Reading the ingredient list on beauty and hair products can sometimes feel like you're taking a chemistry class. While it can feel overwhelming, understanding what is in the products you use every day is important, and can help you figure out what active ingredients provide you with the most benefit. As you start to get more familiar with these labels, one ingredient you're guaranteed to see listed time and time again is xanthan gum.
What is Xanthan Gum?
Xanthan gum is a naturally derived ingredient that is made when a polysaccharide sugar is fermented by a certain type of bacteria. Typically, it comes from corn, wheat, soy, or dairy. When added to a liquid, it makes a great thickening and stabilizing agent which is why it is often used in personal care products.
Used in everything from conditioner to cookies, xanthan gum is utilized across industries and product lines. It has managed to fly under the radar despite its inclusion in every step of our haircare routines. But for something most of us are using (and eating) every day, do we really know what xanthan gum is?
To find out what xanthan gum is and why it's included in so many formulations, we turned to Dr. Nava Greenfield, MD, Dr. Jenny Liu, MD, FAAD and certified trichologist Gretchen Friese to give us the full scoop.
Meet the Expert
- Nava Greenfield, MD, is a dermatologist practicing at Schweiger Dermatology Group. She is based in Brooklyn.
- Jenny Liu, MD, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist based in Minneapolis.
- Gretchen Friese is a BosleyMD-certified trichologist.
Xanthan is made from sugars, so it may be able to provide moisturizing and conditioning benefits to the hair and scalp by keeping oils locked in, Dr. Nava Greenfield explains. Curious to learn more about xanthan gum? Read on to learn the benefits and the best hair products containing this ingredient.
Xanthan Gum for Hair
Type of ingredient: Thickener and emulsifying agent
Main benefits: Thickens formulations, stabilizes hair products, and conditions hair and skin.
Who should use it: In general, anyone with a dry scalp or dry, thin hair. It is safe for all hair types and textures, but its conditioning factors may provide additional benefits to curly hair. Anyone with a history of allergies to corn, wheat, soy, or dairy should consult their doctor, as xanthan gum is usually derived from these sources.
How often can you use it: Xanthan gum is an ingredient in most hair and beauty products and has no known negative effects, so it can be used daily as long as it does not cause an allergic reaction.
Works well with: Almost all ingredients; xanthan gum is often used as the glue that binds all other ingredients together in a formulation.
Don’t use with: There are no known ingredients that interact with xanthan gum negatively.
Benefits of Xanthan Gum for Hair
Despite its constant inclusion on haircare ingredient lists (it's the most frequently named natural substance), xanthan gum does not actually provide many benefits to the hair itself. Xanthan gum is a stabilizer made from sugar and causes formulations to stick together and not fall apart. Xanthan gum helps to thicken and create an even, smooth texture, so its concentration will vary depending on the product. It also functions as an emulsifier, ensuring that active ingredients work well together, Liu explains. Greenfield echoes this, adding "I think of it as the egg inside cakes that holds it together after it is baked."
- Thickens formulations: Xanthan gum is an emulsifier and can be used to thicken formulations. This allows brands to create consistent, smooth products that are the correct consistency for their intended use (leave-in versus wash-out, etc.). The feel of a product can make all the difference, as silky consistencies are often mentally associated with high quality.
- Conditions the hair and skin: There is not much known definitively about the effect xanthan gum has on skin and hair, but Greenfield says this ingredient has been shown to moisturize the skin by keeping oils locked in. Certified trichologist Gretchen Friese agrees, saying " It is moisturizing for the hair and may also help with issues such as dry scalp." Liu agrees that there are some conditioning benefits, but cautions that not a lot of research has been done behind its use in skin and hair care.
- Stabilizes hair products: Unlike the active ingredients, xanthan gum's inclusion in hair products is a molecular necessity. Greenfield shares that xanthan gum often acts as a stabilizer in hair products, ensuring the formulation stays together. Without xanthan gum, the formulation might separate between production and ending up on the store shelves.
- Acts as a natural preservative: Xanthan gum is considered an all-natural preservative as it maintains the stability of the products and increases the shelf life. It is FDA approved and the Environmental Working Group gave xanthan gum its best ranking of 1, meaning it is not toxic or harmful.
