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Understanding the ingredient list

Understanding the ingredient list

The ingredient list on a hair product is your friend.  This list is one of the most important pieces of information to guide you on your curly hair journey. We strongly recommend you become comfortable with reading and understanding the information in each ingredient list.  The good news is, it looks way more intimidating than it really is!

The first thing you need to know is that the order in which ingredients are listed on a product label is important. The ingredients present in the highest amount are typically listed first. Ingredients continue in descending order with the lowest amounts listed last. But note, if ingredients are present in equal amounts, they can be listed in any order. For example, if water and emulsifier make up 90% of a product, and the other ingredients are each less than 1%, the other ingredients may be listed in any order. 

Typically, the First Five (5) ingredients make up the majority (85%) of the product. The first ingredient listed is typically present in the highest amount and is often water (generally anywhere from 50-80%). 

Substances derived from plants, algae, or fungi are usually indicated by their botanical (latin) name, with the common name indicated in parentheses. Some of these ingredients, such as essential oils, may be expensive and are typically only present in small quantities.  

Castor oil with beans

For example:

Butyrospermum parkii (Shea butter)

Cocos nucifera (Coconut) Oil

Ricinus communis (Castor) Seed Oil

Helianthus annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil

Prunus Amygdalus dulcis (Sweet almond) Oil

Lavandula Angustifolia (Lavender)

Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary)

A dark bottle of rosemary essential oil with fresh rosemary twigs

The botanical names can make the ingredient list appear very long and complicated but as you can see, you just can focus on the common name. The naming is based on the International Nomenclature for Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI).  This website is helpful when learning and discovering the names of ingredients: This website is useful to figure out ingredient function:

The Period After Opening (PAO) symbol identifies the useful lifetime of a cosmetic product after the package has been opened for the first time. It is indicated by a letter and number. A product with a 6 month (6M) shelf-life typically looks like this: 

shelf life vector icon

Let’s take a look at some hair product ingredients (especially the First Five listed).  Here are a few examples of some popular hair products:

Product #1 is marketed as an intensive hair bond builder 


Water (Aqua), Bis-Aminopropyl Diglycol Dimaleate, Sodium Benzoate, Phenoxyethanol

AEC Comment: The active ingredient, Bis-Aminopropyl Diglycol Dimaleate, rebuilds the damaged disulfide bonds in your hair. It is specifically designed to repair damaged hair from years of chemical treatment. It claims to rebuild the strength, integrity, and structure of your hair strands. 

Product #2 is marketed as bond curl repair 


Water (Aqua), Cetearyl Alcohol, Salvia Hispanica (Chia) Seed Extract, Creatine, Polyquaternium-10, Stearamidopropyl Dimethylamine, Lentinus Edodes (Shiitake) Extract*, Opuntia Tuna (Prickly Pear) Fruit Extract, Cucurbita Pepo (Pumpkin) Seed Extract*, Psidium Guajava (Guava) Fruit Extract, Prunus Amygdalus Dulcis (Sweet Almond) Oil, Ribes Nigrum (Blackcurrant) Fruit Extract, Brassica Oleracea Acephala (Kale) Leaf Extract, Leuconostoc/Radish Root Ferment Filtrate, Polyquaternium-37, Hydroxypropylgluconamide, Hydroxypropylammonium Gluconate, Disodium EDTA, Potassium Sorbate, Tartaric Acid, Citric Acid, Ethylhexylglycerin, Glycerin, Behentrimonium Chloride, Phenoxyethanol, Sodium Benzoate, Benzyl Alcohol, Geraniol, Fragrance (Parfum), Linalool, Limonene.

AEC Comment: The third ingredient in this product is Chia Seed Extract. According to the manufacturer, chia seeds are chock full of fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, protein, phosphorus, and calcium, making them a powerful hair strengthener. Not a bond builder like the one above. 

Product #3 is marketed as grow and restore with peppermint and ACV 


Water (Aqua), Decyl Glucoside, Sodium Lauroyl Lactylate, Fragrance (Essential Oil Blend), Glycerin (Vegetable), Hydrolyzed Rice Protein, Panthenol, Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein PG-Propyl Silanetriol, Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea) Butter*, Ricinus Communis (Castor) Seed Oil, Mentha Piperita (Peppermint) Leaf Extract, Mauritia Flexuosa Fruit Oil, Hydrolyzed Keratin, Tocopherol, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Vinegar, Yeast Extract, Niacin, Trifolium Pratense (Clover) Flower Extract, Caprylhydroxamic Acid, Caprylyl Glycol, Caramel.

AEC Comment: You will note that vinegar appears to be present in a low amount as it is not one of the First Five ingredients. 

Product #4 is marketed as ACV shampoo for $30 


Aqua (Water/Eau), Potassium Cocoyl Glycinate, Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate, Sodium Lauroyl Methyl Isethionate, Decyl Glucoside, Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose, Acacia Concinna Fruit Extract, Balanites Aegyptiaca Fruit Extract, Gypsophila Paniculata Root Extract, Vinegar (Organic)

AEC Comment: Again, you can see that vinegar appears to be present at a low amount as it is not one of the First Five ingredients. 

