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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)

Here is the official response from the company...

As you know, a recent blog review insinuated that our ingredient list is inaccurate, suggesting the use of SLS in the ________ Shampoo. Thank you for your patience while we met with our chemist to discuss this matter in depth.

With over 30 years experience and practical application in the skin care field, and with the advantage of highly advanced technology, our chemist is capable of achieving end results based on specific ingredients used in precise amounts. The oils used in our shampoo are carefully chosen for the character they impart to the final product. Coconut oil creates glycerin and produces a great lather. Olive oil has natural antioxidants and makes the lather creamier.

Attempting to explain something as intricately complex as a chemical process is difficult, but in a nutshell, these two oils are saponified using new, advanced technology which does not require the use of harmful solids. Instead, potassium salt is used and is converted into potassium lactate (a moisturizing agent). The process is similar to using precursors and initiators that allow reactions to take place but do not become consumed within the reaction.

Your confidence in the quality and integrity of the ________ brand is important to us. Be assured that we accurately list the active ingredients on our labels and that ________ Shampoo does NOT contain SLS. Cocomide Betaine was in the original formula but was removed when our labels were updated several years ago.

We appreciate your business and hope that you will continue to make ________ your chemical free healthy choice.

Mon, January 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterScott

Hi Stephanie,

I've found a shampoo from Valley Green Naturals with the following ingredients:
organic coconut oil, organic olive oil, organic jojoba oil, sodium hydroxide, water, organic aloe vera, vegetable glycerin/gum extract, cold-pressed rice bran oil , rosemary extract, phthalate-free fragrance oil

Any thoughts? They list it as certified organic

Sun, March 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPC

This shampoo by Urban Naturals has an even lower amount of ingredients,

It can't be the real deal right?

Sun, March 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Chase

@Peter--these actually are plausible ingredients lists. These are just soap-based shampoos, created in a similar fashion to ours. ;)

Sun, March 3, 2013 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

Wow. This really boils my blood. Detergent turns my sons skin red, it is a legitimate allergy for so many kids and this sort of behavior from manufacturers could really foul someone up who is trying to go detergent-free to heal eczema and other skin issues. I think it is criminal what some companies will do to portray themselves as organic, with no thought for the effects of their greed on real people's lives and health. (In fact at the very top of my blog, you can see my son's skin before and after removing all detergent-containing products from our home. If I'd chosen a product like the one you address, trusting it was something it wasn't, we might never have had those results!!)

Fri, April 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCarrie

For those, who want to know the shampoo is Organic Excellence...

I figure it out by the bottle..

Thu, August 15, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkakay

Potassium Lactate appears here and there as an anti-microbial agent, so my guess is that the product you're discussing here is using it as a preservative.

According to Wikipedia: "...Potassium Lactate is commonly used in meat and poultry products to extend shelf life and increase food safety as it has a broad antimicrobial action and is effective at inhibiting most spoilage and pathogenic bacteria..."

However, I personally have discovered companies that deliberately leave ingredients off the list, which is highly illegal in some countries. Shame on them!

Mon, November 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterOlivia

Great study!
What about this combination of ingredients of some known liquid soap (I was wondering for some time how this thing lather!):

Water, Organic Coconut Oil, Potassium Hydroxide, Organic Orange Oil, Organic Olive Oil, Organic Hemp Oil, Organic Jojoba Oil, Organic Lemon Oil, Organic Lime Oil, Citric Acid, Tocopherol

Is Potassium Hydroxide here together with olive oil and coconut oil the same combination and means that they are using SLS ???

Wed, April 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKate

@Kate--these ingredients indicate that the product is a true soap, not a detergent. Potassium hydroxide reacts with the oils to create a new compound that we know as soap. No hidden ingredients here!

Mon, April 7, 2014 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

Hi Stephanie,

What do you think about this shampoo with the following ingredients? I can't find much information on their surfactants.

