This year’s edition of US Hair, published by US Weekly Magazine, included a one-page feature on natural hair care, based on an interview with one cosmetic chemist. My initial optimism was quickly snuffed out when I read that apparently my hair was dirty, because I needed synthetic cleansers – specifically, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate – to effectively cleanse the mop. Say what now?
To be sure, these misconceptions aren’t limited to one magazine, making it that much more important to dispell these urban legends whenever possible. So after running my fingers through my hair to make sure I hadn’t been sporting dirty tresses for the last year (my head felt quite clean, I’m pleased to report), I called Wil Baker, co-founder of the award-winning Max Green Alchemy line of natural hair care, to see if perhaps he could help set the record straight.
“First of all, why Sodium Lauryl Sulfate?” Baker reponded when I told him of the comments made in US Hair. “Well, there are basically many detergents available with wide-ranging characteristics. The industry’s love affair with SLS is partly beacuse it is effective but also [because] it is cheap. And this is important in profit-conscious enterprises.”
Despite the US Weekly article’s insistence that SLS does the best job of cleaning hair, Baker wholeheartedly disagrees, and also points out a number of trade-offs that make SLS less than a panacea for greasy locks. “We [at Max Green Alchemy] believe that the strong degreasing action of SLS can irritate and dry the skin, hair and scalp. Sodium Laureth Sulfate is somewhat milder than Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, yet either used in shampoo can lead to episodes of dandruff or a dry flaky scalp.”
Natural shampoos use a number of sulfate-free surfectants that are easier on your hair and your skin than SLS, not to mention better for the environment. And yes, they still manage to get your hair clean. To be sure, there is yet to be a surfectant that everyone can agree on as completely safe, non-toxic and environmentally friendly. But to argue that SLS is the only effective surfectant and therefore “natural” brands won’t work is just plain silly, and a bit of a red herring. Natural hair care companies like Max Green Alchemy partner their surfectant of choice with a who’s who list of healthy, natural and organic ingredients. This is rarely the case with commercial brands.
When it comes to overall performance of hair care, the cosmetic chemist argued that synthetic technology was necessary to deliver the results we have come to expect from our shampoos and conditioners. Baker, when asked what is necessary to achieve “great performance,” boiled it down for me.
“A good shampoo will contain a combination of detergents that clean effectively, provide a satisfying foam and remain non-irritable to the scalp. [You also want] proteins and vitamins to strengthen the hair, and herbs and essential oils to maintain good scalp and hair health.”
“The current trend has conditioners based solely on plant oils like Jojoba and Shea butter. I think this is a good start with providing the hair with the nutrients for good condition.” Baker acknowledges combining these ingredients with a semi-synthetic conditioning agent like quaternary ammonium salt delivers the best results. Many commerical brands, however, rely on synthetic silicones – essentially wax and plastic fillers that smother the hair – to impart shine. Natural and organic conditioners use vitamin-packed plant and vegetable oils to actually give us healthy hair, rather than merely mimic it.
Finding natural and organic hair care that delivers stellar results has never been easier, despite what US Hair would have us believe. Max Green Alchemy’s Scalp Rescue Conditioner won Elle Magazine’s Green Beauty Award this year, and both are an equally stellar $15. Other top picks include Rare El’ements, John Masters, BeeCeuticals, and Intelligent Nutrients.
The moral of the story? Don’t be deceived by magazines who are under pressure to heavily promote their sponsors, perhaps at the expense of smaller companies that don’t have million dollar ad budgets. When it comes to clean, healthy hair, synthetic ingredients are designed to mimic natural ones, not the other way around. As Baker put it, “the fact remains that nature is the greatest inspiration to personal care ingredient researchers. However, when nature has pointed the way, profit-driven enterprises will always perfer the ingredients to be made synthetically and, therefore, more cheaply.”