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The Shampoo-Hair Loss Connection
When I was diagnosed with male pattern hair loss, I immediately went running to Rogaine® and bought a nice shampoo. It’s a natural tendency for people to try and find easy fixes to their problems, and I was no exception.
I kept up this hair loss regimen for years – applying Rogaine twice daily and using a range of shampoos from copper peptides to volumizing thickeners. My hair loss never slowed down. But short of a hair transplant (and subscribing myself to a lifetime of Propecia®), I figured I was doing everything I could to stop my hair from thinning.
I was wrong.
A few years later, I began to rethink my stance on shampooing – particularly after reading ways that shampoos may contribute to hair loss and hair shedding. Yes, much of this research is misrepresented (and overstated) by health websites. At the same time, some of it has merit. And if you’re trying to improve hair health from all angles, you’ll want to at least understand ways in which some hair-washing habits might be contributing to your hair shedding.
A quick personal note: several years ago, I decided to take a break from shampoos and conditioners. I kept this up for four years. During that time, my hair felt and looked a lot healthier. We don’t really need shampoos and conditioners – at least the way we’re “conditioned” to believe. This article explains why.
This article explains the science behind shampooing and its potential connection to hair loss. We’ll uncover the importance of sebum, the dangers of even the most “organic” shampoos, and how to transition away from shampoos without having to worry about dandruff and hair oiliness.
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Shampoo Aisle: Paralysis By Analysis
Have you ever walked through a grocery aisle and thought, “Most of these things I don’t even need”?
As consumer packaged goods continue to grow, so do our product choices. This isn’t a good thing. Having more choices doesn’t always make you more informed, better off, healthier, or even happier. In fact, overwhelming someone with too many choices can lead to no choice at all. They even have a name for it… Paralysis by analysis.
There are few better examples of this than the hair care aisle.
What Does The Hair Care Aisle Look Like?
In hair care, it’s common to see product claims attached to every bottle of shampoo or conditioner. Here are a few examples:
- “…extend volume for all-day fullness.” – Garnier
- “…fights fadeouts with zero-weight.” – Pantene
- “…reconstructs at the cellular level.” – Dove
- “…24 hours of defined curls.” – Pantene
- “…lock out frizz for a full 3 days.” – Garnier
- “…fight dandruff.” – Head & Shoulders
Overwhelmed yet? You might need frizz control, or a volume boost, or stronger hair, or all three. What do you buy?
The reality: you don’t really need any of these products. To understand why, you need to understand how hair care products actually work.
How Do Shampoos & Conditioners Work?
Shampoos clean your hair in a couple of ways. First, they strip your hair of any dirt or soil by using a blend of ingredients called surfactants. Surfactants bind with things like dirt, soil, dead skin, and sebum – and when the shampoo is washed away, it takes these things with it.
Shampoos also contain purpose-based ingredients like thickeners, emulsifiers, foaming boosters, scents, and color additives. You can often guess the ingredients in a shampoo by reading the advertising claims on the bottle.
Conditioners are designed to make your hair easier to manage and minimize static. They’ve got ingredients like fatty alcohols and silicones, which help lubricate hair follicles after shampooing cleans them. Conditioners are often used to detangle the hair, make it softer, and make it shinier.
What’s The Problem?
There are three big problems with shampoos and conditioners:
- Their product claims are often exaggerated and unrealistic. Shampoos and conditioners coat your hair with synthetic compounds that boast the appearance of the claims on their bottles. After a few washes, the effects are gone. That’s why you’ll never see a claim for PERMANENT volume lifts, frizz reduction, dandruff control, or shininess.
- Their ingredients are carcinogenic and hormone-disrupting. Depending on your frequency of exposure, this can have a compounded negative effect on your health.
- Shampoos may accelerate the pathway to thinning hair. Shampoo strips your hair of the oils your body naturally produces to protect it. This can worsen the health of your scalp and potentially create the problem of excess sebum production – which, under certain circumstances, may increase inflammation and hair shedding.
But they don’t tell you that on the label.
Shampoos & Conditioners Are Full of Endocrine Disruptors & Carcinogens
The ingredients in most hair care products aren’t always safe. With every wash, you might be exposing yourself to compounds and chemicals known to be carcinogenic and hormone-disrupting. Here are just a few of the common offenders:
Parabens are manmade preservatives used in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and (some) processed foods.
Controversy over the safety of parabens began in 2004 when researchers found that parabens were present in 90% of human breast tumors. Not surprisingly, the same parabens in those tumors are also common ingredients in anti-perspiring underarm deodorants used by women. If you haven’t already guessed, parabens penetrate the skin and enter the body when applied topically.
Parabens Disrupt Your Endocrine System
The Environmental Protection Agency’s research suggests consistent long-term paraben exposure can disrupt your endocrine system. Your endocrine system (which is composed of your thyroid, pancreas, andrenals, testes, and ovaries) is absolutely critical to your health. Without a properly functioning endocrine system, hormonal balance is literally impossible.
