Tips and Tricks on How to Read Shampoo Labels

When searching for a new shampoo, a typical routine would be to review the product brand, read the instructions, and quickly skim the ratings. Although these practices are good, reading a shampoo label can help you choose a high-quality product that meets your specific needs. Learn the tips and tricks for reading a shampoo label.

On today's list:


Crack the code: how to read a shampoo label

Your hair, your care: top ingredients to look for in a shampoo

Finding the one: identifying the right shampoo for each hair and scalp type

4 tips on how to read a shampoo label

Reading a shampoo label can feel overwhelming. Yet, it is valuable to take the time to study the product's formulation. After all, it is a solution you will apply to your scalp and hair. Take a moment to familiarize yourself with the following tips.

1. Know what to expect

The FDA requires manufacturers to list their ingredients on shampoo bottles. The label lists the elements in order of weight, from the largest to the smallest quantity. For example, aqua (water) is generally first on the list, meaning a large amount of the product contains water.


Then, you'll find a cleansing agent, such as a sulfate. The list can include pH adjusters, humectants, or special additives. Preservatives and fragrances are at the end of the list and are smallest in quantity. The first five ingredients are important to review because they comprise most of the product.

2. Avoid harmful ingredients

Most shampoo products contain synthetic chemicals, raising concerns about their long-term health effects. Here are some ingredients to avoid.

Sulfates. Sulfates are primary cleansers. For example, sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), ammonium laureth sulfate, and ammonium lauryl sulfate. They derive from fatty alcohols and thoroughly cleanse the scalp and hair. However, their deep cleansing effects can leave the hair dull, frizzy, rough, and tangled.

Parabens. Parabens are chemical preservatives in shampoos that prevent bacterial growth and maintain shelf life. Few research studies suggest that parabens may disrupt hormone balance. Examples of parabens in labels include methylparaben, butylparaben, and ethylparaben.

Phthalates. Phthalates are chemical compounds developed to make plastic durable and stabilize perfumes. Studies have discussed health concerns, particularly over reproductive disorders. Furthermore, companies can conceal phthalates under the term 'fragrance' on labels. Examples of phthalates in cosmetic labels are dimethylphthalate (DMP) and diethylphthalate (DEP).

3. Review expiration dates

Another essential value in shampoo bottles is identifying the expiration date. According to the FDA guidelines, manufacturers of makeup or skincare products are not required to specify shelf lives or have expiration dates on labels.

Some shampoo bottles have a period after opening (PAO) label indicating the expiry date. It has a small symbol that looks like a container with the lid coming off. The symbol will also have a number and the letter 'M,' which stands for months. The manufacturer recommends using the shampoo within a specific timeframe, such as 12, 18, or 24 months.

If you cannot find an expiration date, contact the manufacturer or examine the product to check for signs of spoilage. Signs could include a clumpy texture, discoloration, or change in odor.


4. Identify unknown ingredients

The International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) is a system for identifying cosmetic ingredients on product labels. The system currently lists more than 16,000 ingredients. You don't have to expect to know each one, but helpful resources, such as the INCI, can give you further insight into each's definition and purpose.

Good ingredients to look for

It's important to remember that while some ingredients are damaging, others can help improve your hair and scalp health. When choosing a shampoo, pick a bottle that contains:

Sulfate-free ingredients

Sulfate-free shampoos benefit individuals who experience scalp irritation or dull hair resulting from anionic sulfate shampoos. An alternative to sulfate cleansers is nonionic and amphoteric detergents. They are among the mildest cleansers. Look for shampoo ingredients that contain the following detergents:

  • Coco glucoside
  • Lauryl glucoside
  • Cocamidopropyl betaine
  • Sodium lauraminopropionate

Paraben-free ingredients

Parabens-free shampoos contain alternative ingredients that work as preservatives. Like sulfate-free shampoos, they benefit individuals who struggle with strong chemicals in their hair and want to reduce exposure to potential health risks. A few alternatives include:

