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Anatomy of a Shampoo

Bodycare ProductsIt's probably obvious that all of the food products we carry are made from recipes. You may not know that there are also basic "recipes" for the personal care products carried on our shelves, although the ingredients may be less familiar. For example, a basic loaf of bread is made of flour, water, salt and leavening agent. A basic shampoo includes surfactants, actives, preservative and fragrance. Thinking of the analogy between cooking foods and making personal care products may help put into perspective all of the long names found on their ingredient lists - and hopefully make them seem less foreign. The first in a series, this post breaks down the basic anatomy of a shampoo, helping to decipher the key ingredients that comprise the shampoos that you use on a daily basis - and what you may want to think about when choosing your next one. What's in my shampoo? A basic recipe or template for a shampoo most likely includes the following kinds of ingredients:
  • Surfactants: Also known as surface active agents, surfactants are necessary for the lathering, cleaning and degreasing effects of a shampoo. Because of these degreasing effects, surfactants have the potential to be drying and irritating, so it can be a delicate balance to create a shampoo that cleans the hair without stripping away beneficial components. Shampoos usually contain a cocktail of surfactants, artfully combined to strike the right balance.
  • Water: Along with surfactants, water is part of the basic foundation of shampoos and liquid cleansers, which are more than 50% water.
  • Preservative: Preservatives, whose main function is to prevent microbial growth and to ensure shelf life, are required for the formulation of shampoos. When it comes to preservatives, none are truly benign, since the main purpose of a preservative is to prevent growth of microorganisms and keep products fresh. However, preservative systems are a necessary component of personal care products, in particular water-based ones such as shampoos.
  • Active and Other Ingredients: These are the ingredients that nourish and beautify - making your hair shinier, smoother, softer, thicker and more manageable. Natural actives include herbal extract, vitamins, amino acids and proteins, and antioxidants. Other ingredients, such as thickeners, humectants, pH control agents or chelators, may be added to stabilize the formula.
  • Fragrance: Along with functionality, fragrance is one of the key attributes that makes personal care products stand apart from each other, and fragrance has a very strong influence on our personal product choices.
  • Color: In basic shampoos, color is added for decorative purposes only and is unnecessary for functionality.
Comparing conventional shampoos with our basic and Premium Body Care shampoos found at Whole Foods Market. While our basic standards already set us apart from the conventionals, our top-tier Premium Body Care goes above and beyond. It took our experts more than two years to meticulously examine each and every personal care ingredient in Whole Body. Using the most current safety and efficacy data, research and resources available, they evaluated each product ingredient in four key areas-results, source, environmental impact and safety-searching for the excellence that we believe makes for a premium product. Here's how shampoos compare:


Body Care

Our Basic Body Care Standards

Our Premium Body Care Standards


Have the potential for harshness, stripping away fatty acids. Typically contain a higher percentage of petroleum-based ingredients and portions. Can include compounds with environmental concerns.

Examples include: sodium lauryl sulfate, ammonium laureth sulfate, cocamide DEA, ammonium xylene sulfonate.

Less harsh than surfactants found in conventional shampoos and with fewer environmental concerns. Source is not as natural as Premium.

Examples include: sodium lauryl sulfoacetate, disodium laureth sulfosuccinate

Gentlest surfactants available. Premium shampoos may not foam as fully as conventional or basic shampoos, and this is because they contain a higher percentage of natural materials. They will still clean your hair, with added natural benefits.

Examples include: decyl glucoside, sucrose cocoate, sodium methyl cocoyl taurate, sodium lauroamphoacetate.

Actives and Other

Natural actives typically found in lower percentages in conventional products. Tend to contain fewer botanical-based ingredients and more synthetic ones.

Examples include: disodium EDTA, polyquaternium-10, and aminomethyl propanol.

Some natural actives are found, however, not in as great a quantity as those found in Premium.

Examples include: plant oils, vitamins, herbal extracts.

Natural actives typically found in highest percentages in Premium shampoos.

Examples include: aloe vera gel, antioxidants, herbal extracts, vitamins, proteins, amino acids and fatty acids.


Stronger preservatives are used, to increase shelf life. With this comes allergenic and irritant potential.

Examples include: iodopropynyl butylcarbamate, methylisothiazolinone, methylchloroisothiazonlinone. None of these are allowed in personal care products at Whole Foods Market.

Contain milder preservatives than those found in conventional.

Examples include: sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, parabens.

You will find the mildest preservatives in Premium products, ones that have been shown to function properly, yet with a lower likelihood of causing cosmetic-related allergies and sensitivities.

Examples include: potassium sorbate, sodium benzoate and alcohol.


