Ingredients : Natural Hair Shopping List

There are a host of websites proposing and condemning certain ingredients in hair products. Scientists spend a lot of time and money investigating the formulation of products. For example the imaging instrument to 'see' if a product is on the surface of hair or within the hair costs upwards of several million dollars initially and then tens of thousands to maintain on a yearly basis.

I do not wish to trivialize the work of these scientists by suggesting only one ingredient is good. Formulation means people are paid to mix the ingredients, decide what size is suitable, which emulsion works best, which ingredients work well together etc. Good products will also change formulations as they recognize that products can always get better!  

Today I'll highlight some ingredients (this is just a guide) which can be very beneficial for natural hair. I have chosen to go with conditioner as this is of course the number one product for naturals.  

1. Ingredients to clean hair

Many of us use conditioner to wash hair. Conditioners contain positively charged particles which can help do this. These are known as cationic (positively charged) surfactants (detergent). This is a very gentle way of cleaning hair which cannot remove build up. If you do not regularly apply oil or hair dressing creams to your hair, this is ok. If you do, then you will need to shampoo every so often to remove build up.

Examples - Stearalkonium chloride, cetrimonium chloride, dicetyldimonium chloride, behentrimonium methosulfate, behentrimonium chloride, stearamidopropyl dimethylamine  

Sophisticated stuff - Good combinations of 2 or more of these ingredients. 

What works for one person's hair may not work for yours. If your hair is uncoloured it may not react in the same way coloured hair would. For example henna deposits onto the cuticle, bleach will raise the cuticle surface while untreated hair will be relatively unchanged. Conditioner tends to deposit better on damaged hair so someone may be raving about one product and you may find that it actually isn't that great.

2. Ingredients to add moisture to hair  

The number one need concern for naturals is moisture. Many of us interpret this as a product which will penetrate into the hair shaft. Conditioners by and large work on the outside of the hair shaft and do not really penetrate into hair (there are exceptions). Conditioners can use humectants to draw water to the hair from the outside though. Here are some ingredients for moisture.  

Water, the number one product in hair conditioner.  
Humectants to maintain moisture to the hair such as honey and glycerin.  
Penetrating oils such as coconut oil, avocado oil and olive oil. 
Some small size compounds can penetrate into the shaft such as cetrimonium bromide (and possibly its cousin cetrimonium chloride) as well as panthothenic acid.

Sophisticated stuff - Humectants are most useful as a leave-in product (not washed out) and penetrating oils can be used as a pre-treatment.

3. Ingredients to soften hair  

Conditioner is packed full of softening agents that act mainly by depositing on the outer surface of hair. These smooth the cuticle and give hair the softness that we so desire  

Fatty alcohols derived from coconut oil such as stearyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol and their sister cetearyl alcohol. 
Many of the cationic surfactants can also deposit and soften hair - for example behentrimonium chloride.
Polyquaterniums (PQ) are also used for this purpose and scientists have their preferred combinations. Some of the most talked about are PQ 7,10,11 and 18.  

Sophisticated Stuff - Combining fatty alcohols with cationic surfactants to create conditioners which clean and condition well. The right combination of PQs can create a powerful conditioner for soft feeling hair. 

  4. Ingredients for sealing in moisture.  

Natural hair demands moisture and many of us would like to keep this moisture in for as long as possible. I don't really think this need is looked at or fulfilled by one product.  

Humectants such as glycerin keep the hair from drying out by maintaining water content at the surface.  
Jojoba oil and shea butter contain fats that are larger in size and therefore more likely to stay on the cuticle rather than penetrate the hair creating a sealing effect.  

Sophisticated stuff - The 'seal' should be the last step of your moisture routine.

5. Ingredients for hair management
I made up this category for lack of a better word! I am talking about anti-static, anti-frizz, hair appearance and strength. There are a host of ingredients that claim to do this type of thing. I am a little bit skeptical but I will report what I found  

Anti-frizz - PQ70 may be useful (Journal of Cosmetic Science, pp 393-404, 2007)  
Mending split ends temporarily - PQ 28 may be useful (Journal of Cosmetic Science, pp 451-76, 2007)
Ceramide from L'Oreal claims to deposit on hair and act as a 'cement' improving the appearance of hair. It is clearly marked 'do not rinse off' which makes me believe the claim that it stays on the hair. If it is really beneficial, I don't know - Would it be more useful than just plain conditioner which also has lipids? I don't know

Closing Remarks
 I did intentionally omit silicones, they are one of the most useful products in the hair industry and I'll do a separate post on them later. I also haven't talked about SLS/SDS as this is a shampoo ingredient. If you have it in your conditioner, your choice! 

