How to Read a Hair Product Ingredient Label

How to Read a Hair Product Ingredient Label

Posted by Curl Warehouse on

Ingredients and formulation are important things to consider when choosing a product for your curly hair. Today we're going to give you a crash course on reading an ingredient label so you can easily figure out if a product might be right for you and decipher the ingredients contained in the bottle.

Ingredient Order is Most Important

Ingredients are listed on every product (those that are following best practices and labelling laws, anyway) in amount order. This means that the first ingredient in the list has the highest amount in the formula, and the one listed at the bottom has the lowest amount. Many countries have a labelling rule that ingredients that make up less than 1% of the formula can be in any order at the end of the list. Sometimes the last few ingredients in a product are fractions of a percentage of the full formulation.

Without speaking directly to a manufacturer, who probably won't give you their secret recipes anyway, it is impossible to know exactly how much of an ingredient is in a product. 

At Curl Warehouse, we follow a general rule of thumb that the first five (5) ingredients make up the majority of the product. These are the ones we pay the most attention to when customers are asking us about how moisturizing ("heavy") a product is, how much protein it has, what the consistency might be like, etc.

International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI)

Every ingredient has an INCI name. For example, rosemary (the herb) is usually displayed as Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf Extract. You don't have to know every ingredient's INCI name as most will have the common name in brackets if it is something like an herb, flower, plant, or seed extract, etc.

Water Hydrates Your Hair and Your Products

The most common ingredient in curly hair products is water (aqua/eau). Water is hydration for your hair and scalp. It also helps your products spread much better than they would if they weren't thinned out with water. A product that does not have water as the first ingredient will be very thick and tricky to use.

Without knowing exactly how much water is in a formulation, it's impossible to know what the percentage of the formula is made up of other ingredients. The best we can do is guess!

Some products are very concentrated which means brands like Innersense Organic Beauty use less water in each bottle than many other companies do. Concentrated formulas allow you to use less when applying that product. You are unlikely to find information like this on the bottle itself, so it is always helpful to research a brand or pay attention to the amount they tell you to use to determine how concentrated it is.

water in Innersense products

Water amounts in Innersense products compared to many other brands (image from @innersenseorganicbeauty on Instagram)

Common Moisturizing Ingredients in Curly Hair Products

Moisturizing ingredients come in many forms, including emollients and humectants. Just because a product contains one or more of these ingredients doesn't necessarily mean it will be heavy or unsuitable for fine or low density hair because the entire formula must be considered.

However, to keep it simple, one or more of these in the first five ingredients on a product means it is likely to be a good conditioner:

  • Coconut oil, cream, or butter
  • Glycerin
  • Shea Butter
  • Mango Butter
  • Cocoa Butter
  • Aloe Vera

You can also look for other words like "cream" or "butter" in the first five ingredients to gauge how moisturizing a product might be. Other common ingredients you'll find in the top 5 list of moisturizing products are things like Cetrimonium Chloride and marshmallow root (shown in the first two examples below). They provide that "slip" we often associate with products that are easy to detangle with. You can read more about "slip" in our blog post FAQs: What is "Slip"?

A few examples of great conditioners with moisturizing ingredients:

  • Ecoslay Banana Cream Deep ConditionerAbelmoschus esculentus (okra) extract, Althaea officinalis (marshmallow root) extract, Aloe barbadensis (aloe vera) juice, Cocos Nucifera (coconut) cream, Cetearyl Alcohol, Brassica napus (colza/rapeseed) oil, Persea americana (avocado) oil, Argania spinosa (argan) oil, Simmondsia chinensis (jojoba) oil, Propylene Glycol, Diazolidinyl Urea, Iodopropynyl Butylcarbamate, Musa sapientum (banana) extract.

  • Inahsi Naturals' Moisture Supreme Fragrance-Free Conditioner: Aqua (Purified Water), Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice (Aloe Vera Juice), Vegetable Glycerin, Cetrimonium Chloride, Cetearyl Alcohol, Behentrimonium Methosulfate, Cetyl Alcohol, Hyaluronic Acid, Olea Europeae (Olive) Fruit Oil, Persea gratissima (Avocado) Oil, Hibiscus rosa-sinensis (Hibiscus) Extract, Urtica dioica (Nettle) Extract, Equisetum Hyemale (Horsetail), Capryl Gycol , Phenoxyethanol, Sorbic acid.

  • As I Am So Much Moisture Hydrating Lotion: Aqua/Water/Eau, Glycerin, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Extract, Sodium Benzoate, Potassium Sorbate, Erythorbic Acid, Citric Acid, Royal Jelly, Glucose, Lavandula Angustifolia (Lavender) Flower Extract, Phenoxyethanol, Equisetum Arvense Extract, Glycerin, Urtica Dioica (Nettle) Leaf Extract, Phenoxyethanol, Salvia Officinalis (Sage) Leaf Extract, Phenoxyethanol, Citrus Grandis (Grapefruit) Fruit Extract, Phenoxyethanol, Cetyl Alcohol, Cetearyl Alcohol, Behentrimonium Methosulfate, Sodium Chloride, Lactoperoxidase, Glucose Oxidase, Fragrance/Parfum (Limonene), Potassium Sorbate, Dimethyl Stearamine

Many of these conditioning ingredients are present in curly hair products because our hair is naturally dry. These products are created with this in mind. Avoiding these ingredients entirely is not recommended - and may be impossible - even for the finest hair types.

