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It would be great if people trying to educate us about safer cosmetics actually knew a bit of formulating chemistry.

August 19, 2015

What to avoid in a conditioner

Ok so I just saw this and thought that yes, it is fair enough to educate people about ingredients that might be savvy and safer for them and/or the environment.  As consumers we deserve to know what goes into the products we buy and the impact that these ingredients might have on our health and our planet.  Posts like the above get shared heaps on social media as they are simple, pretty, catchy and give us a neat problem-and-solution that makes us feel empowered.

Only the information here is misleading.

And I actually think that matters.

Ethanolamines are a group of ingredients that are rarely if ever put into conditioning formulations so avoiding them should be as easy as just buying any old conditioner.  These ingredients can be found in emulsions (conditioners can be emulsions but they are typically cationic to help them stick to the hair and condition better) and SHAMPOO’s because they are cleansing agents.

Parabens are preservatives that may or may not be in a conditioner formula. As a rule they are quite unlikely to cause a reaction but people hate them just in the same way that some people hate Jelly or bad grammar so I guess it can stay.  These days most conditioner formulations are using things like Methylchloroisothiazolinone as cheap, effective preservatives. This type of preservative isn’t called out on this meme which is odd as it actually is quite irritating and something that I myself avoid as it actually blisters my scalp.  Maybe they can this ingredient in the space that ethanolamines left…..

Formaldehyde Releasing Preservatives are things that may be in a conditioner and yes, formaldehyde is a bad thing but a good formulator will know this and be able to manage it. In fact pretty much all conditioner formulations made by people who know the laws and how to formulate  (and let’s face it some formulators don’t know either) will pose no more risk to your health than that late night walk to the fridge in the dark. Still, I take the point that better options are now available so it could stay.

Sodium Laureth Sulfate and other -eth ingredients.  OK so when I read this I see two things – Surfactant and emulsifier.  Surfactant is prominent as people see Sodium Laureth Sulfate and think ‘aaaaahhhh’ and probably don’t read the rest of the sentence.  I think it is bad to have SLS listed on a meme about conditioners because it is an ingredient that is NEVER put in conditioners.  Other -eth’s maybe. I can mostly think of ceteareth-20 but that is also rarely used as it actually isn’t that great in a conditioner. We generally use it in very tiny amounts (I’m talking less than 1% and typically less than 0.5%) in emulsions rather than rinse-off conditioners.   I get why you might want to avoid -eth’s for the environment sake as they are synthetic (eth=ethoxylation. Ethoxylation is from ethylene oxide from petroleum) though so if I was re-writing this meme I’d just call out ‘ceteareth-20’ and then put ‘and other eth ingredients as the eye-catching bit as that would be more helpful.

Nonoxynols – OK so I’ve never personally come across these before. Maybe it’s a class of ingredient used mostly in the states. A quick look on Cosmetic Info.Com tells me that yes, these are indeed used in hair care products but again mainly in shampoos and hair dyes and colour rinses as they are emulsifiers, dispersants (probably for colour) and foam boosters.  There usually isn’t much foaming and cleaning going on in a conditioner though…..  I can see how you MIGHT get a nonoxynol in a leave on hair colour with conditioner and then yes, this warning would be valid but as pretty much every hair colourant that works has its own toxicity linked to it (there are no 100% SAFE colours, even henna has risks) I’d say that nonoxynols may well be the least of your potential problems.

In summary and in my opinion the above post has focused on the wrong ingredients and missed the ingredients that are actually in most conditioners and could cause problems.

My top picks for ingredient that can cause issues in conditioners are:

  • Preservatives – mostly the methylchloroisothiazolinone and also the Methylisothiazolinone as these are known irritants and their use is being restricted.  All preservatives has the potential to irritate as their job is to kill microbes and no matter how rich, famous or well-groomed we are our skin has a microbial layer which protects us but is also vulnerable to what we put on.  Generally speaking the dose is low enough for us to cope without drama but people with compromised skin may well be vulnerable.
  • Quats and cationics – things like cetrimonium or behentrimonium chloride and the Polyquaternium-7,10,39 etc are cationic which means that they can stick to the surface of the hair (or skin) for longer. This is often what gives the conditioner its wet combability, emulsion stability and performance characteristics but can, in very sensitive people be irritating.  That said again, formulators that know what they are doing can minimise these risks and failing that there are legal safety guidelines to comply to, especially in Europe.
  • Fragrance (including essential oils).  Some people are just sensitive to the smelly end of a formula.  The scalp is particularly sensitive due to all of those active hair follicles and so for some fragrance free is the best way to be.

As always I appreciate the need for products that are clean, green and effective and spreading good, sound and relevant information has to be a big part of that.

Oh and I’m sure that the guys that put this together actually do have some good information to share. Maybe they just had a bad day.

and on that note I wish you all a good hair day and peaceful night.

Amanda x




2 Comments leave one →
  1. tarlancien permalink
    August 25, 2015 2:08 am

    In most Conditioners from Lush, there is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, so not the Laureth, but the Lauryl. Maybe it’s not never in Conditioners.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      August 25, 2015 11:39 pm

      Hi Maike, Thanks for pointing that out! I checked and you are right but how weird. I can’t see why the conditioners are formulated that way but I guess it does make the original meme make more sense IF you are a Lush customer. Still puzzled as to why they do it but never mind….

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