Endocrine disruptors, like parabens, get stored in your body’s fat tissue and accumulate over time. In the correct concentrations, parabens can bind to estrogen receptors and alter your body’s hormonal secretions, thereby changing the way your body produces and treats hormones.
What does this mean for you? It means that with consistent paraben exposure, you may also have a higher disposition to hormonal imbalances.
Interested in a list of dysfunctions or diseases associated with hormonal imbalances? Here are some highlights:
- Hair Loss
- Cognitive Impairment
- Reduced Immune Functionality
The list could extend a few more pages, but I hope you get the picture. Nobody wants any of those.
Because parabens can negatively sway your body’s testosterone:estrogen ratios, they can also reduce your fertility, depending on the exposure and tissue concentration.
Too Many Parabens Make Men Infertile
The rise in infertility in developed countries has puzzled many scientists, but recent research suggests that increasing levels of male infertility could be the result of higher paraben exposure.
I started minimizing my paraben intake the second I learned that that human sperm was no longer viable after being exposed to 1 mg/mL of parabens. If you’re wondering what our average daily exposure to parabens is, it’s estimated to be 76 mg. Granted this isn’t directly comparable to 1 mg/mL, but I think the context helps show just how little 1 mg/mL really is.
If you’re struggling to conceive, maybe you should consider minimizing your paraben exposure for a few months.
Personal Care Products Account For Most Of Human Paraben Exposure
Since shampoos and conditioners are just one of many sources for paraben contact, you might be wondering why I am cherry picking. Let me be clear: I’m not.
Shampoos and conditioners, alongside other personal care products, account for nearly 70% of our daily paraben intake. Cutting these out will drastically reduce your long-term accumulation of the preservatives, so please consider it.
Phthalates are compounds found in plastic water bottles, shampoos, perfumes, shower curtains, body lotions, wood finishers, and hairsprays (to name a few). They’re used to make plastics more flexible and harder to break. Unfortunately, they also harbor unintended and detrimental consequences to our health and hair.
Phthalates are often disguised on labels as “fragrance”, among other terms. Sometimes, phthalates aren’t even listed as an ingredient because they’re only considered a part of a product’s package.
Phthalates Are Ingested Accidentally
Phthalates are often ingested through leaching. Phthalates can leach into foods or liquids heated in plastic containers. You might not think this is a huge deal if you don’t heat things in plastic, but you’d be surprised at how easy it is to ingest high levels of phthalates by accident. For instance, bottled water is full of leached phthalates. Even though the bottles themselves aren’t purposefully heated, they reach temperatures high enough during transportation and distribution to promote leaching into the water. So, even though you never heated that plastic bottle, you’re still likely ingesting phthalates well beyond a recommended limit.
The same is true for shampoos, only this time, you’re rubbing the phthalates directly into your head.
Phthalates Are Also Endocrine-Disrupting
Unsurprisingly, phthalates can also negatively impact your endocrine system by reducing free testosterone levels in the body. Not only that, but phthalates have also been shown to have an estrogenic effect on the body. The mechanisms behind how phthalates reduce testosterone and promote estrogen in the body aren’t fully understood. But the bottom line is, they throw our testosterone:estrogen ratio way out of whack, which means that they can create hormonal imbalances. Once again, hormonal imbalances are linked to a variety of dysfunctions and diseases, two of which are cancer and hair loss. Once again, I’m trying to avoid both of those.
The FDA Knows Phthalates Are Dangerous, But Regulation Is Limited
It’s interesting to note that certain phthalates are banned in children’s’ toys, but not in shampoos. Children also use shampoo, so obviously the FDA didn’t think this legislation through completely. If the FDA were willing to impose regulations on compounds that are dangerous to children, why would those compounds not also be dangerous to adults in higher concentrations?
The truth is, phthalates are dangerous regardless of your age. So avoid them by removing shampoos & conditioners from your hair care regimen.
Ever heard of Sodium Laurel/Laureth Sulfate? It’s usually the first ingredient listed in any shampoo or conditioner. It’s a compound derived from coconuts, but the way that it’s processed and extracted creates a multitude of carcinogenic byproducts. Those also end up in the shampoo, though they often aren’t listed. You still rub them into your scalp, and they still accumulate in your body.
Over 16,000 studies have been conducted on sulfates and their byproducts. Research aggregated by the Environmental Working Group suggests the compounds are associated with:
- Developmental/reproductive toxicity
- Organ toxicity
- Endocrine disruption
- Cancers and mutations
Obviously, the relationship between sulfates and these disorders is dose-dependent. Even still, it’s likely in our interests to keep exposures to a healthy minimum – or at least reduce any unnecessary sulfate exposure (through certain shampoos and cosmetic products).
Do you remember the Johnson & Johnson, “No more tears” campaign for baby shampoos? They reformulated their baby shampoos to be less irritating to babies’ eyes, who have a harder time keeping them closed when getting shampooed. What did they do?
