Because I’m Worth It … what’s in your shampoo?

It had been an average shower, not one on my best maybe, but at least I hadn’t slipped on the soap or forgotten to bring a towel into the bathroom with me. Clean of body, I savoured a final 30 seconds or so of hot cascading water manning-up for the chilled dash to the bedroom. I was replacing my bottle of L’Oreal Men Expert Total Clean Carbon Shower Total Action 5 in 1 (body/face/hair/shave/moisturise) – other brands are available and I’m sure very similar, when my interest was piqued by the large volume of print on the back of the label.

Of course, all myopic person across the world who can see print this small without glasses even in the agitated steam clouds of a shower, know there’s a long list of constituents on the label on every shampoo; but how many ever read it? Certainly not me. ‘Oh Lor’, I said as I read, ‘what are these things I’m rubbing in my hair? Is Acrylates Copolymer really a thing?’


I realised that I had a public service to list out the ingredients in Times New Roman 12-point font for the benefit of long-sighted people everywhere, but as in my doused nakedness I struggled to even read the words ‘PEG-150 Pentaerythrity Tetrastearate’ it was clear this was not going to be a straightforward task. For the ingredients were not, as I’d expected, typical of those one might find in a tart’s window box, such as rose petals, lavender, baby oil etc, but the fall out from Professor Brainstorme’s chemistry lab.

The label disclosed 28 ingredients of which I’d heard of 7, the others being so alien to me that they might as well be the components of rocket fuel. Then I found that one of the substances listed was also found in jet fuel and realised I was maybe wasn’t so far out .Of the ones I did know, why was water called ‘aqua/water’, and isn’t glycerine an explosive? I was worried. What is this stuff? What horrors is it doing to my hair – albeit I must say it leaves it clean and smelling fresh – but perhaps it could account for the steady increase in my greyness in recent years and the prodigious amount of it growing out of my ears as of late. Is it vegan? – not that I am one, but with veganism being the (cardboard) flavour of the month at the moment so I thought you should know. Is it safe? Can I drink it? (I do enjoy an unusual liqueur now and again). So many questions. My duty was escalating beyond a simple Public Information Service to an imperative for all of hirsute mankind. It’s taken many months of research and prowling of chemical plants, but now, as I hang up my towel, I am ready to reveal all…

1. Aqua/water

Yes, even I had an idea of what this one was likely to be, and recognise that as the first ingredient listed, it must represent the largest component by volume. So what about this ‘aqua’ bollocks? Is it somehow meant to sound more luxuriant to whatever percentage of people do not recognise this as an interchangeable term for water, or dumbing-up qualities beyond that you could find for yourself from your nearest puddle? The answer to both is ‘yes’ – why wouldn’t you try and glamourize your product whose main constituent is water, but if included in a product is a legally required term as governed by the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) who insist that all products containing ‘water’ are disclosed as ‘aqua/water’ to give the chance to non-English speakers who do not recognise the term ‘water’ to have a second chance with ‘aqua’.

No, I hadn’t heard of the ICNI either. Based in Washington, USA, this august organisation has been in place since the 1970’s a register of all allowable shampoo ingredients. Should a producer develos a blend with an ingredient not known to them, it must first pay $400 to have it registered in their International Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary and Handbook, (named, beautifully, wINCI) . Thus the ICNI wINCI (smirk) records all permissible substances and gives a standard worldwide name to ‘ensure consistency to promote fairness and prevent confusion or misleading of consumers’, though they do not vouch for the safety or suitability of any of them.

To be fair, water/aqua is not simply tap water as its definition by the INCI requires it to have been rendered free of impurities, perhaps by distillation or similar processing. Water performs essential roles in the effectiveness of shampoo manufacture, for example as a solvent in which many of the other ingredients are dissolved, and as an emulsifier to blend the oil molecules with other ingredients.

