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Questionnaire: How Toxic is Your Hair?

By: Helena Stratford - Updated: 4 Mar 2010 | comments*Discuss
Toxic Chemicals Hair Ingredients Shampoo

There have been a number of reports in newspapers and magazines addressing the potentially hazardous substances commonly found in the ingredients of many hair care products.

It's certainly important to weigh up the evidence available and come to your own conclusions, but to help you do so, we have put together a little questionnaire to help you find out how toxic your hair is.

How Clean is Your Hair?

Q:How often do your wash your hair?
  • Daily
  • Alternate Days
  • Weekly

Most ad campaigns would have us believe that the only way to get hair really squeaky clean is to wash it daily and to use two applications of shampoo. But is it really necessary?

The active ingredient in most shampoos designed to clean the hair is a collection of degreasers or ‘surfactants’ generally known as lauryl sulphates. The most commonly used surfactant, sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS), used even in so-called ‘gentle’ shampoos, is particularly harsh and hairdressers were warned against its potential harm to skin as much as two decades ago. Surfactants can cause adverse skin reactions, eye damage, rashes, flaking and even ulcers if swallowed.

What does your Shampoo Contain?

Q:When you’re in the bath, do you read the ingredients and wonder what they are?
  • Always
  • Sometimes
  • Never

Despite sensuous descriptions of beautiful hair, images of fresh fruit, flowers and herbs and a luscious scent, shampoos contain more potentially toxic chemicals than many other products. Next time you’re reading the back of the pack, have a look for the following elements:

  • Propylene glycol (can cause dermatitis as well as act as a potential neurotoxin causing kidney and liver damage)
  • EDTA (an irritant to eyes and lungs).
  • Quaternium-15, DMDM hydratoin (associated with the release of carcinogenic nitrosamines)
  • MEA, DEA, TEA (surfactant and lather-producing ingredients thought to be hormone disrupting chemicals)
  • Coal Tar (a carcinogen)
  • SLS’s (cause irritation, possible cancer forming nitrosamines)

What Condition is your Hair?

Q: How often do you condition your hair?
  • Never
  • Sometimes, when it needs it
  • After every shampoo

After shampooing our hair, most of us then wish to replace the shine, thickness and ‘bounce’ we seem to have just washed away. We generally do this by adding a handful of conditioner and letting it soak in before the final rinse. But could we be doing more harm than good?

Many conditioners include chemicals to help produce tangle-free strands; compounds such as fquaternium 15 and 18, cetrimonium bromide and benzalkonium chloride. All can irritate the skin and eyes. Other ‘baddies’ might include coal tar based substances which are potential carcinogens and polysorbate 80.

Dying to Dye?

Q: How often do you Colour your Hair?
  • Once a month
  • Once every 6-8 weeks
  • Once every 3-4 months

Some hair dyes contain very potent chemicals which are not good for us. It is perhaps worth checking if your hair colourant includes any of the following harmful ingredients:

  • P-phenylenediamine (a potential carcinogenic based on coal-tar which can cause allergic reactions, immune problems and is an irritant).
  • L-naphthol (an oxidising agent which is also used in pesticides and has been linked to cancer).
  • Resorcinol (used in the oxidisation process, this is thought to be a hormone-disrupting agent, could affect the heart and also acts as an irritant).
  • Soytrimonium chloride (can cause breathing problems in some people as well as possible nausea and anxiety).
  • Ammonium hydroxide (can burn the skin and if inhaled, damage the lungs and windpipe as well as irritate the eyes).

Set on Hair Spray?

Q:When styling your hair, which products might you use?
  • Hair spray
  • Setting Lotion
  • Gel or mousse

Once again, nasty chemicals are lurking. Do check to see if your hair styling spray contains any of the following listed chemicals:

  • Carboxylmethylcellulose
  • Polyvinylpyrrolidone
  • Propylene glygol
  • Hydriflurocarbon
  • Synthetic silicones

Hairspray products mostly utilise silicon and plasticisers to coat the hair and keep in place, but these synthetics can be damaging to health. Indeed, research amongst hairdressers has indicated that pregnant workers could be at greater risk of defects to their unborn baby and that it may be the chemicals contained in hairspray which could be causing malformation.

An added danger of using sprays as opposed to lotions, gels and mousses, is that the fine air-born particles are easily ingested and can cause not just respiratory problems but further contamination by entering the bloodstream via the lungs.

It’s Your Choice

However you answered our questionnaire, the main thing is that by considering the chemicals contained in your regular hair products you will be more able to make an informed choice about those you wish to use and that by careful and possibly reduced use, you can still having great looking hair. It is also worth noting that there are many non-toxic alternatives available on the market!

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