How To Read Hair Labels Like A True Pro

by BRENDA L. / JAN 26, 2023

Reading Time: 9 Minutes


    One of the worst things about seriously getting into hair care would probably be decoding all the technical terms and names of the various chemicals that play an essential role in tackling different issues and hair conditions. When a fancy product description isn’t enough, that’s when you’ll need to become a bit of a pro yourself and learn how to read hair labels!

    If terms like aqua, sulfates and similar sound like a pagan spell and not like an ingredients list to you, then take your time and read on – we’re cracking the hair care code for you.

    1. How To Read Hair Labels?

    Don’t get scared by lengthy ingredients lists: although your favourite product might feature a formula that includes over fifteen chemicals, keep your focus on the first five or six. Ingredients are listed by percentage, meaning that the first ingredient is the key product in the compound, then the second one is present in a slightly smaller amount, and so on. So for example if the first ingredient is water, often listed in latin as aqua, you’ll know that the main ingredient of that product is water.

    2. What Should I Look Out For In Hair Product?

    Some of these ingredients aren’t necessarily harmful but may not be what you need; some others belong to a more obscure category of products and may be in the process of being removed from modern formulas. Let’s find out together which ingredients you should avoid when building a healthy hair care regimen!


    Unless you’re looking for a product that strips out hair dye from your tresses or gives your scalp a deep cleanse after applying a little too much hair oil, it’s always best to avoid sulfates as they can be a little harsh on your hair.

    Mineral Oil

    Not every oil is good for your hair and scalp. Mineral oils are a cheap shine-coating gimmick that aims at giving immediately satisfactory results, but unlike natural oils such as coconut or argan oil, this type of product only works on the surface of your hair, meaning that you won’t see any improvement over time. Instead, natural oils usually offer a wide range of other benefits, such as the antifungal properties of castor oil.


    Parabens preserve the formula from growing bacteria in it once you open your product. The research about this category is still ongoing and the opinions about parabens are still quite divided between those who demonise them and those who claim they’re perfectly safe to use. If you ask me, better safe than sorry. Ditch the parabens!

    Denatured Alcohol

    Alcohol is a drying agent, and although safe to use, it’s not advised – especially for those who are already struggling with dry, flaky scalps. If you wash your hair frequently, opt for alcohol-free products or formulas that have a very low concentration of alcohol. Alcohol ingredients usually show up under names such as: Alcohol Denat., SD Alcohol 3-A, SD Alcohol 30,  SD Alcohol 39-B, SD Alcohol 39-C, SD Alcohol 40-B, SD Alcohol 40-C.

    Synthetic Fragrances

    Fragrance-free products or formulas that have a natural fragrance are always better – especially for those who have sensitive skin and scalp. Synthetic fragrances, although more often than not they smell wonderful, are often the culprit behind unpleasant experiences such as rashes, scalp irritation and dandruff.

    Coal Tar

    This ingredient has been found in many hair-dyeing products, and has been banned in many different countries. It was also listed as: P-phenylenediamine, C.I. (and a five digit number), FD&C or D&C (followed by a color name and identification number). In extremely low doses it can be used to remedy skin conditions like Psoriasis and Eczema in shampoo form although its best to seek medical advice before using such products. 


    Silicones are not necessarily bad, but this depends exclusively on your hair type, hair condition and the state of your scalp. Silicones coat your strands to improve softness, manageability and shine – however, if you are using any other products afterwards such as a leave-in conditioner or a hair oil, the silicone will act like a barrier and prevent the nourishing principles from entering your hair shaft, meaning that in the long run your efforts may be in vain and you’ll end up wasting products whilst keeping dry hair. If you are using a silicone-based product, make sure this is your last step in your hair care routine before packing your tresses with moisturising, nourishing and conditioning agents, favouring oils and ingredients that are of plant origin.

    3. Hair Product Labels: What Do They Mean?

    Natural Hair Products

    Given the rise in customers interested in trying organic, bio products for their cosmetics, many brands like to label their latest creation or new formulas as “natural” – but what does this mean? The term “natural” by itself can refer to the finish (such as "natural-looking color"), or to one or more ingredients in their recipe – however, only products labelled as “100% natural” are to be considered free from synthetic compounds.

    Sulfate-Free Products

    If you wear human hair extensions you’ve probably heard of this before. Sulfates and silicones aren’t necessarily bad, but they’re usually advised against for those who wear real hair extensions, struggle with dry hair, or belong to a mature audience. On the other hand, sulfates are useful to cleanse and get rid of oils, debris and product build-up – therefore they are often found in clarifying shampoos

    Some common sulfates present in hair care products are:

    Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate

    Ammonium Laureth Sulfate

    Sodium Lauryl Sulfate

    Sodium Stearate

    Alpha-olefin Sulfonate

    Paraben-Free Products

    Parabens are commonly found in many products in the cosmetic industry, and their purpose is to preserve the product. Any ingredient whose suffix is -paraben, such as methylparaben is part of this category – and it’s best to avoid them. Nowadays, more and more companies (including many high-street and drugstore options) are ditching these ingredients to make hair-friendly formulas – but it’s always best to keep an eye out when trying a new product.


