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Is Dandruff Shampoo Bad For Your Hair? 5 Ingredients To Avoid

Written by Ross Goodhart
Is Dandruff Shampoo Bad For Your Hair? 5 Ingredients To Avoid

“Eye of newt, and toe of frog. Wool of bat, and tongue of dog…”

Maybe you remember these famously creepy lines from reading Shakespeare’s Macbeth in a school English class. They’re chanted by three witches as they stir up their bubbling cauldron.

And while most over-the counter drugstore or anti-dandruff shampoos aren’t made with diabolical intentions, they may contain some seriously creepy ingredients. In fact, many additives in mainstream dandruff formulas can be downright unsafe and irritating—just ask your dermatologist.

Fortunately, it’s easy enough to avoid these unsavory compounds - it’s just a matter of learning their names and reading the ingredients labels to figure out what are the best dandruff shampoos to properly cleanse, treat, and exfoliate your skin. Here are the top 8 ingredients you should always avoid in a dandruff shampoo:

1. Parabens

Parabens are synthetic chemicals commonly used as preservatives in shampoos, conditioners, and many other cosmetic products. They keep products fresh by keeping microbes from growing in them. 

But consumers and researchers are becoming increasingly concerned about parabens’ ability to mimic human hormones. Studies have shown that they accumulate in breast tumor tissue and show up in the blood and urine of people who use personal care products that contain them, suggesting they may cause adverse health effects in the body. 

Paraben ingredients in shampoos and other cosmetic product labels usually end in “paraben,” making them easily identifiable. The most common are Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, Propylparaben, and Butylparaben. 

2. Sulfates

Sulfates are chemicals included in many liquid cleansers to create foam. The most common sulfates you might see on shampoo labels are Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, and Sodium Lauryl Sulfate. 

These ingredients are all surfactants, meaning they help other ingredients mix together - like oil and water. This generates the sudsy lather experience many people expect in body washes, shampoos, toothpaste, and other cleaning products - and means you have to do less scrubbing to get clean. Sulfates are a cheap detergent and people have come to expect a foamy washing experience, so many manufacturers use these ingredients widely in personal cleansing products. 

The downfall of sulfates is that they can be too harsh, stripping out much of your scalp and hair’s natural oil. This can lead to increased dryness, irritation, and itchy scalp. It may also cause more flaking of dead skin cells, the opposite of what you are looking for in a shampoo meant to hydrate your scalp. Some sulfate cleansers can also damage and clog hair follicles. 

Put simply, sulfates can inadvertently make your dandruff worse - the last thing you want in a supposed dandruff treatment. They can also exacerbate eczema. 

And dandruff aside, sulfates tend to be too harsh for certain hair types, especially coily and curly hair, and people with thin, delicate, or dry hair or a dry scalp. Sulfates can also be damaging to color and chemical treatments as it can actually strip the dye or chemical treatment from your natural hair. So there are many reasons to avoid sulfates for optimal scalp and hair care.

The downfall of sulfates is that they can be too harsh, stripping out much of your scalp and hair’s natural oil.

3. Phthalates

Phthalates are industrial chemicals often used as a stabilizer for synthetic fragrances in shampoos and other cosmetics. It is also sometimes used as a gelling agent in many liquid cosmetic products. 

Phthalates are banned or highly regulated in many countries outside the U.S. as they are known to be endocrine disruptors which could cause harm to the reproductive system. Additionally, phthalates can cause toxicity in vital organs.

Phthalates are often buried under the term “fragrance” so they are not easy to spot on an ingredients list, but if you avoid using haircare and other cosmetic products with a synthetic fragrance you’ll be sure to minimize your exposure to phthalates.

4. Formaldehyde

Some shampoos contain formaldehyde as a preservative. Many others contain preservative ingredients that release formaldehyde over time. In shampoos, these ingredients include Quaternium-15, Imidazolidinyl Urea, Diazolidinyl Urea, Polyoxymethylene Urea and Sodium Hydroxymethylglycinate, among others. 

Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, and when it’s in your shampoo, you can be exposed in two ways. It can be absorbed through the skin, and you can inhale it through the air as it is released. 

Some people also experience allergic reactions from Formaldehyde including contact dermatitis and other forms of skin irritation and inflammation - exactly what you don’t want if you’re trying to fight dandruff. 

5. Triclosan

Triclosan is another ingredient commonly used as an antibacterial preservative in shampoos. It’s thought to interfere with human hormones and may also cause skin irritation in some people. It has been found to accumulate in human urine and fat cells, potentially contributing to harmful health impacts. 

6. Synthetic Fragrance

If your shampoo bottle label just says “Fragrance,” consider that a catch-all for thousands of different chemicals. And thanks to a strange labeling law, there’s no way for you to know exactly which ones. Some common synthetic fragrance ingredients can cause health issues ranging from immediate irritation of the skin to reproductive system damage. 

Since there’s no way for you to know what might be in your shampoo’s “Fragrance,” it’s best to play it safe and avoid any product with this on the label. More responsible and transparent formulas will clearly show the sources for any fragrances they use in their products. 

7. Coal Tar

Some dandruff shampoos use coal tar as its main active ingredient. Coal tar shampoos aim to slow bacterial growth and soften scales on the scalp, preventing flaky scalp from occurring. While it can be an effective treatment for scalp psoriasis, coal tar has been known to cause some serious side effects.

Coal tar is recognized as a carcinogenic, meaning it can cause cancer in humans, and its use in cosmetic products is banned in the EU. Coal Tar also makes the skin more sensitive to sunlight and thus more susceptible to sunburn. Not to mention, the smell (of road work) can linger on your scalp and hair long after you rinse out the shampoo. 

8. Selenium Sulfide

Another active ingredient in some dandruff shampoos is selenium sulfide, known to be an antifungal when applied topically to your scalp. While it can be effective in treating dandruff, this ingredient has been linked to kidney and liver damage.

Selenium Sulfide is banned in the EU and a number of other countries because of the potential risks of toxicity from using it over a prolonged period of time. 

The Bottom Line

Everyone should look out for these problem ingredients on product labels because of the risks they pose if used regularly to your long-term health. 

And for people with dandruff and some of the underlying skin conditions that can cause flaking (seborrheic dermatitis, eczema, scalp psoriasis, genetic skin sensitivities, allergies, etc.) these ingredients are especially worth avoiding, since many can exacerbate irritation. After all, scalp irritation is exactly what leads to the itchiness and flaking of dandruff.

Jupiter’s elevated dandruff and scalp care products are formulated with this in mind. Proven dandruff fighting ingredients like Zinc Pyrithione mean that Jupiter's Balancing Shampoo works, quickly and easily, to help eliminate your flakes. We also include beautiful ingredients - think coconut oil, lavender, and rosemary - to moisturize and nourish your hair. All Jupiter products are free from parabens, sulfates, phthalates and synthetic fragrances.  Learn more about our elevated approach to safe, effective dandruff treatment and overall hair health.

Balancing Shampoo
Balancing Shampoo

Meet our head honcho. This soothing multi-tasker gets to the root of flaking and irritation, thanks to our star active ingredient, Zinc Pyrithione. Backed by a lush aroma of mint, vanilla, rosemary, sage, tangerine, and lavender, it’s bound to elevate your mood, and your shower.

The information contained in this article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice, nor is it a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician with any questions you may have about the information contained herein, as well as the risks or benefits of any treatment.