Well Being

Natural Shampoo: What It Is, What It Isn’t, And Which Ones Are Best

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I've written at lengthseveral times, about my growing interest in using body care products that are as “natural” as possible. So you can imagine my surprise when I found my hippie-dippie shampoo bar from LUSH contained sodium lauryl sulfate, an ingredient I try to avoid at all costs (sulfates are a controversial chemical ingredient in the beauty world, and I'd rather not use them because I think they're too harsh on my hair). In my quest to find a new shampoo I can feel good about using, I learned quite a bit about natural and organic shampoo: what it is (and what it isn't), what to avoid when shopping for shampoo, and some of the best brands to try.

Can Any Shampoo Really Be “Natural?”

The short answer? No. Unless you go the no-shampoo route, there's really no way that any shampoo can be completely natural, organic, or free of preservatives. That's because shampoo is mainly water-based. Add in organic ingredients like oils and flower extracts, and without some kind of preserving agent, the shampoo will go bad quickly. Most consumers today don't want a stinky or moldy bottle of shampoo in their bathroom, and that's why many “natural” shampoos still contain a laundry list of chemical ingredients whose names you can barely pronounce.

Alan Kolb, the owner of the award-winning organic salon in Baltimore, Sprout: An Organic Salon (Full disclosure: this salon is where I get my hair cut) told me it's difficult, but not impossible to find a shampoo you can feel good about using. He said:

The objective is to be as natural and clean as possible, not to mention safe. The haircare industry and the salon industry are completely filled with toxic nastiness. My salon is evidence that you can get most of that toxic stuff out of a hair salon and still do everything you need to do and do it well.

Kolb told me that lots of people want to use natural shampoos, but that they're also loath to use ones that don't lather. Standard, conventionally-made shampoo has foaming agents (sulfates, usually) to create that blissful bubbly lather you see in all the shampoo commercials. Often, when a person switches to a cleansing product with less lather, they're disappointed. In reality, Kolb says that the lather really has no effect on cleaning your hair:

‘People say well, it doesn't lather enough.' Well no, they didnt put a foaming agent in it, and you've just been trained to expect that lather is what cleans your hair, and it isn't.

What To Avoid

Alan Kolb told me he has some strict parameters for the hair products he uses and sells at Sprout. Kolb won't use products with sulfates (these usually come in four varieties: sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), ammonium lauryl sulfate, and ammonium laureth sulfate), phthalates, methyl parabens, or ingredients derived from petroleum products (look for “-PEG,” “-xynol,” “ceteareth” and “oleth” in the endings of the ingredient names).

He also told me that he generally goes with what the European Union has listed as acceptable in an organic product. He will carry products with sodium benzoate (a common preservative), for example, because the European Union has deemed it safe for cosmetic rinse-off products.  He said:

There's very little out there that does meet my standards. There's no regulation of skin and haircare products. You can call your product organic and no one is really looking into whether that is legitimate or not. It could have literally a drop of jojoba oil and they plaster that on the label so people will buy it.

Other concerned consumers warn against alcohol and propylene glycol, as well. For more about which toxic ingredients to ban from your beauty cabinet, check out our guide to the ‘Dirty Dozen'–the worst chemicals found in cosmetics and personal care products.

Shampoos To Try

All of the shampoos recommended here are sulfate-free, paraben-free and phthalate-free.

Since I discovered the truth about my LUSH shampoo, I've been using Shea Moisture's Raw Shea Butter Moisture Retention Shampoo, $9.99. Bonus: you can get it at Target!


Aubrey Organics GPB Glycogen Protein Balancing Shampoo, $10.48, gets good reviews from the Sprout Salon crew and is also gluten-free.


Shea Tierra Organics Mongongo Banana Shampoo, $22, has one of the shortest ingredients lists I've ever seen on a bottle of shampoo. And that's a good thing.


Avalon Organics Lavender Nourishing Shampoo, $10.50, is made with 70% organic ingredients and meets the national standard for personal care products containing organic ingredients.


Acure Organics Dry Shampoo, $12.99 is a great option if you like to use dry shampoo.


Alan Kolb recommends shampoos from John Masters Organics, Eco Sevi, Aubrey Organics and Intelligent Nutrients (founded by Horst Rechelbacher, who also founded Aveda).

Alternatives To Traditional Shampoo

There are quite a few alternatives to buying a bottle of shampoo, no matter what its ingredients. Apple cider vinegar, baking soda, aloe vera gel and even “no poo” (aka not using any shampoo at all) have all been touted as effective for cleaning hair and avoiding harsh chemicals.

Sabriya told me her experience with apple cider vinegar:

I dilute it in a spray bottle: about a cup of vinegar and 2-3 cups of water. I spray my hair with the mixture, then rinse it out after several minutes. The results — healthy, shiny hair, with no dandruff or dryness. I'm a black female, with natural hair (no chemical straighteners), so I have naturally coily hair. The curls are much more defined and happy, compared to when I use shampoo.

According to Danna Schneider, owner of natural products company Aura Sensory, apple cider vinegar is a great alternative to traditional shampoos:

ACV is absolutely safe and gentle, and an excellent natural cleanser and tonic for the hair, ACV is also a natural remedy for scalp conditions such as dandruff and works very well as a general antidote to dry and flaky scalps. It also has naturally antibacterial qualities, so it can help heal any scalp abrasions and other irritations on the scalp as well.

Other people report good results using Dr. Bronner's soap on their hair, as well. You could also try a shampoo bar—they usually have less chemicals because they're not water-based (aka they don't go bad in your bathroom). There are many, many natural shampoo bar options on Etsy, so if that's something you're considering, it's worth a look.

If you're concerned about the ingredients in your shampoo or other cosmetics, the Environmental Working Groups' Skin Deep Cosmetics Database is a terrific resource. But Alan Kolb warns that if you're really serious about using products with the cleanest, most natural ingredients, they're going to be perishable. If you want to be completely sure about the ingredients in your shampoo, your best bet is to just make your own.

Photo: Flickr user Takot