The Best Cocamidopropyl Betaine Free Dandruff Shampoos


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 primarlly try to choose the gentlest shamopoos 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 synthesised on an industrial scale from fatty acids in coconut oil and dimethylaminopropylamine (DMAPA) [1]. 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 [2]. 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 [5].

The exact prevalence of CAPB sensitivity isn’t known, but it’s thought to be around 3 to 7% [6]. 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 synthesised 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 [7].

Even more shockingly, you’ll see the ingredient added to shampoos labelled as hypoallergenic.

The sooner we see labelling 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.

1 Coco-glucoside

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 a 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 [8].

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 Specialities Free & Clear Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis, Dry Scalp and Psoriasis

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.

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BIOM8 Skin Conditioning Oil

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis, Dry Scalp

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!

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Nurture My Body Everyday Fragrance Free Shampoo

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.

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DHS Fragrance Free Tar Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis and Psoriasis

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.

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Eucerin Dermocapillaire Calming Urea Scalp Treatment

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.

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DHS Sal Dandruff Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis and Psoriasis

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.

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Cleure Volumizing Shampoo

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.

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Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis

Nizoral is probably the most effective shampoo on the market to control seborrhoeic dermatitis.

It is still my go to shampoo if I suffer from a bad breakout.

The 2% edition is by far the best but the 1% can help too.

However, the 2% formulation can and does control severe cases of seb derm.

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E45 Dry Scalp Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis, Dry Scalp

E45 is a brand synonymous with dry skin care.

If you frequently get dry scalps after washing then this shampoo could be an excellent choice.

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Aubrey Organics Green Tree Clarifying Shampoo

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.

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Selsun 2.5% Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis

My other go to shampoo when I have a severe breakout.

Not perfect by any means and remains prescription only in the USA.

There's a reasons why doctors continue to prescribe it - it works.

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DHS Zinc Dandruff Shampoo

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; TEA Lauryl 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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Kiehl's Scalp Purifying Dandruff Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis

Kiehl's Scalp Purifying Dandruff Shampoo is a combination shampoo, combining zinc pyrithione and salicylic acid in one excellent but gentle shampoo.

It's the first zinc pyrithione shampoo that has controlled my moderate to occasionally severe dandruff in years - the addition of salicylic acid definitely helps.

Be warned though, long term usage could dry your scalp.

There are one or two unpleasant ingredients in there but if you don't react to perfume or sulfates then this is definitely worth checking out.

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Bioderma Node P Apaisant Anti-Dandruff Shampoo for Sensitive Scalps

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis

Bioderma Node P Apaisant Anti-Dandruff Soothing Shampoo is a fabulous option for sensitive, irritated conditions of mild to moderate dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis. With a combination of 2 anti-dandruff actives and dry flake busting salicylic acid, its overall efficacy is excellent. It washes and smells great and if it weren't for the presence of fragrances and silicones it would be an almost perfect sensitive scalp friendly formulation.

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Sebamed Everyday Shampoo

Designed to treat Dry Scalp

Sebamed is one of our favorite manufacturers and they've largely done it again.

All in all we recommend this shampoo, with reservations, for everyday use for normal skin, dry scalps, and sensitive skin. The reservations are the addition of 3 known contact allergens; Fragrance, Propylene Glycol and Phenoxyethanol.

Unfortunately, there aren’t too many shampoos out there that gently clean the hair effectively and add shine and softness, without including a handful of potential irritants.

Compared to most on the market, Sebamed has done a good job.

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Ketozal 2% Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis

The Ketozal 2% anti-dandruff shampoo would be very effective for severe cases of seb derm and dandruff. A generic of doctor prescribed 2% ketoconazole shampoos, Ketozal 2% is cheaper and arguably (although not clinically proven) as effective. This is the caveat of all generic medicines.

A great stand-by for severe dandruff and seb derm flares.

Pro-tip: You’ll probably need conditioner on hand.

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Ketozolin 2% Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis

If you have a moderate to severe case of dandruff caused by Seborrheic Dermatitis, purchasing the Ketozolin 2% shampoo is potentially a wise decision. It has the maximum EU allowed dose of anti-fungal ketoconazole – effective against the overgrowth of Malassezia yeast seen in cases of seb derm and dandruff. It can be used to clear dandruff within a week and it can be used to prevent dandruff recurrence when used once weekly.

However, it does contain one or two harsh ingredients, including SLS and a formaldehyde releaser. So use with caution if you have a sensitive scalp.

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Alphosyl 2 in 1 Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis and Psoriasis

Alphosyl is an outstanding shampoo let down by the presence of both sulfates and parabens.

Given the wide variety of alternatives out there these days, this is very disappointing.

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Polytar Liquid

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis and Psoriasis

Polytar is an absolute legend of the psoriasis community.

If you suffer from mild scalp Psoriasis then this stuff works for so many of you.

Bear in mind that it stinks like your grandad's pipe and will strip your hair and scalp of their natural oils.

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Skinchanted Peek A Poo No Poo Dry Scalp Treatment

Designed to treat Dry Scalp

Almost world class and a very interesting concept - a commercial bottle of a No Poo treatment. Unfortunately there is a commercial grade preservative and anti-mold agent in there.

Skinchanted Peek a Poo really ought to be called "Nearly No Poo".

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[1] Angelini, G., Foti, C., Rigano, L., & Vena, G. A. (1995). 3‐Dimethylaminopropylamine: a key substance in contact allergy to cocamidopropylbetaine?. Contact Dermatitis, 32(2), 96-99.

[2] Lomax, E. G. (Ed.). (1996). Amphoteric surfactants (Vol. 59). CRC Press.

[3] Khan, B. A., Akhtar, N., Khan, H. M. S., Waseem, K., Mahmood, T., Rasul, A., & Khan, H. (2011). Basics of pharmaceutical emulsions: A review. African Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology, 5(25), 2715-2725.

[4] Jacob, S. E., & Amini, S. (2008). Cocamidopropyl betaine. Dermatitis, 19(3), 157-160.

[5] Jacob, S. E., Brod, B., & Crawford, G. H. (2008). Clinically relevant patch test reactions in children—a United States based study. Pediatric Dermatology, 25(5), 520-527.

[6] Schnuch, A., Lessmann, H., Geier, J., & Uter, W. (2011). Is cocamidopropyl betaine a contact allergen? Analysis of network data and short review of the literature. Contact Dermatitis, 64(4), 203-211.

[7] Foti, C., Bonamonte, D., Mascolo, G., Corcelli, A., Lobasso, S., Rigano, L., & Angelini, G. (2003). The role of 3‐dimethylaminopropylamine and amidoamine in contact allergy to cocamidopropylbetaine. Contact Dermatitis, 48(4), 194-198.

[8] Tai, L. H. T., & Nardello-Rataj, V. (2001). Detergents-Detergents The main surfactants used in detergents and personal care products. Oléagineux, Corps Gras, Lipides, 8(2), 141-144.

Comments 2

  1. Amy May 25, 2017
    • Chris Challis May 27, 2017

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