As a “curly girl,” I use quite a bit of gel in my hair. I used to think gel was just for the spiky hairdos of the 90’s, but today’s gel is actually quite useful for taming frizz and defining curls. And no one even knows that you have it in your hair.
A good gel doesn’t keep your hair looking slick and wet (if you use it properly). It just keeps your hair looking fab throughout the day (and sometimes multiple days).
That being said, some gels have toxic ingredients that can be harmful to you, your family, and the environment. There are chemical-free hair gel options though. Our list of favorites are at the bottom of this post!
This post may contain affiliate links, which means I could be compensated if you decide to make a purchase. You can read my full disclosure here.
Is Hair Gel Toxic?
Yes, hair gel can be toxic, but it’s not as toxic as many other hair products are. That being said, there are still some ingredients that you should try to avoid when possible. You can do this by switching to a safer product, which we’ve listed below.
Which Hair Gel Ingredients are Toxic?
Despite the name of this article, there’s really no such thing as “chemical-free” hair gel. This is because everything on the planet is made up of chemicals, including pure water (hydrogen + oxygen). There are certain chemicals in hair gels, however, that you should try to avoid. These ingredients include parabens, phthalates, fragrance, dyes, and more (which we’ve listed below).
Parabens. As we’ve discussed in the past, parabens are a type of preservative found in a variety of health and beauty products. Because they mimic estrogen, they can disrupt the endocrine system, affect hormone function, cause reproductive issues, and may even lead to breast cancer.
Fragrance. The term “fragrance,” which we discuss at length in our article about non-toxic perfume, is not regulated in the United States. The FDA does not require that companies disclose any of the ingredients that they use in their fragrances, and many formulas contain harmful chemicals like phthalates and parabens.
Dyes. Certain dyes, like FD&C Yellow #5, are produced from petroleum and can contain heavy metals, like cadmium, which is a known carcinogen. Cadmium can also lead to respiratory issues and development issues in children. Dyes accumulate in the body overtime, and they can also lead to organ system toxicity.
Petrolatum. Petrolatum can be contaminated with harmful PAHs (Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), which are a possible carcinogen and accumulate in the body over time. These chemicals are so damaging to the body that they’re actually restricted from use in the EU (and other countries as well), but they’re readily available in the U.S.
Silicones & Ethoxylated Ingredients. The issue with silicones and ethoxylated ingredients (like dimethicone and PEG) isn’t necessarily in the ingredients themselves. It’s in the fact that they can be contaminated with 1,4 dioxane and ethylene oxide, which are known carcinogens. Furthermore, silicones aren’t good for your hair anyway. They can weigh your hair down and cause it to flatten out (which is typically the opposite of what you want).
Phenoxyethanol. Many “natural” products use phenoxyethanol as a preservative (instead of using parabens). Unfortunately, phenoxyethanol can also be damaging to our health. Some research has lined it to brain damage and nervous system toxicity.
Propylene Glycol. This is a very common ingredient in beauty products, but it can lead to skin irritation and allergic reactions, which can be very damaging to your scalp and hair.
Polysorbates. Polysorbates are a type of surfactant and emulsifier, which keeps your products from separating when they sit out for long periods of time. (Learn more about emulsifiers.) Like some of the other ingredients on this list though, they can be contaminated with 1,4 dioxane and ethylene oxide.
The Best Chemical-Free Hair Gel
Now that you know the chemicals and ingredients that you should avoid in your hair gel, let’s talk about our favorite brands!
Founded by a hairstylist who wanted safer products to use around her children, Original Sprout is safe for babies and adults alike. None of their products (including this hair gel) contain parabens or phthalates, and they also stay clear of certain essential oils that can be harmful to children.
The brand is certified cruelty-free, vegan, and tested by independent 3rd parties to assure that the products are fully non-toxic and hypoallergenic.
This is a newer company to the beauty industry, but they’re making big moves. This fragrance-free gel doesn’t contain any parabens, SLS, phthalates, propylene glycol, petroleum, synthetic color, or animal products.
Their products aren’t tested on animals, and they’re completely vegan too.
Everyone, which you can find at Target, Amazon, and probably your local drug and grocery stores, is a family-owned company that started in 1995.
This gel is vegan, cruelty-free, and created with sustainably farmed and ethically-sourced ingredients (which they’re completely transparent about). You can read about each of their ingredients here.
The company cares about more than just their ingredients though. In fact, their family-owned factory is zero-waste and they’ve made a commitment to be plastic-neutral by this year (2021).
Other Options for Chemical-Free Hair Gel
These two brands both have fragrance listed as an ingredient, so I didn’t feel comfortable putting them on the list of the “best” non-toxic hair gels above. However, the companies both say that the products don’t contain any phthalates or parabens. I’d say these are safe to use with caution.
Shea Moisture Raw Shea Butter Heatless Curl Stretch Gel
Giovanni L.A. Hold Styling Gel
What is a Natural Alternative to Hair Gel?
If you don’t have hair gel on hand, or if you’re just not interested in using it after learning about some of the harmful ingredients that can be in them, you can use pure aloe vera. There are some things to note, however.
It’s best to squeeze it right out of the plant, but you can use store-bought aloe vera gel as well. Just note that even pure aloe in a bottle can contain additives.
Use it just like you would use your regular hair gel.