  • Sodium benzoate
  • Citric acid
  • Benzoic acid
  • Sorbic acid

Natural ingredients

Natural-based shampoo offers clean ingredients without chemically modifying or including synthetic ingredients. They benefit the hair and scalp without stripping natural oils. They include essential oils and plant-derived extracts to nourish the hair and use plant-derived detergents as their cleansing component. Natural ingredients to seek include:

  • Saponified oils, like coconut, olive, or jojoba
  • Rosemary extract
  • Peppermint extract
  • Organic Aloe barbadensis (aloe vera)

Hypoallergenic ingredients

Individuals with a sensitive scalp may experience stinging, burning, or itching. Sensitive scalp types should locate shampoos indicating they are hypoallergenic, fragrance-free, paraben-free, and sulfate-free. These shampoos replace harsh ingredients with anti-inflammatory properties and soothing components without irritating the scalp. Beneficial ingredients include:

  • Oatmeal saponins as detergent
  • Humectants
  • Shea butter
  • Coconut oil

Noncomedogenic ingredients

Shampoos with noncomedogenic ingredients prevent acne breakouts. Those with acne-prone skin should choose shampoos that gently exfoliate and nourish the scalp without clogging pores. Beneficial ingredients include:

  • Salicylic acid
  • Benzoyl peroxide
  • Tea tree oil

How to find shampoo for your hair and scalp type

Searching for the right shampoo may take some trial and error. Knowing your hair and scalp type can help to narrow down your options.

Dry hair and scalp

Dry hair is common for people who have undergone chemical treatments and use styling tools. If your scalp lacks moisture, it can result in itchiness or flaking. Look into products specifying moisture, hydration, and smoothing. Two-in-one shampoos with silicones, like dimethicone, make the hair shiny and soft. Avoid sulfates, as these ingredients could further dry the hair and scalp. Look for mild cleansing agents, humectants, and natural oils.

Oily hair and scalp

People who produce excess sebum have greasy hair. Shampoos for oily hair and scalp use strong detergents, like lauryl sulfates or sulfosuccinates, because they work well to remove sebum. Look for natural astringents like tea tree oil and apple cider vinegar that are good for removing excess oil. Additionally, ingredients to find include deep cleansing agents and minimal conditioners.

Straight hair

Focus on volumizing to provide fullness to the hair. Moisturizers with keratin are good for strengthening the hair and smoothing out hair fibers. However, avoid deep conditioners as these products could weigh down the hair. Besides keratin, look for protein and natural oils.

Curly, coily, and wavy hair

Individuals with curly, coily, or wavy hair must opt for moisturizing shampoos. Generally, these hair types usually have an oily scalp but dry hair shafts. In such cases, use a deep-cleansing shampoo containing anti-frizz ingredients, like emollients, to manage dry areas and deep cleansing agents to combat an oily scalp.

Coily hair types, specifically, may experience dry scalps. Using moisturizing elements along with natural oils is beneficial. Seek shampoo ingredients with emollients, humectants, and mild cleansing agents for dry scalps.

Ingredients to manage dandruff

Dandruff is a common scalp condition where dry skin flakes appear on the scalp. If you notice your scalp feeling itchy and see white flakes, consider using an anti-dandruff shampoo. These shampoos have anti-fungal properties that can help alleviate the condition. When selecting an anti-dandruff shampoo, look for coal tar, salicylic acid, ketoconazole, and zinc pyrithione.

Ingredients to manage hair loss

Treatment of hair loss focuses on identifying the underlying problem. However, certain shampoo ingredients can help manage the condition. The ingredients to look into focus on hair strengthening and reducing breakage. Other elements could help stimulate hair growth. Beneficial ingredients include minoxidil, collagen, biotin, and niacin (vitamin B3).

By reading the label on your shampoo, you can avoid using harmful chemicals and choose mild or natural cleansing ingredients instead. Understanding your hair and scalp type is important to narrow your options when looking for a new shampoo. With this knowledge, you can make an informed decision and keep your hair and scalp healthy.


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