Organic Euterpe oleracea (Acai) Berry, Organic Rubus fruticosus (Blackberry), Organic Rosa canina (Rosehips), Organic Punica granatum (Pomegranate), Organic Fair Trade CertifiedTM Rooibos, Organic Aloe Barbadensis Vera Leaf Juice, Sodium Lauroyl Methyl Isethionate (from Coconut), 100% Naturally-derived Betaine (from Sugar Beets), Vegetable Glycerin, Sodium Methyl Cocoyl Taurate (from Coconut + Amino Acids), Sodium Cocoyl Glutamate (from Coconut + Amino Acids), Cocoglucosides Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride (Sugar Conditioner), Sodium Levulinate (from Corn), Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride (Guar gum conditioner), Potassium Sorbate (food grade preservative), Organic Argania Spinosa (Argan) Oil, Organic Fair- Trade CertifiedTM Olea Europea (Olive) Oil, D-Alpha Tocopherol Acetate (vitamin E), Hippophae rhamnoides (sea buckthorn) seed oil, Organic Curcubita pepo (Pumpkin) seed oil, Ubiquinone (CoQ10), Argania spinosa (Argan) Stem Cells, glycerophosphoinositol lysine (from sunflower), Almond Extract, Cinnamomum aromaticum (Cassia Bark) Oil

Sun, June 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterStacy

Hi, I've been driving myself crazy with organic Shampoo's. I tried wen out of desperation & lack of research & doesn't seem so organic with fragrances & such. The only shampoo I came across that has alot of organic ingredients & does not lather would be the morrocco method but is SO expensive! I just want simple & have my hair healthy & strong. I also don't know what to believe anymore. Does your line of shampoo help to repair & strengthen? Or is it by simply using all natural ingredients help repair & strengthen in general?

Fri, December 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJenn

I forgot to ask, if a natural shampoo lathers at all, could that be a harmful ingredient?

Fri, December 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJenn

Thanks for your question, Jenn. No, if a shampoo lathers, that doesn't automatically mean that there are harmful ingredients. :)

Tue, December 30, 2014 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

@Jenn--also, here's an article that should help:

Tue, December 30, 2014 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

Thanks Stephanie, that article was EXTREMELY helpful! You Rock!

Mon, February 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJenn

I have this product. It has a tan label with a drawn image of a person from behind with bright pink pants, lime green shirt and carrying a basket on their head. One of the names within the brand is "...Excellence" and the scent is Wild Mint.

Tue, November 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterShari

I'm thinking of using a shampoo that has a list of ingredients as follows:
Aqua, Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Oil, Glycerin, Pinus Banksiana (Pine) Extract, Chamomilla Recutita (Matricaria) Flower Extract, Blechnum Spicant (Fern) Leaf Extract, Urtica Dioca (Nettle) Leaf Extract, Taraxacum Officinale (Dandelion) Leaf Extract, Acetic Acid (Apple Cider Vinegar), Mentha Piperita (Peppermint) Oil, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf Oil

Would there be any hidden chemicals in this shampoo??
Thanks so much!!

Sat, December 12, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJenny

Wen has chemical ingredients so I never bought it.

Wed, February 17, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRuby

I M not sure what is in WEN, but my whole scalp, face, and back broke out. I was given a steroid injection along with a medicated shampoo poo by my doctor. This allergic reaction caused me to loose hair that did not grow back. Is there anything wrong with using a baking soda and water scrub and a vinegar rinse?

Sun, September 11, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDee

I just found your site and was about to order some "natural" hair products. Now I'm wondering just how natural they are. The ingredients for one of the shampoos (they have many) are:
Water, Sodium Lauroyl Methyl Isethionate, Lauramidopropyl Betaine, Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate, Polyquaternium-7, Glycol Distearate, Glycereth-26, PEG-150 Distearate, Pisum Sativum (PEA) Extract, Acetyl Tetrapeptide-3, Trifolium Pratense (Clover) Flower Extract , Limnanthes Alba (Meadowfoam) Seed Oil, Crambe Abyssinica Seed Oil, Camellia Oleifera Seed Oil, Solanum Lycopersicum (Tomato) Seed Oil, Daucus Carota Sativa (Carrot) Seed Oil, Citrus Limon (Lemon) Peel Oil, Citrus Aurantifolia (Lime) Oil, Citrus Aurantium Bergamia (Bergamot) Fruit Oil, Adansonia Digitata Oil, Mauritia Flexuosa Fruit Oil, Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Oil, Gardenia Taitensis Flower Extract, Moringa Oleifera Seed Oil, Caryocar Brasiliense Fruit Oil, Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil, Mentha Piperita (Peppermint) Oil, Rosmarinus O_cinals (Rosemary) Leaf Oil, Glycerin, Cinnamidopropyltrimonium Chloride, Dextran, Butylene Glycol, Citric Acid, Vanillyl Butyl Ether, Polyquarternium-10, Disodium EDTA,
Benzyl Alcohol, Caprylyl, Glycol, Benzoic Acid.
They also say that their hair products contain no:
Phthalates, PEG, DEA/MEA, Sulfates, Parabens, Harsh salt systems, Harmful colors, Harmful fragrances.

