How to Choose the Best Products for Your Hair
When I was a kid, I loved a certain shampoo because of the label. It showed a pretty woman, her long blond hair entwined with leaves and ﬂowers. She looked as if she were a mermaid who had risen from the water in the middle of spring. The shampoo smelled as if the manufacturer had gathered all of those leaves and ﬂowers, ground them up, and put them into the shampoo bottle just for me. Needless to say, when I used it, my hair did not look like the woman’s on the bottle.
All of the advertising, the pictures of beautiful models, and the lists of delicious herbs are irrelevant. The only thing that matters is for you to know exactly which ingredients work for you.
Once you have stopped damaging your curly hair, the most important beauty product for you is conditioner. Conditioner performs numerous duties. It’s what you’ll use to comb through your thick curls, it holds your curls together, and it will give them weight.
in this article, I suggest several excellent conditioners—as long as their ingredients stay the same as of this writing. Just in case they change or if you’d like to explore, I’ll give you some guidelines for picking out good shampoos and conditioners. You’ll be able to choose your products based on knowledge, not on advertising hype, pretty pictures, lists of ﬂowers that are ground up into the product, or the inﬂated and misleading claims printed on the bottles.
Choosing Shampoos: What to Avoid
I tried a shampoo when I was in high school that said it could read your hair and would deposit more conditioning on the drier parts of your hair. I was so excited! Finally, my ends would start to heal, I thought. But when I rubbed the shampoo into the ends and rinsed it out, they felt as if I’d just washed them with dishwashing liquid.
The shampoo didn’t seem to know, after all. Because shampooing is mostly for the scalp, it’s not crucial to get the perfect one. Choose the shampoo according to what your scalp needs and the conditioner based on what your hair needs.
It isn’t necessary to buy an expensive shampoo, either. Cheap shampoos will do just ﬁne. I often choose by smell, as long as there isn’t anything on the list of ingredients to avoid. Here are the most common cleansing agents to avoid:
1. Sodium lauryl sulfate is drying. (Sodium laureth sulfate is ﬁne. It’s gentle.)
2. Ammonium xylenesulfate is a lacquer solvent and can be very drying.
3. TEA-laurylsulfate is drying and might cause skin irritation.
4. TEA-dodecylbenzene is drying.
5. TEA-dodecylbenzenesulfonate can strip color from your hair, as well as dry it out.
6. Alkyl sodium sulfate is drying and might cause skin irritation.
7. Sodium dodecylbenzenesulfonate is often found in dishwashing liquids because it is very strong and very cheap. It can cause skin irritation.
8. Sodium coco-sulfate is basically the same thing as sodium lauryl sulfate. This means it’s a harsh cleanser.
9. Alkyl benzene sulfonate is harsh, irritating, and drying. It’s known for being a good defatter, which means it’s good at stripping oils from surfaces.
10. Sodium C14-16 oleﬁn sulfonate is drying and can cause skin irritation.
Choosing Conditioners: The Best Ingredients to Look For
The best conditioners are those that make it easier to comb tight curls and help set them and give them weight (when curls have weight, they tend to stay clumped better, and have more motion). The three most important ingredient types you should look for (after water—keep in mind that water still functions the same, even when it’s “tea water,” and in this order
are: weight ingredients, slip ingredients, and moisturizing ingredients.
These are the ingredients that keep your curls clumped together and your hair hanging more or less vertically, instead of rising horizontally in rain or humidity (if you don’t want them to become horizontal, that is).
Ingredients classiﬁed as thickeners, fatty alcohols, fatty acids, many quaternary ammonium compounds (some of these ingredients function to give products more slip in addition to weight), lubricants, and emollients and antistatic ingredients will function in this way. Stearyl alcohol is my favorite, with cetyl alcohol and cetearyl alcohol close seconds (these aren’t the same as isopropyl alcohol, or ethanol —which is rubbing alcohol, also known as SD alcohol, or ethyl alcohol). Ingredients such as behentrimonium chloride, quaternarium 18, stearalkonium chloride, and cetrimonium chloride are ﬁne, too. These ingredients are nongreasy lubricants and thickeners, so they make the product, and thus your hair when you comb it, nice and slippery. When they dry, they help give your curls some weight and keep it moist without oiliness, stickiness, or crunchiness.
