It's a beautiful morning, you just got out of the shower where you spent quite some time shampooing, conditioning, and deep masking. You finish drying up your hair only to discover that once again it feels brittle and frizzy. Your split ends are more visible than ever. You wonder what you might be doing wrong. It certainly can't be your conditioner or mask as they were carefully selected to add a boost of hydration to your hair, so...it must be your shampoo?
Whenever we're not happy about a particular aspect of our body, it's extremely easy for us to first think about additional products to purchase that will deliver a desired or outstanding result. This is how we've been educated by the beauty industry. There must be something you haven't yet tried, a holy grail to make your hair fuller and shinier, right?
There are several factors that contribute to healthy hair. Both external and internal. Before purchasing new products, you should always consider a few basics on internal factors that might be affecting your hair quality:
Good, balanced nutrition is key to beautiful skin and hair. You need to make sure your body is getting all the right proteins and vitamins to properly function. If your diet is not balanced or is missing key nutrients, it could even lead to hair loss.
Deficiencies in vitamins A, B, C, D, E, zinc, iron, or essential fatty acids, can definitely compromise the quality of your hair, and while it's important to ensure you get all the right vitamins, it's equally important to consult with a specialist before taking any supplements, which takes us to the next point:
If you already have a balanced diet but notice your hair is falling more than usual or it feels weak or dry, there might be another internal imbalance or underlying condition to pay attention to.
In such cases, it's key to consult a specialist. A general practitioner would be able to conduct any blood work to look for cues or put you in touch with a specialist to treat your condition appropriately and effectively. For instance, the treatment of iron deficiency always needs to be consulted with and supervised by a doctor.
Besides what might be going on inside of your body, there are other external factors to consider when aiming for healthy hair:
Do you use heat stylers daily? Do you blow-dry your hair after every time you wash it? If you do, while not using good quality heat protectants, you might be ruining your hair. We know it's difficult to get by without using these tools but give it a try! Try to use them less regularly and look out for improvements in your hair condition.
Let's talk about the usual suspects: Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) and Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS). Why are they part of shampoo formulations? To make these products more effective at cleansing dirt and build-up. However, when concentrations of these agents are high, they can strip away your hair's proteins and natural oils. A 2005 study (linked below) showed that using sulfates on a regular basis will cause hair opacity, combing difficulties, and split ends. Sulfates can also be damaging to your scalp by causing irritation, dryness, or redness.
While sulfates might work well for some people, you should definitely try to avoid them if you have sensitive skin, rosacea, or dry, brittle hair, which is prone to breakage. We recommend using shampoo with sulfates only when necessary (for instance, once a month) to clarify and get rid of build-up generated by other products of your routine, which include silicones or oils.
So...what's the alternative? Sulfate-free shampoos!
They exist and they're very good at cleansing without damaging your hair. Because they tend to be softer and less foaming, people usually think these products are less effective, but that's not the case as the formulations still include similar, yet less aggressive cleansing agents. I've been using sulfate-free shampoos for quite a while now and can totally recommend them, especially if you've treated your hair with Keratin, as these products will make the effects of the treatment last longer.
The straightforward definition of water hardness is the concentration of dissolved magnesium and calcium it contains (among others). Hard water will have higher volumes of such minerals...and it will make your hair more prone to breakage and dullness. It will also affect the color and texture of your hair by causing fading and dryness. And due to the excess mineral buildup, it will eventually lead to frizz.
But how come? Aren't humans supposed to need magnesium and calcium for healthy living? Eh...yes but not exactly. Drinking hard waters might contribute to the overall mineral intake and be important for people with deficiencies, but it affects your hair differently. In hard water, because soap reacts with the calcium, more quantity or stronger detergent agents will be needed to get things clean. And as you just read, strong detergent agents can be damaging to your hair.
So...how do you find out the water hardness in your area? Through our friend Google! Local governments normally include information around this topic on their websites.
If you just found out your water is hard or very hard, you might want to look into purchasing a water softener for your shower. It's essentially a filter that will retain the majority of these minerals. They're widely available online and will definitely make a difference!
