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Of all the contact irritants/allergens we’ve encountered over the years, Cocamidopropyl Betaine is easily the most common. An incredible 58% of the shampoos we’ve reviewed contains the ingredient. Which is all the more astonishing as we primarily try to choose the gentlest shampoos out there. I expect the percentage will be far higher if we chose a random sample of shampoos from the pharmacy.
In this article, we’ll take a look at what Cocamidopropyl Betaine is, why it’s added to shampoos, the risks involved with using it before looking at our favorite Cocamidopropyl Betaine free anti-dandruff shampoos on the market today.
What is Cocamidopropyl Betaine?
Cocamidopropyl betaine (CAPB) is a surfactant found in almost all shampoos. It’s synthesized on an industrial scale from fatty acids in coconut oil and dimethylaminopropylamine (DMAPA) . We’ve covered why surfactants are are added to shampoos and how they work in a previous article, but to briefly summarise:
- surfactants have a long molecular chain that doesn’t like water (hydrophobic), and an end that loves water (hydrophilic)
- they are long molecules and so can wrap around dirt and grease
- this makes dirt and grease more water soluble, so can be washed away
CAPB has a similar molecular structure to other surfactants, but is relatively weak . It’s normally added to shampoos with stronger surfactants, and so isn’t responsible for the main cleaning duties. Instead, as a ‘secondary surfactant’, CAPB alters the characteristics of the shampoo.
Why is it added to shampoos?
A shampoo has a number of characteristics that aren’t necessarily related to how well it cleans hair. Cosmetics companies can add CAPB to shampoos as: an emulsifying agent to combine ingredients with different solubilities; a foam-booster to increase the lather when rubbed into hair; a viscosity modifier to increase the thickness of a shampoo; or to reduce the concentrations of stronger surfactants, making a shampoo milder to the skin [3,4].
It’s essentially impossible to tell from the ingredient label which of these properties is being utilised by a secondary surfactant, and it’s likely to be a combination of several. CAPB can also be used as a ‘primary surfactant’ in higher concentrations, and this is typically seen in shampoos that are marketed as ‘mild’ or for ‘sensitive skin’.
Are there any risks?
CAPB is a common trigger for eczema, psoriasis, rosacea, contact dermatitis as well as eye irritation. It is such a prevelant trigger that CAPB was awarded the American Contact Dermatitis Society’s ‘Allergen of the Year’ in 2004, due to increasing sensitivity rates .
The exact prevalence of CAPB sensitivity isn’t known, but it’s thought to be around 3 to 7% . Such a high rate is unexpected given that CAPB is a mild surfactant, and so much of the scientific scrutiny has focused on the manufacturing process.
CAPB is synthesized from a combination of chloroacetic acid, DMAPA, and lauric acid (which can be obtained from coconut oil). Amazingly, you’ll often see the ingredient referred to as natural. This process is a world away from ‘natural’. Yes, the process does involve coconut oil but…
It’s thought the many of the cases reported as CAPB-sensitivity, are in fact due to contaminant DMAPA – which is known to be a strong irritant, and cause of contact dermatitis .
Even more shockingly, you’ll see the ingredient added to shampoos labeled as hypoallergenic.
The sooner we see labeling standards the better.
Alternatives to Cocamidopropyl Betaine
CAPB is important in shampoos because it allows for lower concentrations of primary surfactants (which are supposed to be stronger irritants). Most CAPB-irritation is due to contaminant DMAPA, and so the solution for people looking for an alternative is a shampoo that uses another secondary surfactant.
Coco-glucoside, like Cocamidopropyl Betaine, is commonly used as a secondary surfactant. The Duhring Chamber Test lists it as having the lowest irritation score of all common surfactants . It’s so gentle you’ll commonly see it in baby products.
2 Cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine
This mild surfactant gently cleanses your skin/hair and is seen more and more in shampoos and soaps – particularly moisturizing ones.
3 Disodium cocoamphodiacetate
Disodium cocoamphodiacetate is another mild surfactant, with similar properties to Cocamidopropyl Betaine. However, this ingredient adds moisturizing and conditioning properties and can be used as a very gentle cleanser for sensitive skin, babies, and facial products
Note, all surfactants will have some association with contact dermatitis – but these three have a much lower rate of irritation than Cocamidopropyl Betaine .
The Best Cocamidopropyl Betaine Free Dandruff Shampoos
With so few shampoos coco-betaine free on the market, we were pretty pleased to have reviewed 9 which are scored either 4/5 or above. These are seriously good shampoos we’re talking here.
To find the latest CAPB free shampoo reviews you can always search for all cocamidopropyl betaine free shampoos (make sure you check the box to avoid shampoos that contain the ingredient!).
At the time of writing though, here’s our favorites:
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Designed to treat Dry Scalp
This dry scalp treatment isn’t a shampoo at all, but rather a leave on moisturizer that you apply to your hair after washing.
The advantage of this approach is that, while shampoos are designed to clean (and all the sensitizing issues that come with that) this treatment is designed to moisturize and nothing else.
You’re free to use the shampoo of your choice and us this treatment in combination.
It’s an excellent approach that I hope other manufacturers take notice of.
