Last updated: February 2017
In a lather
Anna Clayton explores the ethics of more than 50 shampoo brands and also looks at the alternative ‘no-poo’ lifestyle.
99% of women and 94% of men said they used shampoo when they were surveyed in January 2016.
Social pressure to have beautiful hair, plus the huge advertising spend of shampoo companies may be responsible for seducing us into believing that shampoo is essential. Between January and February 2016, for example, Procter & Gamble spent £4.4 million on advertising in the UK – topping the chart for spending in the shampoo market.
By comparison, L’Oréal Paris spent £1.7 million, Unilever £0.8 million, Garnier £1.0 million, John Frieda £0.7 million, and Johnson & Johnson £0.3 million.
This guide navigates the shampoo market and the sometimes misleading ‘natural’ claims found there, to identify products that meet clear ethical standards. We highlight companies and brands that avoid unsustainable palm oil products, animal testing and problematic chemicals such as parabens and phthalates.
We compare the policies and practices of the most popular brands in the UK, as well as a range of ethical alternatives – highlighting vegan, organic and cruelty-free shampoos. We also explore the ‘no-poo’ options.
Toxic chemicals ratings
The often complex and long ingredients lists of bodycare products contain a number of ingredients of concern. Parabens, phthalates and triclosan have been selected by Ethical Consumer as important indicators for our own toxics rating.
Companies that receive our best mark for their toxics policies avoid all three toxins, ones who score a middle have a policy to avoid one or two of the toxins, and companies that score a worst use all three of the toxins or have no policy.
Holland & Barrett's Dr Organic brand also score a worst rating.
Some people may also want to avoid the foaming agents sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) and its milder form sodium laureth sulphate (SLES), which are known irritants and are often used in shampoos.
However, the Skin Deep website gives SLS and SLES hazard ratings of 1-2 (low hazard) and 3 out of 10 (moderate hazard) respectively, and states that research studies have found that exposure to the ingredient itself, not the products that contain it, have indicated potential health risks.
Palm oil and its derivatives are found in a vast number of cosmetics products including shampoo. How a company sources and traces its palm oil products will affect whether it is linked with the clearing of rainforests and peatlands, and the degree to which its products negatively affect local communities, biodiversity and climate change.
Our new palm oil column shows which companies receive our best, middle and worst ratings for their palm oil policies and practices.
Palm oil free: Odylique, Caurnie Soap and Honesty.
As animal testing is common in the cosmetics industry, we have rated the animal testing policies of all companies in this guide. Companies will score a best rating if they have a policy not to test on animals, have a fixed cut-off date (a date after which none of their products or ingredients will have been tested on animals) for ingredients and are not selling to markets (e.g. China) where product animal testing is required by law.
Essential Care, Faith In Nature, Desford Holdings, Honesty, Pure Nuff Stuff, Triangle Wholefoods Collective, Neal’s Yard Remedies, Weleda, Lush Cosmetics, Natura Cosmeticos, Little Satsuma, Logocos Naturkosmetik, Caurnie Soap, Daniel Field and Hain Celestial Group.
Bentley Organic, Yaoh, Laverana, Bioforce Roggwil, Midsona, Li & Fung and Superdrug Stores.
Kao Corporation, Church & Dwight, Holland & Barrett, Zochonis Family, Clarins, Henkel, Johnson & Johnson, Avon Products, Estée Lauder, JAB Holding, Procter & Gamble, L’Oréal/Nestle (owners of Body Shop International), Dr. Wolff-Gruppe, Daniel Field Direct, Colgate-Palmolive, WBA Investments and Unilever.
Animal friendly alternatives
There is now a wide range of vegan and vegetarian alternatives within the shampoo market – as highlighted by an [V] or [Vg] after the brand name in the table.
Vegan products are offered by Odylique, Daniel Field, Bentley Organic, Caurnie, Faith In Nature, Green People, Neal’s Yard, Honesty, Yaoh, Suma, Little Satsuma, Weleda, Laverana, Avalon Organics, Lush, Urtekram, Logona and Sante.
If you are vegan you may wish to buy from a vegan company as well. Vegan companies include: Caurnie, Honesty, Yaoh and Little Satsuma.
Most shampoo comes in plastic bottles which may not be recycled in all areas. Shampoo bars are offered by LUSH as an effective lower-input alternative.
‘Natural’ and ‘organic’
Looking for third party certification is the best way to navigate this language. Look for Soil Association accreditation or other organic standards.
Organic shampoo products can be identified by an [O] after the brand name on our table. We give an additional product sustainability mark to certified organic brands as we think it acts as an independent check on a company’s ethical claims.
