The Inside Story

It is not enough to offer a shampoo that leaves behind a fresh fragrance and a clean coat; today's pet parents want products with ingredients they know and can trust.


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It used to be that customers were looking for a pet shampoo that lathers well, smells nice and cleans effectively. However, consumers today want more—much more.

Pet owners are looking beyond how these products work, and focusing in on ingredient labels and how product components will affect their pets’ health and well-being. In response, both manufacturers and retailers are looking to supply consumers not only with effective products, but also the information pet parents need to make the best choices.

With the rise of the Internet, pet owners are finding a great deal of information on various forums from pet-centric websites to Facebook to other web-based gathering places. Yet while knowledge is certainly easier to come by than ever before, so are rumors and misinformation. Retailers can help by providing accurate knowledge about the shampoos and conditioners that they offer, and helping customers separate fact from fiction—especially as it relates to ingredients.

Safety of ingredients is among pet parents’ top concerns these days. They are particularly focused on ingredients commonly used in shampoos and conditioners, such as sulfates, parabens and others. Sulfates, for example, are surface-acting agents—or surfactants—which lift dirt and oil off of hair and skin, so it can be rinsed away. Sulfates do this really well, resulting in fast, effective cleaning. The downside is that sulfates can also be harsh and sometimes irritating.

Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is in many shampoos intended for human and pet use. In fact, the Cosmetic Ingredients Review (CIR)—an organization that reviews and assesses the safety of ingredients in cosmetics—has deemed it safe for humans, especially in formulations meant for brief use followed by rinsing, such as shampoo. Still, although it is an expensive and effective degreaser that produces lots of rich lather, it is potentially the most irritating.

So, manufacturers are proactively formulating products with pet owners’ concerns in mind and using ingredients that consumers are likely to feel more comfortable with. “There are alternative sulfates to SLS that are milder,” says Ed Berman, CEO of Tropical Products, Inc., in Salem, Mass.—producer of over 30 brands of pet shampoos. “Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) is safe, produces nice lather, rinses readily and has no odor.”

Parabens are another common class of ingredients that many consumers are wary of, as there have been theories and reports linking parabens to cancer and hormonal imbalances, particularly in young girls and women. Berman points out that parabens are a preservative. “No shampoo is made in a clean room environment, so [preservatives] are necessary,” he says. “Anything made with water needs a preservative to prevent the growth of any bacteria. There is no proof that parabens are harmful, and they are very effective against yeasts and molds.” Nonetheless, Tropical Products uses a substitute preservative—DMDM hydantoin.

Another hot-button foaming ingredient in shampoos for both humans and pets is cocamide DEA. In 2012, California added it to its list of cancer-causing chemicals, which means it cannot be sold in the state, causing many manufacturers to eliminate it from their products. Tropical has substituted the use of cocamide DEA with lauryl glucoside. “It’s a better formula,” says Berman.

Tropical is not alone in its efforts to work with gentle, pet-friendly ingredients. Pet Head brand shampoos and conditioners—based on the popular human-salon brand, Bed Head—do not contain sulfates at all. Andrea Garcia, trade show and PR director for Pet Head, says: “Only professional-grade ingredients are used, and our products are all made in the USA.” 

Pet Head is happy to disclose ingredients and explain their uses. For example, its Feeling Flaky Shampoo for dogs is sulfate and paraben free, as well as includes aloe vera and glycerin to soothe skin, as well as condition and hydrate coat; yucca and chamomile extracts to provide relief to sensitive, dry skin; and Brazil nut oil to nourish the coat.

In addition to making a quality product, Pet Head offers fun, brightly colored packaging and memorable product names that are mostly solution driven to help sell the line and spark brand recognition that also ties back its human-market products.

Brand recognition can be key in this category, as pet owners often seek products from companies that they know and trust. For example, TropiClean has been around since 1992 and is known for its safe, natural ingredients. Joe Zuccarello, TropiClean’s director of innovation and promotion, says natural ingredients are important to many pet owners these days. “Solutions such as Shampoo PLUS Conditioner, Oatmeal Soothing and Vitamin Enriched are very attractive to customers,” he says. “Unfortunately, humans equate more suds with more clean, but that is not necessarily the case. Artificial sudsing agents are included in pet and people shampoos for this reason. However, they do not necessarily create cleaner hair or coat. A nice surprise is that most high-quality pet shampoos are actually constructed better than the pet parent’s shampoo in their own shower. Pet parents are actually purchasing better shampoo for their pets.” 

Petology is another company that has sulfate-free, paraben-free formulas. The company also believes that it is important to fully disclose all of the ingredients of its shampoos. Right now, it only takes a phone call to get a complete list—the company plans to offer more detailed labeling in the future.

“We are always looking for a better quality of life for pets,” says Rick Ferritto, founder and president of Pet Research Labs/Petology Products. “Many companies tell you how and what they do—we want to tell you why.”

Pet Research Labs’ technical director, Dr. David Jarvis—formerly vice president of R&D for L’Oreal and Revlon/Colomer—says that, instead of relying on research done on humans for human personal care products, the company uses research done specifically for animals. Canines are different from humans, and the ingredients in shampoo need to take those differences into account. “Canine skin is one-third the thickness of human skin, and thinner skin means faster absorption,” says Jarvis. This means it is vital to ensure that ingredients are truly safe for canines, and Petology works hard to make sure its formulas are. “Since sulfates have been proven irritants on human skin, just imagine what it’s doing to dogs,” says Jarvis.

Petology is also always looking for an ethical approach to pet grooming products, a better way to do things. “We need to respect the dogs’ skin and recognize that they are not humans,” says Ferritto.

The company’s proprietary blend of moisturizing agents is actually a canine sebum substitute. “Sebum isn’t dirt—it’s nature’s own conditioner,” says Ferrito, and when it is removed from the skin by cleansing, it should be replaced. NaturShine is a patent-pending, all-natural complex that replenishes the shine and conditioning effects of actual canine sebum, as well as replenishes the natural water-repellent properties of the coat.

Petology products should appeal to value-conscious consumers as well, since they are more concentrated than most pet shampoos and can be diluted further.

One of the best ways to arm yourself and your staff with knowledge is to develop a good relationship with product suppliers that can provide whatever information your customers need. Ask what is available in the way of education or sales materials—anything from videos for use on the sales floor to POP displays to the phone number of someone willing to answer questions about product. Utilize the resources provided to help educate your customers and increase sales in this important category.


Carol Visser is a Nationally Certified Master Groomer and Certified Pet Dog Trainer. Formerly a pet product expert for PetEdge, she and her husband Glenn now own Two Canines Pet Services in Montville, Maine, which provides grooming, boarding, training and day care services to Waldo County.

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