We've all been conditioned to believe that alcohol is a detrimental ingredient in our beauty products—and, for the most part, that's true. "When it comes to gentle hair care, minimizing or avoiding alcohol in shampoos, conditioners, and other haircare topicals is key to minimizing scalp irritation," dermatologist Dr. Rina Allawh tells us. "Alcohol has been also shown to strip the hair shaft of oils that help lubricate the hair and protect it from damage from outside stressors, such as irritants, UV damage, and thermal damage," she explains.
But that doesn't mean all the alcohols in your products fall into this category. "When evaluating alcohols in shampoos it’s important to distinguish between the two types of alcohols that may be present in a shampoo: fatty alcohols and alcohols that are carrying agents, solvents, or antiseptics," emphasizes trichologist Veronica Joseph. "Fatty alcohols that can be plant-derived from coconut palm trees or corn plants are used in shampoos to provide moisture," she says. For example, cetearyl alcohol is an emollient, emulsifier, and thickener made to add a creaminess to formulas and stop the oil and water from separating. Allawh agrees: "Fatty alcohols, such as lauryl alcohol or stearyl alcohol may act as a surfactant, which means it helps to hold in water and moisture and lubricate the scalp and hair." In contrast, "Short-chain alcohols, such as ethanol may be drying and irritating to the scalp," she adds. Ethyl alcohol, denatured alcohol, methanol, isopropyl alcohol, SD alcohol, and benzyl alcohol, also fall into this camp.
Meet the Expert
The good news? Natural shampoos sans alcohol are becoming the norm. To help you steer clear of these bad alcohols before they wreak havoc on your hair, we've rounded up a list of our favorite alcohol-free shampoos.
Keep reading for the best alcohol-free shampoos you can find.
SheaMoisture Manuka Honey & Yogurt Hydrate + Repair Shampoo
For an alcohol-free shampoo and conditioner combo, go for this one from SheaMoisture. This natural cleanser is derived from manuka honey and yogurt to cleanse gently, wafting rave-worthy scents. It uses mafura oil meant to promote healing and soften hair as well as shea butter to revive dry, brittle strands.
Carol's Daughter Black Vanilla Moisture & Shine Sulfate-Free Shampoo
This shampoo from Carol's Daughter is free of silicones, parabens, mineral oil, artificial colors, or petroleum—and certainly none of the bad alcohols. It cleanses and restores your natural moisture without adding weight to your hair, courtesy of a mix of aloe leaf juice, sweet clovers, and rose extract.
Ogx Renewing + Argan Oil of Morocco Shampoo
If you're looking for a reason to not use alcohol in your shampoo, Allawh has a few: "Alcohol may also trigger scalp irritation, redness, and itching. Alcohol is a common drying agent and may trigger an allergic or irritant skin rash on the scalp, which may trigger increased hair shedding." Ogx's Argan Oil Moroccan Shampoo is her top recommendation for alcohol-free shampoos. "It's great for maintaining shiny, smooth hair and ideal for all hair types (curly, straight)," she says.
A favorite of our former editorial director, Faith Xue, this gentle cleanser is chock-full of sweet almond nut oil, pink grapefruit, and neroli—all while omitting lauryl sulfate, glycols, petrochemicals, artificial fragrance, animal derivatives, and synthetic colors.
Neutrogena Triple Moisture Cream Lather Shampoo
Neutrogena Triple Moisture Cream Lather Shampoo uses oils (rather than alcohols) to properly (and gently) clean your hair. Olive oil is meant to penetrate the follicle, meadowfoam seed oil helps moisturize, and sweet almond oil wraps the surface to deliver a super-soft, healthy wash each time.
Meadowfoam (a.k.a. Limnanthes alba) seed oil is derived from meadowfoam seeds and is composed of mostly fatty acids and antioxidants. The emollient helps lock in moisture and soften skin.
Playa Every Day Shampoo
This everyday shampoo works to remove impurities while preserving your hair's natural oils. "Using an alcohol-free shampoo ensures that whilst the hair is being cleansed no ingredient applied to the hair or scalp will cause the hair to become drier and will not counteract the moisture applied through conditioners and or hair masks," says Joseph. Here, coconut water hydrates while sugar beet extract stimulates the root to promote volume—without the presence of alcohol.
Not Your Mother's Curl Talk Curl Care Shampoo
This alcohol-free shampoo is made with a unique mix of rice, keratin amino acids, and enzymes—and without sulfates or silicones—to hydrate and nourish hair from roots to ends with every rinse. While all hair types can benefit from its natural wonder, it's especially great for dry and curly tresses.
Ogx Nourishing Coconut Milk Shampoo
Another offering by Ogx, this shampoo's blend of coconut milk, coconut oil, and whipped egg white protein adds strength, elasticity, hydration, and balance to your hair. "Cleansing the hair or scalp that’s dry and in need of moisture would greatly benefit from an alcohol-free shampoo as its application will not exacerbate the dryness," says Joseph. Plus, this one smells incredible to boot.
Who should use alcohol-free shampoos?
Those with a history of sensitive scalp, eczema as well as those with colored or chemically treated hair should use alcohol-free shampoo as alcohol may affect the color and promote/enhance color fade. Dry, brittle, chemically-treated hair that breaks and needs moisture would benefit from using an alcohol-free shampoo.
What should I do if I already used shampoo with alcohol as an ingredient?
Try a hair mask or moisturizing conditioner to restore the pH balance.
What hair types/textures can benefit from using alcohol-free shampoo?
"Hair that is straight, wavy, curly, coily, and kinky can benefit from using an alcohol-free shampoo if the hair looks and feels dry, brittle, or damaged.