  If you have tried a conditioner once and it didn't work as expected and you are wondering why - Read this  

Before you 'deep condition' - Read this  

Protein Conditioning is a different topic altogether that merits its own post. Later this week, I will discuss amino acids, proteins and hydrolysed proteins to help you make sense of it all.
Research for this post from
Handbook of Cosmetic Science and Technology by Paye, Barel and Maibach
Hair and Scalp Diseases: Medical, Surgical, and Cosmetic Treatments‎ by McMichael and Hordinsky
Hair and hair care‎ by Dale H. Johnson
J Cosmet Sci. 2007 Jul-Aug;58(4):393-404 J Cosmet Sci. 2003 Nov-Dec;54(6):579-88. Int J Cosmet Sci. 2004 Apr;26(2):47-59. J Cosmet Sci. 2007 Jul-Aug;58(4):451-76. J Cosmet Sci. 2004 May-Jun;55(3):265-79.
Image Credit


  1. thanks, i learned alot. makes me feel like going to whole foods to shop, BUT i will fight the pj-fever. lol

  2. great guide, Jc. i think it's important that we understand what is in the bottles we use for our hair and choose products based on our needs rather than what manufacturers insist we need (i.e., vitamins in our conditioners lol). i actually inspect ingredients on hair care products before i buy them, just like i do for food. i'm really trying to embrace a more natural lifestyle besides just my hair.

  3. Ok so I guess I understand now why my hair just didn't have that feel I desired when I used shea, glycerin and jojoba oil. * just recently added coconut oil :-) * From reading what you said it just sat on the surface I thought shea actually penetrated so that may also be why so many people actually rave about it on the skin, it just sits on top.

    Stupid question but If you actually manage to just keep the cuticle well moisturized is it really necessary to penetrate the shaft when the *roof* is well protected?

    Or will the internal structure *cortex, medulla* just break off from lack of moisture.
    Don't beat me up just curious LOL

  4. lol Jaded - This is actually a great question and can I add that I'm smiling from ear to ear when I read it because I see that you have the hair structure down!!!

    I do think it is necessary to moisturise the shaft with water at the very least. This is because when your hair has the correct level of moisture, it is more pliable meaning it is at a good level of elasticity, able to stretch and relax without breaking. If you don't moisturise it, then really dry hair can snap off.

    Taking care of the cuticle is most definitely essential but keeping the shaft supple is also important.

  5. Thanks JC!! Told you i'm a closet nerd LOL. I'm ready for your take on proteins because I still struggle with trying to find my balance with them but I'm beginning to think my issue was with moisture. I just learned about penetrating oils from your blog and believe all of my moisturizers were just sitting topically on my hair. That's probably why it still had this weird breaking issue though I was using mane N tail conditioner and lubing up with shea butter, glycerin, jojoba oil afterward LOL.

    Then again I haven't had my split ends trimmed *if any's there* in nearly two years. >_<
    We need a topic on split ends trimming too LOL.

  6. That was very informative!

  7. That's why I look for glycerin in all my conditioners (and add to my own concoctions, on occassion). I knew coconut oil actualy penetrated the hair shaft, but I didn't know avocado did, as well! And avocado is my favorite oil in the universe (no hyperbole here, people). Although, I haven't tried Hemp oil yet...
    Fabulous post

  8. lol! our blog names are so similar! Thanks for the info.I dont use chemicals like cetrimonium chloride centronim in my products I use guar gum (the simple name) as a conditioning agent and a emulsifying conditioner(Stearamidopropyl Dimethylamine)which is derived from vegetable-based Stearic Acid and is not as harmful as cetrimonium chloride- Cetrimonium chloride uses chemicals and solvents to preserve like parabens.

    Btw, I have added you onto my blog @ wwww.hairhaven.wordpress I hope you can do the same!

  9. Isn't henna actually penetrating the hair shaft and making hair stronger at the same time ?

    I always heard pure Lawsonia Inermis is a very permanent hair dye that has the characteristic of actually being good for hair structure.

    It would have to be PURE in order to be beneficial though (the commercial henna is often impure).

    On another subject, you might like to check out the virtues of pure "shikakai", also known as acacia concinna. Might be of interest to you :)

    Thanks for your amazing blog ! love it !

  10. Thanks anon - If you go to the 'everything about henna' link on the side bar to the right, you will see the research I have done on Henna. Henna has not been reported to penetrate the hair shaft and there are no current studies on strength of hair before and after henna use.

