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.


Herbs to alleviate PMS

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS), also known as premenstrual tension (PMT), refers to the vast range of symptoms that can occur within the last two weeks of a woman’s menstrual cycle (where day one is the first day of menstruation). These symptoms can be physical, behavioural or psychological (NHS, 2015a). It is now thought there may be 150 different symptoms associated with PMS, and nine out of ten women who menstruate experience more than one symptom per month (Glenville, 2010). Symptoms can vary between individuals, and can differ for an individual on a monthly basis.

Some of the most common symptoms include:

  • headaches,
  • feeling bloated,
  • tender, swollen or sore breasts,
  • muscle or joint pain,
  • insomnia,
  • anxiety,
  • mood swings,
  • feeling upset or emotional,
  • food cravings and appetite changes,
  • spots,
  • abdominal cramps.

Not all symptoms associated with PMS are negative, some women feel an increase in clarity or productivity prior to their period.

If your PMS symptoms stop you from being able to undertake your usual daily activities you should consult your GP as you may be experiencing premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). Typical symptoms include a sense of hopelessness, depression, extreme tension or irritability and very low self-esteem (NHS, 2015b).

What causes PMS?

There is thought to be a combination of factors that lead to PMS being more problematic for some women than others. Poor diet, lack of exercise and high levels of stress are the main contributors. There also appears to be a genetic element (Glenville, 2010). PMS can affect menstruating women of any age, although statistically, those in their late twenties and early forties appear to experience an increase in symptoms (NHS, 2015a). Women who have recently given birth or have had a miscarriage or termination may also be more likely to suffer with PMS (Glenville, 2010).

A woman’s hormone levels change throughout her menstrual cycle. After ovulation, which occurs approximately 14-16 days prior to the start of the next period, the ‘luteal phase’ is entered. The corpus luteum (egg-sac) produces progesterone, causing the uterus lining to thicken so it is prepared for a fertilised egg to implant. If an egg is not fertilised then oestrogen and progesterone levels drop and you begin a new cycle. PMS is thought to be associated with hormonal imbalances of oestrogen and progesterone (Bartram, 1998).

If you have a healthy diet that includes plenty of fruit and vegetables, a low intake of salt, alcohol and caffeine; exercise regularly and take measures to try to reduce your stress levels and yet still experience PMS, you may wish to consider the use of herbs to support your general well-being and try to alleviate your symptoms.

A rose in the Botanical Gardens, Sheffield, United Kingdom.

Herbs to alleviate PMS

There are may herbs associated with alleviating the symptoms of PMS. I have selected five to consider here:

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)

Typically taken in tea form, chamomile is a relaxant that soothes irritability and reduces anxiety. Its painkilling properties can help to relieve headaches, and bloating can be reduced due to its diuretic effect. It can regulate the digestive tract to alleviate both diarrhoea and constipation (McIntyre, 2006). It can be used in conjunction with dandelion root if constipation is an issue. Click here for more information about dandelions. Chamomile can also relieve muscle pain (Balch, 2012).

Vervain (Verbena officinalis)

Typically taken as a tincture or a tea, vervain has relaxing and up-lifting properties. It is a bitter herb that stimulates the liver and digestive system, which can assist in hormone regulation (McIntyre, 2006).

Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa)

Typically taken as capsules or in a tincture form, black cohosh contains phytoestrogens which can offset the decline of oestrogen should this be problematic. Black cohosh can relieve depression and muscle pain (Balch, 2012). It calms the nervous system and can balance hormones. It may reduce anxiety and premenstrual headaches (Glenville, 2010). NOT to be taken if you have a chronic disease or liver problems.

Rose flowers (Rosa Gallica L. Rosa Damascena Mill. Rosa centifolia)

Typically taken in tincture or tea form, rose is traditionally used to ‘lift the spirits’. It is a mild sedative, liver protector and menstrual regulator (Bartram, 1998). It can induce a restful sleep. Rose water applied to the skin can help combat acne (McIntyre, 2006).

Raspberry leaf (Rubus idaeus L.)

Typically taken as a tea, raspberry leaves contain tannins and flavonoids that can relieve premenstrual cramps (Balch, 2012). It is widely recognised that raspberry leaves tone the muscles supporting the uterus, and they are traditionally used to ease childbirth and relieve menstrual pains (Bartram, 1998).


  • If you are unsure whether you are experiencing symptoms of PMS please consult a doctor. There can be many causes for abdominal pain, breast pain and headaches etc that may need addressing further. Do not self-diagnose any medical condition.
  • You should talk to a qualified herbalist and medical professional before beginning any herbal regimes. Although herbs are generally considered safe, they can have contra-indications and react with other medications that you are taking. If you have any side effects discontinue use and contact a medical professional immediately.
  • Some herbs alter your hormone levels and may reduce the effectiveness of hormonal contraceptives or replacement therapies (e.g. contraceptive pill).
  • If you are currently trying to conceive, herbal remedies should not be taken unless under the guidance of a qualified herbalist.
  • Although widely used, I have NOT suggested the use of agnus castus (Vitex agnus castus), which may also be sold as chasteberries, for alleviating PMS. It can cause the release of several eggs from the ovaries, resulting in multiple births and should be avoided unless being used under direction of a qualified herbalist addressing fertility issues.
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.
Glenville, M. 2010. The Natural Health Bible for Women, London: Duncan Baird Publishers.
McIntyre, A. 2006. The Top 100 Herbal Remedies, London: Duncan Baird Publishers.
NHS. 2015a. Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS). [Online]. [Accessed 20 October 2015]. Available from:
NHS. 2015b. Symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). [Online]. [Accessed 20 October 2015].  Available from: