In March 2016 a stylist posted online about a situation in which after he applied foils to a client’s hair it started to smoke and their hair began to “melt” off. The stylist blamed the situation on Pantene, a popular home care product advertised on television and endorsed by celebrities of all ranges. The story went viral, as expected when someone’s hair legitimately looks like it might have caught on fire during a routine highlighting. The company, in a similarly predictable move, denied the allegations, claiming that there’s nothing in their formulas that’s not in other hair products.
There’s a couple different aspects in this story to consider, the first is liability- neither party are claiming responsibility for what happened to this poor woman’s hair. Are both just trying to pass the blame unto the other to avoid being persecuted by the woman in question who has the misfortune of being the subject of this problem? Are both to blame?
The second aspect is time- this happened in 2004, a time where home hair products were reaching a pinnacle point of massive celebrity endorsements and TV commercials. (Now of course this is second hand for companies and for the people who watch commercials) both home hair care products and the products stylists use have come a long way since then. Chemical formulations have been adjusted, and science has improved the quality of our lines and as well as our techniques.
Let’s launch into the thick of the problem- who is the client suppose to trust? How are consumers going to be able to protect themselves from situations like this? And also- what in the world happened? Pantene claims that’s there’s nothing in there shampoos that isn’t in other shampoos- well inherently that is wrong, there are plenty of shampoos on the market without any of the ingredients in Pantene’s formula, especially any kind natural shampoo or conditioner. It’s not untrue necessarily- the obviously meant that many products, especially commercial lines, use the same ingredients. So let’s take a look at whats inside them-
I’ve chosen to use Pantene Pro V Shampoo as it seems like one of the more common shampoos used by consumers in regards to Pantene.
Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate and Ammonium Laureth Sulfate: these are the second and third ingredients listed in Pantene Pro V, these are both surfactants and help give lather to the hair. These are very common ingredients, and while not necessarily inherently wrong, are higher in alkalinity and so can be rougher on the hair. Many companies are choosing to omit sulfates from their formulas as they are both drying and pore clogging.
Sodium Chloride- is actually just salt. I know sounds way scarier, but it’s actually a very common preservative
Cocamide MEA- A mixture of fatty acids amides that are produced from the fatty acids in coconut oil- it is most commonly used as a foaming agent and nonionic surfactant. (Helps make your shampoo lather). However it is also a known carcinogen.
Dimethicone- this is a silicone based compound that helps give slickness to the hair. It’s popular in the cosmetics industry for more then just hair as it provides an even, lubricating coating. One can be hard pressed to find hair care items without this chemical in it, it’s even in diaper rash creams to aid in soothing the skin.
Fragrance- This is a frustrating ingredient as it can refer to some 3,000 different chemicals that could be used as a fragrance. However because they’re considered trade secrets, manufacturers are not required to disclose the chemical list for how they created this fragrance.
**Panthenol- Derived from vitamin B5, this can be found in a lot of cosmetics such as moisturizers, conditioners, hair sprays etc. It is also used as an emollient, spreading evenly over the hair and creating a thin film that helps the cuticle lay down. One of the results of having a film like this is the slip it provides, aiding as a detangler. One could argue that the entire line was built from the power of this ingredient.
Panthenyl Ethyl Ether- An antistatic, this makes the hair more manageable and reduces frizz by neutralizing any electrical charge on the surface. It imparts suppleness, shine and gloss.
Cetyl Alcohol- generally used as an emollient, emulsifier, or thickening agent, they’re also used as conditioning agents due to being non-volatile- unlike their cousins isopropyl alcohol.
Polyquaternium-10- A cationic (positively charged) polymer that helps neutralize any negative charges and helps hair lie flat. (i.e. defrizzer)
Sodium Citrate- Generally in the cosmetics industry this is used as an emulsifier, however some other properties that are quite interesting are it’s ability to buffer changes in acidity. What this means is that a solution would have to be slightly more acidic to result in an overall change in the pH of the solution. Sodium Citrate itself will actually raise the pH slightly by itself. (remember we do have sulfates however that result in a higher alkalinity in the hair)
Sodium Benzoate- This chemical is derived in benzoic acid, a very effective preservative, however one that is not that soluble in cold water. You will find that sodium benzoate on the other hand (which is water soluble at any temperature) is used as a preservative across the board, from shampoo to soda. It prevents bacteria from forming, and when ingested is transported directly to the liver where it is filtered right back out via our excretory system.
Ammonium Xylenesulfonate- This is used as a surfactant, increasing the ability of water to dissolve other molecules, making it a helping hand to removing dirt and grime from the hair.
Disodium EDTA- One interesting quirk of this chemical is it’s ability to remove metal ions from water, making it effective even in places that use hard water.
PEG-7M- This is used for binding, emulsion and adjusting the viscosity in a product. A contested but forgotten chemical in the industry as they *can* (not are but can) be derived from incredibly toxic and cancerous materials like ethylene oxide, which is a military grade poisonous gas. On top of that on less jump-scare note, it’s also a skin irritant.
Citric Acid- In shampoo, a small amount is all you need, as citric acid can actually open up the cuticle layer of the hair and result in frizziness. It’s purpose lies in a reaction is has called “chelation”- it binds well to minerals and metals, removing excess build up from hair.
Methylchloroisothiazolinone- To start, it’s a cytotoxin. Meaning that it is toxic to cells. This is already a red flag- in fact the first study published about it as a contact allergen was in 1988. In fact in 2013 the BBC ran an entire episode on Watchdog about the dangers of the preservative and the rise of severe allergic reactions happening to people in the UK. It’s purpose is purely as a preservative, preventing the developments of microorganisms in products.
Methylisothiazolinone- Used in conjunction with Methylchloroisothiazolinone, also a skin irritant, also a preservative.
You’ll notice I have marked one ingredient above, panthenol. For some time there was a scare that these ingredients were awful for the hair, and as the culprit damaging the hair in shampoo. Thing is, panthenol is actually a perfectly good chemical. It neutralizes electric static, stopping frizz, imparts volume, and is great for the skin- however part of why it is good for the hair is the light film it leaves on the hair, sealing the cuticle layer down. There have been no studies showing that use over time results in a heavy build up of a “waxy layer”, a term held onto by many people, and the chemical retains no similarities chemically to wax.
On that note, most of the studies that have been conducted on it have been by the very companies trying to prove it’s use isn’t negative to begin with. Going into research with a bias is never going to have truly objective results. And when looking for these studies I was hard pressed to find more than a small handful of actual scientific studies, but plenty of heresay from other hairdressers, bloggers, and other people with either a point to prove one way or the other or have an interest in it due to their audience.
So if those are the ingredients we are dealing with, they aren’t great all around but none of them are quite going to be the culprit resulting in hair appearing as though to have “caught fire” and “smoke” inside the foils. It doesn’t mean it’s not possible, or that there are situations in which it can occur given the right environment, but I also wouldn’t peg it as the reason necessarily or that this would happen every time. There are a lot of factors to consider other than just the shampoo or conditioner used.
On the other hand, I can tell you from personal experience working with clients that use Pantene always give me more problems (especially with bonding) then clients who do not. The only shampoo I dislike more than Pantene is Head and Shoulders (but that’s for another day).
So now we have to look at the stylist- none of us were there, we do not know what the stylist used, or how long it was left on etc etc. But we can make some general assumptions-
If this is a basic highlight, we can guess the stylist used a 10 or 20 vol (3% or 6%) at most a 30 vol (9%) developer in their lightener. We’ll say it’s 20 on average. The average application time for a half head of highlights is under an hour. (Again, we’re giving the benefit of the doubt here- some stylists can pop in a half head of highlights in 20 min, some take the entire hour, everyone is different). We also don’t know the natural level or if the stylist was lifting over previous color. If we look at the post it seems pretty basic, and some reproduced since posts, it seems very basic, and that the stylist has been doing their hair for at least a year, which means that for the most part they know what’s been on the client’s hair, and most likely wouldn’t do anything to drastic or go to heavy handed with them.
According to the post, they foiled the hair out and then the client complained it was hot, prompting the stylist to check the foils. Upon feeling the heat of the foil, they opened it and smoke came out. After asking the usual questions of medication and product use etc, the only thing that had changed was that she had begun using Pantene for several months, which according the stylist, resulted in “the build up of parabens and plastic and silicones when it comes in-contact with a bleach or hi-lift color it reacts and the bleach will melt off the build up and becomes a very hot liquid and if it come in contact with skin it will cause a burn.”
So let’s get one thing straight- there are NO plastics in Pantene products. That is not a thing. There is also no actual wax. It does create a waxy like layer, but not actual wax. This is a very important difference.
Now there are a couple reasons you use foils- one is too keep it from touching the rest of the hair, so you get a nice clean look, and doesn’t leave any spots. The other is that it keeps the lightener or color from drying out, meaning it will process better/more evenly. The last most important reason is that it retains the heat making it process faster. This can also be a problem however, there have been many time I go to remove a foil and it’s hot, depending on how the ingredients in your lightener reacts with anything on your client’s hair you can end up with some surprises. Henna for example will melt the entire hair strand off when reacting with ammonia based lighteners, same with Feria due to the metallic based dye that they actually patented.
In the end, when it comes to using products on your hair, it’s a scary world for an uninformed consumer. No company is going to tell you all the potentially negative side effects, that would be bad advertising, and everyone’s combination of products, duration of use, and goals with their hair all effect what matters in that case. As someone who is allergic to many ingredients in hair products and who works with every hair texture and health from the kinkiest of curls to the straightest of the straight that drops a curl in a seconds, ingredients matter. But so does communication from my clients. If they don’t let me know, or fudge the truth a little about what they put on their hair, what they’ve done to it etc, then I can’t help create solutions. Looking into ingredients certainly matters for many consumers, but it’s easy to get scared, or have shock value that throws one off. In the end, trust your hair dresser. We have licenses for a reason. And on average, the products that can be bought in a CVS, Target etc are not going to be as high a quality as those purchased from a salon, or recommended by your stylist. That doesn’t mean they’re bad products, many of them are great! It all depends on your texture, hair goals, and budget.