Typically synthetic fragrances or blends are used, due to cost, performance and variety. Have the potential to be irritating and their safety has been questioned.

May contain synthetic or natural fragrance. This is in order to increase variety of scent offerings, since some fragrances, including fruity and floral scents, are not readily available natural.

Only 100% natural fragrances are allowed in Premium shampoos, for philosophical and safety reasons. Natural scent may be more subtle and more limited (in terms of variety) than synthetic fragrances, yet there is less potential for irritation.


Synthetic colorants can be added, for decorative purposes only.

Natural colors only, if any.

No colors are allowed, neither natural nor synthetic, as they are not necessary for a shampoo to function at all.

As you can see, it can be fun to review the ingredient lists on the personal care products that you use on a regular basis in order to discover the kinds of ingredients they contain. How does your shampoo fit the recipe? Premium Body Care Shampoo is one of the most challenging products to make truly natural because functionality is so important for hair care products. We applaud the work of our Premium Body Care vendors, who have worked to develop natural alternatives to the most common synthetic ingredients found in shampoos. It is possible to make many good improvements in the area of natural shampoos, as can be seen by the blossoming numbers of Premium shampoos on our shelves, including those from Depth, Ikove, Alaffia, John Masters Organics and Aubrey Organics.

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Eco*Pretty says …

Thank you for such an informative post! I've struggled to find a shampoo that thoroughly cleans my hair but doesn't strip it of moisture and color. I really like John Masters Organics Evening Primrose shampoo, which is lighter than his Honey & Hibiscus shampoo but more moisturizing than the Lavender Rosemary shampoo.

Carrie says …

I really appreciate this information. It's always a concern when looking at that ingredients list and this really helped in understanding what goes into making shampoos. Thank you so much for posting this, it's great information to know so more people can become aware of what they're putting on their body. As well as providing better choices.

RJ says …

This is so helpful. I'm in need of new shampoo and have been struggling to find one that fits my needs and is natural. I look forward to more of these great posts. Thank you!

ellem bernstein says …

My dear and darling so and too loved friends at whole foods, You are all very kind hearted to help people from your hearts. Someone very nice recommended me to all of you and I am very happy about that from my hearts to your hearts. i am a vegetarian so I am very appreciative of store like your beautiful one. I am especially interested in products and prices of your awesome shampoos and carob yummy candy. I thank you all from my hearts to your hearts and wish you the bestest to the bestest. God bless you and keep you all safe, happy, healthy and around a lot of love forever. With love forever and ever and an eternity, Aunt and auntie ellen Bernstein and paul Bernstein –love-doves Love-peace- joy ellen

sandy brock says …

looking for soapless shampoo. was told by my vet that regular shampoo will wash away my dog's flea preventative. looking for a cheaper alternative to what petsmart sells. don't care if it's for humans or animals as long as it's soapless. thanks.

Michele says …

Hi. Why not research and post numerical PH values of all body care items sold by WHole Foods, starting with shampoo and conditioner? That would be a big help, relieving consumers of trying to sort out masking terms like "ph balanced" or "natural ph", terms that have no real meaning. Thanks.

Anna says …

Very informative post. Thank you for sharing it. I like the idea of 'recipe' which delivers a clear concept of how shampoos are made.

Marilyn says …

I recently started using Whole Food brand fragrance-free shampoo and conditioner and love them! However, you have to use so much shampoo in order to get it to lather well (I have to use up to 1/2 cup each shampoo). Needless to say, even for an inexpensive shampoo, a large bottle gets used very quickly.

manda says …

@marilyn: i used to work for a natural beauty products company, and a lather is not required to clean your hair. 1/2 a cup of shampoo is too much, start with a quarter to half dollar amount depending on your hair length and texture.

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Sandy Burns says …

Hi! Can you please tell me if Whole Foods has a fragrance free/sulfate free shampoo? I have terrible allergies. Thank you for your help!! Sandy

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@SANDY - Since our products vary between store locations, I would suggest that you reach out to your local store to see what they carry in their Whole Body department.

Gerda Bretton says …

I bought earthly delight herbal shampoo at whole foods and loved it. It was very low in ingredients and doesn't seem available any more. Can you suggest a similar shampoo with many herbs and few other ingredients? Thank you

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@GERDA - Our products vary between store locations so check with your local store to find out what they have to offer!

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Ashley Sanders says …

I appreciate Whole Foods posting a comparison chart of different products and what ingredients fit into these categories. Makes shopping decisions a bit easier. Thank you!

Katherine says …

Are any of your shampoos sulfate free?

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@KATHERINE - Our shampoos will differ between stores so I would suggest checking with your local store to find out what they have in stock.