Beauty Products: The Good and Bad

February 4, 2021

Self-care is something most of us humans take pride and joy in. A hot shower or bath can be the perfect way to relax. Essential oils, bubbles, and soft skin make for the ultimate pampering session- until your hair falls out. In December 2020, a new lawsuit was filed against popular beauty brand TRESemme by consumers Robyn Lipetz and Shannon Keener. Both women claimed that TRESemme’s Keratin Smoothing Shampoo causes hair loss and extreme scalp irritation. The culprit appeared to be DMDM Hydantoin, a preservative often used in personal care products. 

The Internet was quick to the scene with this story sending consumers into a frenzy. Tiktok creators began making content to educate viewers on which hair products to buy versus which to avoid. But what’s the real harm in your shampoo? Obviously, we all have  bodies that react to ingredients differently. But what ingredients are actually bad for you? A lawsuit and a video from TikTok are just enough to induce fear into the average person.

First, let’s look at some typical ingredients in shampoo. As mentioned before, DMDM is a common ingredient in beauty products that is actually used as a preservative. ChemicalSafetyFacts.org classifies DMDM as an ‘antimicrobial agent,’ meaning it prevents growth of bad bacteria such as fungi and yeast. DMDM hydantoin is also a formaldehyde donor which means the chemical slowly releases formaldehyde into the product to extend its shelf life. This is concerning because formaldehyde is a well-known carcinogen. Another common ingredient in shampoo is sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). This ingredient is what makes cleaning products, soaps, and toothpastes lather and bubble with the goal of trapping particles in hair/teeth so a rinse with water finishes the job. Healthline explains that researchers have found this only to be an irritant, not a carcinogen. 

Perhaps one of the most popular ingredients talked about today are parabens. These are also a type of preservative, commonly used in the food industry. Although used for over 100 years, rumors that parabens cause cancer through hormone disruption spread through the beauty community. The FDA wrote they don’t have any specific guidelines regarding parabens or preservatives in general when it comes to cosmetic products. Companies must only provide customers with a list of ingredients for the specific product. Written on the official website is “Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act), cosmetic products and ingredients, other than color additives, do not need FDA approval before they go on the market.”

After understanding how these ingredients work, I’m still left to wonder how risky is it to use these products everyday? Is my hair and skin totally healthy or are there carcinogens seeping into my scalp? I decided to search for other perspectives.

To gain a deeper understanding of the chemicals involved with personal care products I spoke with FMHS chemistry teacher Terri Timmer. Although she hadn’t heard of many of the chemicals found in shampoos, she was able to explain the formaldehyde risks. “You need something that slides and cleans (in shampoo),” Timmer says. This is probably the reason for some of the hard to pronounce chemicals on the bottle. But they may not be necessary. “Formaldehyde is a carcinogen, I don’t know what amount is carcinogenic.” Mrs. Timmer went on to explain that today, most science teachers use formalin, formaldehyde diluted in water so it is less harmful. What’s interesting however, is that the chemical supposedly causing hair loss (DMDM Hydantoin) works similarly to formalin. So is it really that dangerous? “Formaldehyde is most dangerous when inhaled and ingestion is fatal,” Timmer explained. “Different people are allergic to different things and can develop allergies.” She hypothesizes that many people develop allergies due to the environment, as overpopulation increases pollution. As a solution, her best suggestion is to use different ingredients. 

From a dermatological perspective, the risks are low with DMDM Hydantoin. Board certified dermatologist Dr. Andrea Suarez released a YouTube video in the beginning of this year regarding the TREsemme lawsuit and reacted to the allegations. “You can be sensitized to any product at any time,” Dr. Suarez warned. She explains that other ingredients are likely to create an allergic reaction, such as fragrances. But hair loss is an unlikely occurrence. She believes that the reasons for the women’s hair loss may have been due to another condition, which could only be confirmed by a dermatologist. Dr. Suarez says the only way hair loss could occur is if the product was not being washed out properly and remained on the scalp too long. Of course some individuals are at higher risk for skin irritation such as those with eczema or hairdressers who touch the products daily. In the end Dr. Suarez believes you shouldn’t worry about the ingredient unless you have an allergy. “It’s (DMDM Hydantoin) a functional ingredient that keeps the product safe,” the derm stated. 

But what is the opinion of those in the industry who deal with these products all day? Samanta Gutierrez is a stylist at Grand Junction’s Salon Professional Academy. When asked what to avoid she responded, “Over processing with chemicals. Box dye altogether. Sodium sulfates are not only damaging to you and your hair but also the ocean life. Most drug store shampoos have sulfates in them.” Gutierrez explained that over an extended amount of time hair can become frizzy and even cause a hormone imbalance. She also mentioned that parabens increase risk of breast cancer, as controversized earlier. Another ingredient that was not introduced before are polyglycols. “This is a petroleum that thickens hair but it is toxic. Look for names like Dimeticone. That has formaldehyde which leads to hair loss.” Now from what we’ve heard, formaldehyde isn’t that dangerous because of the small amounts. Dimethicone is a different story. “Dimethicone coats your hair in wax which leads to loss of moisture and your hair doesn’t take color and will burn when used with hot tools such as a straightener.” It appears that most shampoos have these strange ingredients in them, and while they may not make a huge impact on our locks, some may want to avoid them. When asked what brands she suggests, Gutierrez said, “Redken has great products if you buy them at salons and not the drug store. Most salon products sold in drug stores are watered down and not as effective.” 

So while these chemicals in your shampoo won’t kill you, they can be a little risky. The amounts of these ingredients are fairly small and FDA approved. However, the effects may vary on how often you use them and if you’re using them properly. If you’re ever concerned about an ingredient, give it a quick search and talk with professionals. But at the end of the day, use products that you love and work for you. 

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