2. Sodium Laureth Sulphate

SLS a widely used cosmetic ingredient also used in soaps and toothpaste etc. It acts as a negative-ion detergent and also a surfactant, which is a rather ugly word for a substance that reduces surface tension and allows water to combine with the dirty oils in your hair and so enable them to be removed. SLS also generates a lather which, while not essential, is effective in the mechanical process of rinsing away removed dirt and is considered pleasing to the user. Despite its horrendous chemical formula of CH3(CH2)11(OCH2CH2)nOSO3Na SLS, this soft, opaque liquid is cheap and easy to produce, so is a common ingredient typically making up 10-20% of most shampoos. It can be derived from coconut and palm kernel oil which can lead to claims of it being a ‘natural’ product, which in industrial form it certainly isn’t, as it requires the same chemical process as is used to make many plastics, by treating petroleum with the OXO process, which sadly does not involve gravy, but is a manipulation of atoms using high pressures (up to 100 atmospheres) of carbon monoxide and hydrogen at temperatures of up to 200 °C. There are a number of alleged health concerns about SLS, from fears that it causes cancer to an irritation of scalp, gums and skin, though none have been clinically verified. A few SLS-free shampoos are available for those who are concerned.

3. Glycerin

Gylcerin is an alcohol derived from palm oil, soya beans and animal-derived tallow, or as a by-product from producing biodiesel from fats, in the form of a viscous liquid. Its sweetness makes it useful as an artificial sweetener in food for which it has been allocated the E number E422. It also used prevents cake icing from setting too hard. In shampoo, it acts as a gentle hypo-allergen moisturizer and prevents skin dryness as it is a hemectant, ie it attracts moisture to your hair from the atmosphere. Ah, but remember the opposite is true if the environmental humidity around your head is below 70%. Should you use a glycerin product when washing your Barnet in the Gobi desert for example, it will cause the moisture within every strand hydrate the surrounding air and leave you and your camel with a dry frizz. An all-round performer, you may also find glycerin in antifreeze, laxatives, dynamite and e-cigarettes.

4. Acrylates Copolymer

This is a mixture of acrylic acid, methactylic acid and one of their simple esters. No, I didn’t understand that sentence either. Whatever it means, acrylates copolymer is considered low-tox and can perform a number of functions in cosmetics, including as an adhesive (eg in nail varnish), artificial nail builder, binder, film former (over hair, say or skin), hair fixative (encouraging hair to maintain its style by inhibiting water absorption) and as a thickening agent to increase viscosity. It’s a big business product, with over a million tons of acrylic acid made annually, though a proportion is kept back to make superglue, Perspex, acrylic paints, wigs and hair extensions.

5. Sodium Chloride

Yay! Salt. I knew that one. You find it in your shampoo as well as your chips as it transforms water droplets in the mixture into long, thin noodle-like structures, giving it a more luxuriant feel in your hand as it comes out of the bottle and gives the stuff more viscosity. Salt crystals also act as a preservative and exfoliant, making an unwelcome home for bacteria living on your head and removing dead skin cells from the scalp.

6. Coco Betaine

This is the friendlier shorthand for the chemical cocamidopropyl betaine, which is another common inclusion in soaps and shampoos as a thickener, a foam booster and for reducing static in hair. It’s a thick pale-yellow liquid derived from coconut oil that acts both as another surfactant and making it less painful should you splash shampoo in your eyes. This said there is a suggestion that your eyes can be made just as sore from the impurities left in its production, such as, and don’t get me started on these two, amidoamine and dimethylaminopropylamine. You’ll love this: coco betaine is an example of a zwitterion (told you) i.e. it contains a balance of negative and positively charged ions.

7. PPG 5 Ceteth-20

A fine away win for Ceteth there. The PPG stands for polypropylene glycol and polyoxypropylene glycol but this turns out to be not as threatening as it sounds as it acts as a common surfactant, emulsifier and wetting agent in cosmetic products. It has the ability to attract oil and dirt from the skin while its hydrophilic properties enable these impurities to be washed away leaving a silky feeling on the skin. It also helps spread any pigment in the product evenly and is typically makes up between 5 and 20% of such products.

