Beauty · Hair · Health

How to read hair product labels

Since posting about the toxic ingredients hidden in black hair products, I’ve been taking my time to research and better understand how to read product labels. It’s interesting how simple a task it is to read a product label but how difficult it is to understand what you’re reading or what you’re looking out for. This is especially timely right now since everyone is “cancelling” Eco Styler Gel

Before I get into how to read labels I must start by saying that, it is important to note that although it may be better to use more natural ingredients than synthetic ingredients, things have changed a great deal from the days of our forefathers consuming what they cultivated from the land. It’s important to understand the scientific purpose of ingredients when reading product labels, be it hair products, skin care or food items. Reading and understanding product labels can be quite a rabbit hole because if you’re going to scrutinise what goes on your body then you’ll have to be just as critical of what goes into your body. Everything is a chemical, even the nutrients in your fruit. So I say all of that to say, google is your friend and there’s a wealth of information on the internet, in books and in studies to help you understand what something is or is not. is a great resource to start with if you’d like to understand more about the science behind beauty products and you can check out the video in this post as Michelle breaks down perfectly why natural doesn’t necessarily mean better.

Now unto what we’re here for.

The First Five

When buying beauty products , it’s easy to get caught up in tag lines and brand promises in big bold writing all over the bottle. However, the most important information is usually at the back of the bottle in small print. You want to pay attention to the first five ingredients at the back of the product. No matter how many ingredients in a product or the how much the brand emphasise the natural oils or exotic butters, ingredients are listed in order of what the product contains most of to the least amount. I remember reading Natural Haven blog and learning about how those first five ingredients usually make up 80-90% of a product. This means if you see a product label with water listed as the first ingredient, it makes up the majority of the product.

Get familiar with ingredient names

You’ll notice on product labels that you’re looking at a bunch of names you don’t recognise and can hardly pronounce. Then mixed up in those names are the words you can a understand in brackets. These strange and often time long names are the scientific names for ingredients both synthetic and natural, then in brackets are the English names of these ingredients that we are more familiar with. You may find that some product labels only have the ingredients listed in their scientific name or only have the English names. The more you read product labels you’ll see the same names used over and over again. Products are usually formed of water, emollients such as cetyl alcohol (to soften the hair and help oil and water mix together), surfactants such as behentrimonium methosulfate (help to smooth the hairs cuticle and also helps oil and water to mix together in the product) and natural or silicone based oils to add slip and soften the hair. You may even notice similar formulations in your skincare products.

Knowing the job of the ingredients

It may all seem confusing but don’t fret because resources such as EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database and Cosmetic Info are created to help you understand the function of the ingredients you’re unsure of. Just simply type the ingredient into the search bar on the websites and they will explain what the ingredient does giving you a better understanding of why it’s in the product and how is can affect your hair and health. Most especially EWG as they highlight the health concerns of the ingredients you search. Also when in doubt you can simply google the name and get all the info you need.

Most commonly I use the explanation given by Natural Haven to read my ingredients list. Which is, to delete all extracts as they usually constitute 1% or less of the product, delete all advertising words such as organic, unrefined, raw and fresh, focus on the top five ingredients and if you’re avoiding something in particular make sure you check the full ingredients list.

For example, a shampoo I have recently been using is the Palmer’s Cocoa Butter Formula Moisture Rich Shampoo. Its ingredients are:

Water (aqua), sodium C14-16 olefin sulfonate, glycol stearate, cocamide DIPA, cocamidopropyl betaine, sodium chloride, PEG-120 methyl glucose dioleate, fragrance (parfum), theobroma cacao (cocoa) seed butter, mentha piperita (peppermint) oil, tocopheryl acetate, caramel, polyquaternium-10, tetrasodium EDTA, hydroxypropyl methylcellulose, methylisothiazolinone, phenoxyethanol, phosphoric acid, benzyl benzoate.

