Smart discussion about toxics policy reform

What’s Really in Your Shampoo,
and Why You Should Find Out

Last in a series of guest blogs by best-selling author Dan Goleman

A friend who helped start a line of shampoos for a famous hairdresser confides that, truth to tell, every shampoo is built around just four basic types of chemicals. The first is surfactants, cleaning agents that strip dirt off hair. But surfactants are harsh and can leave hair dry and brittle, so formulators add a conditioning agent to rectify the Ph balance. Foaming agents make it bubbly; fragrances give a shampoo its unique identity.

Shampoos can have dozens and dozens of ingredients fine-tuning their unique appeal in these four basic categories. And not all those ingredients are necessarily benign. A biochemist told me, indignantly, that he had learned that the shampoo he and his wife use contains 1-4,dioxane, a suspected human carcinogen. That chemical is not listed in the ingredients; it’s there unintentionally in trace amounts as a residue from the chemical process used to make a foaming agent.

Here’s a tip: If you want to buy a completely safe shampoo, you might want to skip one that features a greenish-sounding name hinting at botanical wonders. Some of the fifty or so ingredients in this shampoo have been linked to cancer, reproductive toxicity in women, allergies, and disruptions of the immune and endocrine system – to name just a short part of a long list.

By contrast, Skin Free Extra Moisturizing Soap may be one of the safest shampoos around; its three simple ingredients — palm oil, cacao seed butter and coconut oil — pose no threat to the health of those who use it as a shampoo. Or so I learned from Skin Deep, a cosmetics hazard rating website created by the Environmental Working Group, which crusades against toxic ingredients in everyday stuff.

The average American woman applies one to two dozen personal care products daily, totaling hundreds of chemical compounds. EWG’s Skin Deep tells when some of these may contain chemicals that ought to be kept away from the body’s biggest organ, the skin.

Despite the aura of natural essences promoted by cosmetic packaging, beauty products depend greatly on synthetic chemicals for whatever elixir-like action they may have. In March 2005, the European Union implemented a rule requiring that any product placed on the body must be scientifically assessed for toxic effects. The chemicals in such products are gradually being tested for “CMRs” – carcinogens, mutagens, or reproductive toxins – and any suspect chemicals are to be banned from their ingredients or have their use severely restricted, at least in Europe.

But in the U.S., the safety of the estimated 10,500 chemicals used in personal care products and cosmetics has been largely taken for granted – even though around 90 percent have never been assessed by the FDA or the cosmetics industry. In the E.U., these chemicals are being rigorously assessed quarterly by a committee of toxicologists drawn from scientific labs across the continent.

Drawing on such research, as well as on years of previous studies, Skin Deep evaluates the health risks of cosmetic ingredients by matching each one to what medical databases reveal about its level of hazard or safety. Using this methodology, for example, the website rates the Skin Free Extra Moisturizing shampoo bar as being one of the top ten brands at the very safest level. In contrast, that shampoo with the eco-ish name languishes among the bottom ten of the 1,051 shampoos rated.

For example, BHA (a preservative that keeps the shampoo’s oils from going rancid) has been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, allergies and/or immunotoxicity and organ system toxicity, and it has been found to accumulate in tissue so that the more is used, the higher these risks become. On a hazard scale of 1 to 10, BHA rates a 10.

The fact that we can now know, thanks to Skin Deep, strikes me as having profound implications: It exemplifies what economists call “information symmetry,” a crucial ingredient of a healthy marketplace. Symmetry means that we buyers can know what sellers know.

So what’s information asymmetry? Think subprime mortgages and the market meltdown of these last years. When it comes to toxic chemicals in the stuff we put on our bodies and our children’s bodies, symmetry is vitally important.

Skin Deep levels the playing field, creating information symmetry between we shoppers and companies that sell to us when it comes to potential health risks in the  55,122 personal care products the site rates.

When I mentioned the website and its evaluations to a high-level executive of one shampoo brand, he had never heard of Skin Deep and was surprised to learn that customers were using this data. Skeptical, he asked me whether shoppers would actually bother to go to a website to check on the safety of cosmetics they buy, let alone let it guide their choices.

Apparently they would. As of the most recent day I checked, since the website launched in 2004 there had been 160,483,159 searches.

How many of those hits are from shoppers, and how many from cosmetics brand managers checking their products’ ratings or shampoo formulators, no one can say. In an ecologically intelligent world, all three would be numbered among those millions.

