Is your shampoo making your eczema worse?

We often hear from adults with eczema who are looking for a shampoo that doesn’t irritate their itchy, sensitive scalps.  Perhaps not surprising when the back of a shampoo bottle often reads like a chemical soup of unpronounceable ingredients.  Which is why we love the website Dandruff Deconstructed which was set up by Chris whose eczema first appeared as an adult.  Here he tell us what to look out for when shopping for hair care products…

Chris from Dandruff Deconstructed

It wasn’t until my adult life that I developed eczema.  I’ve had trouble with my skin for as long as I can remember unfortunately but eczema didn’t rear its ugly head until my 30s.  However when it did arrive, it arrived with a bang.  I’d developed atopic eczema and my first outbreak was very severe.  My fingers and toes blistered so badly it looked like I’d dipped them in hot oil.

Unfortunately my first dermatologist wasn’t the best and said it’s “eczema or psoriasis or something like that”.  These weren’t enlightened times.

As it turns out I suffer from two forms of eczema; atopic eczema and seborrheic dermatitis.  I also suffer from rosacea but it took over a decade for all three to be diagnosed.  It was during these times of uncertainty that I decided to take matters into my own hands.  I knew that my skin products were having an impact, particularly shampoos, and I started to study the ingredients.  Before this I had been relying on labels such a Fragrance Free, Natural/Organic, Hypoallergenic, Dermatologist Tested or Gentle. Unfortunately all of these phrases are marketing nonsense.  Fragrance Free might just mean that there is no perceptible smell because masking agents have been used to hide it.   Natural ingredients can be just as harmful and irritable as artificial ones.  Hypoallergenic means absolutely nothing!  Dermatologist Tested means nothing at all unless the dermatologist is a good guy.  Gentle is a meaningless description – what is it or the ingredients gentle at?

So unfortunately I couldn’t rely on the headline marketing messages.  As a result, I started to compile a list of the known allergens and irritants commonly found in my shampoos and the results have been staggering.   I have found over 100 ingredients that are known contact allergens or irritants.  I’ve listed them all on a dandruff shampoo review site called Dandruff Deconstructed

Dry, itchy scalp

For every shampoo we’ll scan for these ingredients and warn our readers what allergens the shampoo contains.  Recently we added a search function whereby readers can search for shampoos that are free from particular allergens they may be sensitive to.


Over 100 allergens is a lot to digest and so if I were to recommend allergens and irritants to particularly watch out for then I’d go for the following:


There are over 2500 different types of chemicals that can go into creating a fragrance.  Rather unhelpfully the manufacturers will often list just “perfume”.  Meaning in many cases we are unaware what effect the fragrance will have.  The EU now insists that 26 chemicals must be listed separately because they can cause such bad allergic reactions in folk.  Linalool and Limonene are two fragrances to particularly watch for from that list as they are so common.


The sulfates will help give your shampoo or shower gel a dense, luxurious foam.  They are also very good cleaners too.   They are often added to toothpastes.  And engine cleaners.  Unfortunately they will often strip your skin of all it’s natural oils leading to dry skin, and in some cases cause an allergic reaction.  A lot of manufacturers nowadays will label if the product is SLS free (meaning it is free of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate – the harshest of the sulfates).  However the manufacturers will often replace them with Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate (ALS) and/or Ammonium Laureth Sulfate (ALES).  These are typically considered less harmful than SLS but they’re still pretty harsh ingredients.  Try to find sulfate free shampoos if you think these are causing a reaction.

Formaldehyde Releasers

To help preserve our products, manufacturers will often add formaldehyde releasing chemicals.  Yes, the stuff used to preserve corpses.  Needless to say it’s a pretty harsh preservative and will cause a reaction in some of us.  Unfortunately there’s a few of these to watch out for but the three most common in my experience are Quaternium-15, DMDM Hydantoin and Imidurea.

Cocamidopropyl Betaine

This ingredient is in almost all bottles these days.  The American Contact Dermatitis Society named this the Allergen of the Year in 2004.  It’s extremely tough to find a shampoo or shower gel without it at the moment.

Kathon CG

An unpronounceable chemical called Methylisothiazolinone won Contact Allergen of the Year in 2013.  The manufacturers often add this with the equally unpronounceable Methylchloroisothiazolinone.  Combined they are called Kathon GC. Kathon CG caused major headlines in the UK in 2013 for causing, and I quote, an “epidemic of contact dermatitis cases”. The European Cosmetics Trade Association told its members to remove MI from skin products. A number of manufacturers have already promised to remove this from all products but not all have yet.


There are two types of alcohols added to a shampoo.  Some are actually beneficial and some are bad.  The bad ones are called short chain alcohols and will dry your skin in most cases and cause can cause allergic reactions.  The two most common of these are probably Ethyl Alcohol and Ethanol.  Some manufacturers will label their products as alcohol free.  They are probably your best bet if you’re worried about this one.

What's actually in your shampoo?

This isn’t a definitive list by any means.  This is a complex and sometimes controversial area but my take home would be, we need to be incredibly vigilant as to what we are putting on our skin.




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