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An "Organic" Shampoo Exposed

Organic fakers can be very tricky and hard to spot. There's a certain brand of shampoo out there (which shall remain nameless) about which we have received a lot of questions over the last two years. Me and my team are on the case; wait to you see what we found out!  

At first glance, their ingredients look fine. 

Ingredients: Purified Water, Olive Oil (and) Coconut Oil (and) Potassium Lactate, Vegetable Glycerin, Peppermint Oil*, Fennel Extract*, Hops Extract, Balm Mint Extract, Olive Leaf Extract*, Ginger Extract*, Mistletoe Extract*, Allantonin (Comfrey Root), Citric Acid, Niacin (Vitamin B3), Lemon Grass Oil*, Burdock Root Extract*, Sage Extract*, Rosemary Extract*, Grape Seed Extract*. *Certified Organic Herb

Just some oils, water, and a bunch of extracts.  But, looking more closely at this ingredients list, one problem stood out at me. How does this product lather?  It's seemingly just a blend of herbal extracts (none of which are known to have saponins or any natural lathering agents), water, and oil. It should look and act like salad dressing! 

The shampoo is a thick gel-like consistency with a slight pearlescence.So, I decided, it was time to investigate.  I ordered some of their shampoo.  The consistency was that of a typical shampoo, a thick gel-like consistency with an interesting pearlescence.  It lathered moderately (not as much as a conventional one would) and rinsed well.  But, the ingredients were still baffling.  What was the active cleansing agent?

I thought initially that perhaps the coconut and olive oil were saponified oils (soap).  If they were, the pH of the shampoo would be alkaline, so I tested it: slightly acidic.  If you try to make a soap acidic, it turns in to a goopy, mushy mess.  A soap has to be alkaline in order to act like soap.  So, that ruled out it being a soap.

Potassium lactate is a salt that is sold in a water-based solution. It has no lathering or cleansing properties.The company claims that the potassium lactate works together with the oils to create lather.  So, I got my hands on a bottle of potassium lactate so I could do some experimenting. But first, I needed to figure out how much to add.  I sent a bottle of the shampoo to my friend who works as an environmental chemist.  He was also baffled by the ingredients list and how they didn't match up with the physical properties of the shampoo.  He suggested doing what they call a full metals test.  This would test all of the levels of metals (potassium is considered a metal.)

What came back from the lab surprised us both.  Only 34 parts per million of potassium.  That's .0034% potassium.  To give you perspective, for a 16 oz bottle of shampoo, that would be .016 ml.  Practically 1/5th of a drop! First of all, potassium lactate isn't a lathering agent. Second, there's no way that something in such a miniscule concentration would cause a product to lather up.

But wait.  There's more.  

The test also found 9180 ppm of sodium, and 4170 ppm of sulfur. In practical terms the formula is 1% sodium and .5% sulfur.  Where is this coming from?!  None of the other ingredients would provide sodium or sulphur. (E-mail me if you're interested in my detailed analysis, I have an ingredient-by-ingredient breakdown that is too long to publish here.) Well, without an answer to the sodium and sulphur mystery, let's move on to another issue.  

One thing that our test told us was that the formula was 60% water.  Let's assume that everything is correctly labeled from the most abundant ingredient to the least.  Peppermint essential oil, like I mentioned, would be used at around 1%.  That means that all of those extracts listed after the mint only make up a very small amount of the formula, at less tan 1% each. Let's say that peppermint eo is 1% and the rest of the extracts and additives after it comprise a total of 5% of the formulation.  

We know that the potassium lactate is .0034% of the formula...1/5th of a drop.  That leaves the remaining 33.99% of the formula to the olive and coconut oils and vegetable glycerin.  

I took all of the ingredients listed on the label and blended them together; this is what they really look like. Note the separated water and oil. It is a runny liquid consistency and has no lathering properties. Also note the difference in color. Vegetable glycerin is a water-loving, water-soluble ingredient.  So, the glycerin would dissolve in the water. However, water and glycerin do not mix with oil. Without some kind of emulsifier, these ingredients, no matter how much you mixed them, would separate in minutes.  None of the extracts or ingredients listed on the bottle act as an emulsifier. I have had a bottle of this shampoo for two years now and there is absolutely no separation; it's completely stable.  

