The Ingredient Label Low Down: How to Analyze Hair Care Products
Reading a shampoo bottle shouldn’t require an advanced degree in chemistry.
But if you’ve ever looked at the label on your fave hair care products, you know what a nightmare decoding those ten-syllable ingredients can be.
Here’s everything you need to know to stay on top of your game in the pharmacy and online for healthier, happier hair:
Label Lingo 101
Oh, the promises hair care products make on their pretty, patterned bottles! Luxurious curls, shiny hair, zero frizz. Just name the problem, and chances are you’ll find five products clamoring for your attention – and the money in your wallet. When it comes to choosing a hard-working product from the pack of contenders, a little know-how goes a long way.
According to FDA regulations, all beauty products in the U.S. must list active ingredients within the first five items of their ingredients list – which mean these items matter the most. All other ingredients listed are likely present in amounts that add up to less than 1% of the total product.
For example, in most shampoos, you’ll see water as the primary ingredient, followed by a surfactant like sodium lauryl sulfate or decyl glucoside. Other common ingredients in shampoo include Dimethicone, a silicone oil, and Cetyl Alcohol, a fatty alcohol that actually helps with dry skin.
If you’re shelling out big bucks for a fancy conditioner that promises a moisturizing boost from coconut oil, make sure the ingredient is listed closer to the beginning of your label. Otherwise, you might be paying a lot of cash for little reward.
Vet Your Shampoo
Want to make sure your shampoo will get your hair squeaky clean without drying out your scalp? What it really comes down to, according to Refinery29, is understanding what kind of hair you have – and what kinds of products work best for you
If you have fine hair, look for moisturizing cleansers that won’t weigh your hair down, like aloe-vera juice, instead of heavier oils, like argan and coconut.
Rocking your natural curls? You can handle those moisturizing oils – and then some. Because curly hair is often drier than straight hair, avoid chemicals that tend to dry out your scalp, like alcohol-based products or products with silicone.
Heads up: there’s a pretty hot debate raging about sulfate-free shampoos right now – an especially important discussion if your hair is naturally dry or chemically treated.
“While sulfate-based shampoos do a great job of getting rid of oil and product buildup, they can also potentially dry out your hair, leading to a lack of moisture and sometimes even damage like split ends,” stylist Nunzio Saviano told Women’s Health.
Pay attention to your hair, so you can show it a little TLC with a sulfate-free formula if you’re allergic or especially sensitive to the drying effects of the chemical.
Green light ingredients: Natural surfactants (that lather and clean), like decyl glucoside and sucrose cocoate.
No, thanks: Sodium laureth sulfate, a surfactant that can majorly dry and irritate your skin.
Find out more about shampoo ingredients at Women’s Health.
Decode Your Conditioner
When it comes to conditioner, you need to think about two things: high-quality ingredients and application. By using a conditioner with coconut, palm, or jojoba oils, you help your hair make the most of the natural oils present in your scalp.
“Each of these natural oils has constituents of sebum, the oil produced by our bodies,” cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski explained to Everyday Health. “So these oils are compatible with the hair, and they’re reinforcing something that’s already there.”
Other common conditioner ingredients include: humectants like panthenol and glycerol, which invite moisture to stick around in your strands, and silicones like dimethicone, which can help ward off damage from heat styling. Fair warning: silicones can weigh down fine hair, so use wisely!
If you’re worried about losing moisture in your hair, or if you have a dry, itchy scalp, it can be tempting to over-do it on conditioner. By concentrating on correct, precise application, you can save yourself a headache – and a good chunk of change.
“If you’re using a half-dollar size of product, you will definitely be spending a lot of money on shampoo and conditioner and not doing much for your hair,” hair stylist Constantine James told Greatist.
Begin by working conditioner into the ends of your hair, then comb upward, toward the roots, to concentrate conditioner where your hair needs it the most – dry, damaged, and aging ends.
Green light ingredients: Rich conditioning oils, like coconut, argan, and jojoba oils.
No, thanks: Silicone-based ingredients, which can strip your hair of its natural oils.
Uncover Your Hair Mask’s True Identity
The job of a hair mask is to funnel moisture directly into your hair and scalp, which makes these products ever-so-slightly more effective than a regular conditioner at heavy-duty moisturizing.
“We increase the levels of conditioning ingredients in masks, and these ingredients tend to be on the heavier side, such as butters, oils, and silicones in addition to quats and wax-based conditioners,” cosmetic chemist Ni’Kita Wilson told Allure.
For those with thin hair, ingredients like silicone and wax-based conditioner can weigh your head down with extra product. As an alternative, ditch the hair mask altogether and focus on using an incredible conditioner after you shampoo.
But if you have thick, or naturally curly hair, go for that mask! It really will do more than your standard conditioner, says stylist Renee Pelc.
“Daily conditioners just touch the surface of the hair,” Pelc explained to Refinery29. “While your regular hydrator lowers the pH of your hair, which makes your hair appear smooth and shiny, it’s not doing anything to actually restructure the hair.”
With added antioxidants – like green tea and grape seed extract – or proteins, like keratin, hair masks can give you the extra oomph you need to repair and revitalize your hair.
Most stylists suggest using a hair mask – at most – once a week. That’s because “if you use these ingredients on a daily basis, you will experience buildup much quicker,” cautions Wilson.
And nobody needs that!
Green light ingredients: Rich, fatty oils, proteins, and antioxidants to help your hair stay strong and healthy. In the moisturizing department, look for jojoba, argan, and coconut oils, or shea and avocado butters. Keratin is a protein that will strengthen your hair, and antioxidants are generally listed as vitamins or natural extracts.
No, thanks: Silicones or wax, which promote buildup and add to your shampooing burden.
If you’re delving into the world of hair care products for the first time – and trying to keep harmful ingredients away from your head – the label on the back of your shampoo bottle can be an intimidating place to start.
Use our guide as a resource on your journey to complete hair health – and never be afraid to look up ingredients you don’t understand, or discard expensive products that just don’t work for you.
As you’re hunting for the right shampoo, conditioner, and hair mask, it’s also important to remember that expensive or luxury products don’t always add up. Sometimes you’re paying for extra stuff – like perfumes or polymers – that are all about the brand, and not about you. Shop smart!