Ingredients in Haircare Products To Avoid

Toxic Ingredients in Haircare Products To Avoid

Trying to discern what ingredients should and shouldn’t be in your hair care products? With the enormous amount of greenwashing in the beauty industry, it can be quite daunting. I feel like it’s almost become the norm for brands to tout all the “good” ingredients they are using while neglecting to mention the not-so-good ones that are lurking in the products as well.

Plus, SHOCKER, label reading really isn’t the most exciting thing in the world. (I know! I mean, who doesn’t want to spend their precious time deciphering a tiny label on the back of a bottle? Listen, I’m 45 years old and already wearing multi-focal contacts. My middle-aged eyes CANNOT TAKE IT.) And even if you do have the eyes of an eagle, it still can be daunting.

So I’m here to give you a little primer on some of the biggest offenders in terms of toxic ingredients in hair care, as well as some of my tried-and-true favorite products!

Ingredients in Haircare Products To Avoid

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)

SLS and SLES are surfactants and emulsifiers that make your hair products foam and can be found in tons of personal care products. That squeaky-clean, sudsy shampoo you love using? Yeah, it probably contains SLS. The big drawback with SLS is that it can be a skin, lung, and eye irritant for some.

If you are noticing rashes, allergic reactions, and/or hypersensitivity while using some of your hair care and body products, be sure to check the ingredients list for SLS. It could be the culprit! (SLS is a huge offender in terms of Perioral Dermatitis.)

Polyethylene Glycol (PEGs)

PEG is commonly used as a thickening agent in hair care products yet tends to strip hair of its moisture. #nothankyou

Additionally, it’s classified as a skin penetrant and irritant and can cause contact dermatitis and skin irritation.


Phthalates are a cluster of chemicals used to increase the flexibility and softness of plastics. They can be found in deodorants, perfumes/colognes, hair sprays, and moisturizers. The main phthalate in hair care products is dimethyl phthalate often found in hair spray.

Dimethyl phthalate is a known endocrine disruptor and has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, early breast development in girls, and reproductive birth defects in males and females.

Also, phthalates are often present in the ingredient “fragrance,” which means they won’t show up in the ingredient list. Do you know the whole story behind fragrance and trade secret laws? I break everything down about fragrance in this post as well as share some of my favorite natural fragrances.

Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives

Formaldehyde?! What the what? Yep, Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (also known as formalin and methylene glycol) are still used in some hair care products to help prevent bacteria growth. (Hair smoothing treatments, anyone?)

Formaldehyde has also been classified as a human carcinogen because at high levels or prolonged exposure, formaldehyde has been linked to certain types of cancers. It is also known to cause allergic skin reactions and it may also be harmful to the immune system.

Besides hair care products such as smoothing treatments and shampoo and conditioner, it can be found in nail polish, body washes, cleansers, eye shadows, nail polish treatments.


While classified “as expected to be toxic or harmful”, Dimethicone’s biggest downside in terms of hair care is the build-up issue and eventual hair dryness.

Dimethicone is a synthetic polymer and a form of silicone that’s super cheap to use as an ingredient and creates synthetic softness and smoothing. However, it will totally dry your hair out long term. And without the use of harsh sulfates (see above), you can’t fully get it out of your hair, meaning lots of build-up, weighed down hair, and/or greasy roots. Blech.


Triclosan is a widely used antimicrobial toxic chemical that’s a known endocrine disruptor – especially thyroid and reproductive hormones, as well as a skin irritant. It can be found in hair cair products such as shampoos and conditioners and should definitely be avoided.


The ingredient fragrance is super tricky due to trade secret laws that allow manufacturers to not disclose what exactly is in their fragrance. (Which, FYI, could consist of hundreds of toxic chemicals.) I wrote about fragrance in more detail here, but pay attention to how fragrance is disclosed by your hair care brands.

Hair Products I Recommend

I’ve spent tons of time trying out non-toxic hair care products and these ones are my tried-and-true faves.

Shampoos and Conditioners

I alternate between the EVOLVh UltraShine Moisturizing Shampoo and the Andalou Naturals Sunflower and Citrus Shampoo Conditioner with the EVOLVh UltraShine Moisturizing Conditioner. This pairing always leaves my hair moisturized and super shiny.

psst – Get 15% off all EVOLVh products with the code WHOORL here.

Leave-In Conditioners

After I towel-dry my hair, I apply a leave-in conditioner such as EVOLVh SmartStart or Reverie Milk. Love these two!

Natural Curl Enhancers

When I don’t blow dry my hair, my secret weapon for air-dried, frizz-free natural waves is EVOLVh WonderBalm Magic for Curls. I work through my damp waves and let air dry or use my diffuser for an extra boost.

For Blow-Drying Smooth

Believe it or not, The EVOLVh WonderBalm Magic for Curls also works great when you blow out hair into a smoother style! I apply to my damp hair and blow-dry with a round brush. Makes my hair super shiny but also gives it a bit of hold that allows my curling iron waves to last longer. I love this stuff!

Deep Conditioning

Once a week I use Briogeo Don’t Despair, Repair Deep Conditioning Mask to keep my hair strong and silky.

For Lift and Texture

Josh Rosebrook Lift Spray is great for adding volume and Innersense Inner Peace Whipped Creme Texturizer is what I grab when I need some added definition.

For Hold

Innersense I Create Finish is a fantastic phthalate-free hair spray. I also love Josh Rosebrook Hair Spray!

Hair Oils

A little bit of hair oil is the last step in my hair routine. My absolute favorite is Sahajan Nurture Hair Oil – it smells SO GOOD, y’all. People always ask about my fragrance when I have this oil in my hair. I also love the Mermaid Hair Oil by Captain Blankenship.

What are your very favorite non-toxic hair products? I’m especially interested in finding new styling products.


My Natural Hair Care Routine

How I Style My Hair

  1. Courtney

    June 23, 2020 at 10:27 am

    Yes! I cut out SLS/SLES (and flouride in my toothpaste) and my perioral dermatitis completely cleared up. Way better than the meds my dermatologist wanted me to use.

    I also love Andalou but I’m switching to a bar shampoo once my current bottle runs out–less plastic. Have you ever tried one?

    • whoorl

      June 24, 2020 at 8:54 am

      Happy to hear about your perioral dermatitis!! As for shampoo bars, I’m very curious but haven’t tried one yet!

  2. Elaine Tweto

    June 23, 2020 at 10:44 am

    Thank you as always for the well-researched post. Any thoughts on or experience with Prose custom hair products? They do provide the entire list of ingredients that they use, including the associated EWG ratings.

    • whoorl

      June 24, 2020 at 8:54 am

      Hi there! I haven’t used Prose products, but I took a look at their website and here’s what rubs me the wrong way. When I click on their shampoo for example, they have a link to the “full ingredient list,” yet when I click on it, it takes me to a page that lists all the ingredients in ALL of their products. Nowhere can I find an actual specific ingredient list for the shampoo. It’s these kinds of tactics that make me wonder…why not show the potential customer the specific ingredient list?

      If I can’t see full disclosure on specific products, I personally steer clear.

  3. Ash

    June 24, 2020 at 10:16 am

    Before you were using the Innersense Spirit Leave-In Conditioner. Is there a reason you moved on? What’s the difference between it and the EVOLVh leave in?

    • whoorl

      June 24, 2020 at 11:07 am

      Innersense is a great one as well, but I personally like the idea of using multiple products from the same brand for the synergy aspect and since I use more EVOLVh products, I tend to grab for that one.