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.

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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.

hair-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.

References

American Cleaning Institute, 2016. Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). [Online]. [Accessed 15 October 2016]. Available from: http://www.cleaninginstitute.org/policy/sls.aspx

ATSDR: Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, 2011. Propylene Glycol. [Online]. [Accessed 15 October 2016]. Available from: https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/substances/toxsubstance.asp?toxid=240

Axe, J. 2014. Homemade Rosemary Mint Shampoo. [Online]. [Accessed 15 October 2016]. Available from: https://draxe.com/homemade-rosemary-mint-shampoo/

David Suzuki Foundation. 2011. Companies Won’t Disclose Parfum Ingredients. [Online]. [Accessed 15 October 2016]. Available from: http://www.davidsuzuki.org/blogs/queen-of-green/2011/06/companies-wont-disclose-parfum-ingredients/

Dragna, J. 2016. Organic Chemistry: Is sodium laureth sulphate (SLES) harmful? [Online]. [Accessed 15 October 2016]. Available from: https://www.quora.com/Organic-Chemistry-Is-sodium-laureth-sulfate-SLES-harmful

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:  http://www.productsafetyproject.com/chemicals-in-johnson-johnson-baby-products-cause-controversy/

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

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Herbs to Help You Relax

Stress is a reaction to being under too much pressure, where you feel unable to cope (NHS, 2015). There are numerous causes of stress from demands at work, relationship issues, changes in life circumstances (even good changes), financial worries etc. Stress can be short-term (acute) or persist for a long time (chronic). If you feel unable to cope you should contact your GP for advice as soon as possible.

Stress presents itself differently in different people, symptoms include: sleep problems, fatigue, palpitations, irritability, memory problems and lack of concentration, skin problems (e.g. hives, eczema), tension in the body (e.g. neck, shoulders), hair loss and high blood pressure (Glenville, 2010). Long term stress can lead to a plethora of health issues, including anxiety, depression, digestive issues such as IBS, high blood pressure and heart problems…..but let’s try not to get stressed about that!

Here’s what you can do to manage your stress levels:

Basic stress management techniques include mindfulness, exercise such as yoga, breathing exercises, taking some time to yourself to do an activity that you enjoy and eating a healthy diet that is low in caffeine, alcohol and sugar. Continue reading for herbal remedies to help you relax. For more information on basic stress management techniques from the NHS click here and here.

A Limeflower (photo courtesy of www.lemis.com)
A Limeflower. Photo courtesy of http://www.lemis.com.

Herbs to help you relax:

Herbs affect everyone differently, please make sure you read the cautions at the end of the article. If you are unsure of whether these suggestions may be suitable for you and are not sure of the doses please consult a qualified herbalist and/or your GP. If you wish to arrange a consultation with me (Rachel Barrow: Medical Herbalist) please click here.

Valerian Root (Valeriana officinalis)

Valerian is a powerful, non-addictive, herb to be taken in times of extreme stress or anxiety. It can be made as a tea, although there are essential oils that could escape, so ensure that you use an airtight container or lid for the preparation. Most people, however, do not like the taste. Details on how to make your own valerian tincture coming soon! Valerian has been used since Hippocratic times and has since been shown to naturally relax the Central Nervous System (Balch, 1998). It can be taken safely in combination with skullcap, limeflowers, passionflower, hops or oats depending on what would best suit the individual. Caution: valerian can cause headaches and giddiness in some people.

German Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)

German chamomile (which is the type of chamomile in ‘chamomile tea’) is useful for helping you relax during short-term stress. As an adult, you can have a cup of tea as desired. Chamomile is a mild sedative and can calm anxiety, soothe irritability and reduce nightmares (McIntyre, 2006).

add Catnip (Nepeta cataria L.) if you are feeling adventurous.

If you want to make your own tea, add 1tsp of dried chamomile flowers and 1 tsp of catnip to 250ml of water. Seep for 10 minutes and then strain (Vukovic, 2003). Catnip is effective against stress as it is a mild sedative. It can cause drowsiness so should be taken in small doses (Balch, 2012).

Hops (Humulus lupulus) and Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)

Hops, best known for flavouring and stabilising beer, can be particularly useful in soothing stress related digestive issues due to their antispasmodic, calming effect. Do not take hops if you are suffering from depression. Contrary to popular belief, hops are gluten-free and can be taken by those with coeliac disease (although obviously not when they are in beers containing barley/wheat etc!). They are best taken as a tea, tincture or made into a pillow.

Hops work well when they are taken in combination with another herb. One effective combination for some is with passionflower.

Passionflower is particularly useful for tackling insomnia. It calms the nerves and reduces muscle tension (McIntyre, 2006).

Ginseng:

‘Siberian ginseng’ (Eleutherococcus senticosus)’

Taken as a tincture for improving memory and concentration during times of stress.  Siberian ginseng is traditionally used for stress caused by weather or environmental changes (Balch, 2012). It strengthens the adrenal glands helping the body to cope (Vukovic, 2003). Do not take for more than six weeks. Avoid if you have prostate cancer or any autoimmune disease such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis.

‘American ginseng’ (Panax quinequefolium)

Taken as a tincture to restore health and for general well-being during chronic stress (Balch, 2012).

and ‘Ginseng’ (Panax ginseng)

Ginseng is a nerve tonic for helping memory and reducing cardiovascular problems during prolonged stress (Balch, 2012).  It is usually taken as a tincture.

Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora)

Skullcap limits the production of a particular hormone associated with stress, the adrenocorticotropic hormone (Balch, 2012). It can be taken as a tea and has uplifting properties. Do not take if you have diarrhoea.

Lavender (Lavandula officinalis)

Lavender flowers can be used in teas, but their aromatic essential oils can be used to relax muscles and ease the mind (McIntyre, 2006). Lavender is often used for aromatherapy baths, massage oils or temple balms to induce deep relaxation.

Limeflower (Tilia europaea)

Limeflower tea can reduce stress headaches, lower irritability and lower high blood pressure as well as decreasing the occurrence of palpitations (McIntyre, 2006). Do not use if you have low blood pressure or are taking blood pressure medication.

There are many herbs that have calmative effects and just a few are covered here. If you would like to research further you may wish to consider:

Vervain (Verbena officinalis)

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)

Oats (Avena sativa)

Picture courtesy of Lissalaine Photography.
Picture courtesy of Lissalaine Photography.

Caution:

  • If you have thoughts of self-harm or suicide, contact a medical professional immediately.
  • You should check with your GP before commencing any herbal regime especially if you take medication, have long-term health issues, are pregnant, breastfeeding or elderly. 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.
  • Do not self-diagnose, if you are experiencing symptoms that you think are related to stress such as headaches and palpitations, check with you GP that they are not due to any other underlying health issues.

References

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. 2015. Struggling with stress? [Online]. [Accessed 02 November 2015]. Available from: http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/Pages/understanding-stress.aspx

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