    In case you didn’t know this word already, a hypoallergenic formula is designed to be kind and gentle even to those who have sensitive skin and are prone to scalp irritation. Hypoallergenic products are often sulfate-free and paraben-free and opt for no-fragrance or minimal, natural fragrances to avoid irritating sensitive scalps.

    Fragrance-Free Products

    Fragrance-free doesn’t mean unscented – on the contrary, you’ll find that a fragrance-free formula simply features the natural smell of the ingredients used for your hair product without masking it with parfum (translation: perfume).

    Vegan Hair Products

    When a hair product is labelled as vegan, it means that the chemicals used in the recipe are not derived from animals or animal products.

    Plant-Based Products

    Plant-based isn’t the same as vegan: usually, this means that the indicated formula is mostly derived from plants, however, it can still contain a small percentage of animal products such as squalene, one of the most common animal-based moisturising ingredients in beauty products.


    This is a staple in beauty products, whether you’re a vegan, vegetarian or omnivore. Whatever product you decide to use, cruelty-free means that, in order to obtain it, the formula hasn’t been tested on animals.


    A hair product advertises as detangling involves a formula focused on slipping agents to ease the detangling, combing and brushing processes – overall improving the manageability of your tresses. Slippy-smooth hair will make your detangling process much easier, something that can be harder to achieve if your hair is dry, or damaged by bleach and over-processing. Some common slipping agents that can be found in hair products are:

    Fatty Alcohols (Cetyl alcohol, Stearyl alcohol, Cetearyl alcohol, Benzyl, Myristyl alcohol)

    Slippery Elm

    Marshmallow Root

    Behentrimonium Methosulfate

    Stearamidopropyl Dimethylamine

    Polyquaternium-11, 32

    Strengthening Agents

    If you’re looking for a formula that strengthens your hair and improves its overall appearance, making it strong and shiny enough to endure brushing and styling, then look no further than ingredients such as hydrolyzed Oat, Soy, Silk, and Wheat proteins, hydrolyzed Keratin, hydrolyzed Collagen, and Silk Amino Acids. Before stocking up on bulky protein-based hair products, make sure you evaluate the situation in your hair correctly – as too much of a good thing can actually cause dryness and breakage.

    Moisturising Hair Products

    Keeping your hair’s moisture on lock (quite literally) is essential to obtain a mane with the perfect balance between strength, manageability, elasticity and shine. Certain hair types such as naturally curly hair and tresses that have seen some stuff (such as overprocessing, heat-based stress and bleach damage) will struggle in maintaining moisture in. To fix this, you can resort to moisturising hair products that, instead of proteins, will focus on ingredients such as:

    Behentrimonium Chloride



    Aloe Vera Leaf Juice

    Stearalkonium Chloride

    Propylene Glycol

    Centrimonium Chloride

    Polyquaternium-7, 37

    4. Hair Ingredient Check: Natural Oils

    Many hair care products are infused with natural oils, whether essential or cold-pressed, in order to give your tresses an extra kick and help seal the moisture in.

    Oils such as coconut oil and Argan oil are often found in nourishing and softening formulas, whilst almond oil and rosemary oil can often be included in recipes that focus on your scalp’s health. If you’d like to know more, find your perfect oil for hair in our dedicated blog: Hair Oil: Best Oils For Hair Growth And A Healthy, Happy Scalp.

    5. Which Ingredient Is Best For Hair?

    Natural oils such as coconut oil, castor oil, argan oil, rosemary oil, olive oil and jojoba oil are the best ingredients usually featured in hair products; seaweed, biotin and honey make awesome allies too. It all depends on the state of your hair: to tackle specific problems down, you might also want to look into experimenting at home and making your own products. Find out more about how to create the perfect hair mask with the ingredients in your pantry in our blog: DIY Hair Mask Recipes For All Hair Types.

    6. Do Hair Products Expire?

    Yes, all cosmetics expire – you can easily check the lifespan of your product thanks to the “open jar” symbol, usually in the back of your packaging: an open jar logo with the code 12M on top means that the product is safe to use and effective up to 12 months after being opened. 

    7. Conclusion:

    Not every hair type is the same, therefore there isn’t a “one size fits all” hair product to solve every problem. Do your research on every product you’re thinking about buying, find honest, detailed reviews, and now that you know what to look out for – make sure you read the label! Knowing what you put on your hair and skin will make you a confident shopper that knows better than falling for lousy advertisements and overpriced trendy products!

    Back to blog