Avalon Organics products are certified to US organic standards – the NSF “contains organic ingredients” standard (must be 70% organic) or the USDA National Organic Program standard.
Weleda, Lavera, Logona and Sante are NATRUE certified.
We asked our readers for their experiences of living without commercial shampoo products. We had some great responses – some of which are shared below.
I started living without commercial shampoo two years ago. I was losing my hair, had dandruff (expensive medicated shampoo didn’t work) and 40% of my hair was going grey. I had to wash it at least every other day and none of the commercial shampoo products seemed to work.
The first two months of living without were terrible! You read how easy is to use bicarbonate of soda, cider vinegar and so on. Lies! The process was hard and difficult. You need to be determined. I tried everything – I searched online for information about what to use and smelled for two months like a wholefood shop (according to my husband). It also takes time to get used to the method and you need to learn how to read your body, to be able to see what you need.
One important thing to bear in mind – there isn’t a magic formula for everyone that always works. Our bodies are different and they are in continuous change (hormonal change is only one example). So, sometimes you’ll need to use a mix of things – some with more moisture than others. In my case, dandruff forced me to use a mask every few months (lime with tea tree oil or rosemary oil). Dandruff doesn’t have a cure as far as I know.
Grey hair: I’ve been using henna for a year and it worked perfectly until I built up an allergic reaction. I am thinking of what to do from now on, and the only option I can see is to be proud of my age and show it!
Today I wash my hair once or maximum twice per week, normally with olive oil soap and water mixed with cider vinegar. I then apply argan oil while it dries.
Not using commercial shampoo was one of the best decisions I’ve made. I would never go back.
I tried an experiment a while ago and stopped using shampoo for a month to see if the natural hair oils would keep the hair healthy. I brush my hair morning and evening with a proper bristle brush (which absorbs the natural oils) for about 20 seconds – and still rinse my hair with water every few days. After a month, my hair looked and felt great so I continued.
I began a journey into ‘do-it-myself’ body products by making soap. Then I found a recipe for a solid shampoo soap bar and started using that. It was made of a base of coconut, castor and olive oil, and the extra liquid for the soap mix was nettle juice.
I noticed immediately that my hair seemed to like it, and I have been making and using it ever since (5 years or so), adapting it slightly by adding cleavers juice and infusing the olive oil in rosemary – all good stuff for hair lustre, conditioning and anti-dandruff. I have a similarly curly-haired friend who also ensures he has a continual supply of my soap, and another friend who uses it on his beard. I used to condition my hair with cider vinegar but now I put some conditioner into my wet hair and leave it in. I haven’t learnt to make it for myself yet but I avoid conditioners with SLS, SLES or parabens. I’ve heard these are especially bad for curly hair.
I have used pure olive oil soap with lemon juice or vinegar and a dash of honey to nourish – after leaving my hair unwashed for up to four weeks with only brushing it often. I do a final rinse with lemon juice or vinegar and some rosemary, nettle or camomile tea if the scalp feels a bit tender.
We used to use three-day old urine (one’s own). In India, I have seen ladies dash outside when a cow urinates to catch it in a bowl for hair washing. Do I win a prize for the most extreme solution?
Procter & Gamble (P&G) is the focus of several consumer campaigns including one over its sourcing of palm oil from Felda Global Ventures, a Malaysian company that was said to be the world’s largest palm oil plantation operator.
Campaign organisation SumOfUs states: “Felda deals in the human trafficking of its plantation workers, confiscating close to 30,000 passports, and still works with labour contractors and recruiters who charge enormous fees to trafficked foreign workers. Plantation workers are trapped in modern-day slavery, all to produce palm oil that ends up in P&G products. The multinational consumer goods company is well aware of the problem, and yet still buys conflict palm oil from its joint venture partner Felda.”
P&G’s products have also been named and shamed in campaigns against the use of microbeads. The International Campaign Against Microbeads in Cosmetics lists Gillette on the orange list for containing polyethylene (PE).
P&G has stated, perhaps as a result of consumer pressure, that it will remove polyethylene microbeads from all toothpaste and cleansing products by 2017. However, in 2016, when Greenpeace East Asia (GEA) ranked companies on their commitment to tackling the issue of microbeads in their products, P&G’s commitment was found inadequate as it only applied to one type of plastic (polyethylene) in certain products (personal cleansing and oral care) rather than to all forms and in all products. It also only applied to microbeads used for specific purposes (scrubbing agents, colour, chewing gum base), rather than for all functions.
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If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table.
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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.