These are ingredients that make it possible to get the Denman-type brush through your hair with minimal force and therefore minimal damage. Silicones (such as dimethicone or cyclomethicone) work wonders in helping the brush glide through your hair. My favorite slippery ingredients are silicones, such as cyclopentasiloxane, which is a silicone that evaporates from your hair once it dries. Glycerin also works well to create slip, and much to my surprise, stearamidopropyl dimethylamine also seems to add slip to a product.
These substances work best if they are listed as the second or third ingredient (not counting water), after the weight ingredient. Though I must say I’ve been surprised to ﬁnd conditioners with their slip ingredients listed fourth or even ﬁfth after the weight ingredients, and they are still slippery enough for combing. This is most likely because all of the weight ingredients listed were in smaller portions each.
So perhaps all of them combined equaled the proportion of a single weight ingredient listed in other products. As long as the non-slip ingredient is listed immediately after the weight ingredients (and not down by the fragrances, colors, or preservatives) the product has a chance at being slippery enough to comb with.
Conditioners don’t seem to have enough weight if the slippery ingredient is ﬁrst, directly after water. This is because most of the slip ingredients tend to evaporate when they dry. Because ingredients are listed in the order of their proportions, it means that when the slip ingredient is listed after water, most of the product will evaporate by the time your hair dries. This leaves your curls free to un-clump and expand.
I like my curls to be well deﬁned, so I tend to go for products that show off their texture and keep them together. If the weight ingredient is listed right after water (or the tea water, depending on the conditioner) as the second ingredient, it’s this ingredient that remains behind and makes sure your hair stays calm and collected. You still want to see your slip ingredient high up on the list, however, because you need plenty of it for your Denman-type brush to glide through your curls with minimal friction.
These help keep your curls glossy and moisturized. I don’t like to see them listed before weight or slip ingredients because in this high of a percentage, they tend to make the product really greasy and the conditioner might not give your hair enough weight (or slip for the comb to get through). But I do like to see them as soon after the weight and slip ingredients as possible. Great moisturizing ingredients are often oils or butters, such as olive oil, avocado oil, meadowfoam seed oil, coconut oil, shea butter, jojoba oil, palm oil, and sunﬂower oil.
An excellent oil to smooth on the ends of your hair at night before putting it up is coconut oil. A study conducted showed that this oil can penetrate the hair shaft and may help increase its strength (but, of course, nothing can repair damaged hair). The same study found that mineral oil didn’t penetrate the hair much at all. Most of the natural oils are highly moisturizing, however, and I tend to simply use olive oil occasionally on my ends in winter.
I know some of you might believe that silicone-based products are bad for your hair. This simply isn’t true. I’ve been using them heavily for years, and my hair looks better than it has for most of my life. Don’t miss out on something that could genuinely help you, based on secondhand information. When you read warnings about silicone-based products, you must always ask yourself, Where did the source get his or her information?
At a picnic a few years ago, a family member asked me about my favorite brand of conditioner, and a close family friend overheard my answer. She came running up to us, clutching her wig so that it wouldn’t fall off, to say that I was wrong, totally wrong. She knew the perfect product to use and insisted vehemently that her conditioner worked far better than mine did. She was really convincing, too—however, I’d seen the peach fuzz beneath her wig when one of her kids snatched it from her head and ran off with it. What I’m saying is that anyone can insist that she has the answers for you.