This means that the most important ingredients to focus on are the water (makes up most of the product and is the number one source of moisture), sodium 14-16 olefin sulfonate (a surfactant, cleansing agent that gives foaming ability), glycol stearate (an emulsifying surfactant, meaning it smooths the hairs cuticle and binds the ingredients together), cocamide DIPA (for viscosity and foaming properties) and cocamidopropyl betaine (anti static hair, hair conditioning, foam boosting and viscosity controlling agent). According to the EWG website these ingredients score low on the toxicity meter which is great.

Now putting all of this information together I know that this shampoo is not harmful to my hair or health. It foams really well, cleanses hair, has a thick consistency, will smooth and condition my hair and won’t cause any static friction from rubbing it through my hair when I shampoo. Because I have already used it I know that it gives a bit of a tingly fresh feeling to the scalp and that is due to the peppermint oil in the list.

I’ll do another example with the Palmer’s Cocoa Butter Moisture Rich Conditioner to be used following the shampoo. Its ingredients are:

Water (aqua), dicetyldimonium chloride, cetyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, amodimethicone, behenyl alcohol, theobroma cacao (cocoa) seed butter, propylene glycol, fragrance, hydrolyzed keratin, tocopheryl acetate, glycine soja (soybean) oil, citric acid, mentha piperita (peppermint) oil, isopropyl alcohol, hydroxyethyl cetearamidopropyldimonium chloride, stearamidopropyl dimethylamine, stearamine, cyclotetrasiloxane, cyclopentasiIoxane, ceteareth- 20, phenoxyethanol, methylisothiazolinone, caramel, benzyl benzoate.

Water, dicetyldimonium chloride (anti static, hair conditioning, emulsifying, surfactant), cetyl alcohol (emollient), cetearyl alcohol (emollient) and stearyl alcohol (emollient) are the main parts of this conditioner. Although we have other star ingredients on the list such as cocoa butter, hydrolysed keratin, soybean oil and peppermint oil, because of what we now know about how products are formulated we know that most of the moisture, slip and strengthening properties come from those top ingredients.

Another favourite of mine is the more natural As I Am Coconut Cowash. This is a moisturising, non-foaming conditioning cream hair wash. I alternate it with my shampoo on days I feel my hair needs to be refreshed but not thoroughly washed with a shampoo. Its ingredients are:

Aqueous (Water, Aqua Purificada, Purified) Extracts: Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) and Citrus Reticulata (Tangerine), Cetyl Alcohol, Cetrimonium Chloride, Cetearyl Alcohol, PEG-40 Castor Oil, Stearlkonium chloride, Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Oil, Ricinus Communis (Castor) Seed Oil, Phytosterols, Serenoa Serrulata Fruit Extract, Quaternium-18, Potassium Sorbate, Fragrance/Parfum, Limonene, Methylisothiazolinone.

Source: 1-Natural, 2-Coconut

This one is a bit more interesting, because by the method I use it would mean the top 5 ingredients are water, cetyl alcohol, cetrimonium chloride (an anti static surfactant, emulsifier, antimicrobial, preservative), cetearyl alcohol and PEG-40 Castor Oil (cleansing agent).

Give this method a try with some of your favourite and most frequently used hair products. Take time to really monitor how the products you use make your hair feel and look and find out the common trends you in your product choices. If something isn’t working or giving you your desired results, research ingredients and get a better understanding of why it’s happening.

Here are some commonly used ingredients and their functions:

Protein: hydrolyzed wheat protein, hydrolyzed keratin, hydrolyzed silk protein, keratin, hydrolyzed oat flour, hydrolyzed soy protein

Volume/Fullness: biotin, also known as Vitamin B7 and Vitamin H, sea salt

Moisturizing:  glycerin, aloe vera, jojoba oil, shea butters, avocado oil, stearyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, behentrimonium methosulfate

Heat styling: silicones such as dimethicone and amodimedthicone

Shine:natural oils such as coconut oil and argan oil

Detangling/Provide Slip: fatty alcohols such as behenyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol,  Isocetyl alcohol, isostearyl alcohol, lauryl alcohol, etc.


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