Parabens and sulphates: Everything you need to know about shampoo
Parabens and sulphates aren’t exactly new – they’ve been causing a stir for almost as long as shampoo itself! But, not all of the attention has been positive. They're part of a wider cautionary tale that has called into question the safety of these synthetic potions in everyday products – especially shampoo – from critics and commentators alike.
Thankfully, we’ve done all the research so you can clue up on exactly what you’re putting on your head. From the full lowdown on these ingredients to how to identify them on the shelf, here's everything you need to know.
What are parabens?
Parabens are low-cost preservatives regularly included in liquid haircare products and, more specifically, water-based products, so as to stop the growth of miscroorganisms such as bacteria, fungi and algae. Used since the '30s, they help extend the lifespan of your shampoo for months, even years in a lot of cases.
Recent studies have tenuously linked parabens to breast cancer, with intact parabens found in a number of breast tumour tissue samples in an aughties study conducted by Dr Philippa Darbe at the University of Reading, England. Later studies have further shown that parabens have the ability to bioaccumulate, meaning they're able to be absorbed into and accumulate in our bodies. What's more, some parabens have been shown to mirror estrogen in the body and disrupt endocrine, our glands that release hormones.
For all of this, though, there isn't conclusive proof. The health risk is considered very low by the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration), European Union and more when used as directed – so low, in fact, that edamame beans have been said to cause more estrogenic activity. The average concentration of parabens per bottle of shampoo is anything up to a small 0.4%.
How to spot them
The sure-fire way to know if your shampoo contains parabens is if it contains any of the following wordy ingredients: ethylparaben, methylparaben, butylparaben, isobutylparaben or propylparaben (essentially, anything with -paraben). Of these, the most common in haircare products is butylparaben. You might also find them under the lengthy name alkyl parahydroxy benzoates.
What are sulphates?
Sulphates are a surfactant, defined by authority Oxford Dictionary as ‘a substance which tends to reduce the surface tension of a liquid in which it is dissolved’. This means that, when applied to wet hair, they remove the barrier that would otherwise make it very difficult to rid hair of excess oil and dirt. It's not surprising they're often otherwise known as emulsifiers or foaming agents; they are also the key ingredient to making shampoo become the luxurious frothy mass of bubbles we associate with hair cleanliness.
It's been said that sulphates can cause regular hair damage, from moderate dryness to fading your hair colour quickly and making your scalp itchy and red. For those with sensitive skin, gentler, sulphate-free options may be better suited to your body's needs.
How to spot them
While their bubbly lather is often a clear giveaway, this can also be made by other sulphate-free ingredients. To be sure, look out for sodium lauryl sulphate or sodium laureth sulphate on the label.
Paraben-free and sulphate-free alternatives
If you want to keep your hair washing on the safe side, use shampoos with organic or natural ingredients that have the ability to preserve, albeit for a short period, such as those in the acid family (i.e. salicylic acid, benzoic acid or sorbic acid). Shampoos with phenoxyethanol or sodium benzoate are other popular alternatives. Luckily, there are a range of products on the market that boast being paraben- and sulphate-free, making for easy purchases year-round.
Side tip: Make note of your new shampoo's expiration date and keep track of the time spent since you first opened it – with a shorter shelf life, you don't want to risk using an expired product.
Have you ever used a paraben-free or sulphate-free shampoo before? What are your thoughts on it?