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How to Read Your Haircare Labels (and Actually Understand Them!)

Sure, we write about hair for a living, but we’d be lying if we said we understand everything about it. Haircare is an ever-changing science that doesn’t always make sense off the bat. There’s just so much to know—how to read haircare labels being among those things!

“There’s so much more transparency with haircare ingredients these days, as consumers are demanding to know more about what goes into and behind the bottle,” Biolage Global Ambassador and Celebrity Stylist Sunnie Brook tells Mane Addicts. “Consumers are really taking the initiative to be informed and educated on their haircare routines. One of my biggest tips is looking for brands that take a clean or conscious approach to creating products. Read about their brand vision, and you’ll limit the guess work on what’s good and what’s not.”

A typical rule of thumb, Sunnie points out, is searching for products that are paraben and sulfate-free, vegan-friendly and naturally fragranced (if fragrance is used at all).

Below, Sunnie breaks down how to read haircare labels (and actually understand them!).

What You Want to See on Your Labels (and in What Order)


Usually water is the first ingredient, but after that, you want to see an emollient, which are fatty good alcohols, such as stearyl alcohol and cetearyl alcohol. They help soften the hair. 

Cationic Surfactant

Then, you want to see a cationic surfactant, which helps smooth the cuticle and keep the hair soft. “Cationic surfactants are formed by molecules with quaternary ammonium groups, such as cetyltrimethylammonium chloride or N-cetylpyridinium chloride, are used for the analysis of inorganic anions,” according to Science Direct — you can read more about these here.


Next, you want your oils (coconut oil, shea butter, almond oil, etc.). These add a nice slip and soften the hair.


After that, you want to have humectants, like glycerin and honey, which attract and hold moisture.

curly-haired woman tugs are her dark strands
(via Unsplash)

Speaking of haircare, HERE‘s how to find the best conditioner for your hair porosity.

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