affecting male and female reproductive system functioning, reproductive development, fertility and birth outcomes.”   

Other side effects of parabens resulting from hormone-disrupting activity are related to changes in cholesterol and brain function, reduced immune functioning, increased blood sugar, and risk of obesity.

What Are Sulfates?

Sulfates are a group of chemicals predominantly used in making beauty products like shampoos and toothpaste. 

The web-based outlet for medical news and information, MedicalNewsToday.com, explains why sulfates are found in hair products: 

  • Sulfates make it easier for the shampoo user to spread the shampoo to a greater area of the head. 
  • When shampoo can spread more effectively, it goes deeper into the hair to remove excess oil and dirt. 
  • The ability to foam and spread ensures that less shampoo is used.  

Even though some people want to avoid products containing sulfates, MedicalNewsToday.com reports that “When people use them correctly in normal quantities, sulfates are generally safe.” 

Sulfates Side Effects

The most common side effect of sulfates is an unintended consequence of their effectiveness. Because sulfates help remove dirt and oil in your hair, they sometimes also remove the natural oils your hair needs to stay healthy. This can lead to your hair being dry and unhealthy. 

Sulfates are sometimes bad for the skin, especially skins with rosacea, a chronic skin condition affecting over 16 million Americans. According to the medical information website Healthline.com “Rosacea’s trademark symptom is small, red, pus-filled bumps on the skin that are present during flare-ups.” The site adds, “Typically, rosacea affects only skin on your nose, cheeks, and forehead.” 

Other side effects of sulfates include hives (a skin rash), inflammation, itchiness, and redness.

Are Paraben and Sulfate Free Hair Shampoos Available? 

Considering the undesirable effects of parabens and sulfates, some people decide that they will avoid purchasing products containing any of these chemicals. Such choices present an important question: Can I find paraben and sulfate-free shampoo in regular stores? 

The good news is that the market is full of products that don’t contain these chemicals. For instance, the American women’s magazine focused on beauty, Allure.com, presents what it calls “The 21 Best Sulfate-Free Shampoos of 2021 for a Gentle, Non-Stripping Cleanse.”  

A search on Amazon.com using the terms “Shampoo No Sulphates No Parabens” produces over 3,000 products. 

How Long Does It Take for Hair to Adjust to Sulfate-Free Shampoo?

For hair used to shampoos with sulfates, sulfate-free shampoos may initially feel less effective. For example, because of the lack of sulfate, these products may take longer to foam. This means that you will need more shampoo. Also, because the sulfate-free shampoo does not spread easily, more water may be required to rinse the hair. 

Therefore, transitioning safely to sulfate-free shampoo is a gradual process. Your hair needs to be given time to adjust to the changes.

Typically, it takes hair about two to four weeks to adjust to sulfate-free shampoos. This adjustment period is normal and necessary to ensure that your hair remains healthy with just the proper moisture.

The time it takes for the hair to adjust to sulfate-free shampoos depends on several factors, including your hair texture, how dry or oily your scalp is by default, and how regularly you wash your hair.

Do Parabens and Sulfates Pose Environmental Hazards?

Parabens and sulfates are not only bad for you; they can also cause harm to the ecosystem. Water and food may become contaminated by parabens. Even though they are harmless in small quantities, eventually, they may start to build up in our body systems and the body systems of animals.

EWG.org cites several studies showing that parabens are linked to ecological harm, “as low levels of butylparaben can kill coral.” The same source adds that “When parabens are combined with chlorinated tap water, a number of chlorinated paraben byproducts can form.” However, not much is known about how toxic such byproducts are. 

Because they are used in many beauty products, parabens and sulfates can mix with the water supply as it flows into rivers and the ground. Even though treatment plants can remove about 80% of parabens from wastewater, another 20% remains. 

Verywellhealth.com reports that parabens also threaten wildlife as “Plankton, algae, dolphins, and polar bears were found to have high levels of these chemicals.” 

What Can Be Done to Protect Consumers against Parabens and Sulfates?

Efforts are in place to protect consumers against the adverse effects of parabens and sulfates. Some organizations have set up initiatives that educate the public on the harms that some of these chemicals can cause.

For example, the EWG, in conjunction with The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, has come up with a voluntary agreement called Compact for Safe Cosmetics

The agreement has been signed by companies agreeing to make all their products “free of chemicals that are known or strongly suspected of causing cancer, mutation, or birth defects.”

EWG.org also reports that there have also been concerted efforts both by retailers and the governments to find alternatives to and ultimately phase out parabens in everyday products. 

According to EWG.org, Whole Foods Market, the American multinational supermarket chain, has banned using the four major parabens in its premium body care standard.

CVS, the American retail pharmacy chain, has also committed to removing all paraben-containing products from its stores. Rite Aid has listed butylparaben and propylparaben as restricted substances. Walgreens also stocks a lot of sulfate-free shampoos and conditioners.

EWG.org reports that the European Union (EU) has banned isopropylparaben and isobutylparaben in personal care products since 2015. This was in the aftermath of a declaration by the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety because “adequate evidence has not been provided for the safe use of propyl- or butylparaben in cosmetics.”

Should We Stop Using Products with Parabens and Sulfates?

If we look at the advice from the FDA, there doesn’t seem to be an urgent need to stop using products with parabens or sulfates. The department says, “FDA scientists continue to review published studies on the safety of parabens.” Adding, “At this time, we do not have information showing that parabens, as they are used in cosmetics, have an effect on human health.” 

However, some experts advise against using products with parabens altogether. For instance, Dr. Ophelia Veraitch, a consultant dermatologist, is quoted in Elle.com saying, “I would not use or recommend using skincare products that contain parabens, and the beauty industry needs to start paying more attention to what we are recommending consumers put on their skin.” The FDA promises to continue to evaluate emerging data about chemicals used in the cosmetics industry. Whenever it determines that a health hazard exists, the agency says it will inform the public.


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