In a lather
Leonie Nimmo looks at some of the knotty issues about shampoo and asks: can we do without it?
Shampoo: that staple product of every bathroom cabinet... or is it? Throughout the course of the research for this Buyers’ Guide, which covers companies from the super-ethical to the mega-dodgy, perhaps the most interesting thing to emerge was the apparently increasing and, at times, evangelical, body of people that are choosing to reject the product altogether.
Dubbed ‘perfumed detergent’ by critics, shampoo strips the hair of natural oils and thereby necessitates the use of conditioner to give it a bit of a shine. So doing away with the former invariably means dropping the latter as well, and doubling up on what you don’t use. Two in one!
Avoiding palm oil
Palm oil and its derivatives are found in a vast number of consumer products, and its use spans the cosmetics, food and household products sectors. Regular readers of Ethical Consumer will no doubt be familiar with the impacts of its production.
Clearance of land to create lucrative palm-oil plantations has led to: climate-disastrous destruction of peatland in Indonesia, the deforestation of land crucial to the survival of the world’s remaining orang-utans in Malaysia and Indonesia, the forced displacement of indigenous people throughout the global South.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2004 as a multi-stakeholder initiative to address some of these issues, but the negative impacts of palm oil production have continued. Members include NGOs such as the WWF, but also some of the worst culprits of palm-oil related abuses. Greenpeace has run some very successful campaigns against some of the worst palm oil suppliers by targeting the high profile brands of Unilever and Nestlé connected to these suppliers.
Palm oil certified as ‘sustainable’ by the RSPO came onto the market in 2008. How sustainable this Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) actually is, is a matter of debate. Critically, for example, there are no provisions for Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. The RSPO’s record in enforcing the standards has also been criticised. But even the RSPO’s most vocal critics recognise the need to engage with the organisation and to push for strengthening the standards rather than rejecting them altogether.
Perhaps the only way to guarantee that the products you buy aren’t tainted by the impacts of palm oil production is to avoid the substance altogether. But this isn’t easy: there are at least 30 different names for various substances which may have come from palm oil.
Ingredients definitely derived from palm oil in the toiletries sector are: palm kernel oil, sodium palmate, sodium palm kernelate and Elaeis guineensis (its Latin name). Ingredients which may have been derived from palm oil include sodium lauryl sulphate, sodium laureth sulphate, coco-glucoside, cetearyl alcohol, sodium palmitate, vegetable glycerin and, helpfully, vegetable oil.
Palm oil rankings
We rank companies on our tables as follows:
Companies score best for their palm oil polices if 100% of their palm oil is certified organic or Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO), or if they purchase Greenpalm certificates to cover 100% of their supply chain, or if they don’t use it at all. We also make an allowance for small companies (turnover below £8 million) that make some commitments to sustainable palm oil.
If none of these conditions are met we deduct half a point in the Habitats & Resources, Human Rights and Climate Change categories.
All the companies without marks in these columns will have some effective policy towards palm oil.
Ethical Consumer has a list of companies that we score best for their palm oil policies on our List of Palm Oil Free Products.
Parabens appear in a wide range of hair and body care products, and in a number of forms, including methylparaben, butylparaben, ethylparaben and propylparaben. They are used as a preservative. Methylparaben is one of the most common, and also has the highest possible hazard rating – 10 – on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep website.
Parabens are perhaps best known as endocrine disrupting chemicals, which affect the production and/or response of hormones in the body. Other endocrine disruptors include pesticides and phthalates. Parabens have had a substantial amount of attention in recent years regarding possible health and environmental risks.
Parabens are bioaccumulative, which means that they are not very easy for either the body or the environment to break down, resulting in a build up of the substance. In 2004, the first study to show this accumulation was published, when scientists from the University of Reading found parabens in every sample of 20 different human breast tumours.
No studies have conclusively proved a direct causal link between parabens and cancer.(1) However, given that they are able to mimic oestrogen, which can drive the growth of breast tumours, there does seem to be cause for concern.
