I started this post as support for my curly girls, but quickly realized this is valuable information for anyone that picks up a hair product and wonders what all those ingredients are.
Are you overwhelmed with what hair product ingredients to avoid and why?
Have you ever stood in the store looking at that FREE OF list on a bottle of shampoo wondering what all those things are and why you should avoid them?
Have you asked a question in the hair community and you get a long list of things to avoid like, “go sulfate and silicone free, and avoid mineral oil and phthalates?”
Meanwhile, you have zero clue WHY. What does it all mean? I hear you! So, this post is for you.
LAST UPDATED: 9.16.2021
The list on a bottle of what it doesn’t contain can sometimes be longer than what it does contain.
Sure, we all have things we avoid for various reasons and things we will only use under certain conditions. Most of us know by now to avoid sulfates because they are harsh ingredients that strip moisture from your hair and skin. Many of us have known allergens we watch out for. We look for cruelty-free products because we want to save animals from being tortured for face cream and lip stick. Which is all fair enough and quite reasonable.
I’ve learned a fair amount now making my own products, and understanding how ingredients blend together. I wanted to share some things with you and why I don’t enforce or even follow these hair care “rules” 100%. The first and most simple reason is DO WHAT WORKS FOR YOU! If it works and you like your results, go for it.
One of the reasons I created this blog is because extremes (especially in the curly community) have been set into motion and they aren’t true for all hair types or for all products. Read through now and bookmark for later reference. This post is meant for you to come back.
So What Ingredients Should You Avoid or Not in Hair Products?
Simple definition: a set of chemicals commonly used as cleansing agents, they are found in hand soap, dish soap, face cleansers, shower gels, laundry detergent and shampoo.
While I do believe sulfates are very stripping; sometimes we need exactly that, especially with silver hair and stubborn buildup or discoloration. So for clarifying, if it’s in your favorite heavy duty clarifier like Neutrogena Anti-residue…go for it, on occasion, and definitely follow with deep conditioning with heat.
My Preference: I avoid them except for an occasional heavy duty clarifying.
When sulfates become a problem for your hair:
- When a sulfate is one of the first three ingredients, it is more likely to be a harsher shampoo.
- Daily use or even weekly use can create a vicious stripping cycle so your hair becomes damaged from being dry and having no protective moisture or proteins.
- Dry hair grabs discoloration so your silver can become dull and even yellowy from grabbing minerals, pollution, and even other hair products.
Sulfates Commonly Used in Shampoo:
(Avoid if Possible)
- Laureth Sulfate Sodium
- Lauroyl Isethionate
- Lauryl Sulfoacetate Sodium
- Sodium Lauroyl Taurate
- Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
(Usually contains the word “sulfate”.)
NOT A SULFATE:
(Use with Caution but a very effective clarifying agent)
- Sodium C14-16 Olefin Sulfonate
Simple definition: silicones are a set of lab created chemicals, usually derived from natural silica, quartz, and even sand. They are consider hydrophobic, many act like a rain coat for your hair and skin, by creating what is almost a plastic coating. They are used most often to create a barrier and prevent moisture from escaping and/or entering the skin or hair, depending on the need.
They are found in face creams and serums, foundations, skin lotion, hair serums, smoothing serums, conditioners, shampoos, leave-ins, heat protectants, mousse, foams, gels, hair spray…basically anything a company wants to create shine, sheen, smoothing, gloss, or humidity protection.
Not all silicones are created equal; in addition, you may not know which ones are which…understandable if you don’t have a chemistry degree.
Silicones were banned in the Curly Girl Method because they were heavily used in formulations in the 80’s and 90’s when everyone wanted smoothing and shine. To create that smooth look the silicones were heavy and super water repelling. This caused weighed down slick and sleek hair.
Silicones have evolved though.
Manufacturers have been listening to the pulse of our hair desires. Silicones have become easily removable. The myth was that you could only remove silicones with sulfates, but non-sulfate shampoos effectively remove most if not all silicones. The chemist at Loma has this Simple Science- Silicones and Cyclics Video and explains it really well. I encourage you to watch it.
