Do you know what is in your shampoo? Shockingly many contain known irritants, anti-freeze, carcinogens and more!

There is a vast range of products to choose from when selecting a shampoo, but do you consider what you are really putting in your hair, and as a result on your skin?  Even some of the ‘natural’, ‘organic’ and animal friendly companies are using chemicals that are known irritants.  If you suffer from sensitive skin then you are likely to notice the long term impact of these chemicals, but may not be aware that it is them causing your itchy or dry skin, eczema or other dermatological issues.  This blog post discusses the chemicals in shampoo and suggests some herbal alternatives.


Have a look at the ingredients on the back of you shampoo.  If you start researching them, you may be surprised that several are used in industrial settings (albeit in differing concentrations).  For example, propylene glycol is a strong skin irritant that can cause kidney damage and is a type of anti-freeze often used in car engines (ATSDR, 2011).  This can be added to stop shampoo freezing during transit and storage.

The vast majority of shampoos contain an agent that assists foaming, sodium laureth sulphate (SLES).  It is often the main ingredient after water. This is a known skin and ocular irritant (Robinson et al, 2010).  Sodium laureth sulphate is thought to be ‘friendlier’ than the even more damaging sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) which is still used in some cosmetics including shampoo bars. SLS is often used in industrial detergents, engine degreasers and can also cause irritation to skin and eyes.  The process of ethoxylation which turns SLS to SLES involves the release for 1,4 dioxine, a known carcinogen.  Therefore, SLES can be contaminated with carcinogenic material (Dragna J, 2016).  Occasionally there is another process in place to ensure the removal of this contaminant, but the Food and Drugs Agency (FDA) and other regulating bodies do not require this to be stated on the product, and therefore why add an extra expensive process? The majority of companies would not opt to do this.

There is much controversy as to whether SLS and SLES are damaging to human health at the levels used in cosmetics.  A finding of the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel reviewed scientific studies in 2002 and found that ‘Sodium Lauryl Sulfate is safe in formulations designed for discontinuous, brief use, followed by thorough rinsing from the surface of the skin.’ They also concluded that ‘Sodium Lauryl Sulfate can be an irritant at concentrations of 2% or greater. Irritation increases with the concentration of the ingredient. The longer this ingredient stays in contact with the skin, the greater the likelihood of irritation, which may or may not be evident to the user.’ (American Cleaning Institute, 2016).  Cosmetic companies took this statement to justify continuing adding this ingredient into shampoos.  What is concerning is that many people will not remove all the shampoo from their hair, there is likely to be a residue remaining that can then be absorbed through the skin, and many people wash their hair several times a week which may not constitute as ‘discontinuous use’.    There are also questions as to the long term implications on the heart, liver, lung and brains on the absorption of these toxic substances through the skin.  It is worth noting that SLS and SLES can be referred to on ingredients lists using around 150 different names.

From an environmental perspective, SLS and SLES are often derived from palm oil, unsustainable farming methods of palm oil is leading to wide spread forest fires, habitat destruction and more.  There is also some debate as to at what concentration SLS becomes toxic to aquatic life.

There are many more ingredients can contain contamination of the carcinogen 1,4 dioxane, including laureth-4 and quaternium-15.  Quaternium-15 also releases formaldehyde, a skin, eye and respiratory irritant and known carcinogen.  You may have heard of it as it was recently removed from Johnson & Johnson’s baby products in 13 countries (The Product Safety Project, 2016).

Parabens are preservatives that may be listed under many different names e.g. methyl paraben or E216.  Studies have linked parabens to cancer and they can affect your body much like the hormone oestrogen and lead to increased fat storage, diminished muscle mass and male breast growth. Parabens have been found inside cancerous cells in breast tumours (Hungerford, 2009). Something else to watch out for is the unspecified ‘parfum’, companies are not obliged to tell you what they are using for scent and it could be one of around 3,000 chemicals (David Suzuki Foundation, 2011).

Here I have only covered a few of the more common chemicals found in shampoos, there are many more and I encourage you to read further around the topic.