But look at the source, ﬁnd out where the person’s information came from, and look at what’s really going on beneath the surface. (Are they telling you this to justify selling you expensive products? Are they misrepresenting studies to slant these in their favor?) Don’t believe something just because it’s said to you with authority or because you’ve heard it so often, you assume it must be true. Whenever people give me hair-care advice, unless they can tell me which studies they’re using to support what they’re saying, I always look at their hair. Do they have hair like mine, so that I know they understand my issues? Is their hair long and healthy? If it’s short because it’s breaking off or they can’t grow it because it’s damaged, I tend not to listen. (I know, I’m paranoid. But I’m a paranoid with long hair.) What objective scientiﬁc studies can they show me? Be aware that many companies pay for the very studies that “prove” their products work.
Just because something is human-made doesn’t make it bad. Think of all the vaccines and the medicines that are people-made and that save lives every day. And, conversely, just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s automatically good for you or will work for you. Poison oak, poison ivy, stinging nettle, and hemlock are all natural ingredients, but I try to avoid them whenever I can.
A great book to read by an author. She cuts through all of the advertising misinformation. She’s also read the actual scientiﬁc studies done on the ingredients and their effects on hair and even tells you exactly where her information comes from. The author wrote, “Silicone not only provides temporary renewed smoothness to the hair, but also is the subject of an enormous amount of research (that ﬁlls several folders in my ofﬁce) demonstrating its extraordinary safety . . . consider it your dry, coarse, frizzy, damaged, brittle, over styled, wiry, rough, hard-to-comb hair’s best friend.”
There are many myths regarding why silicones are bad for hair. I read about one concern that hair can’t “breathe” if it’s coated in silicone. however, hair isn’t alive, and therefore it isn’t doing any breathing of any kind. Yet too much of any heavy product, including silicones and natural oils, can build up and clog the pores on your scalp. So it’s best not to let any products pile up on your scalp.
There’s also a myth that silicone coats hair and prevents moisture from getting through. According to a scientific study, there is no research to support this belief. Silicone, in fact, surrounds each strand of hair in a moisturizing glove, actually protecting it from moisture loss.
Although many silicones evaporate from hair, the ones that remain may potentially build up on hair. From my research, it sounds like the biggest downside to silicones when they build up is that they can weigh your hair down. If you think about it, isn’t that exactly what you need them to do? The whole reason I leave conditioners in my hair is to give my hair weight and to keep it clumped together and moisturized, since I usually like my curls deﬁned. Even after I walk in the rain for hours, my hair is still calm, and my curls are still deﬁned. On the other hand, this advice that silicones are bad and build up makes sense if you have straighter hair that’s easily ﬂattened. Then, yes, you should avoid them. But for those of us with very curly hair, silicones are a glorious thing.
Choosing Conditioners: What to Avoid
On any bottle of product you are looking at, there will be a listing of numerous other ingredients after the recommended ones, and it’s good to look over these as well. Although any ingredients named at the beginning of the list make up the bulk of the product, the function of the product can change if one of the following ingredients is lurking in the list. Know that any ingredients listed near the bottom, especially anything after the fragrance, will be present in very small amounts. This means you really only need to scan the list to make sure there’s nothing undesirable in the product.
Sticky or Crunchy
Avoid sticky or holding ingredients that are sometimes put in conditioners. These sometimes appear in products for “frizzy” hair, and they are used to keep the hairs stuck together. This isn’t good for your curls. You’re already using the conditioner itself to give your curls weight and keep them together, without stiffness or stickiness. Products with sticky or holding ingredients tend to keep your comb from gliding through your hair and will build up in your hair. Avoid products with ingredients that have names with copolyol anything, acrylate anything, vinyl anything, or PVP anything. It was these ingredients that made my hair feel like the back of a sticky note.
Avoid products with grain or rubbing alcohol in them, such as SD alcohol 40, isopropyl alcohol, ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, because these tend to be drying to your hair.
This might just be my paranoia talking, but some conditioners out there have salt up near the top of the ingredient list. Salt is often used as an inexpensive thickening ingredient. Because I’m leaving conditioner in my hair, however, and salt is corrosive, I’m going to avoid anything with sodium chloride, sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), or potassium chloride.