My advice if you like your hair products and the results better with silicones, use water, air, and shampoo soluble silicones if possible, and make clarifying part of your regular routine.
My Preference: I prefer to always avoid Amodimethicone, because it steals my curls. I still allow some in though in great formulations.
When silicones become a problem for your hair:
- Cowashing only (with a silicone-containing product or following with silicone-containing styling products) could be problematic, as you aren’t ever using a shampoo.
- If all your products contain various silicones, they buildup and cause lifeless hair.
- You have buildup of them or burn them onto your white hair and they turn yellow.
- A silicone heavy hair “oil” or serum usually it contains all the cyclo- prefaced silicones and over time, it is my opinion they will dry out your hair and yellow silver hair.
Silicones that Buildup:
(Avoid if Possible, but one in one product may not be problematic.)
- Cetearyl Methicone
- Cetyl Dimethicone
- Stearyl Dimethicone
(Usually contains the ending -cone, -xane, -conol)
- Some dimethicones are better than others
- PEG-8 (or higher) Dimethicone
- Bis-PEG-8 (or higher) Dimethicone
- Bis-PEG-8/PEG-8 Dimethicone
- Bis-PEG-18 methyl ether dimethyl silane
- PEG-8-PG-coco glucoside dimethicone
- Dimethicone PEG-X phosphate
(Usually contains the prefix PEG-.)
(Avoid always, better for the environment and your hair.)
- Cyclotetrasiloxane (D4)
- Cyclotrisiloxane (D3)
- Cyclopentasiloxane (D5)
- Cyclomethicone 5.
(Usually contains the prefix cyclo-)
Simple definition: glycerin is a humectant (retains moisture). It is a highly effective and popular conditioning agent found throughout hair products, skin care products, and even in food.
My Preference: It took me YEARS to figure out why it didn’t work in a product for me. But guess what? I don’t avoid glycerin. I just make sure it isn’t in my styling leave-in products. If it is, it has to be after the fifth ingredient. If it is in shampoo and conditioner, I don’t care what concentration it is in the formula. It is a winning ingredient at pulling water into the hair, which is why you find it in so many curly girl products.
You are probably asking why I deal with glycerin this way: well I live in the high desert we have extreme heat in the summer and very, very dry cold winters. Glycerin is like an antenna, it will turn your hair strands into antennae as well. Glycerin causes FRIZZ, when it cannot find moisture in your hair, it starts seeking it from the air.
When Glycerin becomes a problem for your hair:
All Humectants can be problematic and cause frizz.
- If you have high porosity hair they can pull too much moisture in when humidity is high causing the hair to swell and raise the cuticle. This can cause tangles, frizz, and make your hair feel rough.
- If you live in a low humidity environment, your hair can be robbed of moisture by the humectant seeking moisture, which causes frizz and dryness. It is best to use quality-conditioning products with higher moisturizing ingredients than humectants.
The Good News:
- If you live in a humidity balanced environment and your hair is moisture balanced, glycerin and other humectants may not be an issue for you.
- If you have never noticed a blooming thing in regards to glycerin in your products, then you need not worry about it in the least.
Courtney does a fabulous job explaining glycerin use in this post. She also lives in a moderately dry climate not far from where I am in the US so I found this very helpful.
(Not to be avoided unless you have a known issue.)
- Vegetable Glycerin
Other humectants in hair products:
(Not to be avoided and most are not as quick to cause issues as glycerin.)
Diols and triols-
- 1,2,6 hexanetriol
- Butylene glycol
- Capryl glycol
- Dipropylene glycol
- Hexanediol or -triol beeswax
- Hexylene glycol
- Phytantriol Propylene glycol
- Triethylene glycol
- Hyaluronic acid
- Sodium PCA
Sugars and modified sugars-
- Polyglyceryl sorbitol
Hydrolyzed proteins can also act as humectants-
(The x will be a number depending on its compound name.)
- PEG-x (polyethylene glycol)
- Silicone copolyols
Simplified for hair definition: hair product proteins provide strength, they temporarily rebuild the bonds on your hair and help seal the cuticle (when it has been damaged by bleach and is in the high porosity category), and some are even film forming providing moisture for the hair.
