Lee Hunter, Ph. D.
“Natural”/”Organic” Hair Care Ingredients- Facts Frequently asked questions about a very confusing topic
Since ancient Egyptian times, natural ingredients have been used as wonderful moisturizing and conditioning agents for hair. That fact is still true today as we all use natural things like coconut oil and panthenol (vitamin B) to achieve excellent moisturizing in products for skin and hair. However, Marketing claims with the term “natural” have created a great deal of confusion due to the fact that many of these claims are inaccurate and purposely misleading.
I want to clear up some of the information “haze” with straight, honest FACT by laying out the science-based answers to some of the questions that I am asked most frequently about “natural” and “organic” ingredients and their use in hair care products.
“Natural” has become a very common statement and claim made by hair products manufacturers. There is a belief that “natural” equals “good”. Is this generally true? The answer is yes and no. There is no question that many natural materials make excellent conditioning ingredients for shampoos and conditioners. However, at the same time, many of the most irritating and even dangerous materials on earth are also natural; disease- causing bacteria and viruses; plant toxins such as poison oak; allergens like pollen are excellent examples. Obviously, we cannot assume that just because something is “natural” that is good for us as an ingredient in the products we use.
What does “Organic” mean? “Organic” refers to ingredients that are derived purely from vegetable sources. In other words from plants. An example would be aloe vera. Ingredients that are derived from non-vegetable sources are called “Inorganic”. An example would be silicone.
Is it possible or practical to formulate “all-natural” or “all-vegetable” hair care products?
No. To my knowledge, there are no 100% natural hair products on the market today that meet the minimum safety and performance expectations of stylists and consumers. Virtually all of the hair products that I am aware of that claim to be “all natural” are not 100% natural or organic. There are many ingredients that are used in hair products that make them non-organic. Silicone is the most common inorganic element used that is inorganic; not organic and not vegetable sourced..
What about “Vegan” hair products?
Again, the answer is No. Vegan is a term that refers to food and it specifically defines a 100% “natural vegetable” food diet that also excludes secondary products from animals such as eggs and dairy. Since no hair products are 100% “natural vegetable,” I would say they cannot be “vegan”. The use of the term “vegan” with respect to hair products is mis- leading and just another attempt to say “natural”. Applying food nutritional terms like “vegan” to non-food categories like shampoo creates confusion and is simply incorrect and mis-leading.
What does “Naturally-Sourced” mean? If ingredients in products are called “naturally sourced” does it mean that they are “natural”?
In most instances, naturally-sourced ingredients are very far from being “natural” by any definition because most of them are synthesized by an extensive chemical manufacturing process involving strong acids and other chemicals including petrochemicals (derived from petroleum). Many very important and useful ingredients in hair products are manufactured starting with natural ingredients and other ingredients, but the final product is no longer natural. Since one of the starting materials is “natural”, then some product manufacturers deceptively refer to the finished raw material as “naturally-sourced.” This is untruthful and purposely misleading. I am not saying that the finished “unnatural” ingredients are bad; in fact they are normally very good. It’s just not accurate to imply that they are “natural” by calling them “naturally-sourced.”
Coconut oil is one of the most common natural starting materials in the manufacture of raw materials used in hair conditioners and shampoos. Many excellent detangling conditioning ingredients (look for quaternerary amines on the ingredient label) are made through extensive chemical processing that involves many steps, starting with coconut oil.
Animal Protein Ingredients. Animal Protein ingredients are not used by any important hair care product lines that I know of today; and they have not been used for over twenty years! Therefore any reference to animal proteins as possibly being used by competitive hair products would be totally mis-leading. No hair products have them!
Keratin Protein. Most hair stylists have been taught that human hair contains a very high percentage of Keratin Protein. Most protein like human skin is soft, but human hair is hard due to the high concentration of Keratin Protein. It is the Keratin Protein in hair that contains the disulfide bonds that are so important to permanent waving and straightening. When hair has been damaged and is missing protein, it is Keratin Protein that is most effective for reconstructing the hair. The best non-animal source of Keratin Protein is wheat which explains why most hair products contain wheat protein.
