Unhealthy Ingredients in Shampoo: Everything You Need to Know

What exactly is shampoo? Isn't it just for when I wash my hair - to get my hair and scalp clean? Well, that was the original intention!

But over the years beauty manufacturers have made "improvements" to shampoo formulas. They've added a whole host of ingredients designed to cling to the hair in order to provide extra benefits like thickening, smoothing, and frizz blocking.

Sounds like a good idea, right? WRONG! When you're washing hair everyday you're often loading up your scalp with harmful ingredients present in your shampoo.

And yet, how many of us really consider ingredients when selecting a shampoo? According to a recent survey* we carried out amongst our UK customers, only a quarter of participants told us that they consider ingredients to be the most important factor when picking which shampoo to buy.

We thought this number would be higher, given the fact the health of your hair is at stake! We’ve put together this guide to try and give more context around why you should care what you’re washing your hair with, as well as which shampoo ingredients to avoid.


Gail Federici - Color Wow CEO“Originally, the job of a shampoo was to simply cleanse the hair and scalp. So the formulas only contained ingredients to remove dirt and oil,” says Gail Federici, CEO and founder of Color Wow.

Creator of multiple iconic hair care brands (the first to prescriptively address frizzy and blonde hair problems), Gail Federici has a long history of award-winning hair care product development.  You can read more about her and the team of experts at Color Wow here.

“Starting in the eighties...and still going on today... “advanced shampoos” meant the formulas were multi-taskers with ingredients that could deliver secondary benefits - like thickening, smoothing, moisturising, volumising, de-frizzing, and glossing. 
Typically, these ingredients include silicones, thickening gums, and conditioning agents,” explains Gail.


With the goal of improving shampoo formulas, manufacturers went from making simple, cleansing shampoos to 2-in-1’s, which meant putting conditioning agents into shampoos for convenience.

hair follicles and clinging ingredientsThen came thickening formulas, sleeking formulas...even “shampoo-free” cleansing conditioners, known as no-poo’s (which were associated with the no poo method).

To deliver “added benefits” these formulas were engineered to leave behind “clinging” ingredients in order to change hair’s texture and appearance. The problem? In attempts to “build a better shampoo” formulators lost sight of the actual job of a shampoo - to leave the hair fresh and clean.

According to Gail, “Adding these extra ingredients to shampoo formulas is counter-productive as they are engineered to not rinse off, and adhere to the hair.

non cleansing ingredientsNon-cleansing ingredients (silicones, conditioning agents, oils, parabens) leave a film on the hair which makes it dull and weighs it down.”

Washing hair everyday, continually using these shampoos, loaded with added ingredients that build up - meant your hair was never truly getting clean.

Here's Gail's take on the role of shampoos in your haircare routine:


woman massaging shampoo into her hairUnlike other hair products, shampoos are massaged directly into the scalp. You are supposed to gently massage the formula so that friction and cleansing agents help lift off dead cells and debris. Why does this makes things worse?

When you massage these so-called “advanced” shampoos onto your hair and scalp, you’re actually massaging ingredients like heavy silicones, conditioning ingredients and pearlising agents directly onto your head.

person picking dark hair out of a hairbrushThe danger is that, in the long run, these residues can build up, block hair follicles and impede new hair growth…leading to thinning and hair loss.

Check out our article on the link between thickening / volumising shampoos and hair loss for more information.


“Really, it makes no sense to put ingredients into a shampoo that not only have nothing to do with the cleansing process, but in fact, do the opposite,” says Federici.

Dr Joe Cincotta - Chief Chemist at Color WowWhen you think about it, it’s kind of a blinding glimpse of the obvious!

So, what are some examples of unhealthy ingredients in shampoo to look out for?

We asked Dr. Joe Cincotta PhD, our Chief Chemist here at Color Wow, for a list of shampoo ingredients to avoid

  1. Sticky silicones that build up on hair and scalp (including Dimethicone, Dimethiconol, Divinyldimethicone/Dimethicone Copolymer and Amodimethicone)

  2. Conditioning Gums that grab onto hair and scalp which deposit even more silicones (including Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, Hydroxypropyl Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, Xanthan Gum, Polyquaternium-10)

  3. Pearlising agent which is wax that gives shampoo a pearly appearance and again leaves residual wax on hair and scalp (including Glycol Distearate and Glycol Stearate)

  4. Synthetic polymers that stick to hair and scalp (including Polyquaternium-7, Polyquaternium-6, Polyquaternium-11 and Octafluoropentyl Methacrylate (OFPMA))

  5. Waxes and fatty alcohols that leave dulling residue on hair and scalp (including Cetyl Alcohol, Stearyl alcohol, Trihydroxstearin, C11-15 Pareth-7, C12-13 Pareth-23, C12-13 Pareth-3)

  6. Positively charged conditioning agents that stick to hair and scalp (including Behentrimonium Methosulfate and Stearamidopropyl Dimethylamine)

  7. Natural/Synthetic oils and oil derivatives that clog follicles (including Sweet Almond oil, Sunflower oil, Castor oil, Sesame oil, Any natural oil, Petrolatum, Mineral oil, PEG-60 Almond Glycerides, Any PEG-Oil Glyceride, PEG-55 propylene Glycol Oleate)

  8. Thickening/Volumising polymers that stick to hair and scalp (including Styrene/Acrylates Copolymer, Carbomer, Acrylates Copolymer, PVP and Acrylates/Beheneth-25 Methacrylate Copolymer)

By noting which ingredients to stay away from in shampoo, you’ll be taking better charge of your own hair health!


color security shampoo being squeezed into a glass container

The  “aha” moment came for us while we were developing the Color Wow range for colour-treated hair. We couldn’t figure out why hair colour never looked as fresh as the day it was done.

We had just created a sulfate-free shampoo that was as gentle as water so we knew the colour wasn’t leaching out when we were washing hair. But still, even after removing sulfates, the hair still looked dull and discoloured after a few weeks.

After much analysis, the penny dropped. Our in-development shampoo formula, which contained silicones and conditioners, wasn’t really leaving the hair clean! The colour was dull and distorted because of residues.

So, we did a 180-degree pivot! And, based on our new insight (and contrary to the industry norm) we completely revamped and edited our new formula.

We pulled out all the unnecessary ingredients and only kept the basic, gentle cleansing ingredients. Color Wow Color Security Shampoo was born.

color security shampoo

Color Wow Color Security Shampoo is unique among shampoos - it doesn’t contain any harmful ingredients found in other shampoos.

  • NO sulfates
  • NO silicones
  • NO parabens
  • NO natural or synthetic oils
  • NO thickening gums
  • NO conditioning agents
  • NO pearlising agents…nothing that stays behind.

The formula is ideal for every hair type. But it is especially critical for those with colour-treated hair, people concerned about hair thinning, and women who have extensions (Color Wow has no ingredients that will make extensions “slip”).

If fuller, healthier, glossier style is your goal…Color Wow Color Security Shampoo is the best place to start. 

We hope we’ve given you enough advice on which ingredients to watch out for in shampoo. Why not take a look at our guide to how to properly wash your hair for the full low-down on shampooing and conditioning techniques? 


Read more about hair washing and keeping your locks looking healthy on the Color Wow Blog:

  • How often should you wash your hair?
  • Is dry shampoo bad for your hair?
  • What do conditioners actually do?

    *Survey carried out by Color Wow in November 2023 - total of 1,021 responses 

    Dr. Cincotta holds a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from the City University of New York, and is currently VP of Research + Development at Color Wow.

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