Proteins can be found in all hair products depending on their purpose, usually they will be sold as strengthening or bond building.
Our hair needs proteins. It is made of a protein called keratin, which is why you see keratin in many hair products. Protein has a unique structure depending on what it is sourced from.
The large and small of it:
The larger the molecule the “larger” the protein; for instance, wheat protein is very large so it has to be broken down into smaller pieces in order for it to be utilized by the hair. While silk protein is smaller than wheat, it is still large enough that it needs to be broken down.
The smallest “proteins” in hair products will be amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein, and then peptides, which are the building ‘strings’ of amino acids.
Proteins are amazing for higher porosity hair types, even if it is not damaged from chemical processing.
The tighter your coil, say moving into the 3c and the 4’s curl type zone, the more likely your hair has a naturally higher porosity. Protein is something you may need.
My Preference: I avoid most proteins, but I don’t 100% avoid them 100% of the time. Because I have low porosity wavy hair, I use proteins in extreme moderation, usually in a rinse out product like deep conditioner about once a month. Proteins are also not always necessary for virgin hair (undyed, undamaged, and untouched by chemicals).
When proteins become a problem for your hair:
What is Protein Overload?
There is no such thing, in my opinion, as “protein overload.” Protein buildup can be just like any other buildup and that comes straight from a hair product chemist. She explained to me that clarifying correctly is all you need to remove protein buildup. If you have protein buildup, your hair may feel straw-like, stiff, crispy, or dry. Clarify and deep-condition with protein-free products.
What is Flash Drying?
Some people experience flash drying, it is my opinion that it is most likely due to protein imbalance. If you have ever had flash drying happen you know it, it is usually a rapid (flash) drying of your hair possibly while you are still in the shower and you have just applied a product to wet hair, or it can be frizz as seen in the photo on the right.
Usually flash drying is about protein and moisture balance. It can be too much protein and not enough moisture or it could be the wrong ingredient balance for your hair type. Before you toss the product, add more water to your hair while using the product. If that doesn’t work, it may not be right for you.
In the photo, this was flash drying from protein in gel, so it happened while my hair was air-drying. The frizz is what dried in a flash and separated from the curl clumps.
(Use According to Your Hair Type)
Any ingredient preceded with “Hydrolyzed” and followed by “Protein” is a protein. Hydrolyzed means it has been molecularly broken down into smaller particles so that is available to the hair cuticle. Other proteins can be listed as amino acids and peptides. Not all proteins are the same size even when they are hydrolyzed, so you have larger proteins, which are great for high porosity hair, and smaller proteins are great for low porosity or fine hair.
Collagen is a mix of amino acids. It is a hydrating protein. It has its own set of small to large proteins derived from it:
- Collagen being the whole molecule,
- Hydrolyzed collagen,
- Collagen amino acids (the smallest).
Quinoa is a complete protein meaning it contains all 8 of the essential amino acids: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine.
Amino Acids are not a protein on their own; they are the individual components and building blocks of a complete protein:
- Aspartic acid
- Glutamine or Glutamic Acid
- Proline (aka sodium PCA)
(Sometimes there will be an L- before the amino acid.)
OILS & BUTTERS
Simple definition: a group of fats that are derived from animals and plants.
They are commonly used in all types of skin and hair products.
Honestly, I’m not sure how banning oils for hair caught so much popularity, for me they are amazing natural ingredients that provide much more benefit than problem.
Oils and butters provide:
- A replication of the lipid layer that naturally is present on the hair shaft,
- Sealing to the cuticle,
- Softening to the hair shaft,
- Slip for allowing you to detangle and reduce friction which reduces breakage,
- They can provide coilier and higher porosity types with desperately needed softening and hold moisture into their hair,
- For low porosity and 2-3 curl types, they can keep us from having tangles and frizz.
Oils and butters are added to hair products because of all their advantages. That said not all hair types handle all oils and butters the same way. I won’t go into much more detail here (I can write an entire post on fats and how they absorb or adsorb into the hair), but the type of fatty acid molecules that make up the butters and oils determine what their function on the hair is, whether they are sealing or penetrating oils.