Compare to this $10 ACV product 


Water (aqua), cetrimonium chloride, glycerin, polysorbate 20, apple cider (Pyrus malus)

AEC Comment: Apple cider vinegar is present in a higher amount and is cheaper at $10 than the one above, selling for $30.

Product #5 is marketed as a popular conditioner 


Aqua / Water / Eau, Propylene Glycol, Myristyl Alcohol, Cetearyl Alcohol, Cetrimonium Chloride, Decyl Oleate, Phenoxyethanol, Parfum / Fragrance, Methylparaben, Aloe Barbadensis / Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Ethylparaben, Limonene, Hexyl Cinnamal, Coumarin, Linalool, Citric Acid, Passiflora Edulis Fruit Juice, Bisabolol

The generic version 


Water, Propylene Glycol, Myristyl Alcohol, Cetrimonium Chloride, Cetearyl Alcohol, Phenoxyethanol, Decyl Oleate, Methylparaben, Fragrance, Propylparaben, Hydrastis Canadensis (Goldenseal) Extra, Fucus Vesiculosus Extract, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf E, Glycerin

AEC Comment: The generic is similar to the branded product. Both products contain parabens, which some people try to avoid. Parabens serve as preservatives. 

Product #6 is marketed as a high protein conditioner 


Purified Water, Methylcellulose, Hydrolyzed Oats, Avocado Oil, Coconut Oil, Pro-Vitamin B5, Optiphen Plus, Natural Fragrances.

AEC Comment: The third ingredient is hydrolyzed oats, a protein.

Product #7 is marketed as a detangler 


Organic Mango Fruit Extract, Organic Slippery Elm, Organic Marshmallow Root, Organic Lemongrass, Cetyl Alcohol, Behentrimonium Methosulfate, Citric Acid, Phenoxyethanol and Natural Fragrance.

AEC Comment: 100% natural.

Product #8 is marketed as a curling aid 


Water, Glycerin, Carboxymethylcellulose, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Extract, Pectin, Hydroxypropyltrimonium Honey, Silk Amino Acids, Hypnea Musciformis Extract (Seaweed), Gelidiella Acerosa Extract (Seaweed), Sargassum Filipendula  (Seaweed) Extract, Sorbitol, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf Extract, Salix Alba (Willow) Bark Extract, Urtica Dioica (Nettle) Extract, Ethylhexylglycerin, Phenoxyethanol, Citrus Sinensis Oil, Citrus Limon Oil, Citrus Aurantifolia Oil, Citrus Paradisi Oil, Fragrance (Phthalate Free)

AEC Comment: This product is high in glycerin. Glycerin can cause frizz in high humidity or dry climates. 

Product #9 is marketed as a gel 


Water, Organic Aloe Vera Juice, Aqueous-Infused Extracts of Marshmallow, Chamomile, Nettle & Horsetail, Vitamin E, Agave Nectar Extract, Citric Acid, Potassium Sorbate & Natural Fragrance

AEC Comment: 100% natural. No glycerin.

Product #10 is marketed as a curl activator 


Water (Aqua, Eau), Glycerin, Propanediol, Fragrance (Parfum), Polyquaternium-10, Stearalkonium Chloride, Stearyl Alcohol, Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Oil, Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea ) Butter, Aloe Barbadensis (Aloe Vera) Leaf Juice, Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Oil, Glycine Soja (Soybean) Oil, Prunus Amygdalus Dulcis (Sweet Almond) Oil, Persea Gratissima (Avocado) Oil, Olea Europaea (Olive) Fruit Oil, Mangifera Indica (Mango) Seed Butter, Argania Spinosa (Argan) Kernel Oil, Melia Azadirachta (Neem) Seed Oil, Daucus Carota Sativa (Carrot) Seed Oil, Lonicera Japonica (Honeysuckle) Flower Extract, Laminaria Cloustoni (Sea Kelp) Extract, Salvia Officinalis (Sage) Leaf Extract, Macadamia Ternifolia (Macadamia) Seed Oil, Vitis Vinifera (Grape) Seed Extract, Urtica Dioica (Nettle) Extract, Silk Amino Acids, Cetyl Alcohol, Cetearyl Alcohol, Polysorbate-60, Phenoxyethanol, Ethylhexylglycerin

AEC Comment: This product is high in glycerin, fragrance, and polyquat-10. Glycerin can cause frizz in high humidity or dry climates. Some polyquats like no. 10 bind to hair and can lead to build-up. Strong fragrances can cause allergic reactions in some people.

Product #11 is marketed as a shampoo for brittle hair 


Aqua / Water, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Coco-betaine, Glycerin, Sodium Chloride, Olea Europaea Leaf Extract / Olive Leaf Extract, Peg-60 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Olea Europaea Fruit Oil / Olive Fruit Oil, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Sodium Acetate, Sodium Hydroxide, Isopropyl Alcohol, Citric Acid, Polyquaternium-10, Hexylene Glycol, Potassium Sorbate, Sodium Benzoate, Salicylic Acid, Alpha-isomethyl Ionone, Limonene, Hexyl Cinnamal, Benzyl Alcohol, Benzyl Salicylate, Parfum / Fragrance

AEC Comment: This product contains a harsh sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, the last thing you need if you have brittle, damaged hair. 

Useful Science Based Blogs:

Absolutely Everything Curly

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