8. Parfum/Fragrance

I don’t suppose anyone is shocked by the inclusion of this one. Again the use of ‘parfum’ being the exotic French translation of perfume doubling up with the sophisticated ‘fragrance’ lends a more romantic connotation to the other laboratory-forged ingredients. Less fanciful is that parfum in this context is often cheap to make and is an anonymous concoction of various scent chemicals and ingredients used as fragrance dispersants. Such mixes have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system. Fragrance-free shampoos are generally available for those who prioritise personal health over body odour.


9. Charcoal Powder

I had to narrow my eyes at this one. Really? Who would put black charcoal powder in a cleansing product? But there is sense in this counter-intuitiveness. This product of half-burned wood, bone, coconut shells, peat, petroleum coke, olive pits or sawdust removes toxins in various uses from whitening your teeth, easing your hangover, banishing your blackheads, stripping impurities from your hair to breaking down waste in your fish tank. Charcoal is considered ‘activated’ when the burning process takes place in oxygen at very high temperatures which changes the internal structure to increase its surface areas making it more porous and thus able to hold up to a thousand times its own weight with its negative-charge attracting positively-charged dirt and toxins.
10. Sodium Hydroxide

Back to the chemicals with the first of the Sodium triplets. Sodium, as any fule kno, is a highly reactive alkali metal. Its hydroxide form was ‘invented’ by Sir Humphry Davy in the early 1800’s and is better known as caustic soda, which in concentrated form can burn the skin and even dissolve unwanted bodies. It’s useful stuff, with 60 million tonnes produced industrially in 2014 for purposes as broad as the production of paper, cements and grouts to stuff that can unblock your drain or help give the glaze to your shop-bought bagel. In liquid form it is used in shampoos to act as a precursor for other ingredients, to reduce the acidity to reduce hair damage and if included at 10-15% of volume, break the bonds in curly hair to straighten it. Inevitably even in smallish amounts it can be an irritant, particularly in more concentrated ‘hair-straightening’ formulations and so like many of these ingredients, it is possible, if limiting, to buy shampoos without them.

11. Sodium Benzoate

Surprisingly perhaps given the name, this does occur naturally in many berries and dairy products. It is used in the food industry as a preservative, such as in salads and fruit juices, where it is given the E-number E211. It can also treat some urinary conditions and, quite wonderfully, makes the whistling noise you get from some fireworks. It also preserves the ingredients in shampoo while adding a fragrance. There is some concern that carcinogenic benzene is created when combined with vitamin C, which have a number of nasty medical conditions attached to it, but as a single ingredient sodium benzoate has been registered as ‘safe’.
12. Sodium Dehydroacetate

This gets included because of its antimicrobial properties, where even at very small concentrations, it protects many types of cosmetic from spoilage. Like its sodium sister Benzoate, it is considered safe as a food preservative (E266) but is cited as an irritant by some, particularly if it finds its way into the eyes.

13. PEG-150 Pentaerythrityl Tetrastearate

Now we’ve on to the real hard-core chemicals. This one has the astonishing chemical formula of C92H182O18. It’s used in concentrations of up to 5% of cosmetics as a ‘viscosity increasing agent’, ie it gives your shampoo more gloop. You can make it yourself by reacting pentaerythritol with ethylene oxide until the equivalent of 150 moles of ethylene oxide are added. Tested in America in the eyes of Wistar albino rats, then New Zealand white rabbits before finally, humans, it was categorized as non-toxic by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review expert panel in 2014.