Phthalates are another group of endocrine disrupting (unpleasantly dubbed ‘gender bending’) chemicals, that also appear in a vast number of household products, from toys to lipstick to vinyl flooring to shampoo. They are sometimes called ‘plasticisers’ but are also used as solvents and skin moisturisers. The Skin Deep website gives different phthalates hazard ratings of between one and ten.(2)
Since 2003, some chemicals – classified as carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic to the reproductive system – have been banned for use in cosmetics in Europe. This included three different phthalates, as they were considered to be toxic to the reproductive system. In 2005, further restrictions were implemented in Europe on the use of phthalates in children’s toys and childcare products.(3)
Endocrine disrupting chemicals have caused a scare about their likely impact on male reproductive health. Exposure in the environment and/or in products is thought to be contributing to decreasing sperm counts and increasing cases of testicular abnormalities.(4) In 2005, the New Scientist reported that a study had found that baby boys born to mothers exposed to phthalates had smaller penises and displayed other signs of feminisation of the genitals.(5)
According to the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some studies have linked phthalates to liver cancer.(6) The same institution detected phthalates in urine samples in all but 12 of 2,790 people tested, with six or more phthalates found in 84% of people tested.(7)
There is no requirement to list phthalates in ingredients if they are used as fragrance carriers, and the generic term “fragrance” can disguise the presence of a variety of chemicals. A study carried out in 2002 identified phthalates in 80% of well known cosmetic products, but they were listed on none of the ingredients labelled.(3)
SLS and SLES
One of the most widely-used detergents and foaming agents in shampoos, liquid soap products and toothpaste is sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulphate (SLES). There is some controversy about the safety of these ingredients but fears over its link to cancer seem to have been largely discredited, though you’ll still find many supporters of this theory on the web.
The Skin Deep website gives SLS and SLES hazard ratings of 1-2 (low hazard) and 4 out of 10 (moderate hazard) respectively. The website states that research studies have found that exposure to the ingredient itself, not the products that contain it, have indicated potential health risks.
Perhaps the strongest concerns linked to the substances are those of skin, lung or eye irritation, which are related to the concentrations in which they appear in products.
Ammonium Lauryl Sulphate is a milder and safer form which some of the alternative producers use. It is still an irritant but only half as much as SLS and SLES and its molecule size is larger ensuring that these molecules do not penetrate the skin. We did not include SLS specifically in our list of ‘ingredients to avoid’ because, unlike the other six ingredients, it is not in all the products that we cover in this guide.
Animal testing policies
The companies featured in this Product Guide differ substantially in their approach to animal testing. Even those that are targeted the most by animal rights groups for testing cosmetics on animals make some vague commitments to phasing it out or finding alternatives.
This issue is therefore one where it is fairly important to know your stuff or risk having the wool pulled over your eyes. For example, if a company states that “we do not test on animals” this could mean that they commission a third party to test for them, or that they purchase ingredients that have been tested on animals.
What is considered to be the most robust animal testing policy by organisations such as the British Association for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) is a ‘fixed cut off date’, which means that the company will not use ingredients that have been tested on animals since that date. So a company with this policy would not be able to use an ingredient today that was tested on animals yesterday.
Lush, however, has a different approach. Rather than screening ingredients, they actively boycott entire companies that conduct animal testing, and if a company makes a commitment to cease the practice, they will buy from them. In this way they can immediately reward companies that change their practices in a positive way, hopefully helping to drive positive change throughout the sector.
An alternative to a fixed cut off date is a ‘rolling rule’, often five years. This means that companies won’t use ingredients that have been tested on animals within that time. This is seen as less effective, and companies with this policy lose half a mark in our Animal Testing column.
We have recently adjusted our ratings system slightly to reward companies that are vegetarian in a sector where this is not the norm, by giving them a positive half mark in the Company Ethos category.
Perhaps surprisingly, this includes the cosmetics sector, as many companies use animal fats in their products. Most of the vegetarian companies in this report only use dairy, eggs or ingredients derived from bees in a few of the products that they produce.
Much of the environmental impact of shampoo comes from its disposable packaging, and some companies have policies in place to address this.
When the Body Shop was sold to L’Oréal (see company profile page), many a dismayed customer complained that they could no longer return their used plastic bottles to the shops. Lush invites customers to return their black pots, and have also produced a range of solid shampoo bars which don’t require packaging. It says that this also negates the need for lots of water in the product formulation, thereby reducing water usage and the emissions generated from the transportation of heavier products.
