You saunter into a drugstore, filing into aisle number three—where you’re greeted with neatly arranged rows of shampoos, conditioners, hair masks and box dyes of various shades. You pick out a shampoo—the one on a promotional offer—and turn to its back. Squinting hard, your eyes pour over the jumble of alien, science-y words strung together in size 8 font that you can’t pronounce let alone decode.
But, alas—you remember this article—the one you saved, screenshotted and shared with your friends—and those strange words no longer scare you.
Educating yourself and paying attention to what you’re slathering onto your follicles is key to maintaining a healthy crowning glory. We speak with industry experts to round up a handy list of harmful ingredients you should be avoiding in your hair care products.
Meet the experts:
Shermaine Chong, trichology expert with over a decade of scalp and hair expertise
Peggy Goh, DRx Principal Trichologist.
This colourless alkaline liquid is used in many shampoos to increases its foaming capacity. However, it has the potential to trigger scalp irritation and harm the hair’s keratin—a key component of hair—ultimately leading to brittle and dry hair.
This compound is a strong antimicrobial which helps extend the shelf-life of products. But this prolonged storage life comes at a dangerous cost: formaldehyde is a strong irritant that can contribute to scalp burns, hair breakages and hair loss issues. On a more serious note, the American Cancer Society warns that formaldehyde is a known carcinogen.
We prefer our salt where we can taste it—not on our scalp. Mostly used in shampoos and conditioners, this compound functions as a consistency thickener, which like all the ingredients on this list—comes at a cost: stripping your scalp of essential moisture resulting in a dry and itchy scalp. Make sure to avoid this ingredient if you’re doing a keratin treatment, as sodium chloride negates the effects of the treatment at a faster rate.
Derived from the same product that makes petrol, petrolatum is notorious for its emollient properties. It clogs the pores—preventing the scalp from moisturising itself, leading to a dry and flaky scalp.
Silicones provide an aesthetic benefit—giving your locks a slippery, silky feel by locking out humidity. Decoding this ingredient can be pretty confusing because not all silicones are made equal: there are bad silicones (not water-soluble) and good silicones (water-soluble).
On the naughty list, non-water-soluble silicones go by these impossible to pronounce terms:
- cetyl dimethicone
- cetearyl methicone
- stearyl dimethicone
They accumulate on the scalp and are stubbornly hard to remove, preventing moisture and essential oils from getting to the hair shaft. Prolonged usage overtime results in dry, brittle strands that become prone to breakage.
Good silicones—which are water-soluble—include:
- dimethicone copolyol
- stearoxy dimethicone
- behenoxy dimethicone
Unlike their rogue counterparts, these don’t cause build-up but instead allows your scalp to breathe and can be easily removed when you shampoo your hair.
You often see products proudly labelled “paraben-free”, eager to disassociate themselves with the ingredient. Parabens like Methylparaben and Propylparaben can cause dry, irritated scalp and affect your hormonal balance, potentially resulting in hair loss. However, the most worrying concern would be the studies that have found traces of parabens in breast cancer tissue samples—though more evidence is required to draw any correlation between parabens and increased cancer risk.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)
Alongside emboldened “paraben-free” labels, “sulfate-free” tags are also common emphasis brands make.This surfactant is responsible for the cloud-like foaming lather you see in commercials—a deceptive feature that makes you think your hair is squeaky clean. In actuality, this chemical destroys your hair in the long run: stripping your strands of the essential oils they need to stay hydrated and healthy, breaking down protein and preventing the growth of healthy hair.
Polyethylene Glycol (PEG)
Sometimes labelled as Polyethelyne, or Polyoxyethelyne, this ingredient strips hair of its natural moisture, leading to dry, prone-to breakage strands.
This ingredient was first loved for its supposed anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties but soon fell from glory when the FDA discovered that it did more harm than good. It’s a skin irritant and suspected carcinogen.
For more stories like this, subscribe to Vogue Singapore.