14. PEG-6 Caprylic/Capric Glycerides

As if you didn’t know already, this is a polythene glycol derivative of a mixture of mono, di, and triglycerides of caprylic and capric acids with an average of 6 moles of ethylene oxide. Both acids are found naturally in palm and coconut oil and the milk of various mammals. It serves a multi-purpose in shampoo, being a skin-conditioning agent, emollient, surfactant, emulsifying agent and the grotesquely named refatting agent. It is considered to bear a small risk of organ toxicity.

15. PEG- 90M

This stuff acts as a binder of other ingredients and a humectant – ie it reduces the rate at which your shampoo loses moisture, a solvent and another viscosity increasing agent. It is one of around 50 variants of polyethelyne glycols used in cosmetics and as a laxative by the medicine industry. I’d shelve plans to drink your shampoo as PEG’s side effects include diarrhoea, nausea, stomach cramps and flatulence, though you may be comforted to know it was used to preserve the paint on the terracotta warriors and, snigger, forms a major part of many personal lubricants.
16. Salicylic Acid

Here’s the science bit: this is a lipophilic (ie dissolvable in fat) monohydroxybenzoic acid, a type of phenolic acid typically found in plants, mushrooms and human urine, and a beta hydroxy acid. It gets used in in some “anti-aging” creams and anti-inflammatory treatments for warts, ringworm, verrucas and acne. It’s also the active ingredient in willow bark that has been known for thousands of years to ease pain and reduce fevers which was developed into aspirin in 1899. Its role in shampoo is to help remove flaking skin and relieve itching and redness of the skin and scalp. It is generally considered safe, though people with intolerance to aspirin may wish to avoid despite its inclusion rate of typically only 3% in shampoos.

17. Polyquaternium-7

Polyquaternium-7 is not only a small planet in the Kaxygon Series, but a`clear liquid which dries to form a thin film that is absorbed onto the hair shaft to inhibit static build-up and water absorption to help keep your quiff in place. It is considered non-hazardous. An on-line search shows you can buy a kilogram of the stuff for $95.

18. Polyglcerin-10

Like some previous ingredients listed, this stuff acts as a skin conditioner, surfactant and emulsifier. It has no allergenic properties, being labelled common preservative free, fragrance free, paraben free, lanolin free, coconut free, MCI/MI free, Nickel free, gluten free, soy free, propylene glycol free and is registered as lip safe and teen safe. Away from cosmetics, it is included in coffee to inhibit certain bacteria, to give a better ‘mouth-feel’ to bread and cakes and to disperse fats in meat products. Nice.

19. Polyglyceryl-10 Myristate

The second of the Polyglycerol sisters is another compound found in palm and coconut oils. It is included as another low-toxicity skin conditioner, surfactant and emulsifier. The ‘Myristate’ come from a fatty acid first identified by the superbly-named Right Honourable Lyon Playfair, a renowned scientist and Liberal MP of the 1800s.

20. Polyglycerl–10 Searate

Unsurprisingly maybe, another low-tox skin conditioner, surfactant and emulsifier derived either from animal sources or synthetically. There are over 5,000 substances considered similar to P-10 stearate so I consider it indulgent to spend any more time on this particular compound here.

21. Limonene

This is a nicer one with limonene being distilled or spun out of citrus peel. As you would imagine, it has its uses as a flavouring and diet supplement in the food industry. Less predictable is its inclusion in paint stripper, degreasers, model glue and organic insecticides, but its function in shampoo is as a fragrance. For a naturally occurring and seemingly innocuous oil, it can be an irritant to both skin and eyes – just think how much a jet of tangerine juice to the eye stings when trying to unpeel one.

22. Linalool

This is a beautiful word that has your lips stretching in three different extremes. It’s a naturally occurring alcohol found in over 200 flowers and spices, such as mint and cinnamon, which give it insecticidal properties and a fragrance of, you guessed it, of flowers and spices. While it is believed to have a positive effect on breast cancer and leukaemia, for some people, when processed by oxygenation linalool can be an irritant and allergen.
23. Pentylene Glycol

This is used as a plasticizer and emulsifier. You can make it on your kitchen table through hydrogenolysis of tetrahydrofurfuryl alcohol to produce this inorganic humectant which has an anti-microbial quality. Like so many of the substances listing here, it can be a skin irritant, but rarely in the small quantities included in shampoo and it generally it has a beneficial effect by moisturizing dry and itchy skin.

