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If you glance at the ingredient label of your favourite shampoo, it’s likely that you’ll find at least one alcohol-based item without straining your eyes. They are nigh on ubiquitous, even in ‘natural’ shampoos. There are tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of web searches every month looking for “alcohol free shampoos”. Unfortunately for them, there are two main types of alcohol found in shampoos. One you want to avoid and one you want to use.
In this article we’ll explore the purpose and drawbacks of each type, as well as the alternatives if you want to avoid alcohols altogether.
Why are alcohols added to shampoo?
Alcohols are primarily used in shampoos as non-ionic emulsifiers, essential for keeping the ingredients mixed together in a cream or lotion . Without an emulsifier, the ingredients would separate based on their solubility in water or oil, which would leave a highly undesirable product, similar in texture to curdled milk.
Note: the functionality of an –alcohol group can be used to modify the solubility of other ingredients. An example of this would be the secondary alcohol sulfates, which act primarily as surfactants (e.g. sodium sec‐lauryl sulfate) . In this review, we’ll focus on the alcohols used as emulsifiers.
Which alcohols are found in shampoo?
There are two main types of alcohol found in shampoos: ‘short chain’ and longer chain ‘fatty’ alcohols.
Short chain alcohols are commonly found in products that need to evaporate quickly, such as perfumes and hairsprays. They aren’t overly common in shampoos, primarily because they are extremely water soluble, and so rapidly draw moisture from your hair . Examples include:
- SD alcohol 40
- isopropyl alcohol
Fatty alcohols are more commonly found in shampoos, as they have a less severe drying effect – and can conversely help to retain moisture . Fatty alcohols are found naturally in some plants, such as coconuts, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that those found in your shampoo are ‘natural’. It’s more common for them to be manufactured synthetically on an industrial scale . Fatty alcohols are easy to identify on ingredient labels, as they all have similar names:
- cetyl alcohol
- cetearyl alcohol
- stearyl alcohol
- myristyl alcohol.
The alcohols found in shampoos can be neatly summarised, by saying that:
- short chain alcohols will draw moisture out of your hair
- fatty alcohols are moisturising
Of course there’s an exception. In this case, ‘benzyl alcohol’ is a fatty alcohol but is extremely irritating to the scalp. It’s actually Benzyl alcohol is an incredibly popular ingredient that manufacturers love, but it will normally be one of the last ingredients as it’s used as a preservative in low concentrations. If it’s any higher on the ingredient list, then you might want to consider avoiding the product altogether! .
What are the drawbacks?
Short chain alcohols have a number of downsides, but this is one of the reasons they aren’t routinely added to shampoos. They can be irritating, leading to contact dermatitis, and are known to remove the moisture from hair with repeated use . If you find a shampoo with short chain alcohols high on the ingredient list, then they should probably be avoided.
Fatty alcohols have generally less negative publicity, but they can still cause irritation with repeated use. Cetearyl alcohol is a known allergen, which can present as severe contact dermatitis of unidentified cause (although this is more likely with cetearyl alcohol creams and bandages) . Alarmingly, many fatty alcohols are derived directly from palm oil, which is linked with deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change, and abuse of native populations .
What are the alternatives?
So fatty alcohols are the ‘good’ alcohols, but are still derived from palm oil, which has a devastating impact on the environment and local communities – is there an alternative? Firstly, you can find ‘certified sustainable’ products that only use sustainable palm oil derived fatty alcohols, but you will need to research the awarding organisation to make sure it’s credible. There are also several alternatives to fatty alcohol emulsifiers:
Lecithin is a mixture of fats found in plant material, and acts as an effective emulsifier. The composition differs depending on the source, for example: soybean, rapeseed, or sunflowers. Like many ‘natural’ emulsifiers, the source can sound good, but the industrial process used to extract the material is not. In this case, non-polar solvents such as hexane and benzene are used to recover lecithin from plant material .
2. Emulsifying Wax
You’ll see this used by a lot of smaller manufacturers or hoe crafters of shampoos. That’s because its incredibly easy to get hold of and easy to use too.
3. Xanthan Gum
One of my personal favorites, this fermented ingredient is actually a naturally forming bacteria. You can produce it from whey – the leftovers from cheese. I wish this stuff was more widely used!
4. Non-chemical emulsification
It’s possible to avoid chemical emulsifiers entirely by applying enough heat and mechanical energy. This is the gold standard in emusifying a shampoo, but is isn’t industry standard because it’s expensive. The emulsified product is likely to separate over time (vastly reducing shelf lives) . Anyone that has ever bought expensive peanut butter knows that all you have to do to restore the emulsion is stir or shake the product – but very few shampoos ask you to use this technique. I wish they would personally. Wouldn’t you rather shake your bottle than have emulsifying chemicals added to save you the hassle?