Additionally, many alcohols are actually fatty alcohols (long-chain) not drying alcohols (short-chain). These alcohols are derived from oils can help give your hair that slippery, well-conditioned feeling.

Some examples of fatty alcohols:

  • cetyl alcohol
  • cetearyl alcohol
  • stearyl alcohol
  • lauryl alcohol

One more note about moisturizing ingredients: hydrolyzed proteins can actually help your hair retain moisture (water). You can find more about these ingredients below.

Common Protein Ingredients in Curly Hair Products

Not all protein is created equally! Some protein is made up of smaller parts, which makes it easier for the hair to absorb. Amino acids and hydrolyzed proteins are examples of small proteins.

Words that indicate protein in a curly hair product:

  • protein (surprise!)
  • hydrolyzed
  • amino acids (some examples include histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine though sometimes they'll just be listed as 'amino acids')
  • keratin
  • collagen
  • peptides
  • biotin
  • soy
  • cholesterol
  • silk
  • dairy and dairy-related ingredients like casein

Additionally, some products may contain higher amounts of protein because they have a variety of protein in their formulas, rather than a high concentration of just one protein-containing ingredient that appears in the first five ingredients.

Some examples of products with a protein focus:

  • Ecoslay Matcha Boost Protein TreatmentDistilled water, Ceteryl alcohol, Brassica Campestris Seed (Colza) Oil, hydrolyzed quinoa protein, hydrolyzed keratin protein*, Camellia sinensis (Matcha Green Tea) Leaf Extract, Propanediol, Hydroxypropyl starch phosphate, Caprylhydroxamic acid GG.


  • AG Hair Re:Coil: Aqua (Water/Eau), Hydroxypropyl Starch Phosphate, Polyquaternium-55, Cetyl Alcohol, Stearalkonium Chloride, Stearyl Alcohol, Glycerin, Ceteareth-20, Cetearyl Alcohol, Corn Starch Modified, Magnesium Sulfate, Polyquaternium-10, Cetrimonium Chloride, Phenoxyethanol, Panthenol, Parfum (Fragrance), Sodium Pca, Butylene Glycol, Tetrasodium Edta, Benzyl Benzoate, Limonene, Ethylhexylglycerin, Hydrolyzed Pea Protein, Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, Iodopropynyl Butylcarbamate, Tris(Tetramethylhydroxypiperidinol) Citrate, Achillea Millefolium Extract, Calendula Officinalis Flower Extract, Chamomilla Recutita (Matricaria) Flower Extract, Cymbopogon Schoenanthus Extract, Humulus Lupulus (Hops) Extract, Melissa Officinalis Leaf Extract, Prunus Serotina (Wild Cherry) Bark Extract, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf Extract, Salvia Officinalis (Sage) Leaf Extract, Urtica Dioica (Nettle) Extract, Coumarin, Lactobacillus/Tomato Fruit Ferment Extract, Keratin Amino Acids*, Oryza Sativa (Rice) Extract, Leuconostoc/Radish Root Ferment Filtrate, Acyl Coenzyme A Desaturase.

In general, we do not consider extracts to be examples of high protein ingredients. It would be fair to say that they may contain some protein but it would be very, very little. This is because they are rarely hydrolyzed and easy for the hair to absorb, and also because extracts are just that - they don't contain the full benefits of the entire plant, seed, or other ingredient. Additionally, things like seed extracts tend to be higher in fat than protein, so many of them are better at adding flexibility and shine to the hair rather than strength.

woman outdoors with curly hair and a flower

Are You Avoiding Certain Ingredients?

If you think your hair may be sensitive to an ingredient or you are attempting to avoid something like glycerin but you're struggling to find products that don't contain it, try looking for formulations with that ingredient near the bottom of the list instead of the top. 

For example, the Ouidad Advanced Climate Control collection all contain glycerin, an ingredient many people think gives them more frizz in high humidity environments. But because these products are specifically formulated to combat humidity and glycerin is halfway down the ingredient list, all of the ingredients together makes it a great choice for humid environments. 

If your hair didn't react well to one product with a specific type of protein, it may react wonderfully to a product with a different kind of protein. Protein is extremely important for healthy hair. Swearing off it may be doing more harm than good for your curls! Check out our blog post Does Your Hair Need Protein? to learn more about these ingredients.

The biggest caveat to this is if you are allergic to an ingredient. If that's the case, you should definitely avoid it!


Need help figuring out which products might work best for you? Visit us in store or send us an email at We'll be happy to help you!

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