There's been a shift in how consumers buy cosmetics. Lately, it's all about digging into the ingredient lists or formulations, avoiding silicones, and staying away from harsh or drying ingredients. Often ignored, the pH of a product measures how acidic the solution is, and SURPRISE! is one of the variables that mostly affects your hair and its quality.
Image source: Vecteezy
How? The pH of hair sits around 3.5 – 4.5 and around 5.5 for the scalp. A study showed that using a product with a higher pH, on the alkaline side, can increase the negative electrical charge of the hair fiber surface, and therefore increase friction between the fibers. This may lead to cuticle damage and fiber breakage.
In summary, your hair and scalp are quite acidic, so in an ideal scenario, your hair products would have a pH level between 3.5 - 5.5 or close to that. Yet, a product's pH level is rarely disclosed by manufacturers, and most drugstore shampoos have a pH level of over 5.5. In quite some instances, the pH sits around 6 - 7, and while it's marketed as "neutral", it's actually too harsh for your hair. Isn't that crazy?
So...how do we fix this? Let's start by finding out the pH of your shampoo. If you're lucky, you might find a reference value in this database. Otherwise, you may have to purchase a pH tester. They're quite cheap, widely available online, and sometimes sold over the counter in pharmacies.
If the pH of your shampoo is above 5.5, I would recommend switching to a more acidic version.
If you've already consulted with a specialist, ruled out any internal health imbalances, and would like to explore softer yet effective shampoos, here you have our recommendations:
Shea Moisture 100% Virgin Coconut Oil Daily Hydration Shampoo
Contains SLS/SLES: No
Contains Silicones: No
Good actives: Coconut Oil, Coconut milk and Acacia Senegal
pH: Balanced (5 - 6.8)
What I like about this product: While its main actives are essentially surfactants (for cleansing), the formulation also includes Shea Butter, Aloe Vera, Rosehip Oil, Panthenol, Argan Oil, and Almond Oil, which are all good hydrating and soothing ingredients to see in hair care products. Additionally, the product is suitable for several hair types, from 1A to 4C.
What I like about the brand: SheaMoisture is the legacy of a mother and entrepreneur, who sold Shea Butter and homemade beauty preparations in Sierra Leone in 1912. The brand honors her vision by continuing to formulate with raw, fair trade shea butter, handcrafted by women in Africa. They have multiple programs in place to re-invest company profits back into the community and they take a stand for diversity and inclusion by providing products for all types of bodies and hair types.
NAÏF Nourishing Shampoo
Contains SLS/SLES: No
Contains Silicones: No
Good actives: Glycerin, Linseed Extract
pH: Low (4,8 – 5,3)
What I like about this product: Its main actives are essentially surfactants (for cleansing), and Linseed extract (protective and soothing). The product has minimal ingredients and its pH level sits within a good range.
What I like about the brand: When Jochem and Sjoerd both became fathers for the first time in 2013, they discovered that even baby care contained harmful ingredients. So they created Naïf: a natural, reliable skincare brand with no-nonsense for babies, but also adults. Their goal: to make the very best care products that are kind to the skin and nature. Additionally, the company invests in social responsibility projects and processes around ingredient sourcing, packaging, and distribution.
Matrix Biolage R.A.W Nourish Shampoo
Contains SLS/SLES: No
Contains Silicones: No
Good Actives: Honey and Quinoa Husk
pH: Low (4 - 5)
What I like about this product: It contains up to 86% natural origin ingredients, it has one of the lowest pH levels I've observed for accessible professional products, while still being within the affordable range (i.e way cheaper than other salon alternatives). The product includes no artificial colorants and it comes in a 95% recycled plastic bottle.
What I like about the brand: Biolage is a pioneering salon brand not only using botanical ingredients but believing in the power of nature for the wellbeing of stylists and clients. The company has several pledges for sustainability along formulation, manufacturing, plastics usage, and giving back to the environment.
As you can see, there are several agents, which can damage or contribute to an unhealthy state of your hair. Some of these factors are internal and some others external. While it's relatively easy to be familiar with how sulfates or heat styling can make your hair dry and brittle, did you know that nutrition, water hardness, and product pH played such an important role? Let us know in the comments.
I am not an expert, I just researched this topic from a place of personal interest. If I used incorrect terminology or expressed something incorrectly, please feel free to let me know.