Why do the first five ingredients on a hair product matter?

I am here to save you from digesting too much information. The first five ingredients are all you need to know for three products: shampoos, hair conditioners and leave in conditioners. The water content of these varies according to manufacturer but generally ranges between 50 and 80 % of the the total weight (Cosmetic and Toiletry Formulations by E.Flick)

Lesson from Product labelling - The Law:  If you have purchased a shampoo or hair conditioner and the ingredient listing did not start with water, you should be suspicious and should check with the company if the list is accurate. 

So why do the first five ingredients matter?

Take a look at your hair conditioner bottle or tub. Half to more than three quarters of that is likely just plain old water. This says that water is the main ingredient and there is physically no room to add much more.

Here is an example!! Let us take a typical formula for a dry hair conditioner
Percentage content
Water 80%
Surfactant such as behentrimonium chloride Under 3%
Conditioning silicones (create slip in wet combing) 5-10%
Humectant such as glycerin Under 3%
Thickening products (to make the conditioner gloopy rather than watery). Includes cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol 4-5%
Preservatives and Fragrance Each Under 1%

As you can see, very little of the other ingredients are used (more detail on this later!). There is something however missing from the list above. The marketing people know they cannot sell this hair conditioner unless the consumer is convinced it will work.

Therefore, they must brightly label the product proclaiming how it has an essential blend of wheatgrass and jojoba oil or how they have carefully added pomegranate and vanilla extracts to make your hair luscious. A few drops of oil are added in and the product is now consumer ready. Often when you look for the jojoba oil that made you buy the product, it will be buried somewhere towards the bottom of the list (because it is nonsense).

In short, if you read the first five ingredients (you can include or exclude water), you are reading the main ingredients that have an actual effect on your hair. 

See the Q&A from this article - here 


  1. In your "awesomeness" I love how you break down the knowledge. . . simplicity! Thanks Jc :-)

  2. Thanks for the info--some people get so stressed out over the ingredients--it's good to know what the possible pecentages can be and what to focus on!

  3. Very nice. Thanks!!


  4. Did I mention how much I love you JC, in a straight way LOL. :-) I remember reading this a while back somewhere saying ingredients were listed in order from greatest to smallest or near non-existent amount.

    Never really knew its was the first five though. Looking alot harder at my skincare stuff LOL.

  5. I definitely agree that sometimes people get too caught up in ingredients but sometimes i think it's worth looking past the first 5 - like my hair doesn't really like protein and even in products where protein is 10th on the list it reacts...

  6. Thank you so much for posting this. I have become so frustrated with trying to figure out all the ingredients in my hair products and what they will do to my hair. I've read that most hair products are mostly made of water, but it never clicked for me until now how little of the so called "bad ingredients" are in these products. This is so good to know.

  7. Thank you so much for this post! It is extremely helpful, especially during my transition!!!

  8. If you're reading the ingredients of the product, and further down the list includes the oils people praise for using withing your hair (coconut oil, jojoba oil, etc) would it still be worth it to use that product?

  9. lol Jaded!! You are hilarious!

    Thanks all for the compliments. I have now also put up a Q&A for the questions asked :)

  10. I appreciate it GREATLY when you do such informative posts. :D Great work!!

  11. She Who Must Not Be Named31 October 2010 at 17:26

    Awesome post! It helps me be an educated consumer. I picked a conditioner that had jojoba oil as the third ingredient for use with detangling.

  12. Thank you so much for this information. I just learned something new.

  13. Hi- I'm not a scientist but what you say about the first 5 ingredients isn't exactly true. At least according tothe FDA. I came across this info by random (serendipity, if you will) and it stuck in my mind. The information is as follows:
    The ingredients must be listed in descending order of predominance. However, there are a few exceptions to this requirement.

    1. If the cosmetic is also a drug, section 502(c) of the FD&C Act requires that the active drug ingredient(s) be declared before declaration of the cosmetic ingredients. A declaration, thus, would read as follows: "Active Ingredient: ... (Name of drug ingredient). Other (or Cosmetic) Ingredients: ... (Names of cosmetic ingredients in descending order)." [§ 701.3(d)]

    2. Ingredients present at a concentration not exceeding 1% may be listed in any order after the listing of the ingredients present at more than 1% in descending order of predominance. [§ 701.3(f)(2)]

    3. Color additives of any concentration may be listed in any order after the listing of the ingredients which are not color additives [§ 701.3(f)(3)].

    4. The name of an ingredient accepted by FDA in accordance with the procedure established in § 720.8 as a trade secret need not be disclosed on the label. In lieu of declaring the name of that ingredient, the phrase "and other ingredients" may be used at the end of the ingredient declaration [§ 701.3(a)].

    Order of Ingredient Declaration
    Descending order of predominance


    Active drug ingredients

    Ingredients with less than 1% concentration

    Color additives

    "And other ingredients"

    21 CFR 701.3(a), (d), (f) (2), (f) (3)

    So, in short if a product is 90% water and the other ingredients are less then 1% each, they can be listed in any order. Not being a scientist, I am supposing that most products are mostly water, then I'd suppose they'd list the surfacant ( can't spell it ) in shamposs and the emulsifier ( maybe cetyl alcohol). The rest they can list in any order if the are 1% or less And I am also going to suppose that the water and emulsifier are very large % of the whole, so if I have even 8 orther ingredients including color and fragrance, it possible that they are all 1% or less. So if I was selling shampoo, after the water and emulsifier, I'd list the oils and what the consumer considers natural ingredients, giving the impression that they were more abundant then those listed lower, when in fact they are of equal amounts. And I'd list fragrance and color at the bottom, even though they might be in higher or the same amounts as my butters and natural oils.
    The idea that ingredients are listed in order of precedence is not actually true. It is a ploy by manufacturers to deceive the public, and nobody ever talks about the FDA regulations governing cosmetic ingredient labeling.


  14. Jackie it is nice to see people do their own research and I do encourage it. I do however have to say that your hypothesis has a major flaw.

    Majority if not all shampoo and conditioners have a typical water compostion of between 50 and 80% as I stated in the article. A 90% water level is really unlikely perhaps even improbable. There are products like fragranced spritz sprays that may fall in this category but NOT a shampoo or conditioner.

    Your listing is based on very incorrect numbers. I listed above the ingredients which are most probably over 1% of which most products will contain 4-5. I suggest that you try a google scholar search for conditioner formulations. You will find many different patents listing conditioner concentrations and you can see the typical ingredient concentrations.

    Many manufacturers - including large ones like Aveda and Aubrey organics in my view have misleading lists where they do put things that the consumer wants to read first. For example Aubrey organics eliminates water altogether and Aveda usually starts list with herbal infusions (i.e water with herbal extracts and a long list of the herbs). If you read the beginning as just water, you would have a very different impression of the ingredient list.

    Some manufacturers do mislead and these people always will mislead.

  15. This makes complete sense. Thank you!

  16. Very valuable information. I'm also a new subscriber. :]

  17. Sometimes companies can be honest. I bought the Dove Pure Care Dry Oil Conditioner a while back and it talked about Coconut oil on the front and it was like the 3rd thing listed!!!


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