Woman holding bottle of gel to show ingredients

You finally decided to start your healthy curly hair journey with the Curly Girl Method. "Embrace my curls" or "Curly and proud", you repeat to yourself. A few website clicks later, and you find products that are labeled "Sulfate and Silicone Free". You decide to take the plunge and purchase them without checking the ingredients because you trust the labels. Now you have $70 worth of hair product on its way. Recommendations continue to pop up on your social media feed, and $300 later you still haven't found what works for YOUR HAIR!

"You'll just have to try it and see if it works for you!" or "This is all about trial and error!", others would gently say.

I am here to tell you that there is another way to choose your products instead of trying everything that is on the market. Understanding how to read ingredient lists has transformed my curly hair journey without decimating my bank balance!

"Sulfate free" doesn't always mean sulfate free

In the very early stages of my journey with the Curly Girl Method, I made these mistakes several times. A shampoo would have the label "Sulfate Free" at the front, then later I would have a hard time dealing with dryness and would finally see a Sulfate listed in the ingredients. From my experience over time, I came to understand that when advertisers label "Sulfate Free" at the very front, they are referring to one of the harshest Sulfates: Sodium Lauryl Sulfate. However, this does not mean that the product is entirely free of Sulfates. On several occasions, I have found other drying Sulfates in the list, despite the "Sulfate Free" label.

Curly Girl-friendly ingredients to look for

In the Curly Girl Method, we avoid harsh Sulfates and drying Alcohols (they dehydrate the hair), Silicones, Waxes and Mineral Oils (they build up). As replacements, we look for ingredients that are mild, moisturizing and soluble for curly hair in order to minimize dryness and foster better moisture retention.

If you are following the Curly Girl Method like me, look for cleansers that are mild for curls, such as:

  • Cocamidopropyl Betaine
  • Coco Betaine
  • Cocamidopropyl Hydroxysultaine
  • Lauryl Hydroxysultaine
  • Sodium Cocoamphoacetate or Sodium Lauroamphoacetate

Devacurl Low Poo Original is a great example of this. I personally prefer Devacurl No Poo Original or Decadence because I co-wash and these two also contain mild cleansers.

Not all alcohols are bad for curls. There are moisturizing alcohols in ingredient lists that are good for hair. Some examples are:

  • Lauryl alcohol
  • Cetyl alcohol
  • Myristyl alcohol
  • Stearyl alcohol
  • Cetearyl alcohol
  • Behenyl alcohol

You can read more about the differences in alcohols here.

Slip is very helpful for detangling curls because it decreases friction. Silicones are used in traditional mainstream products to add slip and shine. The issue with Silicones is that they don't penetrate the hair shaft to make it better and they also build up. They are removable with Sulfates, but in turn, the frequent use of Sulfates dehydrates the hair. It becomes a vicious cycle. Soluble ingredients for lubrication, on the other hand, make the hair better over time. They also add shine and flexibility to curly hair. If you follow the Curly Girl Method like me, you can replace Silicones with soluble ingredients that are located near the top of the list, such as:

  • Behentrimonium Methosulfate
  • Behentrimonium Chloride
  • Dicetyldimonium Chloride
  • Distearyldimonium Chloride
  • Polyquaternium 55
  • Cetrimonium Bromide

I came to learn this helpful information through Wendy (scientist) on the Hair Science-y Blog and Tonya Mckay here on NaturallyCurly.

Chemical ingredients in a hair gel

Ingredient amounts in products

The Natural Haven Bloom Blog has helped me to understand the importance of ingredient concentrations in products. For example: just because a product is advertised with an "Argan Oil" label doesn't mean that this product has high amounts of this oil. When ingredients are listed, they appear in descending order, calculated by either mass or volume. As a result, when we read lists, we should always focus on the first five ingredients, because they are the main ingredients (in higher amounts). A product that is labeled "Argan Oil" may well have some Argan oil included in the list, but the amount should be the most important thing to look for. If Argan oil is included near the end of the list, the amount is very small and insignificant.

Allergic reactions to products

If you have an allergy to a specific ingredient, relying only on front labels is likely to cause problems. Here I am sharing four steps that you can take to safeguard yourself:

  1. Read ingredient lists very carefully;
  2. Try a single new product at a time. This is helpful because if something unusual happens, you will know that the only difference in your routine was the brand new product;
  3. Patch test the product on your skin before using it for the first time, even if you can't spot any ingredients that are harmful to you: Apply a small amount of the product on a patch of skin that is located on the inner, lower arm. Rub it in and allow it to dry. Avoid washing the area for at least 24 hours and then watch for signs of a reaction;
  4. Observe closely how your scalp reacts after product application, even if the product has passed the first three steps above. If you notice a burning sensation, itching, redness, lumps or anything unusual on your scalp, you will know that this product isn't suitable for you.

Always remember: If you happen to have a serious allergic reaction to a product, please seek medical attention immediately.

In summary: if you are looking for a product that is healthy for curls, focus on cleansers that are mild and won't dehydrate your hair. Choose conditioners and styling products that have soluble ingredients for slip and elasticity. Reading ingredient lists is a good habit to have when you are caring for your curls and overall health. It also saves money and time. The more you practice, the easier it becomes.

Do use the curly girl method when using products? Let us know in the comments below.

Read more about the Curly Girl Method:

26 Favorite Curly Girl Method Products for Wavy Hair

My Experience with Curly Girl Method | Before & After Photos

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Follow Lindsay (curlygirlinz) on Instagram for more on her hair journey or if you would like to ask her any questions!