Protein Ingredients. Virtually all protein ingredients contained in shampoos and conditioners today are made by very extensive chemical processing starting with natural materials like wheat grain and soy beans. (Look for the term “hydrolyzed” in the name, which indicates that the protein ingredient has been processed to make it work in hair.) If the wheat grain and soy beans were not so extensively processed chemically, they would not have any beneficial effect at all for conditioning and restructuring hair because the proteins that they contain consist of very large (too large) molecules that have no effect on hair.
Soy Protein. Soy is a good natural source of protein, but the technology for processing soy to obtain good effective Keratin Protein has not been developed as well as for wheat protein at this time. This is why almost all manufacturers, including most “natural lines”, use wheat protein. (The largest selling “natural line” in the Salon industry uses wheat protein and Keratin amino acids according to their ingredient labeling.)
What is the significance of Gluten-free hair products?
Gluten from wheat is a significant food allergen; not a significant external skin allergen. I have personally researched the issue of gluten as an external allergen extensively since the most effective reconstructors in the industry all use protein sourced from wheat. What I have found regarding the allergic effect of gluten from shampoos and reconstructors is that it is a very, very minor issue. First of all external exposure from a hair product is logically much less important than internal ingestion as a food. This is obvious. Next, the concentration of wheat protein in hair products is far lower by a factor of 50 to 100 times or more than in bread and other foods. Thirdly, and most importantly, the very rigorous chemical hydrolyzation process use to make usable protein in hair products substantially changes the chemical nature of the gluten into a completely different form that is not an allergen at all! Further on the issue of allergic responses to hair products with or without gluten, the main culprit is usually some ingredient in the fragrance of the product involved. Therefore, the “gluten-free” claim is something that is only significant in regard to food, not hair products. I believe that it is as mis-leading and deceptive to use “gluten- free” as a hair care claim as it is to state that products are “vegan”. Think of the relevance of a car manufacturer stating that their new sedan was safer because it was caffeine-free!
Shampoo Surfactants. The chemical processes for manufacturing many lather and cleansing agents (surfactants) used in shampoos start with the natural material coconut oil. Examples of such ingredients that can be found on the labels of the products are: sodium lauryl ether sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate, Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate, Cocamidopropyl Hydroxysultaine, Cocamidopropylamine Oxide, Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate, Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate, Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate, Cocamidopropyl Hydroxysultaine, Cocamidopropylamine Oxide
In all of these examples, the actual ingredients used in shampoos may be called “naturally-sourced,” but they are far from “natural” since they have been chemically processed and converted into “unnatural” materials. In fact, in most instances the chemicals required for successful processing are very harsh materials like sulfuric acid and sodium hydroxide; and the “pieces” of molecules that are added on to the coconut oil molecule to make them useful and effective ingredients, are not necessarily natural materials themselves. In fact, they are frequently petroleum-based chemicals. This chemical processing does not make them unsafe or bad in any way; it just makes the reference “naturally-sourced”, or “all-vegetable” very misleading and deceptive if the manufacturer is obviously trying to lead the stylist or customer to believe that it is actually “natural” or “vegan”.
What is the significance of “sulfate-free” products? Are they safer or healthier in any way? Are products that are not sulfate-free bad for hair color?
Products that contain sulfate surfactants are not a health safety issue. This has been verified by the CTFA and the FDA. No responsible scientist questions this. If the safety of sulfate surfactants is questioned by a competitive manufacturer of shampoo, they are not being honest! Period!