    I have also researched shikakai recently - see the results using the search link

  11. I totally came across your blog by accident, but some of mankind's best discoveries have been by accident. This is the first intelligent, broad spectrum, truth telling website about natural hair that is absol. fabulous. I've learned more in 15 minutes than the past few months about my hair. I've added this post to my g-reader. Excellent keep up the incredible work. PS, your reader's comments/contributions are great and reflect people who are really seeking fabulous natural hair. Peace, love, and hair grease:)

  12. Amazing ... so much comprehensive, documented knowledge about & love for the coils God gave us ... right here! Thank you much for sharing much! I am truly tempted to stay up all night reading your entire blog. But {sigh}, I will resist ... but, you have earned your own folder in my favorites! ;0)

  13. This is fantastic! I bought a conditioner today that seems to meet the "sophisticated" criteria of goodness. AND it was less than £2!!


  14. This is some great info! It gives me a much better understanding of the ingredients contained in my hair products, thanks for creating this post :-)

  15. what about the ingredients in this shampoo and conditioner. Would you recommend?

    Water, Behentrimonium Methosulfate, Cetearyl Alcohol, Cetrimonium Chloride, Ceteareth-20, Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein, Astrocaryum Murumuru Seed Butter, Orbignya Speciosa Kernel Oil, Polyquaternium-39, Xylitylglucoside, Anhydroxylitol, Xylitol, Acetyl Hexapeptide-3, Camellia Sinensis (Green Tea) Leaf Extract, Cucumis Sativus (Cucumber) Fruit Extract, Cudrania Tricuspidata (Mulberry) Bark Extract, Lycium Chinensis (Chinese Matrimony Vine) Fruit Extract, Oryza Sativa (Rice) Bran Extract, Prunus Mume (Ume) Fruit Extract, Pyrus Communis (Pear) Fruit Extract, Rubus Coreanus (Wild Strawberry) Fruit Extract, Camellia Sinensis (Uuron Cha Ekisu) Leaf Extract, Crithmum Maritimum Extract, Glycyrrhiza Glabra (Licorice) Root Extract, Fullerenes, Phytosphingosine, Sodium Hyaluronate, Tocopheryl Acetate, Urea, Butylene Glycol, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Glyceryl Polymethacrylate, Isohexadecane, Propylene Glycol, Dimethicone, Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil, Steareth-2, Steareth-21, Stearic Acid, Betaine, Cetyl Alcohol, Phenylpropyldimethylsiloxysilicate, Trimethylsiloxyamodimethicone, C11-15 Pareth-7, Glycerin, C12-16 Pareth-9, Trideceth-12, Carbomer, Ethylhexylglycerin, Hydrogenated Lecithin, PEG-30 Dipolyhydroxystearate, Fragrance, Triethanolamine, BHT, Disodium EDTA, Phenoxyethanol, Methylisothiazolinone.

    Water (Aqua), Mineral Oil (Paraffinum Liquidum), Sodium Methyl Cocoyl Taurate, Acrylates Copolymer, Sodium Cocoyl Glutamate, PEG-150 Distearate, Sodium Lauryl Sarcosinate, Lanolin Alcohol, Glycerin, Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein, Trimethylsiloxyamodimethicone, Oryzanol, Tocopherols, Tocotrienols, Acetyl Hexapeptide-3, Camellia Sinensis (Green Tea) Leaf Extract, Cucumis Sativus (Cucumber) Fruit Extract, Cudrania Tricuspidata (Mulberry) Bark Extract, Glyceryl Polymethacrylate, Glycyrrhiza Glabra (Licorice) Root Extract, Lycium Chinensis (Chinese Matrimony Vine) Fruit Extract, Oryza Sativa (Rice) Bran Extract, Prunus Mume (Ume) Fruit Extract, Pyrus Communis (Pear) Fruit Extract, Rubus Coreanus (Wild Strawberry) Fruit Extract, Camellia Sinensis (Uuron Cha Ekisu) Leaf Extract, Crithmum Maritimum Extract, Dimethicone, Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil, Fullerenes, Hydrogenated Lecithin, Phytosphingosine, Sodium Hyaluronate, Tocopheryl Acetate, Urea, Butylene Glycol, C11-15 Pareth-7, C12-16 Pareth-9, Citrus Nobilis (Mandarin Orange) Peel Oil, Citrus Grandis (Grapefruit) Peel Oil, Trideceth-12, Propylene Glycol, Steareth-2, Steareth-21, Stearic Acid, Betaine, Carbomer, PEG-30 Dipolyhydroxystearate, Titanium Dioxide (CI 77891), Mica, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Cetyl Alcohol, Fragrance (Parfum), Isohexadecane, BHT, Disodium EDTA, Ethylhexylglycerin, Triethanolamine, Phenoxyethanol, Methylisothiazolinone, Limonene.

  16. As moisturizer I use Greek extra virgin olive oil + Yes To Carrots conditioner after I made my hair wet/co-wash. Though my hair is a bit greasy, I finally got rid off that dry and frizziness of my curls! My hair volume is reduced, but I have got my 3b shape (with coils at my ends) back :D


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