My Preference: I love oils in butters in formulations and neat depending on the need. I often use oils to tame halo frizz, or to scrunch out the crunch. I do not use coconut oil on my hair and rarely use it in a formula, I find it makes my hair staticky or it builds up quickly if in a formula.
When Oils and Butters become a problem for your hair:
Keep in mind, the butters that are solid at room temperature WILL weigh down finer and wavier hair types and should never be used alone on DRY hair to replace moisture. It is fine for you to have them in your products just be aware of their concentration, the more there is in the formula the worse the weigh down will be.
Water is moisture … oil is fat.
Butters can coat dry hair and make it drier because it is blocking moisture from reaching the hair strand, making it hydrophobic just like silicones can. You can see more on this in the post: Why You Might Reconsider Using Coconut Oil On Your Hair
Oils are not bad. However, coating your dry hair with oil and hoping for a deep conditioning effect won’t work.
(Note: Essential oils do not work the same way as vegetable and nut oils or butters.)
Some Oils and Butters Commonly Found in Hair Products
(Solid at room temperature)
- Babassu oil
- Cocoa Butter
- Coconut oil
- Mango Butter
- Muru Muru Butter
- Shea Butter
(Liquid at room temperature)
- Argan Oil
- Grapeseed Oil
- Jojoba Oil
- Marula Oil
- Sweet Almond Oil
- Sunflower Oil
- Safflower Oil
- Squalane Oil
If you have silver hair I would recommend avoiding these oils due to potential staining:
- Black Castor Oil
- Hemp Oil
- Olive Oil
(Note: Mineral oil is not a naturally occurring oil it is a petroleum distillate and acts much like silicones on the hair. One to avoid.)
Simple definition in hair terms: there are two primary categories in hair care for alcohols drying and fatty.
Fatty Alcohols: these are good alcohols derived from fatty acids; these are what provide moisture in your conditioning products. Highly nourishing and moisturizing. You want them in the first few ingredients of hair products.
Drying Alcohols: used to help product dry faster so your style sets quickly…think hair spray, which means your hair also is zapped of moisture with this quick dry ingredient on top. They should be avoided more often than not in products like leave-in and gel ESPECIALLY if they are in the first ingredients.
Note: don’t avoid a product just because it contains a drying alcohol at the lower end of the ingredient list. Many alcohols are used in the formulation process, they must be claimed on the label but they usually have evaporated before bottling, or they evaporate as your hair dries without causing damage, as the concentration is extremely low.
List of Alcohol Ingredient Names:
- Behenyl alcohol
- Cetyl alcohol
- Cetearyl alcohol
- Lauryl alcohol
- Myristyl alcohol
- Stearyl alcohol
(Usually the first word ends in –yl.)
(Avoid if Possible)
- Denatured alcohol
- Isopropyl alcohol
- Propyl alcohol
- SD alcohol
- SD alcohol 40
Simple definition: a long list of polymer chemicals used as conditioning agents in hair care.
They are found in all forms of hair care products.
My Preference: I don’t pay much attention to them unless I suddenly notice a new product is causing issues, like limp hair, dull silvers, or stretched out curls.
When Polyquats become a problem for hair:
They do not generally cause buildup alone but if they are combined with other ingredients that cause buildup like heavy oils and butters or silicones they will contribute.
Some people are starting to avoid them simple due to buildup.
(Use with Caution)
- Polyquaternium-44 (best performer)
(The list of polyquats is very long, the number at the end of a polyquat does not delineate any chemical formulation, only when the chemical was created, they are in order from 1 on…)
Simple definition: they are a class of chemicals designed to act as preservatives for formulations in the cosmetic industry. They extend the lifespan of a product and prevent microbial activity from occurring in the bottle.
When Parabens become a problem for hair:
While they don’t harm your hair, they are a class of chemicals that are known to cause hair loss; they mimic estrogen and may disrupt normal hormone function and production.