Scottish company Caurnie has a policy of minimal packaging and offers a refill service at Farmers’ Markets with 50 pence off the cost of £5.50 bottle of shampoo if an old bottle is returned. Many of the companies in this product guide state that their plastic bottles are ‘recyclable’.
Stories of people weaning their hair off shampoo abound on the internet, and there are plenty of suggestions for alternatives. One of the most popular is a mix of baking soda with water, followed by apple cider vinegar as an alternative to conditioner.
People with hair tending towards the frizzy side seem to have particularly felt the benefits to the look and feel of their locks, with their hair’s natural oils proving to be a much more manageable conditioning agent. Common experiences suggest that it takes a bit of time for the hair to adjust, but once this has happened, the results seem to be overwhelmingly positive.
We also came across the company Natural Spa Supplies, which sells a number of entirely natural substances that have been used by humans to cleanse themselves for millenia. Rhassoul clay from volcanic seams in Morocco, Green clay from France and Soapnuts from Pakistan and Bangladesh are the three shampoo alternatives supplied by this company.
Its website demonstrates impressive relationships with its suppliers, which range from women’s co-operatives to artisans keeping age-old production methods alive. But before you dive in, be warned that this is certainly not the cheapest method of going no-poo!
A big thank you to people who responded to our request to hear about their no-poo experiences. Our Shampoo Research Forum will stay live, so feel free to add your comments.
“After watching a documentary about ingredients in cosmetics (not that I used that many anyway), I made the decision to stop using shampoo. I did this over two and a half years ago, when I was still at school and appearance was a bit of an issue, being female.
First I replaced shampoo with natural alternatives such as egg, lemon juice and just about anything I thought might work, then gradually reduced this until I was using just a little lukewarm water once a week at the end of a shower. It took seven months not six weeks for me, but I’m so glad I did it. My hair now follows its own cycle, and I know that it isn’t being interfered with by unknown chemicals.
It’s also cheaper (being a student this is a major bonus!), I now produce much less plastic packaging from my lifestyle, there are fewer imported ingredients and my showers are much shorter. My hair looks better than it ever did when I used shampoo as there is now no chemical residue left over, and it doesn’t emanate a synthetic smell.”
“Going shampoo-free was not a tough decision for me; someone mentioned it to me and as I began to read up on the subject, I realized it was definitely a healthier idea for my hair. I’ve always had trouble finding the right shampoo-conditioner combination for my dry, wavy, thick hair, and I figured I couldn’t go wrong just letting my hair ‘do its thing’. I mean, humans survived without shampoo for how long?
“The first few days without shampoo were not too bad; I used to only shampoo my hair every other day or so anyway, so my hair didn’t seem to change at first. After a little while, though, my hair got really heavy and felt oily, almost as though I slathered it with olive oil and didn’t wash it out. I made a mixture of water and baking soda, but my hair still didn’t feel clean.
I certainly wouldn’t have wanted someone to have touched my hair during the first week since, quite frankly, it felt pretty gross. I found that brushing my hair every night and morning really helped distribute the excess oil in my hair, and since then my hair has been nothing but shiny and smooth. I wash it every few days with a baking soda and water solution in a spray bottle followed by an apple cider vinegar rinse.
My hair curls better and without coaxing now, and I find I have no need for any product to control the frizz of my hair. I was encouraged by the progress in my hair and have since also switched from traditional lotion for my skin to extra virgin olive oil which also yields excellent results. This is just further proof to me that most hair and body products are unnecessary and in fact less useful than their low-cost counterparts.”
Procter & Gamble own a host of brands in the sector. These include Head and Shoulders, Oral B and Gillette. The company is the subject of a boycott call from campaign groups PETA and Uncaged over its use of animal testing. In 2011, following a complaint submitted by Uncaged, the company was forced to withdraw an advert for its ‘Herbal Essences’ hair care range which falsely claimed ‘we don’t test on animals’. When challenged by the Advertising Standards Authority, P&G admitted the statement contradicted thousands of chemical poisoning tests that they still carried out on animals for the sake of Herbal Essences and other beauty brands.
See our company profile page for L'Oreal.
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This product guide is part of a Special Report on Cosmetics & Toiletries. See what's in the rest of the report.