Hair Ever: The 13 Ingredients to Look for in Your Products

While it may be second nature to you to read nutrition labels on foods before you buy them, you probably don’t scrutinize your hair product labels too closely. But it's not hard — just a few key ingredients can take your hair from so-so to head-turning. Here, top cosmetic chemists share advice on what to look for in your favorite hair products.


Shampoos usually contain a surfactant, which helps create foam and emulsifies the dirt and grime in your hair. In most products, the surfactant is sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate, both of which have gotten a bad rap in the past decade because of concerns about irritation.

Those who want to avoid sulfates should look for the detergent lauryl glucoside. “It’s gentle but still effective in removing dirt from you hair,” says Perry Romanowski, a cosmetic chemist in Chicago.

Shampoo-and-Conditioner Combinations

The best nourishing ingredient in these multitaskers is polyquaternium-7 or polyquaternium-10. These conditioning polymers have a positive charge, which balances the negative charges and harsh effects of the detergent in the formula. Polyquaternium-7, in particular, “helps with comb-ability and detangling, and softens the hair,” says Ni’Kita Wilson, a cosmetic chemist in Englewood, New Jersey.


Coconut oil is the gold standard for conditioners. It satisfies lovers of natural ingredients as well as those looking for ingredients that are effective. Says Romanowski, “Coconut oil has been demonstrated to help with flexibility of the hair by penetrating the hair and improving hair strength.”

Other oils that nurture hair and give it shine and moisture are palm oil, jojoba oil, and olive oil. While each works well individually, together they provide greatly improved results, according to Wilson. “Each of these natural oils has constituents of sebum, the oil produced by our bodies,” she says. “So these oils are compatible with the hair, and they’re reinforcing something that’s already there.”

Hydrolyzed keratin, a protein found in hair and skin, nourishes hair by supporting the hair shaft and preventing breakage. “It’s useful for treating hair that’s damaged by permanent waves and bleaching,” says Romanowski, “but it also works as a filler to smooth out chipped cuticles.”

At-Home Hair Color

While mango, shea, and coconut butters are often found in conditioners and some styling products, they are especially beneficial in at-home hair color, which can strip strands of their moisture.

“Butters provide a protective barrier around the hair strands to lessen the impact of harsh treatments,” says Wilson. “Shea butter, like mango butter, locks down the cuticle, sealing moisture in, and coconut oil can actually get into the hair strand to provide additional conditioning.”

Heat-Styling Products

Silicones help boost shine and buffer hair from the damaging effects of heat. “Silicones create a stable barrier that won’t let anything pass through your hair,” says Wilson. “They have a higher heat tolerance than natural oils, which can dry out the hair when used as a thermal protectant.” Wilson’s favorite silicone is dimethicone, which sits on the hair and “seals the cuticles really well,” she says, to lock in moisture.

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