24. Mentha Piperita Extract/Peppermint Extract

This essential oil is pressed from leaves of any of the 25 species of mint and gives shampoo a fragrance and treats both dry and greasy skins. Its flavour makes it a common ingredient in mouthwashes and breath fresheners.

25. Citric acid

This weak acid you may already know is commonly found in citrus fruits, making up about 8% of the dry weight of a lemon. More than a million tonnes per year are produced each year for its wide use as an acid regulator mainly for beverages, but also treating stomach and urine disorders, for flavouring food (E330) and as a chelating agent – bonding ions in the production of fertilizers. It’s also used in dyes for MRI scans and in chemical water treatment. In shampoo, it washes out waxes and colouring as well as increasing acidity when causes hair follicles to lie flat and feel silkier. You guessed it: exposure to large amounts of citric acid can cause skin irritation.

26. BHT

No, this is not treated milk but Butylated hydroxytoluene prepared industrially by the reaction of p-cresol (4-methylphenol) with isobutylene (2-methylpropene) catalyzed by sulphuric acid or, if you prefer, from 2,6-di-tert-butylphenol by hydroxymethylation or aminomethylation followed by hydrogenolysis, either method leaving you with a fat yellow crystalline compound. There. You can use it as a food additive (E321) as an antioxidant and preserver, a task it also performs in the production of rubber, cosmetics and jet fuel amongst others, but in your shampoo it will help prevent in-bottle deterioration. It has been generally classified as ‘safe’ in concentrations of up to 1% in cosmetics, but there is some debate surrounding a possible link between BHT and cancer risk, asthma, and behavioural issues in children. While the jury is out, the US has restricted it from being included in baby foods and the Japanese have banned it from all foods.

27. Coumarin

Coumarin is a crystalline white solid with a sweet, vanilla, nutty scent. When highly diluted, the scent is reminiscent of freshly-mown hay and so is used in a wide range of cosmetics and is said to be included in over 90% of all perfumes. Coumarin can be extracted in its natural crystalline state from a variety of plants such as lavender, loveage and woodruff and has been added to pipe tobacco and alcoholic drinks. However it has no licence as a food additive due to it being responsible for liver damage in animal tests. Rubbing it on your head is one thing, but would you want to smoke or drink it?

28. Glycol Disterate (FIL C220536/1)
This is the stuff that gives the blob of shampoo in your hand an iridescent sheen, or pearlescence and moistens the skin in application. It’s a wax made from the condensation of alcohol and acid (the perfect Saturday night?) , such as ethylene glycol and stearic acid. There are better moisturising agents, but glycol disterate is cheap to produce and, unless you happen to be allergic to it, safe.

And that’s your lot. Scary isn’t it. If I’d paid more attention in poor Mr Rivers’ O-level chemistry lessons I could be a champagne shampoo tycoon. I’m not sure what to do with this information apart from share its burden with you. It makes me wonder what effect shampoo of this nature has, with nearly 70 million people in the UK washing their hair several times a week if not daily (OK – take off say 15 million bald men), all being washed into our ecosystems. Hey ho. On the plus side, as a nation we all have luxuriant, well-behaved hair to be proud of, though the shampoo does make some of us scratch a bit.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Shampoo will never be the same!


  2. amydwestphal says:

    I’ve always wanted someone to break this down for me. I wonder, is that weird? Of course not because here you’ve gone and done it! Thanks. I always avoid parabens in things, now I know to avoid Sodium hydroxide too.


  3. Indeed weird, Amy. Like you, I chose against paraben & sodium hydroxide pie in last weeks national pie week.


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