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Should You Switch to an Alcohol-Free Shampoo?

Not all alcohol is created equally. No, this isn’t a dorm room PSA, it’s advice from some of the top stylists on whether or not to opt for an alcohol-free shampoo. The jury is still someone out when it comes to this prevalent substance, and unlike parabens or sulfates which have no redeeming qualities, there are good and bad when it comes to alcohol. We asked six top stylists to share their thoughts on alcohol-free shampoos and needless to say, their responses might surprise you.

Empty glass shampoo bottles with a sepia tint on a white background
(via Canva)

Alcohol Isn’t Always a Bad Thing

“’Only use alcohol-free shampoo’ may be a good sound bite but the truth is that not all alcohols are created equally,” says Chad Kenyon, Celebrity Hair Colorist & Creator of COLORMELT™. Although alcohol is typically associated with parched strands, not all alcohol should be grouped into a singular category. “Many shampoos use cetyl alcohol, as a thickener or emollient, which can come from palm oil or even coconut oil. These cetyl alcohols are not damaging to hair integrity/hair color,” he notes. “The damaging alcohols are low molecular alcohols such as ethanol or isopropanol, both of which can strip and oxidize hair color.” The most common side effects of these are brittleness.

When opting to keep shampoo sober, Chad’s go-to is the Olaplex N°4 Bond Maintenance Shampoo, which he says is “gentle, hydrating, shine-inducing, color-safe” and even great for extensions.

Alcohol-Free Means More Moisture

There are some reasons to toss your alcohol… shampoo, that is. “The benefit of using alcohol-free shampoos and conditioners is that they allow for more moisture and will weigh hair down if needed—though this means the hair might take longer to dry,” notes Davide Marinelli, Stylist and Owner of the Davide Hair Studio. Try an alcohol-free shampoo and conditioner if you have hair that is prone to frizz but “start with a small amount.” For this reason, an alcohol-free shampoo can be especially beneficial during the wintertime. “Learning when to switch out your products with the season is very important,” adds Davide, who suggests changing up your haircare routine like you would your wardrobe.

Though an alcohol-free shampoo can be great for dry hair, it doesn’t mean you should be married to it, especially if you plan on keeping your blowout to day three. “An alcohol-based shampoo can be beneficial for your scalp, hair, and blowout life,” says Davide. This is because alcohol is slightly soluble in water and can dissolve other ingredients, such as oils (which don’t dissolve in water). Some alcohol evaporates quickly, especially in shampoos to shorten the time for hair drying. Using alcohol-based shampoo and conditioners can absorb your natural oils, which you may prefer if you have an oily scalp. “There’s a common myth that haircare products with alcohol are bad for you, as they can dry your hair. That can be true if you have dry ends, so it’s very important where you use your shampoo and conditioner,” he adds.

Jana Blankenship, Founder of Captain Blankenship agrees. “Alcohol is drying in nature,” she explains. “People who use a lot of hair styling products or tend toward an oily scalp may see positive results from a shampoo that contains some alcohol,” she says. However, “if your hair tends towards dryness and brittleness, it will need more moisture, oil, and gentle cleansing to maintain health and balance.” This is why dry, damaged, or color-treated hair is more vulnerable to stripping. If this sounds like you, alcohol should be avoided.

“Choosing a shampoo that is gently cleansing and allows the scalp to produce natural oils without over-stripping, is ideal for both hair and scalp health. Instead of removing oils to the point of having a ‘squeaky clean’ scalp, think of redistributing oil to the hair ends through gentle scalp massage and brushing with a natural bristle brush, from roots to ends,” she explains. Another way to achieve this is by allowing more time between hair washing, and opting for a natural dry shampoo to absorb excess oil, which Jana says can be “more nourishing for hair.”

How to Decipher the Alcohol in Your Products

“There are various types of alcohols used in beauty products,” says L’Oréal Professionnel Artist, Joshua Rossignol, who gives us his “rule of thumb” when deciphering alcohol in shampoo. “Look at the ingredients—if an alcohol is listed in the first four ingredients, avoid it,” he says. Also, know your alcohols. “For instance, benzyl and propylene alcohols are fatty alcohols and are natural—these are used to help deliver moisture to the hair,” but unnatural ones should always be avoided.

Diane C. Bailey, Celebrity Stylist and SheaMoisture Brand Ambassador, breaks it down further. “When it comes to alcohol-free, not all alcohols are alike and have the same effect on the hair. There are good alcohols and there are bad alcohols,” she shares. Here’s how she distinguishes between both:

“Good alcohols (cetyl alcohol, benzyl alcohol) provide slip, moisture, and nourishment for the hair. They’re known as ‘fatty alcohols’; they generally come from vegetables, fruits, and sea botanicals. They are used in shampoos and conditioners to blend the ingredients, thicken the cream or lotion, as well as soften and moisturize the hair.”

“The bad alcohols (SD alcohol 40, propyl alcohol) remove or reduce moisture from the hair and scalp, and can strip skin and strands. After using a product with bad alcohol, hair may feel brittle, become dehydrated and dry as well as may start to thin or break.”

She explains, “Generally, alcohol-free shampoos are good for all hair types. They are designed to gently cleanse the hair and scalp, preserve elasticity and restore moisture. Shampoos with alcohol should be avoided if your hair is color-treated and/or damaged, as it may dry out hair, leaving it lackluster and dull.” Thankfully, there are a ton of shampoos on the market that offer natural, certified organic ingredients—with natural butters, oils, and botanical extracts. “Products with these types of ingredients are generally nourishing for hair and scalp.” Once you know this, it’s just a question of finding which ingredients and formulations are most effective for your individual needs. Diane’s alcohol-free faves are SheaMoisture 100% Virgin Coconut Oil Daily Hydration Shampoo and SheaMoisture Jamaican Black Castor Oil Strengthen & Restore Shampoo.

Alcohols to Avoid and How to Spot Them

According to Lynne McNelis, Founder of fave4, alcohol-based shampoos are A-okay, “as long as they provide you with the moisture your hair craves.”

This is because the types of alcohols that dry out the hair are short-chain alcohols and are usually not the main ingredient in shampoos. “I’ve never seen one before,” says Lynne referring to this type of shampoo, “because those types can dry out the cuticle and strip it of its natural protective oils,” she adds. The alcohols she’s referring to, like SD-40, isopropyl alcohol, etc., are the instead typically found in hairsprays. “They are perfect in hairspray formulas since the alcohol dries very quickly once sprayed, leaving only the styling polymers to remain on the hair,” she continues. “Overall, alcohols are not bad at all and some are even really great for your hair.”

That being said, according to the Mane Master tribunal, there’s no need to go cold turkey when it comes to the alcohol in your shampoo. However, you definitely want to avoid the bad, artificial, drying kind of alcohol at all times. Of course, there’s always a time and a place. If it’s the dead of winter or if all your hair is craving is moisture, then hit pause on alcohols.

What about the other kind of alcohol? What does drinking alcohol do to your hair? Find out HERE!

Hey, mane muse! We wanted to give you a heads up that some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means that Mane Addicts will collect a small share of the sale from any purchase you make from the products we recommend.

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