Anatomy of a Shampoo


Bodycare Products

It'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 opens in a new tab already set us apart from the conventionals, our top-tier Premium Body Care opens in a new tab 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:



  • Conventional Body Care - 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.

  • Our Basic Body Care Standards - 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

  • Our Premium Body Care Standards - 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

  • Conventional Body Care - 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.

  • Our Basic Body Care Standards - Some natural actives are found, however, not in as great a quantity as those found in Premium. Examples include: plant oils, vitamins, herbal extracts.

  • Our Premium Body Care Standards - 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.


  • Conventional Body Care - 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.

  • Our Basic Body Care Standards - Contain milder preservatives than those found in conventional. Examples include: sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, parabens.

  • Our Premium Body Care Standards - 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.


  • Conventional Body Care - 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.

  • Our Basic Body Care Standards - 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.

  • Our Premium Body Care Standards - 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.


  • Conventional Body Care - Synthetic colorants can be added, for decorative purposes only.

  • Our Basic Body Care Standards - Natural colors only, if any.

  • Our Premium Body Care Standards - 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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