black girl in a jean jacket showing the worst ingredients for natural hair
Curly Hair Care

The Worst Ingredients for Natural Hair All Naturals Should Avoid

Let me tell you a secret: the worst ingredients for natural hair are not what you expect them to be.

For starters, some of them "claim" to be natural. 

Terms such as “all-natural”, “organic”, “synthetic-free” aren’t regulated or defined by the government.

If you read the back of some of these so-called “all-natural products”, you're more than likely to find a chemical or two in the top-ten ingredients.


And of course, some of the worst ingredients for natural hair are what you would expect = chemicals.

You know the ones - they're unpronounceable, unrecognizable and utterly complex. Reading them out loud would make anybody go bonkers.

But there’s a few things you should keep in mind when determining the things to avoid in natural hair products (and which ingredients you should use).

And we're going to get into those now.

Let’s dive into the worst ingredients for natural hair that you must avoid, both from a hair care and healthcare perspective.

Disclaimer - the information provided below has been researched based on the latest science available from credible, peer-reviewed articles. Use of these ingredients does not mean that you will be harmed in the short to long term. We are only outlining the potential negative implications that have been documented in literature when humans have been overexposed to these ingredients.   

infographic showing the worst ingredients for natural hair

What Are The Worst Ingredients for Natural Hair?

In the beauty industry, black women have always been at the bottom of the priority list.

This is an undisputable fact in the makeup industry, where makeup shades and tones for deeper complexions are just… missing.

And some of the ones that are available are 50 shades of grey and ashy.

Quite curiously though, it’s almost the opposite story for black hair care. 

There’s a plethora of hair products marketed towards the black community. You can even find a whole, dedicated shelf to black haircare in your local Walmart.

Herein lies the fundamental problem: when it comes to black hair, the issue isn’t accessibility of products, it’s about accessibility of good products.

New studies have shown that many products marketed towards black people (in particular black women) are filled with ingredients that may cause chronic issues such as:

  • Allergic reactions;
  • Respiratory system effects such as asthma;
  • Early sexual development in young children;
  • Hormone-related diseases such as obesity and diabetes, and;
  • Cancer

The Food and Drug Administration in the United States (FDA) don’t have an active role in overseeing the cosmetic industry, so there’s not really much of a standard that these companies have to adhere to, aside from their own business ethics.

In other words: these companies are in the business of making money, not in the business of ensuring your safety and well-being.

This article isn't meant to fear-monger. But it's important to inform yourselves on what the science says about these ingredients.

Here are the top ten things to avoid in natural hair products, according to the latest science:

Parabens

Most of us know that parabens are bad. We see on labels that companies are starting to use parabens less and less in their formulations. But do you know why?

Simply put, parabens are preservatives. They’re in your products to make sure that the product remains stable, that the product won’t expire and will have a longer shelf life, and that bacteria and other microbials don’t grow inside your jars.

Parabens are definitely useful from a product development perspective, but scientists have realized that they may act as endocrine disruptors.

Endocrine disruptors interfere with your body’s natural hormonal system, known as the endocrine system.

These disruptors mimic your body’s natural hormones and throw your whole system out of whack by overstimulating cells.

When cells are overstimulated in your hormonal system (or any other system in your body), you can develop a variety of health problems like obesity, diabetes and, certain types of cancer.

Thankfully, companies are realizing their impacts and reformulating their products accordingly.

And although scientists aren’t 100% unanimous regarding the negative effects of parabens, make sure you’re being diligent and reading your ingredient list to avoid this potentially negative ingredient!

Phthalates

If you think parabens are bad, phthalates are like parabens’ messy best friend.

Phthalates are also endocrine disruptors, so similar to parabens, they can mess up your hormonal system if you’re overexposed to them.

And that’s not even the worst part. You might read a label and think: “oh, there’s no phthalates in here. This is good for me.” WRONG!

The gag is, phthalates are almost always hidden under a blanket ingredient: “fragrance”.

In the United States, there’s some leeway on how companies label their ingredients.

Phthalates are commonly used to create various smells, but because these companies don’t want to give out the exact formula of their fragrance (in case another company copies it), they can hide the fact that there are phthalates in the formula by simply labelling the entire mix of chemicals as “fragrance”.

Trifling!

A good rule of thumb is that unless it specifically states that the fragrance is from natural sources, such as essential oils, it’s most likely phthalates.

Many products, especially in the beauty world, contain phthalates, so it’s hard to avoid them.

The key here is to reduce your exposure to them. If the label doesn’t say “phlatates free” but contains fragrance, be aware that there may be phthalates in the product.

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Triclosan

Triclosan is another endocrine disruptor, but the problem with triclosan is that it’s literally everywhere. Why? Because it’s a strong antibacterial agent.

Soaps, mouthwash, toothpaste, even toys – the list goes on.

Again, with all of these chemicals, the key is limiting our exposure to it. Thankfully the FDA banned this stuff in 2017, but just to be safe, look for these triclosan-chemicals (and other antibacterial agents) in your ingredient list:

  • Triclocarbon
  • Benzalkonium chloride
  • Benzethonium chloride
  • Chlorozylenol

Estrogen

When we’re talking about the worst ingredients for natural hair, we have to talk about estrogen.

Estrogen is considered “natural” because our bodies create it. Even men have small amounts estrogen (and women have small amounts of the male-dominated testosterone).

But when we are exposed to high levels of hormones, our natural endocrine system goes out of whack. So, although we create estrogen naturally, estrogen from outside sources would be considered an endocrine disruptor.

Many estrogens are commonly found in hair dyes, relaxers and conditioning creams (think cholesterol hair masks). And, believe it or not, the estrogen is extracted from placentas.

Yes, you read that right. Placentas.