It’s encouraging to see a large CPG company like J&J take steps toward bettering their products, but it’s disappointing that formaldehydes were used for so long in baby shampoos. Even worse, formaldehydes are carcinogenic. It says so right on the US Department of Labor’s website, and again in a warning they issued to hair salons when reevaluating formaldehydes’ safety in hair care products.
It’s Likely That Your All-Natural/Organic Shampoo Also Isn’t Very Good For You
You might be thinking, “My shampoo doesn’t have any of these. I am an informed consumer, and I read ingredients lists.” You could be right, but harmful ingredients are just a partial problem with shampoos. Any type of shampoo or conditioner can contribute AND acts as a precursor to pattern hair loss.
While your hair might feel cleaner after washing, shampoos and conditioners actually create an environment in the scalp, which, over a period of time, can significantly contribute to hair loss in both men and women.
Chronic Shampooing May Promote Excess Sebum Production
The scalp produces sebum (natural oil) to keep the hair healthy, shiny, and smooth. At a certain point, the scalp and hair reach homeostasis – enough oil is produced to keep the hair intact, not too dry, and healthy.
Enter shampoos and conditioners. Remember how they clean the scalp? Shampoos strip the hair of dirt, but they also strip the hair of sebum – the natural oils you’re your sebaceous glands excrete to protect the hair. Then, conditioners replace them with synthetic compounds or “natural” oil derivatives.
The scalp, aware of the fact that it has been stripped of sebum, works on overdrive to produce more sebum to keep the hair healthy.
Think about it. Every time you use a shampoo, you wash away the sebum that your body produces to naturally lubricate the hair follicles. It’s an unintended consequence of washing dirt out of your hair, which water can do just fine without stripping the sebum from the hair shafts.
This cycle reinforces itself when we use shampoos over and over again. In turn, our scalps are always churning out more sebum than normal to keep up with the amount lost from shampoos.
The Bad News: Trapped/Excess Sebum Production Might Be Linked To Hair Loss
Research suggests that the build-up of sebum, over time, might indirectly contribute to hair loss. Here’s how.
Sebum is a food source for bacteria that live on our scalps and inside our sebaceous glands. Some of these bacteria are harmless; some are helpful; some are hurtful.
Men with pattern hair loss have higher levels of a harmful bacteria – known as P. Acnes – living on their scalps. Specifically, this bacteria lives inside the sebaceous glands. It eats sebum, and as a byproduct of its digestion, it produces something known as porphyrins. These are toxic substances that react with UV light, which create irritation to trigger an “inflammatory” response from our bodies.
The way our bodies respond? Ironically, by producing more sebum. Unfortunately, this just feeds more P. Acnes, which creates more porphyrins, which creates more inflammation, and the cycle continues.
This cycle is one way that acne can develop. But on the scalp specifically, this cycle may contribute to the inflammation associated with hair shedding. In fact, the presence of pathogenic microorganisms is believed to be one reason why men with hair loss tend to have oilier, shinier scalps.
Unfortunately, when we chronically shampoo (once daily or more), we’re washing away this sebum, which signals to our bodies to produce more of it. This behavior often just exacerbates the problem, as our bodies attempt to send sebum production into overdrive.
This is partly why some people can’t go more than a few days without shampooing. Through chronic shampooing, they’ve conditioned their scalps to overproduce sebum, so after a few days without shampooing, their hair looks wildly oily.
In order to break the cycle, you have to significantly reduce (or abandon) shampoos and conditioners.
Transitioning Away From Shampoos & Conditioners Is Worth It
I did this years ago, and I kept it up for four years. I highly recommend it.
The process takes some adjusting, but I encourage you to stop using all shampoos and conditioners. The transition will take anywhere from 2-6 weeks, but eventually, your sebum production should return to normal and your hair should look much healthier.
For four years, all I did was water-rinse my hair daily. It felt great, and I saved hundreds of dollars on hair products that I really didn’t need.
Note: my experiment ended after I headed a soccer ball that had recently rolled into dog poop. After that, I felt it was time to shampoo. Nowadays, I dilute my shampoo with water and keep my frequency to just a few times week. This works well for me and my hair, and I’d recommend you try the same.
About all else, try to break the habit of chronic shampooing: using shampoo / conditioner products once- or twice-daily. You’re likely doing your hair a disservice… and maybe your health, too.
The Bottom Line: You Probably Don’t Need These Products
Every other species seems to do just fine without shampoos or conditioners. Why are we special? These products are mostly unnecessary. We spend hundreds of dollars on them every year, and yet we shouldn’t. Our bodies evolved with built-in capabilities to maintain a healthy scalp and hair. Why mess with millions of years of trial, error, and evolution?
My hair looked great during my years of no-shampoo. Once your scalp adjusts, I don’t think you’ll regret the switch.
Rob English is a researcher, medical editor, and the founder of perfecthairhealth.com. He acts as a peer reviewer for scholarly journals and has published four peer-reviewed papers on androgenic alopecia. He writes regularly about the science behind hair loss (and hair growth). Feel free to browse his long-form articles and publications throughout this site.