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Why You Shouldn’t Worry About Sodium Hydroxide (Yes! Sodium Hydroxide) in Your Conditioner

Avatar • Aug 17, 2014

yes-to-carrots-conditioner

There are many horror stories out there of hairdressers mixing hair conditioner with relaxer, but that is not the tale for today. Today, the story is about whether you should worry about hair conditioners which have sodium hydroxide on the ingredients label.

Commercial hair conditioners such as Yes to Carrots, Herbal Essences and Pantene are commonly mentioned in this category. However, there are probably a lot more that use sodium hydroxide and do not mention it or label it as sodium chloride.

Quick Answer

There is almost always no need to worry unless the product is labeled as a silkener or straightening balm.

Long Answer

1. Sodium Hydroxide can be a pH adjuster/buffer

For a standard hair conditioner bottle, it can take as little as 3–5 drops of sodium hydroxide to adjust the pH from very acidic (2/3) to a more skin, scalp and hair friendly pH of around 5–7. As a buffer, the hydroxide ions work to maintain this pH of 5–7 so that it does not change as you use it or possibly put in some small amounts of contaminants e.g if you scoop your conditioner out a jar, your hand may have water or gel or oil on it which could disrupt the conditioner pH. Sodium hydroxide takes care of that.

2. Ok, even if it is just 3–5 drops, could that not be harmful, does it really have to be there?

In order for sodium hydroxide to relax hair, it has to be in the alkaline range (8–10) and it also has to be of high enough concentration, pH alone is not sufficient. Sodium hydroxide as a pH adjuster, is saving you from, at best, having very itchy skin to at worst suffering damage as result of the initial very low pH of around 2–3.

3. If there are only 3–5 drops, why is it on the label?

The manufacturer is being honest. Any ingredient less than 1% does not have to be declared on the ingredients bottle and sodium hydroxide when added as pH adjuster or buffer is hovering right around that 1% mark. Some manufacturers even choose to label it as sodium chloride and not sodium hydroxide.

4. Should I be concerned by sodium chloride on the label?

No, in reality once sodium hydroxide is added to the conditioner, it is the hydroxide part that matters the most for pH and buffering and separates itself off from the sodium part. The sodium part does not like to be ‘naked’ and will quickly find chloride ions and to make the more stable salt sodium chloride.

This is the chemistry if you are interested!

5. When should I be concerned?

-If the product is labelled as a silkener or straightening balm, you should be concerned about sodium hydroxide on the label. Make sure that the product is not designed for straightening hair if that is not what you desire or check its pH yourself before using it.
‑If you have ever relaxed your hair, you will be able to recognise that caustic whiff that relaxers give off. This is often a tell-tale sign that sodium hydroxide is present in a high concentration.

Ladies, have you ever been worried about sodium hydroxide in your conditioner? Does this information provide some clarity?

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About The Natural Haven

Scientist on a hairy mission!

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Stace
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Stace

Reminds me of those quantitative chemistry days. Good times good times.
To answer the question though; no I have never worried about the presence of sodium hydroxide in my conditioner, but then again that is probably because I remember those quantitative chem days.

ss (short & sweet)
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ss (short & sweet)

Another pH adjusting product used in the hair and cosmetic industry is triethanolamine (TEA) which is uses as an emulsifier and/or surfactant in products ranging from cleansers to gels.

TEA is listed as a fairly strong base: a 1% solution has a pH of approximately 10.” Wikipedia (yeah, Wikipedia)

Many posters are reporting changes to their hair (texture changes and breakage) and have suspected TEA as a culprit.

Tiny Curls
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Tiny Curls

Thanks! This conditioner has perplexed me for a long time. Sodium Hydroxide is a necessary component for saponification; so, it doesn’t bother me when I see the ingredient in shampoo (Creme of Nature). However, there shouldn’t be soap in conditioner.…so I’d always wonder why there’s lye in a conditioner?!? Regardless of how many sales I see for Yes!, I just would not purchase that conditioner. I just wouldn’t chance ruining my curls.

Stace
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Stace

Yes to Carrots is actually my go to conditioner for my wash and go’s. I was my hair with it everyday. Have been using it for like 2 going on 3 years. Never had any issues. I actually love it. It is light, and you get a lot of it for cheap. I used to use it for deep conditioning when I was relaxed. Talk about hydration. Since going natural though I only use it for wash and go’s, but that is because I notice no difference in my hair from deep conditioning; so there is no point in wasting… Read more »

Ari
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Ari

Sodium chloride is table salt. When it is placed in a liquid, it dissociates into charged sodium and chlorine particles. It’s probably in hair products to attract other ions and pull them out of the hair. (s/n, if it actually existed as table salt in the system you would feel the granules. The resulting component ions are what actually exist… sorry I had chemistry this summer lol)

Chrissie
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Chrissie

Good to know! I’m not a chemistry buff so reading labels can take a while, lots of googling and Google goggling (lol) in the store aisles. Articles like this are very clear and make it much easier. Thanks!

mmkay
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mmkay

@ Ari, they are talking about sodium hydroxide (NaOH) not sodium chloride (NaCl) or table salt as you say.

And yes, NaOH is commonly used to raise pH levels

mmkay
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mmkay

my bad, just read the last line about the free sodium ions

db
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db

I mostly see that ingredient (or an equivalent) in natural soap/shampoo bars. Most sellers will say that it’s not present in the final product.

KP
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JC thanks so much for writing this. I see a lot of confusion about certain ingredients. The fact is that for some ingredients, once they are combine with other things, their chemistry completely alters. Soap for instance needs sodium hydroxide (lye) for saponification. Once it interacts with oils it ceases to be lye. Therefore when we bathe, we are NOT in fact putting lye on our skin. Could I just add that sodium chloride and sodium hydroxide are not the same things and are not typically used interchangeably. If sodium chloride is on an ingredient list, it can also be… Read more »

rose
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rose

OMG this post was fantastic! SO informative!!! Thanks for that — is sodium hydroxide ok in a shampoo bar, would it work in the same way?

Briasmommy Baldon
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Briasmommy Baldon

Good…i can keep this 8 dollar bottle of Neutrogena Triple moisture leave in i just bought…whew!**wipes brow**

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