Your Shampoo Might Be Causing Your Hair to Thin—Here's Why

We've seen it in the news more than once: shampoo causing hair to thin, or even worse, fall out. However, no one really knew why it was happening, so industry vet Gail Federici (founder of Color Wow and cofounder of John Frieda) partnered up with cosmetic chemist Dr. Joe Cincotta to find answers. Here's what they discovered.

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"We were trying to figure out why color-treated hair didn't look fresh after just a short time, and we knew it wasn't color fading," says Federici. "The penny finally dropped when Dr. Joe said it had to be the film-forming ingredients, i.e., silicones, conditioning and pearlizing agents, thickening resins, etc. that have been added to shampoos over the years, but do not easily rinse off. These ingredients have nothing to do with cleansing (removing dirt and oil) and are engineered to stay behind on the hair shaft and scalp. They work wonders on the hair shaft to de-frizz, boost shine and smooth the hair, but they can result in problems when left on the scalp."

They discovered that these film-forming ingredients can actually cause a lot of harm by building up around the follicle and blocking new hair growth. "Some shampoos are worse than others because the ratio of cleansing agents versus ingredients that don't easily rinse off (i.e. silicones, conditioners etc.) is weighted heavily toward the conditioning side, not the cleansing side (for example, the WEN cleansing conditioner, which recently settled a class action suit due to hair loss issues)," Federici explains. "A two-in one [shampoo and conditioner, often referred to as a cowash], therefore, is apt to cause an issue more quickly than other shampoos. Shampoos with harsh cleansing agents would probably not create a hair loss issue, but they can dry the hair. We believe the safest solution is a sulfate-free shampoo that does not contain ingredients that are difficult to rinse off." 

So what should you be looking for when you shop so you can avoid these potential issues? "In general, any shampoo that claims conditioning, smoothing, thickening, shine, de-frizzing or any added benefit other than cleansing will obviously have to leave behind ingredients on the hair and scalp to perform those functions. I would definitely avoid cleansing conditioners, 'no-poos' and 'low-poos,' as well as 'all-natural' shampoos, which contain little to no cleansers and high concentrations of oils." 

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According to Dr. Cincotta, these are the key ingredients that can cause buildup on the hair and scalp and should be avoided when possible: sticky silicones (dimethicone); conditioning gums that grab onto hair and scalp to deposit more silicones (xanthan gum and guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride); and pearlizing agents, which are waxes that give shampoo a pearly appearance that can leave residual wax on the hair and scalp (glycol distearate and glycol stearate).

You might think clarifying shampoos, which work to remove buildup and can be used once a week (sometimes more), could be a solution for keeping the scalp clean, but Federici says they can leave hair feeling stripped and dry. "If you use a gentle, sulfate-free cleansing shampoo every time you wash your hair, there is no need for a clarifying shampoo."

So to keep your hair growing healthy and looking beautiful, here are three gentle, sulfate-free options we like: Oribe Ultra Gentle Shampoo ($38); Living Proof Full Shampoo ($25) and Color Wow Color Security Shampoo ($22).

1 Comment
  • MARLENA
    Posted on

    Thanks-- I have lost so much hair and it has thinned using Wen...I did not know a settlement was made.

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