I found a listing of their shampoo from a few years ago before a labeling redesign.  The formula was exactly the same except for one thing: it listed cocamidopropyl betaine after the water. So, according to their label, they took out the one agent that lathered and emulsified, and instead added "coconut oil and olive oil and potassium lactate."  It just doesn't add up.  Coconut oil, olive oil, and potassium lactate just can't do the job of a detergent.

There is one thing, though, that would explain all of these mysteries: sodium lauryl sulfate.  Or another surfactant. The presence of SLS would explain the presence of the sodium and the sulfate we found in our testing.  Sodium lauryl sulfate would lather.  It would be able to combine the water, glycerin, and oil. Perhaps it's not sodium lauryl sulfate that they're using, but sodium coco sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfoacetate, or one of those related surfactants. Maybe they're still using cocamidopropyl betaine, and the sodium and sulphur we found were just contaminants. The metals test showed only 1% sodium, and using 1% sodium lauryl sulfate wouldn't be enough to make everything lather, so perhaps it's a combination of sodium lauryl sulfate and another surfactant. We don't know for sure. But the bottom line is this: there is no way that the ingredients on the label of this shampoo are an accurate and full disclosure.

Reader Comments (81)

That all said, compared to conventional shampoos, this product still is a big step in the right direction. But the lack of disclosure is disappointing for a company that markets themselves as "organic."

Fri, January 18, 2013 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

How do we avoid if we don't know what brand it is??

Fri, January 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEm

I second the question - how do we know what to avoid it if we don't know what brand it is?

Fri, January 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJen

Just always read your ingredients! If you notice the "coconut oil and olive oil and potassium lactate" as the second ingredient after water, you'll know it's the one we're talking about!

Fri, January 18, 2013 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

While you haven't conducted a study, how widespread is this?
What are five or 10 companies or recipes that you recommend using?

Fri, January 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjason hardy

It's really hard to say how widespread of a problem it is. In this case it was obvious...but are there other brands that are hiding ingredients? It's difficult to say. That's why we recommend buying from companies that have organic certification. They are independently inspected and audited by a third party so you know that the ingredient listing on the product actually matches what's in the bottle!

Fri, January 18, 2013 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

GREAT! I use this shampoo........ now what am I supposed to do?! I am not ready to go the vinegar rinse route. I want something safe that will allow my hair to function! Stephanie... what is the SAFEST shampoo & conditioner out there that would be suitable to use??? :( I am beyond upset about this. My whole family has been using this for a couple years now.

Fri, January 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermichelle

... I'm baffled. I would love for you to send me the ingredients list... I am truly curious as to what I have been using for the past 2+ years! Now I am wondering about the conditioner... Thank you for investigating!

Fri, January 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGrace

Yes, there's no apparent emulsifier in their conditioner either! With the water, glycerin, and oil, it would just separate. I have used their conditioner as well, and it is obviously emulsified somehow.

Fri, January 18, 2013 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

to find the name of the shampoo, copy this into a google search:
"Ingredients: Purified Water, Olive Oil (and) Coconut Oil (and) Potassium Lactate, Vegetable Glycerin, Peppermint Oil*, Fennel Extract*, Hops Extract, Balm Mint Extract, Olive Leaf Extract*, Ginger Extract*, Mistletoe Extract*, Allantonin (Comfrey Root), Citric Acid, Niacin (Vitamin B3), Lemon Grass Oil*, Burdock Root Extract*, Sage Extract*, Rosemary Extract*, Grape Seed Extract*. *Certified Organic Herb"

Fri, January 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commentercol

Awesome work Stephanie - I hope you are somehow taking this to the next level. There should be accountability here for sure. Since my skin reacts to SLS/SLES and to a lesser degree Cocomidopropyl Betaine, I'd know in a day if something contained these ingredients.