Color-safe? Just like any other surfactant ingredients that lather and clean, sulfate surfactants must be formulated properly to be color-safe. Just because a shampoo contains a sulfate surfactant, it does not mean that it is not color-safe. The key to using sulfate surfactants most effectively is to formulate with the pH of the shampoo near neutral pH of 7.0; which is the same pH range as the body’s natural fluids such as blood, sweat and tears. I call the range around pH 7.0 the “Neutral Zone.” Shampoos with sulfate surfactants that are formulated in the neutral zone are more color-safe than the leading sulfate-free shampoos according to extensive repeated shampoo studies that we have performed. In fact, both shampoos were good for color fastness; but we have found that the sulfate-free shampoos that we tested did not clean as well as “neutral-zone” sulfate shampoos; and they were susceptible to build-up of conditioning and styling ingredients with multiple uses by consumers at home. Typically, consumers who use sulfate-free shampoos regularly find it necessary to trade off to a more thorough cleaning shampoo at least weekly to eliminate the build-up; then return to using the sulfate-free shampoo.
Are styling polymers good or bad? The answer is that polymers are very good. In fact, the very substance of our skin and hair is made of natural collagen and protein polymers. Keratin protein that is the very backbone of hair is a polymer. Virtually all of the “hold ingredients” of styling products are polymers. Starch and natural gums are polymers, but when they are adapted for ingredients in styling products, they are extensively processed chemically in order to make them into useful styling ingredients. Most styling gels and pastes and mousses and sprays in the salon industry all use styling polymers that have been chemically processed, including the products that refer to their styling ingredients as starches or gums or other “naturally sourced” materials. This includes virtually all of the styling products in the “natural” lines that I am aware of in the industry today.
Is “plastic” in hair products good or bad? “Plastic” is good! “Plastic” is a term used to describe a broad range of polymers. The main criteria that defines a “plastic polymer” is that it is “formable” into any desirable shape. This feature of some special “plastic polymers” is very desirable for hair styling products! Some examples of “plastic” styling polymers are as follows: PVP/VA; Octylacrylamide/Acrylates/Butylaminoethyl Methacrolate Copolymer; Butyl Ester of PVM/MA, PVP; and there are hundreds more. Incidentally, not only are these polymers “plastic”, all of them are not “natural” or “vegetable” or “vegan” by any possible definition. There are some natural “plastic” polymers that are used in hair styling products as well like Dehydroxantham gum. Since it is a “formable polymer”, it is “plastic” too!
What is the significance of “paraben-free”? This is another attempt at deceptive marketing. Parabens have been used as very effective and safe preservatives in hair and skin products for over fifty years. In the past ten years, there have been some questions raised about the safety of the parabens. These questions have been researched extensively with in-depth scientific safety studies by top scientists for the CTFA (Cosmetic Toiletries Fragrances Association) and the FDA (Food and Drug Association) and they have found the parabens to be safe for use in cosmetics, including hair products. The CIR (Cosmetic Ingredient Review Committee) which is a committee of top scientists under the authority of the CTFA and FDA, has certified the parabens as safe and effective for use in cosmetics. Unfortunately, some companies in our industry, without a conscience, will take single articles of negative information that have been totally disproven; and ignore the evidence of disproof; and use the negative information to say that the parabens are unsafe. This is very unscrupulous and irresponsible! Especially when it comes to trying to use the word “Cancer” to sell shampoo! All of us in society need to focus honestly on the search for the causes of cancer; and the cures for cancer; without confusing the issue with inaccurate and mis-leading information. Distorting the issue of Cancer in order to sell shampoo is totally without any Integrity!
Conclusion. In conclusion, “natural” ingredients are mostly very good for hair products. Natural materials also make wonderful starting materials for the chemical manufacture of ingredients for hair products. However, it is important to know the true facts about “natural” and other misleading claims that are made regarding issues like “naturally- sourced”, “sulfate-free”, “gluten-free”, “paraben-free”, “polymers” and “vegan” in hair products in order to be a well-informed stylist and consumer with integrity.
“Science Makes a Better Hairstylist”
Dr. Lee Hunter
Dr. Lee Hunter is President and CEO of ProDesign. He has had thirty-seven years of successful and distinguished experience in the personal care products industry leading R&D groups for several major corporations. Dr. Hunter is generally recognized as one of the world’s experts in the science of hair and personal care product development. Dr. Hunter holds a BS degree in Mathematics and Chemistry; and a Ph. D. in Physical Chemistry from Iowa State University.