DHS Sal Shampoo is a 3% salicylic acid shampoo designed to treat Psoriasis and Seborrheic Dermatitis.
It’s an outstanding shampoo that washes well, contains relatively few ingredients, is gentle and won’t break the bank.
If you’re not sensitive to sulfates and are looking for a good salicylic acid shampoo, this is an excellent performer.
Yet again, DHS have produced a shampoo that we can't recommend highly enough.
Designed to treat Dry Scalp
Cleure Volumizing uses only a handful of skin conditioning agents and gentle cleansers to treat a dry scalp.
It contains only two potential irritants that should be considered low to moderate concerns, compared to other much harsher alternatives. This shampoo doesn’t use any sulfates, parabens, artificial fragrances, dyes, alcohol, salicylates, formaldehyde, or SLS, making it a good option for those with sensitive scalps who typically react to less gentle, conventional shampoo and other personal care products.
Unless you have severely sensitive skin and are highly reactive to any potential irritants, we suggest trying this shampoo from Cleure and seeing if it calms your sensitive skin, and helps to clear up any dryness and itchiness on your scalp.
Puracy Citrus Mint Natural Shampoo offers a great natural alternative to the many sulfate laden shampoos on the market today. Whether you are looking for an everyday use shampoo, or one that you can rotate your medicated dandruff shampoo with, we’d recommend trying the Natural Shampoo.
Because there are essential oils in the formula, we recommend caution to anyone who is sensitive to fragrances, or sensitive or allergic to any of the ingredients.
Otherwise, you’re looking at an expertly formulated shampoo that, for once, lives up to the manufacturer’s promises.
Sebclair Non-Steroidal Cream is an anti-fungal, piroctone olamine based treatment partnered with a trophy cabinet of natural anti-inflammatory actives. If you have a mild to moderate case of seb derm, hate steroids and love naturals Sebclair is for you. Best bit – there’s only two known allergens or irritants.
Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis
Do you have an extremely sensitive scalp in need of anti-dandruff help? Do you suffer from mild to moderate seb derm? Meet your new best friend. Free & Clear’s Medicated Anti-Dandruff Shampoo contains zero allergens, zero irritants, zero sensitizers formula based on 2% zinc pyrithione. An active ingredient able to improve the health of dandruff affected skin while also helping pacify dandruff causing overgrowths of the Malassezia yeast.
I simply can't recommend this shampoo highly enough.
Did you know using natural oils could be making your baby’s cradle cap last for longer? Instead, we recommend placing your trust in clinically trialed baby-friendly formulas able to effectively tackle the cause of your baby’s cradle cap – excess scalp oil. Case and point, ultra-mild Dentinox Cradle Cap Treatment Shampoo, an 8 ingredient formula proven safe and effective for everyday use.
Tired of testing out cradle cap shampoos which just don’t budge your babe’s crusty dry scalp? Then you need a cradle cap shampoo with active ingredients proven to work. Enter Babe Laboratorios Paediatric Cradle Cap Shampoo a 4 active ingredient formula including 0.5% scalp softening salicylic acid plus a boosting active able to make your 0.5% dose work harder than its quantity would usually dictate. For use 2 to 3 times a week, the gentle shampoo formula cleanses carefully, treats sensitively and works simply.
Anti-cradle cap shampoos designed to be used from the very first day of your babe’s life are hard to come by. And in the promise of finding one, you want to be 100% sure of its safety. Mustela foam shampoo for newborns is a diamond in the rough, featuring well proven anti-cradle cap/anti-dandruff actives with above and beyond safety testing in a daily use formula.
It is worth bearing in mind that it isn't fragrance-free, and salicylic acid can cause dryness after prolonged usage. But as a treatment to combat established doses of cradle cap - you'll struggle to find a more effective treatment on the market.
Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis
Nizoral is probably the most effective shampoo on the market to control dandruff caused by seb derm. It's technically a medicine and is one of few anti-dandruff shampoos approved to make healthcare claims i.e. to treat and prevent dandruff. With a 2% dose of anti-fungal ketoconazole mixed into an 11 ingredient fragrance-free formula, if you suffer from moderate to severe seb derm – it’s a must try. Studies show significant and dramatic improvements in 30 days.
Designed to treat Product Build Up
A gentle clarifying shampoo may sound like a contradiction in terms, but Aubrey Organics have done a fantastic job formulating a clarifying shampoo with mild ingredients.
It’s possibly the gentlest clarifying shampoo we’ve reviewed yet.
It smells nice, it will clarify your scalp, it will help remove dandruff caused by product build up.
But this comes at a cost – it will dry your scalp if used too much.
Like all clarifying shampoos – use absolutely only when needed.
Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis
DHS Zinc Dandruff Shampoo is yet another top class shampoo from DHS.
Yes there are two ingredients to watch out for; Sodium Laureth Sulfate and Perfume.
But other than the sulfate and the fragrance there are remarkably only another 5 ingredients in this shampoo (discounting the zinc pyrithione). And one of them is coloring!
I wish every manufacturer would subscribe to the more is less philosophy of shampoo formulation.
If you're looking for a shampoo to treat a mild case of seb derm, you can't go wrong with this one.
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