Hair Type Considerations
Our experts agree that xanthan gum is safe for all hair types, as it has little to no effect on the hair or scalp. Greenfield says it may be more beneficial to those with a dry scalp or dry, thin hair, as well as those with curly hair, due to its suspected ability to lock in oils. Too many products containing xanthan gum may cause excess grease in those with naturally oily scalps.
While there is little risk to the hair itself, the origins of xanthan gum do make it a potential allergen. "People with allergies to corn, wheat, soy, or dairy should consult their doctor, because xanthan gum usually comes from these sources," says Friese. Any new product should be patch tested before use to avoid irritation, and a dermatologist should be consulted if one occurs.
How to Use Xanthan Gum for Hair
Despite all the heavy-lifting it does in product formulations, xanthan gum is not typically an ingredient that you would seek out on its own for your hair. Instead, you're likely to see it listed as an ingredient in many of the products you already use. Xanthan gum is a goo-like substance that makes many of your favorite hair products possible. There are several ways you will see this ingredient being used in your haircare products:
- Shampoo: Xanthan gum is found in many shampoos for its ability to improve the consistency and increase the shelf life. It also acts as a natural preservative to maintain the freshness of the ingredients used.
- Conditioner: In addition to its ability to improve the consistency and stabilize, the moisturizing benefits of xanthan gum are an added bonus when it is found in many of your favorite hair conditioners.
- Hair styling products: Xanthan gum is added to many hair gels and hair styling creams to thicken the products, as well as increase shelf life.
- Add xanthan gum to thicken shampoo: If your shampoo is too thin or runny, you can add xanthan gum to make it more thick. Be aware that you won't need much and it does have a tendency to clump. Weigh out how how much shampoo you want to thicken, multiply it by 0.0025 and add that much xanthan gum powder. Sprinkle slowly and mix well to avoid clumps.
The Best Products With Xanthan Gum
Xanthan gum is found in many hair products, including shampoos, conditioners, hair gels and styling serums. From adding moisture to improving the texture and shelf life, this ingredient is the secret star of the show.
Friese recommends Puraveda products, such as their Big and Bouncy shampoo which contains xanthan gum. It is sulfate free and is perfect for fine hair that needs volumizing and lift.
Flora & Curl's Sweet Hibiscus Curl Defining Gel promises to enhance and define curls, leaving your hair full of bouncy shine. In addition to xanthan gum, this product also contains rice protein and sweet almond.
Grown Alchemist’s Detox Conditioner is perfect for everyday use to soften, strengthen and improve shine. In addition to xanthan gum, this conditioner containers hydrolyzed silk proteins to help protect against pollutants.
Garnier Fructis 1 Minute Hair mask can be used as a mask, conditioner or leave-in conditioner to leave your hair moisturized, shiny and healthy looking. Using the natural xanthan gum as a stabilizer and thickener, this product is considered one of Target's "Clean" options.
Bumble and Bumble Bb Curl combines the moisture and shine of an oil with the curl-enhancing properties of a gel to get the best of both worlds. Simply work a small dollop of the product through your hair for hair that is healthy and bouncy.
What exactly does xanthan gum do in shampoo?
Xanthan gum acts as an emulsifier, which means it keeps the ingredients blended, a binder, thickener and preservative. Our experts believe it also has some moisturizing benefits as well.
Does xanthan gum have any side effects?
When used topically in hair products or cosmetics, the EWG has rated xanthan gum a 1 which means it is not harmful or toxic. If you have allergies to corn, wheat, soy, or dairy, talk with your doctor as it may be a potential allergen.
In addition to hair care products, what other personal care products contain xanthan gum?
You may be surprised to learn how many of your beauty products contain this ingredient. In addition to hair care products, xanthan gum can be found in products such as lotions, toothpaste, sunscreens, makeup and deodorants.
Effective variables on production and structure of xanthan gum and its food applications: A review. Biocatalysis and Agricultural Biotechnology. 2017;10:130-140.
Xanthan gum. Cosmetics Info.
Klaschka U. Natural personal care products—analysis of ingredient lists and legal situation. Environ Sci Eur. 2016;28(1):8.
Freitas IR, Cortez-Vega WR, Pizato S, Prentice-Hernández C, Borges CD. Xanthan gum as a carrier of preservative agents and calcium chloride applied on fresh-cut apple. Journal of Food Safety. 2013;33(3):229-238.
Ewg skin deep® | what is xanthan gum. EWG.
How to fix the viscosity of body wash and shampoo. Essential Wholesale Resource Library.