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Shampoos: Perception vs. Reality

How to Avoid Pouring Money Down the Drain

Manufacturers of hair-care products like to boast about their formulations, but no agency regulates what companies put in their bottles. That’s a glaring oversight when you consider that few of the ingredients that are in hair-care products even clean your hair.

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Lisa Martinez hovered in front of the 380 hair-care products at a Chicago Walgreens store and stared somewhat mystified.

“It used to be easy to buy shampoo,” says Martinez, 37, who was looking for something to make her hair less “frizzy.” “Now, all the labels promise something different. I’m not sure what’s good.”

We noticed the same thing. Shampoos today claim to be “balancing,” “bio-infused,” “natural,” “nutrient-rich,” “organic” and “voluminizing,” among other terms. How can you tell whether any of the stuff works?

As we discovered from our research and our conversations with experts, you can’t. Manufacturers aren’t required to provide any data for consumers about the effectiveness or safety of their hair-care products, so they don’t. You can scan the ingredient label that’s on the back of the bottle, but unless you have a background in materials science, that probably won’t get you far.

“I’m not a chemist,” Martinez says. “I’m a brunette with curly hair.”

And the scary truth is that many hair-care products include toxic ingredients. Even Johnson’s Baby Shampoo, which claims to keep babies’ hair “looking beautifully healthy and shiny,” was found to contain the toxins 1,4-dioxane and formaldehyde in a 2009 report by Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CFSC), which is a nonprofit coalition that’s dedicated to eliminating chemicals from cosmetics.

You would think that Food and Drug Administration would jump at the chance to remove toxic ingredients from baby products, particularly when you consider that 1,4-dioxane and formaldehyde are deemed probable human carcinogens by Environmental Protection Agency. But as of press time, FDA says it is “evaluating” whether the two carcinogens “cause health problems under the intended conditions of use” or whether they are unintended (and thus, permitted) byproducts of the manufacturing process.

“The wise choice is to take a precautionary approach and just not put known carcinogens in shampoo, but companies aren’t doing that,” says Stacy Malkan, who is a co-founder of CFSC.

Since the CFSC report was issued, Johnson & Johnson released a Johnson’s Natural line, which, the company claims, has no 1,4-dioxane or formaldehyde. But no independent study supports this claim, and the original, toxic formulation of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo is still widely available. (A spokesperson at Johnson & Johnson didn’t return our calls for
comment.)

This example is a microcosm of the $11 billion hair-care industry, which is as opaque as are the shampoos, conditioners and other hair-care products that are put into bottles.

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SAFETY LAST. According to Environmental Working Group (EWG), all hair-care products contain ingredients that haven’t been assessed for safety by either FDA or the hair-care industry’s Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) panel. And as long as companies don’t claim that their products have a specific health benefit, FDA and Federal Trade Commission allow manufacturers to make any claim that they want. This lack of regulation is why shampoo labels typically are full of vague promises, such as “promotes healthy hair” or “intended to heal hair.”

But recently, there actually was a federal warning in regard to hair-care product safety. In April, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sent a national health-hazard alert to hair-salon workers about the potentially dangerous levels of formaldehyde that are in hair-straightening products. OSHA instructed salon owners who use these products to install proper ventilation systems, post warnings, train workers in chemical-safety procedures and provide protective equipment, such as chemical-resistant aprons, gloves, respirators and splash goggles.

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