Herbal alternatives

Herbal solutions for your hair are a good alternative to chemical based shampoos.

There are some natural, dermatologically and environmentally kind shampoos out there.  I advise you to research the ingredients before purchase.  An excellent alternative is to make your own shampoo.

Photo courtesy of Melissa Mellie.

If you are able to find a natural, unscented shampoo base, then adding tinctures or herbs that best suit your hair type is one option. For example, if you have oily hair: add dried yarrow, lemon peel and peppermint.  For dry hair: add dried elderflower, dried marshmallow root and rose petals.  In both cases the herbs can be boiled in water before adding the strained mixture to the shampoo base (Vukovic, 2003). For dandruff: chamomile, rosemary, thyme and hops tinctures can be added to a base, or add calendula tea as final rinse.  Parsley can also be helpful for dandruff reduction (Newton, 2009). For ‘normal’ hair: lavender oil and rosemary oil can be added directly to base (Vukovic, 2003).

If you cannot find or would prefer not to use a natural base shampoo, why not try this aloe vera based rosemary and mint shampoo by Dr Axe (2014). The ingredients and method can be found here (opens in new tab).

Shea butter can be added to hair, or if you are feeling more adventurous hair rinses can be made from natural ingredients such as an avocado, egg yolk and oil mix to enhance a soft texture and add nutrients to your hair.  Information from Anguah Annorkor Sarpong in personal communication, October 2016.

Please remember to use herbs with caution and always patch test on the skin before using to ensure reaction does not occur.  For further advice or information please comment below, or if you would like a consultation please contact Rachel Barrow: Medical Herbalist, contact details can be found here.


American Cleaning Institute, 2016. Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). [Online]. [Accessed 15 October 2016]. Available from:

ATSDR: Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, 2011. Propylene Glycol. [Online]. [Accessed 15 October 2016]. Available from:

Axe, J. 2014. Homemade Rosemary Mint Shampoo. [Online]. [Accessed 15 October 2016]. Available from:

David Suzuki Foundation. 2011. Companies Won’t Disclose Parfum Ingredients. [Online]. [Accessed 15 October 2016]. Available from:

Dragna, J. 2016. Organic Chemistry: Is sodium laureth sulphate (SLES) harmful? [Online]. [Accessed 15 October 2016]. Available from:

Hungerford, C. 2009. The Good Body Guide, London: Marion Boyars Publishers Limited.

Newton, A. 2009.  Herbs for Home Treatment, Totnes: Green Books.

Robinson, V.C.  et al, 2010. Final Report of the Amended Safety Assessment of Sodium Laureth Sulfate and Related Salts of Sulfated Ethoxylated Alcohols. International journal of Toxicology; 29(3): 1515-1615.

The Product Safety Project, 2016.  Chemicals in Johnson & Johnson baby products cause controversy. [Accessed 15 October 2016]. Available from:

Vukovic, L. 2003. 1001 Natural Remedies, London: Doring Kindersley.


The Humble Dandelion

Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) are often seen as pesky weeds by gardeners. They are a common sight in the UK and countries with temperate climates, with a variety of sub-species, often appearing in gaps between paving slabs, in borders, meadows or wasteland.   Frequently they are pulled up and tossed aside.  This blog post is about the therapeutic actions that the humble dandelion can provide.

Actions: powerful diuretic, bitter tonic, bile duct stimulant, anti-eczema, detoxicant, urinary anti-septic, digestive, cholagogue, mild laxative.

Dandelion Leaves
A dandelion hiding among the autumn leaves in Sheffield Botanical Gardens, South Yorkshire.

At this time of year (early autumn) dandelion flowers have long gone to seed but the leaves are still clinging on. This makes it an ideal time to harvest dandelion roots.  The leaves themselves are best harvested earlier in the year (ideally in spring before the plant blooms).  The distinctive yellow flowers are typically present from April until June.

