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How to decode your shampoo label

by Sian Price Blog

How to decode your shampoo label

If there’s one product which is set to bamboozle you when you try to read the label, it’s shampoo.

Check out some of the ingredients list on the average bottle: Sodium Laureth Sulphate, silicon hair conditioners, butylene glycol cocomidopropyl Betaine, glycol distearate, dimoethicone, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate – I could go on.

What does it all mean? Here’s the thing. However many pictures you see of flowers and natural products on the packaging, these ingredients are anything but.

Sodium Laureth Sulphate (SLES) and Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) aren’t there to help condition your hair: what they do is give you the foamy lather we associate with being clean, and act as a preservative. It works by breaking the surface bonds between molecules, allowing your shampoo, soap or cleaning product to get to the dirt and lift it off. But it’s also a skin irritant, and if you’ve got eczema or sensitive skin, very drying – the last thing you need. SLS is also toxic to aquatic organisms.

Glycol distearate thickens up the mix, giving us that gloopy shampoo slick we’re used to. It also helps lather and gives products that pearlescent gleam. It’s made from ethylene glycol which is antifreeze. Nice. It’s not harmful in small quantities, but it’s only there because marketers think by making something shiny we’ll buy it. It’s not to help your hair – so why not use natural oils instead?

Butlyene glycol – Confession: I’m not keen on this one at all. Anything that’s a by-product of the petroleum industry goes straight onto the “no thanks” list. It’s there because it’s a chemical which interacts with other chemicals in the formulation, it boosts their effectiveness – think of it like the Turbo Boost in Knight Rider.

Proplyene glycol – see above. Another by product of the crude oil industry, this one’s used in many, many skin care products because it helps the skin hold moisture. But it’s also linked to skin rashes in some people and has caused dermatitis.

Cocomidopropyl Betaine – this is a compound made from coconut oil that’s in your shampoo to stabilise the bubbles you love. So far, so natural product. But it’s heavily processed and can cause skin irritation and eye irritation, not great for a shampoo…

We are exposed to thousands of chemicals every day; and as the skin is the body’s largest organ many of them will be absorbed. By paying as much attention to the labels on your skin care as the ones on your food shopping, you’ll educate yourself about what’s in the products on your shelf.

There are great alternative natural shampoos like Organic Surge, Green People or Faith in Nature. Or you could make your own with the original shampoo herb, soapwort. SPOILER ALERT: Recipe below!


Soapwort is a natural soap. Its official Latin name is Saponaria officinalis, which gives a hint to the saponins or soap-like qualities it contains. Its country name is Bouncing Bet, or wild Sweet William.

It’s related to carnations, and has lovely baby-pink flowers (which insects love) from June to September and green glossy leaves. A perennial, it grows to about two foot tall and will rapidly spread. If you mix the roots or leaves with water, it gently foams and provides a natural cleanser for skin or hair.

Grow soapwort in sun or partial shade, and it will also tolerate poor soil. This plant prefers damp soil, but please don’t grow it near ponds as the saponins in the plant are harmful to fish and frogs.

It’s used today to clean delicate tapestries in musems and historic houses, and if you wash sheep fleece with it, it does not strip the lanolin from the wool which can happen with other detergents.

Soapwort can be quite invasive though, so you might find yourself pulling it up once it gets going. But if you use it then you can get a balance. It divides very easily so you can always propagate new ones, and give away free plants to friends!


What you’ll need:

Chopped leaves and stems of soapwort – fill a jug to 200ml. Boiling water – top up to 800ml

Cover this and steep for about 20 minutes, then add a handful of dried herbs of your choice (see below for some ideas),

Herbs you can add:

Dark hair? Dried sage or rosemary are your friend. Blonde? Chamomile and lemon verbena Redhead? Dried nettles


Add a tablespoon of a carrier oil like grapeseed or almond oil

And finally…

Essential oil – about 20 drops of your favourite essential oil to the mix.

Pour into a bottle and pop it in the fridge, or a cool dark place, where it’ll keep for two weeks. Pour a good handful into the palm of your hand when washing. Don’t expect all the foamy lather from your old shampoo – instead, it’s a gentle, sudsy wash which will leave you with squeaky-clean hair


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