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. Though, there are some natural and otherwise nontoxic ingredients that have alcohol in the name. Case in point: cetearyl alcohol. This type of alcohol is an emollient, emulsifier, and thickener made to add a creaminess to formulas and stop the oil and water from separating. (For example, coconut oil falls under this umbrella).
"There are many forms of alcohol that are available in various skincare products. When it comes to gentle hair care, minimizing or avoiding alcohol in shampoos, conditioners, and other haircare topicals is key to minimizing scalp irritation," 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 adds.
"Alcohol-free shampoo is ideal for those with a history of sensitive scalp, eczema as well as those with colored or chemically treated hair as alcohol as it may affect the color and promote/enhance color fade. Searching for sulfate-free shampoos is also important in those with color-treated hair."
"For those with brittle, fine or dry hair, alcohol-free shampoos are helpful to maintain hair moisture and prevent further hair thinning."
"With this being said, not all alcohols are harmful to the scalp- it is important to look at the ingredients and determine if it is a 'fatty alcohol' or a short chain alcohol. Short chain alcohols, such as ethanol may be drying and irritating to the scalp. In contrast, fatty alcohols, such as lauryl alcohol or stearyl alcohol, may in fact act as a surfactant which means it helps to hold in water and moisture and lubricate the scalp and hair. So for those with dry, thin, or brittle hair, you do not have to shy away from alcohols, it is important to carefully read the ingredients and consult with your dermatologist which shampoo is best fit for your hair type and texture."
But that doesn't mean all the alcohols in your products fall into this category. Shampoos, for example, can contain damaging alcohols that may strip your hair of its necessary nutrients and ultimately cause more harm than good. These alcohols commonly include ethanol or ethyl alcohol, denatured alcohol, methanol, isopropyl alcohol, SD alcohol, and benzyl alcohol. 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.
Meet the Expert
Dr. Rina Allawh is a board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in King of Prussia, PA.
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.
A favorite of our former editorial director, Faith, 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.
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 Renewing + Argan Oil of Morocco Shampoo
"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 in fact trigger increased hair shedding."
My top recommendation for alcohol-free shampoos is OGX Argon Oil Moroccan Shampoo," says Allawh. "It's great for maintaining shiny, smooth hair and ideal for all hair types (curly, straight)."