List of Parabens:
(Best to avoid if possible especially if you are experiencing hair loss)
(Usually ending in –paraben)
FRAGRANCE FREE vs UNSCENTED
Fragrance-free means: there are no fragrances or masking agents added to the product or any of its ingredients.
Unscented means: there may be odor-neutralizing agents or masking agents in individual ingredients but no scent is added to the product.
When Fragrance becomes a problem for hair:
Synthetic fragrances often cause irritation and allergy depending on what irritants they have in them.
My Preference: I avoid synthetic fragrance as often as I can because I am allergic to formaldehyde.
Irritants can include:
- FORMALDEHYDE RELEASERS
These all belong to diverse and vast classes of chemicals, surrounding us all in our flooring, some plastic bottles, foam, and included in most synthetic “fragrance.” They are difficult to avoid. Most often, they won’t be clearly defined on the label except under the all-encompassing name of “fragrance.” They are used most often as preservatives.
They don’t cause any problems with your hair but they may cause allergies, irritations, and interfere with hormone function and production.
Formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasers are known carcinogens and can cause severe sensitivities and allergies. If you can avoid them as additives, it is best practice.
You can read more on phthalates in The Dangers of Phthalates and Why You Should Avoid Them
You can read more on formaldehydes in How Formaldehyde May be Damaging Your Health & Hair Through Your Hair Products
A Small List of Some Formaldehyde:
- Diazolidinyl urea
- DMDM hydantoin
- Imidazolidinyl urea
- Polyoxymethylene urea
- Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate
(Formaldehyde is in several chemical straightening treatments as well, do your research before you have the smoothing and blow out treatments.)
Gluten is only necessary to avoid if you have a wheat or gluten allergy or Celiac Disease. Otherwise, it is unlikely to cause any issue with your hair.
My Preference: I avoid as much as possible because I have a gluten sensitivity.
Gluten containing grains:
- Brewer’s Yeast
- Various forms of Malt
(Use with Caution)
The itchy m’s are not an ingredient that causes buildup but are two ingredients that cause allergic reactions…mainly itching, thus their nickname. They are preservatives used to combat bacteria, fungi, and yeast in hair products. You will usually find them toward the end of the product list. For most, they pose no issue but if your scalp itches, check for these two culprits.
- Methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI)
- Methylisothiazolinone (MI)
What to know when reading an ingredient label:
By law, ingredients are listed on the label from highest concentration to lowest. The top ten ingredients are the most concentrated and most often make up anywhere from 90-99% of the formula. The remaining ingredients may make up less than 10% of the recipe. Think of those later ingredients as the spices in your cooking recipe. They provide flavor but usually no nutritional value.
IsItCG.com is a great resource for copy and pasting your ingredients into and finding out what is in it and how safe it is. Even if you are not a curly girl (CG) you will find the tool helpful.
If you want to know before you buy, Ulta, Sephora, Walmart, sometimes Amazon, and sometimes the product home website will list the ingredients where you can copy and paste them into the Is It CG? tool.
I’d like just to make a note here about the combination of ingredients. Think of it in terms of a recipe.
In cooking, we know that if you ate flour by itself you’d be disgusted. However, blend it with milk, eggs, sugar, butter, vanilla or chocolate, and bake it, you get a delectable cake.
Same thing goes for hair formulas. I get it there is some really bad cake out there, because some companies just want you to buy it for your hair type so you buy their product and not someone else’s. However, some chemists know exactly what they are doing and are doing it to deliver you the best results possible. Even if they deliver a product with some of these “no-no” ingredients, as long as it isn’t an ingredient that is harmful to your health, you may want to try it anyway.
What Ingredients Should You Avoid or Not in Hair Products is entirely up to you:
While, yes avoiding problem ingredients like sulfates and silicones, is good practice until you know what works. Unless you are allergic to something, you don’t have to ditch an ingredient entirely unless you have truly tested and understood what doesn’t work for you.
Or save this link in your favorite to refer back to (hair care ingredients list)
I hope you found this post educational and helpful.
Thank you for reading. Please feel free to share.
As always it is about so much more than the hair.
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