Now, intuitively you might think estrogen is good for you. Some companies market estrogen-containing products to boost collagen production and overall skin hydration.

But sis, too much of anything is never a good thing, and that is ESPECIALLY true for hormones.

A study in the US found that, in a group of about 500 people, 64% of blacks used products with estrogen in it. In contrast, 6.4% of white women had products with estrogen in it.  

Too much estrogen is a known causes of breast cancer, and studies have shown that black women get the most aggressive type of breast cancer AND are the most likely group of to die from the disease.

Think this is a coincidence?

This is a prime example of products that claim they use “all-natural” or “organic” ingredients in their formulations, but aren’t exactly telling the truth. Yes, our bodies may create estrogen, but using products with estrogen cause unnatural consequences in the future.

Toluene

Toluene is most prevalent in hair colour and hair dyes.

I don’t know about you, but if a chemical is found in my hair products AND paint thinner, I’m not using that product. That’s on periodt!

Toluene affects the respiratory system, can cause asthma, is a skin irritant and if used during pregnancy, and can cause developmental damage in the fetus.

It’s also a known neurotoxin, meaning it may have an effect on your nervous system – high exposures to toluene can result in headaches, dizziness and, at its worst, can cause vision and hearing loss.

In essence = stay away from this chemical.

Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is an effective preservative that is commonly found in keratin straightening treatments and Brazilian blowouts. It’s a big no-no in cosmetic products because it’s a known human carcinogen and a skin allergen – just a little bit of it have shown to trigger dermatitis, a chronic condition of itchy, inflamed skin.

From a hair care perspective, even a mild case of dermatitis can detriment your natural hair journey since it causes scalp inflammation, thus inflaming the follicles on your scalp which may affect hair growth.

You would think that these companies won’t put formaldehyde in their products, given how dangerous they are. But these companies are sneaky and will do whatever it takes to sell their products.

To bypass this, they put chemicals into their ingredients that will turn into formaldehyde later. How shady!

Look for these ingredients that will release formaldehyde while sitting on your shelf:

  • DMDM hydantoin
  • Imidazolidinyl urea
  • Diazolidinyl urea and imidazolididinyl urea
  • Quaternium-15
  • Bronopol (2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol )
  • 5-Bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane
  • Hydroxymethylglycinate

Methylisothiazolinone (MIT)

MIT, similar to some of the other chemicals above, is a skin irritant and can cause dermatitis.

The jury’s still out though on whether MIT is an endocrine disruptor or not. Best to play it safe and avoid it as much as possible!

Artificial/synthetic colours

Have you ever noticed that almost all drugstore conditioners are literally always white?

It’s because of artificial colours! Although they make your products look pretty, try to avoid them as they have been also known to be carcinogenic with excessive exposure. And because artificial colours are literally in everything (food, clothing, etc.), minimize your exposure to them in your cosmetics if possible.

Isopropyl Alcohol

Although there are no known adverse health effects of isopropyl alcohol, it’s detrimental to your natural hair journey.

Why? Three words: dry, dry, and dry!

When it comes to isopropyl alcohol (as well as propyl alcohol and SD alcohol), their molecules are so small (almost as small as water), they evaporate quickly, leaving your hair as dry as dust after usage.

Not all alcohols are bad though. Some alcohols, the ones that are derived from natural sources such as coconut oil, softens the hair shaft and helps the cuticle lie flat on the surface. Examples include:

  • Cetyl alcohol
  • Cetearyl alcohol
  • Stearyl alcohol
  • Lauryl alcohol

These alcohols are generally on the larger side, which gives your products slip, and it’s because of this that they are commonly used as emollient in hair conditioners and deep conditioners.

Opt for these alcohols when choosing your natural hair products!

Mineral Oil/Petroleum

Mineral oil and other petroleum-based ingredients are widespread in black hair products because they are so cheap to make.

Think about it: if you’re a company, are you going to spend more money to put in better quality, plant-based oils (like jojoba oil), or are you going to put in a cheaper, close second ingredient (like silicones) instead that have some of the same benefits?

Yes, these types of oils can make the hair feel softer and more manageable. And yes, just like plant-based oils, they can trap moisture in your hair and prevent dryness.

But it’s a trap, sis! They do nothing to treat your hair from the inside out. Plant-based oils have a colourful variety of vitamins and minerals that nourish your hair to promote moisture and length retention while mineral oils… just sit there.

And we all know that product buildup causes more dryness and damage in the future. Ain't nobody got time for that!

When reading ingredient lists, look for plant-based oils and butters like olive oil, jojoba oil and shea butter. These are the best hair oils for natural hair. And if there are mineral oils in the top ten ingredients, throw the whole product away!

The Bottom Line

There is evidence that some, if not all, of the ingredients above are detrimental to the health of our bodies.

Although there are other lifestyle factors that play a part in whether we develop these illnesses, it would be ignorant to ignore the evidence: that long-time use of these so-called “hair growth products” may result in irreversible, chronic and life-threatening illnesses down the line. Why risk it?

So now we have a general idea of the things to avoid in natural hair products. But that leaves the question – what products should we use? Here’s some guidelines when choosing your hair products:

  • Long for natural, moisturizing ingredients in the top five-six ingredients.
  • Don’t get bamboozled by the front label! If a product boosts that it is “all-natural” and contains hydrating products such as shea butter and aloe vera gel, but it’s listed as the 12th or 13th ingredient, there’s not enough of those ingredients to moisturize your hair.  
  • Avoid chemicals that are not sourced from natural products, as listed above.
  • Do your research on a product/brand before purchasing– sometimes, companies are being in active litigations for using harmful chemicals. If you see that a company is being sued, think twice about using it.

What are your list of worst ingredients for natural hair that you avoid? What are the things to avoid in natural hair products, in your opinion? Share them down below!