San Francisco Department of the Environment

Should I be concerned about the safety of my hair products?

hair products

Haircare products and the FDA.  

Haircare products are considered “personal care products” and are not reviewed by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Although ingredients must be listed on the label, according to the FDA, “Personal care products and ingredients, with the exception of color additives are not subject to FDA approval before they go on the market.” Thus, there is potential for products with toxic chemicals to make it to the marketplace.

Find safer and effective hair care products with less toxic chemicals

Start doing your research! Many hair care products, such as shampoo, conditioners, hair sprays, gels, hair dyes and styling products, can contain chemicals that are harmful to your health. Some ingredients can mimic human reproductive hormones: and others may cause cancer, eye and skin irritation, or allergies.

Read labels! Safer hair care products exist for all hair textures, so it is important to read the labels. Choose products that are free of parabens, phthalates, formaldehyde and or fragrances. This can be easier said than done. These three apps make finding non-toxic products simpler:

What else can I do?

Create your own beauty trends! Find the safer alternative that works best for you and stick with it. Don’t be seduced into trying new products, that you have not assessed for toxic chemicals.

Pick product(s) carefully. Ingredients are listed on a product label in order of highest concentration to lowest. Reduce your exposure by choosing products that don’t list any of the chemicals below.

Chemicals to avoid:

  • Phthalates: Phthalates are used in shampoo, conditioner, mousse, hairspray, and fragrance. These chemicals can cause low sperm count in males and infertility in women.
  • Parabens: Parabens are endocrine disruptors that mimic estrogen in the human body. Parabens can interfere with human sexual hormone production, affecting reproductive development in men and women. These chemicals are used in hair products as antibacterial agents. Some common parabens found in hair products are ethyl paraben, butylparaben, isobutyl paraben, isopropyl paraben, methylparaben, and propylparaben.
  • Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing chemicals: Chemicals such as Dimethyl Imidazolidinedione, Imdiazolidinyl/Diazolidinyl Urea, or DMDM Hydantoin, are commonly used in hair care products as preservatives. They release a carcinogen called formaldehyde. These formaldehyde-releasing chemicals are also known to cause eye irritation, skin irritation, lung irritation, and immunotoxicity.
  • Fragrance: Fragrances are of especial concern because their ingredients are often not disclosed. Although the FDA does require companies to list ingredients on the product label, there is a special exception for the chemicals that make up fragrances. Most companies will just list “fragrance or parfum” because the fragrance is most likely made up of many different chemical ingredients, which the companies want to protect as “trade secrets.” In some products, the fragrance is called "parfum." 

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