[Adapted from Daniel Goleman, Ecological Intelligence: The Hidden Impacts of What We Buy. Daniel Goleman blogs at, and his conversations with experts on ecological transparency can be heard at:]

End of series:

Previous posts in the series:

What Toxicology Doesn’t Measure – And What We Can Do

What We Don’t Know About the Toxic Stuff Around Us

Our Bodies’ Chemical Burden: Little Doses Matter a Lot

bookmark bookmark bookmark bookmark bookmark bookmark bookmark bookmark bookmark bookmark bookmark bookmark

3 Responses to “What’s Really in Your Shampoo,
and Why You Should Find Out”

  1. I must disagree. Skin Deep is “Information Chaos”. The same ingredient is in multiple times with different scores for each in some cases. As a consumer who already avoids the common top cosmetic toxins, I’m looking for more than a reason to hate Avon or Proctor & Gamble. I am looking for realistic hazard scores, not just anti-big business bias. There is plenty wrong with many of the “ZERO” ingredients and that is not being addressed in a timely manner, IMHO.

    I posted this comment in every lip balm that contains this ingredient:
    “MENTHA VIRIDIS (SPEARMINT) LEAF OIL should have the same hazard rating as MENTHA SPICATA (SPEARMINT) OIL, which has a Skin Deep score of “1”, or that of Carvone, which has a “3”. Per Skin Deep: “About MENTHA SPICATA (SPEARMINT) OIL: Mentha Viridis (Spearmint) Leaf Oil is the volatile oil obtained from the dried tops and leaves of Mentha viridis. It consists largely of carvone.” The products linked to MENTHA VIRIDIS (SPEARMINT) LEAF OIL should be updated to link to MENTHA SPICATA (SPEARMINT) OIL and their product scores updated accordingly.” (04/25/2010)

    Nothing has changed or been corrected. How can concerned consumers and advocates for safe natural cosmetics help facilitate getting Skin Deep updated with current data?

  2. Susan, thanks so much for your comments on our Skin Deep cosmetic safety database.

    The cosmetic industry enjoys such wide latitude on what ingredients to list on their labels, and how to list them, that it leaves consumers confused – and leaves our Skin Deep team with a big mess to clean up when we sort through the tens of thousands of labels we add to our database every year.

    Right now, the products in Skin Deep contain 7,313 unique chemical ingredients. But these are listed and spelled in 148,534 unique ways on the labels themselves. We went through every one of those ingredient name
    variations and “resolved the synonyms,” as we call it, lumping together ingredients that are actually the same thing. We do this every year.

    We’ve been advocating for uniform labeling requirements that would apply across the industry so consumers can know what they’re getting. In the meantime, we sort through what averages out to be 20 different spellings for every single ingredient in cosmetics.

    You found one we missed – thanks for the catch, it’s fixed now.

    As for carvone, that’s a different story. Botanical ingredients are usually complex
    mixtures of chemicals. Carvone is one of many components of mint extract, but it’s not identical to the mixture itself. So we don’t link it as a synonym.

    On “ZERO” ingredients — most ingredients with a zero hazard score in Skin Deep carry a 100% data gap score. This means that there are no data on them at all in the 60 government, industry and academic databases that form the core of Skin Deep. And we’ve added thousands of individual scientific studies to capture what’s not in the databases. If you see gaps, please let us know — we welcome the information.

    Last but not least, we’re not anti-Avon or anti-P&G! We’re pro-consumer, working for safer products across the board. Is “natural” necessarily safer? Absolutely not. Plenty of plant extracts are hazardous, so even “natural” companies must closely assess what they put in their products.

    We’re glad to have your thoughts and comments on the database. If you post them at, you’ll get them to our technical team – a better place for a faster response than typing them in as product reviews in Skin Deep.

    Jane Houlihan, EWG Senior Vice President for Research

  3. Ashwini Sarah Dasgupta says:

    As Europe and in time America too, wake up to the reality of what these personal care and cosmetic products are doing to us at SO many different levels…dumping in the third world countries will begin. And we third world citizens, are gleefully extolling the virtues of the new economic policy that makes so many “foreign” available to us in our stores and pharmacies and supermarkets…we no longer wait for a relative to return from overseas bearing the rich luxuriant silicone filled shampoos….And we have numbers…!!! One of our hugely populated metro’s represent four small European nations….!!! So the P&G’s and Lever’s are still going to make a lot of money by selling true inner beauty and Dove to us dark skinned Asians…!!!