How horrible they mislead like that. I'll be emailing you for the breakdown for sure! I'd try and report them somehow to respond to the question of their formula, how it lathers and the indep lab testing results!

Fri, January 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNatural e GREEN

It makes me sad and nervous!! We trust companies and they are not always honest. Right now I have been using a shampoo and conditioner, not of the Bubble and Bee variety, temporarily b/c we have such hard water.
This is the ingredient list on the site of the one I have been using inbetween, name omitted, lol!

Ingredients: Purified Water, Decyl Polyglucose, Organic Vegetable Glycerin, Organic Apple Cider Vinegar, Organic Comfrey Root, Organic Marshmallow Root, Organic Comfrey Leaf, Organic Marshmallow Leaf, Organic Geranium Essential Oil, Organic Lavender Essential Oil,Xanthan Gum.

I have to check if it matches the bottle. What are you're thoughts?

Thank you!!!!

Fri, January 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

I know which one this is! I use it, the grape seed extract tipped me off, I have constantly stared at the ingredients trying to figure out the same thing, what made it lather? All the ingredients seemed good. Thanks for this Stephanie! I was keeping this as back up at home and my husband likes the smell, but no more!

Fri, January 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterWhitney

I've been using Bubble and Bee's hard water shampoo followed by an organic apple cider vinegar rinse for months now and will never go back. I would strongly recommend trying this route if you think you have hard water. The shampoo lathers nicely and feels great!!!

Fri, January 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCourtney

@Courtney: which is the Bubble &Bee hard water shampoo?

Fri, January 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKim

Courtney, what hard water shampoo are you referring to?

Fri, January 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChristy

They specifically say no SLS. I mean, can a company outright lie like that? Scary. I look forward to their response because they will surely see your analysis.

Fri, January 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJudi

I use this shampoo, and news like this is frustrating. But there's really only so much one can do. Until I find a better option--both safe and convenient--I will continue to use this as it is still a step in the right direction.

Fri, January 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAudrey

Hi Stephanie, I have been wanting your opinion on this topic for a long time. Spray-on tan, is there a safe one? I really need it on my legs during the summer and I've haven't been able to find anything safe.

Thank you for your time.
Charlotte Medina

Fri, January 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChar

@Char Here's my article all about it!

Fri, January 18, 2013 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

I wish everyone could afford independent testing to ensure products are what they claim to be!!! There is nothing organic or excellent about lying!!!!

Fri, January 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterecoSAFE

Yes use the Bubble and Bees hard water shampoo and you won't be disappointed. I only use half a bottle of the vinegar and the comb out is amazing. If you are afraid of the smell there is none after it drys. Don't use anything but Stephanie's!

Fri, January 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRenee

After all, they are just following the example of so many of our leaders: "If There Is Money To Be Made - There Are Lies To Be Told".
If only 1/100th of the $ that goes into lobbying, could go to high integrity watch groups, how much better off we would all be!

Fri, January 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterScotty

I'm not surprised... I too wondered how it worked if those ingredients where the only things in there. LOVE Bubble and Bee products, but the shampoos don't work for me due to super hard water. And rinsing with ACV just makes my hair brittle and dry (I even dilute it quite a bit). Thought I had a decent answer with this brand- it's so incredibly misleading! Stephanie- any other brand suggestions? If you come up with a shampoo that works in hard water you have a customer for life! :)

Fri, January 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterThiele

When I began going organic or non chemical shampoo/conditioners, my hairdresser person just hated it. When I go to her for trims she still uses her fancy shampoo and stuff yet she is a good stylist so I tolerate that 3-4 times a year. I use the Wen combo shampoo/conditioner on my hair without all the extra stuff they offer and my hair does good with that. It really does work like it does on the tv info shows. I get it from Amazon . com site as I just want the conditioner/shampoo, not the extra stuff in the package deal on the show. FYI, I used to use the BUmblebee shampoo followed by vinegar rinse before I tried the Wen stuff though. The Wen to me works better right now for my hair. -Amy

Fri, January 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAmy C

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