Mon, October 10, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterShari

I need a completely natural organic shampoo chemical and hormone free shampoo (due to overtaxed adrenals) Please would you recommend a brand for me. I am currently in the USA . Kindest Diana

Sat, December 3, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDiana

Does anyone have any info on Keys "all-in-one," shampoo? I've been using it for a year now becuase it seemed to be the cleanest I could find as far as chemicals go. I just bought the shampoo and conditioner mentioned in this post, but after reading the article and comments I am going to promptly return them. Just curious about the Keys brand. Here is their ingredient list which they say is 100% natural and 85% organic. Not sure about that last mysterious ingredient:

Saponofied Sugar Beet, Saponified Natural Coconut Oil, Jojoba & Avocado Oil, Palm Oil Glycerine (sustainable), purified water, Keys Optifx technology (luminescence)

Wed, December 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterKristine May

Not terribly natural! You’ll find a number of the chemicals listed on my site.

Sodium Laurel Methyl Isethionate, Glycereth-26, PEG-150 Distearate, are all ethoxylated chemicals. Funny that they say their products contain no PEGs, yet this one clearly does. You can read more about ethoxylated chemicals here:

Polyquaternium-7, polyquaternium-10 and Cinnamidopropyltrimonium chloride are both quaternary ammonium compounds, which you can read more about here:

@Diana—feel free to email me personally for some recommendations. I’ll need some questions about your water and hair types.

@Kristine May
Great catch! Sugar beet doesn’t create an oil, and the saponification process requires an oil. It’s most likely a sorbitol-based detergent like sorbitan oleate or perhaps a glucoside. Saponified sugar beet and saponified coconut oil might refer to coco glucoside or decyl glucoside, which would both be made from sugar beets and coconut oil. Probably not a dangerous product, however, not properly or fully disclosed.

Wed, December 14, 2016 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

Hello there,

I need your help in regards to Monat products that claim to be organic and natural and botanic-all the good things. Here is the ingredient list for one of the shampoos:

Water (Aqua), Lauramidopropyl Betaine, Sodium C14-16 Olefin Sulfonate, Acrylates Copolymer, Sodium Methyl Cocoyl Taurate, Sodium Cocoamphoacetate, Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, Cinnamidopropyltrimonium Chloride, Stearyldimoniumhydroxypropyl Decylglucosides Chloride, Polyquaternium-11, Pisum Sativum (Pea) Extract, Acetyl Tetrapeptide-3, Trifolium Pratense (Clover) Flower Extract, Limnanthes Alba (Meadowfoam) Seed Oil, Crambe Abyssinica Seed Oil, Camellia Oleifera Seed Oil, Solanum Lycopersicum (Tomato) Seed Oil, Daucus Carota Sativa (Carrot) Seed Oil, Citrus Limon (Lemon) Peel Oil, Citrus Aurantifolia (Lime) Oil, Citrus Aurantium Bergamia (Bergamot) Fruit Oil, Adansonia Digitata Oil, Mauritia Flexuosa Fruit Oil, Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Oil, Gardenia Tahitensis Flower Extract, Moringa Oleifera Seed Oil, Caryocar Brasiliense Fruit Oil, Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil, Glycerin, Tocopherol, Dextran, Glycol Distearate, Cocamidopropyl Hydroxysultaine, Sodium Hydroxypropylphosphate Decylglucoside Crosspolymer, Sodium Hydroxypropylphosphate Laurylglucoside Crosspolymer, Lauramide MIPA, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Propoxytetramethyl Piperdinyl Dimethicone, Cetrimonium Chloride, Trideceth-6, C11-15 Pareth-7, Butylene Glycol, Propanediol, Phenethyl Alcohol, Undecyl Alcohol, Benzyl Alcohol, Citric Acid, Aminomethyl Propanol, fragrance

I would appreciate any comments, does this contain anything chemical? They claim to be chemical-free

Sat, February 4, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMariya Davydenko

@mariya--Thanks for your question! Everything's a "chemical" (even water) so that's not physically possible. But if they mean free from *synthetic* chemicals....uh....that's just not true. Almost everything there is a synthetic chemical.

Mon, February 6, 2017 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

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