Where can I find dandruff shampoos without alcohol
Before we show you our current top ten, if you want to search for an alcohol free dandruff shampoo yourself, browse over to our dandruff shampoo search. Select what causes your dandruff and indicate that you wish to find all shampoos that don’t contain Alcohol as shown below.
Note, the only alcohols you’ll be avoiding are benzyl and the short chains!
The best alcohol free dandruff shampoos
Pharmaceutical Specialties formed in 1974 to “start a company to make better products than were commercially available for people with sensitive skin”. And boy, have they achieved it with this Free and Clear shampoo.
What is perhaps surprising on a website dedicated to dandruff treatments is that this isn’t a dandruff shampoo at all.
It’s rather a "a non-medicated, mild shampoo for sensitive skin and scalp.”
That said, we can’t use a medicated shampoo all the time, and this is my go to shampoo for those “between” washes.Read the entire review
BIOM8 Skin Conditioning Oil is now part of my daily skin care routine. It’s as simple as that. I have lost count of the number of products I’ve reviewed over the years and I can count on one hand the number of products that have impacted me on this level.
If you suffer from dry skin, facial seb derm or rosacea I simply can’t recommend this product highly enough.
It even makes a good beard oil!Read the entire review
Designed to treat Dry Scalp
Maple Holistics Hydrate Shampoo has been superbly formulated to soothe and moisturize the scalp and hair. The ingredients have been carefully selected to decrease the chance that the product will irritate the skin. Using multiple low dose surfactants is a stroke of genius and only the fact the shampoo contains only one potential contact allergen says it all.
This is as close to perfection as you get in the commercial shampoo world.
I simply can't recommend this highly enough.Read the entire review
Designed to treat Dry Scalp
Nurture My Body Everyday Fragrance-Free Shampoo is an excellent gentle option for sufferers of a dry irritated scalp. The absence of any noteworthy irritants or allergens combined with the expert formulation of anti-inflammatory moisturizing ingredients makes an excellent change from the usual harsh surfactants and other toxins that lead to a vicious cycle of irritation and inflammation.
They've managed all of this in a shampoo that foams and washes well.
It's not particularly cheap, but this is simply one of the finest dry scalp shampoos out there.Read the entire review
Calling all sensitive scalp sufferers, if you haven’t yet found an anti-dandruff shampoo your scalp can tolerate, you haven’t yet found Sebclair shampoo. A piroctone olamine, Malassezia yeast quelling formula with extremely mild yet highly effective cleansers, accompanying scalp hydrators, flake fighters and natural anti-inflammatories. No fragrance, no essentials oils, no allergens. Sebclair shampoo really does stand out in our anti-dandruff crowd.Read the entire review
If your babe’s crusty cradle cap’s only getting worse, it’s time to try a leave on treatment – one which doesn’t leave your baby’s scalp looking like a grease ball. Enter Bioderma’s ABDderm Babysquam keratoregulating cream a 14 ingredient formula made from sensitive, hypoallergenic, moisturising, soothing and barrier building ingredients.
Useable 7 days a week with no fragrance or harsh preservatives Bioderma’s ABDderm Babysquam keratoregulating cream respects, repairs and conditions away crusty cradle cap.Read the entire review
Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis
One of the best and mildest shampoos out there for seb derm sufferers with sensitive skin.
Containing both Piroctone Olamine and Salicylic Acid as well as being SLS free, paraben free, artificial color free this shampoo has an absolutely outstanding choice of active and inactive ingredients.
There are still two or three chemicals in there that some may find irritating. Otherwise this would have been a five out of five performer.Read the entire review
Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis
Sebamed is one of the gentle yet most effective seb derm shampoos available.
The active ingredient is Piroctine Olamine - an excellent anti-fungal agent.
The rest of the shampoo has been formulated with panache.Read the entire review
DHS Coal Tar Shampoo is an expertly formulated shampoo containing 0.5% coal tar and is the gentlest coal tar shampoo we’ve yet reviewed
We can't recommend this product or this company highly enough.Read the entire review
Quite simply the best pure Salicylic Acid shampoo we’ve yet reviewed. The shampoo contains 3% Salicylic Acid combined with a fragrance free, sulfate free and virtually every other nasty ingredient free formulation. It does this and still feels luxurious when washing.
Neutrogena should be exceptionally proud of this top top class shampoo.Read the entire review
If you haven’t seen your favorite alcohol free shampoo listed, chances are we’ve already reviewed and it can be found if you check out all our alcohol free dandruff shampoo reviews.
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Master of Pharmacy
Ethan graduated a number of years ago after studying pharmacy in the UK, and is now a practicing pharmacist by day.
By night he writes the most stunning articles on a whole range of pharmaceutical subjects both here, and on our sister site at safehouseholdcleaning.com