Natural shampoo was once something you just bought for camping – a biodegradable substance that was hard to rinse out and smelled like moss. Times have changed. "There has been so much progress in natural hair care in the past few years," says Jody Villecco, quality standards coordinator at Whole Foods Market. "Formulators are getting better at working with natural alternatives to dangerous chemicals, so there are way more, and way better, options."
All-natural shampoos have been around for decades – since consumers and health advocates first found that dangerous ingredients like phthalates (which can lower sperm counts) and formaldehyde (a carcinogen) were creeping into hair products – and into our scalps. These chemicals are still found in many shampoos and conditioners, and "can be stored in fatty tissues, contributing to chronic health conditions," says Dr. Isaac Eliaz, founder and director of Amitabha, an integrative health center in California. But now, more than 100 companies are skipping the lather-producing surfactants, formaldehyde-emitting preservatives, and synthetic fragrances for coconut-derived cleansers, sugarcane-based antistatics, and aromas from essential oils. Even the big companies are jumping in, like Johnson & Johnson, which pledges to oust all formaldehyde-releasers and certain parabens and phthalates from its adult hair-care products by 2015.
Knowing what's in your bottle requires a bit of sleuthing, and possibly a minor in chemistry: Parabens will be listed explicitly, but phthalates won't, since they're usually hidden in proprietary fragrances. You can't necessarily trust "all-natural" labels, but you can trust more specific claims like "phthalate-free" and look for plant names like jojoba and argan in the ingredients list. While many natural shampoos and conditioners work just like the highest-quality salon products, most still don't get as sudsy. But that doesn't matter, says Kristine Menelaou, a stylist at Ion Studio: "An airy, soapy quality makes you think your hair is clean on the surface, but the suds don't really do anything."