Experts break down the key differences between traditional and clean hair products — and why they can both have a spot in your routine.
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Clean has become the big buzzword in beauty in the last few years. There are great reasons to use clean products — more on those in a sec — but the term might make you think that they're the opposite of "dirty" versions. In truth, traditional hair products can be safe, too.

Another thing to note is that there's no clear definition of "clean beauty." What's allowed is always changing in this self-regulating industry without rules. "But the basic requirements that most clean hair brands stick to is that they don't use parabens, sulfates [SLS and SLES], phthalates, formaldehyde, formaldehyde releasers, DEA [an ethanolamine compound], triclosan, and ethoxylated ingredients [like PPG and PEG]. These ingredients have some research that shows potential irritation, safety, or environmental concerns," says Debra Lin, Ph.D., a cosmetic chemist and the chief scientific officer at hair-care brand Better Not Younger.

Now that you know what clean hair products don't have, it's time to dive into what they do include — and the difference they can make for your strands.

Naturally Derived Sulfates

Replacing some commonly used hair-care ingredients, while formulating a clean hair product that's stable, effective, pleasant, and accessibly priced, is a challenge. "But we continue to discover new ingredients and make advancements in clean chemistry that have allowed brands to do that," says Lin. Take sodium laurel sulfate, a common surfactant in shampoo that makes it sudsy: Now it can be made with coconut, says Helen Reavey, a trichologist and the founder of the hair care brand Act+Acre. "Coconut-derived sulfates suds up and cleanse the hair and scalp yet are gentler than SLS," she says. (Related: How Often Should You Wash Your Hair, Really?)

Heat-Free Processing

New methods like cold processing, which uses ice water and pressure to mix formulas, help maintain more of the hardworking plant-based ingredients in clean hair products. Heat processing can dilute them, says Reavey. She recommends her Act+Acre Restorative Hair Mask (Buy It, $36, amazon.com), which has cold-processed castor oil, glycerin, and shea butter to provide intense hydration. Another plus: Sustainably sourced botanical ingredients in clean hair products can be good for the environment. (Exhibit A: This low-waste, naturally derived shampoo powder.)

Act+Acre Restorative Hair Mask

Effective Formulas

Brands tend to formulate their clean hair products in the same way they would skin care, so they make excellent scalp treatments in the form of scrubs, serums, masks, and shampoos. Better Not Younger New Dawn Activated Charcoal Scalp Cleanser (Buy It, $34, sephora.com) uses birch extract and AHAs to exfoliate. Rahua Hydration Shampoo (Buy It, $34, amazon.com) has sacha inchi, Rahua, and morete oils, along with mango sugars to quench dry strands.

Better Not Younger New Dawn Activated Charcoal Scalp Cleanser
Rahua Hydration Shampoo

Just keep in mind that clean hair products work to enhance the natural texture and qualities of your hair. If you want a transformational change — a product that instantly boosts limp roots or adds hold, for example — then traditional hair care is the answer. "Clean styling products are just starting to become more widely available," says Dr. Lin.

Shape Magazine, October 2021 issue