If you decide to harvest the roots yourself, try not to cut through them with your trowel or fork.  Clean them carefully, ensure that the dandelion has not been treated with any weed killers and that you have permission to pick them! Preparations are readily available from good herbalist shops if you don’t fancy making your own.  More details on how to make your own tinctures and decoctions coming soon!

What are the therapeutic properties of dandelions?

A remarkable detoxifier and liver tonic with many indications.

Both the leaves and the roots of the dandelion are high in bitters and tannins. These bitter tastes trigger the secretion of bile from the liver and increase the production of digestive enzymes, helping to calm dyspepsia (indigestion). Dandelions are traditionally used to treat liver problems and reduce the likelihood of developing gallstones.  By supporting liver function, dandelions work as a general tonic and detoxifier, assisting in the breakdown of excess hormones etc.  Potential noxious compounds are subsequently more easily transferred to stools.  A recent study on animals showed that the increase in bile due to dandelion consumption was an effective aid to weight loss, as bile increases fat metabolism (Balch, 2012). Conversely, increased appetite can result if this is desired, due to the stimulation of the digestive enzymes (Bartram, 1998).  The German Commission E has approved dandelions for use in stomach, liver and gallbladder complaints as well as loss of appetite and urinary infections (Balch, 2012). Dandelions are thought to also be anti-rheumatic and have painkilling properties due to certain phytochemicals they contain. 

The leaves:   Dandelion leaves can be used as a diuretic (causing an increase in the passage of urine).   A study by Clare et al (2009) concludes that there was a significant (p<0.001) increase in the urine excreted by humans within a five hour period of taking two doses of dandelion extract.  Conventional diuretics, generally with a single active ingredient, often have the accompanying side effect of potassium depletion. Dandelions, however, are naturally very high in potassium and therefore this side effect is avoided as even with increased urination the leaves provide an overall net-gain of this vital mineral. Diuretics can be used to assist the healing of urinary tract infections and kidney complaints. They counteract urine retention in bladder infections and can relieve fluid retention in premenstrual-syndrome (PMS). Young dandelion leaves are excellent in salads, all you need to do is wash them. They are a rich source of Vitamin C, A and B and beta-Carotene. Dandelion leaves commonly come in tea form (you could even dry and store your own leaves). They can also be made into a wash to alleviate irritation from skin complaints such as eczema and acne.

The roots:  Dandelion roots are usually taken in decoction or tincture form, but some enjoy them chopped on salad. They can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute (Podlech, 2014). They are therapeutically useful in relieving premenstrual constipation that some women experience, as an increase in the amount of bile produced assists constipation without causing diarrhea. The roots are sometimes used as a hang-over cure as by stimulating the liver, alcohol is broken down more rapidly, although ensure that you keep drinking plenty of water due to the potential diuretic effect.

The sap: This is found in the stem of the dandelion and is traditionally used to treat warts and verrucas by applying it directly to the skin (Bartram, 1998).

The flowers: The flowers are less commonly used.  Occasionally they are added to teas or turned into wine.

Caution:  Not to be taken if you have a blocked bile-duct, or gallstones within the gallbladder. The increase in bile flow could cause the stones to shift and create a blockage.  Should not be taken in combination with some antibiotic treatments, or if you are allergic to plants in the daisy family e.g. chamomile. Dandelions have been associated with skin irritation and stomach ulcers in some people. Always check with your doctor before taking herbal remedies, especially if you are on any medication or are pregnant.

Image courtesy of Wildflower Sunshine.


Balch, P.A. 2012. Prescription for Herbal Healing, 2nd Edition, London: Penguin Books.

Bartram, T. 1998. Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine, London: Constable and Robinson.

Clare, B.A., Conroy, R.S. and Spelman, K. 2009. The Diuretic Effect in Human Subjects of an Extract of Taraxacum officinale Folium over a Single Day. Complementary Medicine. [Online]. Volume(8), pp.929-234. [Accessed 12 October 2015]. Available from:

Podlech, D. 2014. Herbs and Healing Plants of Britain and Europe, London: HarperCollins Ltd.