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PHOTO: CAULFIELD'S COUNTER

Some people are product junkies. I call myself an ingredient junkie. Ultimately, I strive to predict whether a product is worth my time and money before I commit to trying it.

As I have experimented with new products, I have discovered three categories of ingredients that suggest a product is going to provide more bad hair days than good ones. Obviously, every curly’s hair is different, so what is a disaster for my curls may be the bees knees for another head of curls. Here are 4 go-to tips for deciphering popular ingredients on your product labels.

Gunky, hard-to-remove ingredients (petrolatum, beeswax, candelilla wax)

If an ingredient is difficult to remove from carpeting, skin, or clothing, you can bet it’s going to require some umph to cleanse off of your curls. These ingredients require higher temperatures of water and more concentrated, sulfate-containing shampoos—used more frequently—to budge the buildup.

This can be a problem because curls can lose their definition and bounce with a lack of moisture. Shampooing more often and with harsher shampoos can yield more frizz and flat curls.

While petrolatum and beeswax usually produce gradual build-up symptoms, candelilla wax (the wax that makes lipstick a solid stick instead of a liquid gloss) gives me intense frizz from the first day. Build-up, over time, will leave hair flat, greasy, frizzy, and limp.

Silicones and siloxanes

Silicones (including siloxanes) seal the cuticle and impart a powdery smooth, shiny finish to hair. Most silicones do not rinse away with water alone, which means they require a shampoo to remove. When silicones build up, they generally cause a faux shininess that smooths frizz temporarily without helping them to clump and separate. I personally love dimethicone but experience intense frizz with siloxanes.

Drying alcohols

Hairsprays and some regular gels contain drying alcohols. These may be listed as SD Alcohol-40B or alcohol denat (which stands for denatured) and are usually one of the first ingredients in the list.

Drying alcohols prevent hairsprays from wetting and flattening hair and allow hair to dry more quickly. However, as the alcohol evaporates from your hair, it robs your curls of the moisture they need to form frizz-free curls. Overuse of drying alcohols can instigate a need for more hairspray to control unruly, dry frizz and more gel to keep curls from wilting or breaking up when their moisture level is lacking.

Using hairspray primarily for special occasions or only on wet hair can reduce the negative, drying effects. Similarly, treating your hair to a daily leave-in, frequent deep moisture treatments, and limited shampooing with gentle, sulfate-free formulas can also reverse some of the drying damage.

What ingredients to expect

There is something to be said for knowing what belongs in a formulation and what is unique. By knowing what ingredients are commonplace in a product type, similarities can be found.

For example, most serums contain very similar ingredients. Therefore, if you know your curls were frizzy when you used Frizz Ease serum, you’ll know other cyclopentasiloxane-based serums will yield comparable results.

When you read the ingredients on Tigi S-Factor One Curl at a Time Curl Serum, you may recognize a serum with no silicones and instead, a polyquaternium, glycerin, aloe, and castor oil as the base. Your results with this product would be very different from the cyclopentasiloxane-based serum.

Shampoos

Clarifying shampoos contain detergents called surfactants. Common ones are sodium laureth sulfate, ammonium lauryl sulfate, sodium trideth sulfate, and cocamidopropyl betaine. Since ingredients are listed in descending order on a label, it’s impossible to know how strong a shampoo is without trying it.

Water is usually the first ingredient, followed by a surfactant. It may contain a lot of water and just a low or high surfactant concentration. This is even true with sulfate-free shampoos. Often, they are highly concentrated to compensate for the lack of sulfates and actually more drying than a more aqueous, sulfate-containing shampoo.

It’s not uncommon to see silicones such as dimethicone in shampoos. They are used to coat hair to prevent surfactants from removing too much moisture.

Watch out for sodium chloride (table salt), which can rough up the cuticle of curly hair. Again, the concentration is difficult to determine. I have had trouble with my hair having an unusual "toweled-dry" feeling while I'm still in the shower, just after rinsing out one of these shampoos. But other shampoos with sodium chloride have never given me this effect. Unfortunately, shampoos are challenging to judge by ingredients alone.

Conditioners

Conditioners, deep treatments and leave-in conditioners contain moisturizing ingredients such as fatty alcohols (cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol), detanglers (cetrimonium chloride, cetrimonium methosulfate), humectants (glycerin, propylene glycol) that draw moisture from the steamy air and into your hair, proteins (wheat protein, soy amino acids), and extracts that impart properties of their source plant. Awesome conditioners frequently have a thick, substantial texture and also contain natural butters (like shea) and oils (like avocado). Candelilla waxes and silicones are frequently found in conditioners.

Gels 

Gels, as well as other stylers like spray gels, mousses, thickeners and root lifters, contain primarily hold ingredients (like vp/va copolymer) and moisture ingredients to disperse the hold ingredient evenly through the hair without being plasticky to the touch.

Many curlies prefer either liquidy textured gels or thick gels with a spreadable slip in the hands. Mousses, which contain a propellant (such as propane), are popular for some curlies but provide much less hold than gels. Silicones, gunky ingredients and drying alcohols can be found in gels and mousses so they are worth a slow, deliberate read before purchasing.

Creams and pomades

Creams contain more moisture ingredients like fatty alcohols and butters than hold and are similar to the marriage of a leave-in and gel. Many curlies like creams better in winter than in summer because their heavy moisturization can cause over-conditioned frizz or can allow the oils to fry their curls. Gunky ingredients and silicones are frequently found in creams.

Pomades contain gunky ingredients, thickeners and oils. They are used on dry hair to smooth frizz, shape and bend hair with precision and long-lasting hold, and add texture. Using too much at a time can cause frizz rather than preventing it.

Serums

Serums contain silicones and occasionally drying alcohols. They add shine and seal over the cuticle. As they are almost completely comprised of silicone, they can build up and cause hair to look producty without regular shampooing with a sulfate-containing shampoo.

To sum it up

By exploring which ingredients affect your individual curls in positive or negative ways, more of your hair budget can be applied to products likely to complement your curls.

 

This article was originally published in 2013 and has been revised for timeliness, grammar, and clarity.

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