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by: Better Not Younger
April 18, 2022
Sometimes reading product labels can feel like reading a foreign language. There are numbers and dates that seem random, along with ingredients and terms we're unfamiliar with. Even terms we do know can be unclear.
Should we avoid specific ingredients in our hair products? What's the difference between "unscented and "fragrance-free?" And how can we break down the label itself?
We sat down with Dr. Debra Lin, Chief Scientific Officer at Better Not Younger, to get the 411 on how to read hair product labels. Keep reading for answers to the most common questions related to reading labels, plus a handy list of terms typically found on beauty and hair-care labels to help you decode them like a pro and make the healthiest hair product choices.
Products such as color cosmetics, skincare and hair care typically do not have expiration dates on packaging if they have been tested and confirmed to have a shelf stability of 3 years or more.
Generally, these items are safe and stable for longer periods of time and are sold before they reach the end of their shelf life. Manufacturers dispose of excess products that don't sell by this time.
"The exceptions to this expiration date rule are OTC (or over-the-counter) products such as sunscreens and acne treatments," says Dr. Lin. "Because these products are categorized as drugs by the FDA, the expiration date is there to ensure that the product is safe and can still work as intended."
Most products, however, do have an "open jar" icon on the back with a period of time in months (1M, 3M, 12M or 24M, for example). This is known as a PAO (Period After Opening) symbol, and it indicates the recommended time a product should be used after the date of opening. This length of time is shorter than the expiration period because it takes into account that a product's exposure to various things in the environment can impact product integrity.
Some products have a longer shelf life than their expiration. However, this is on a product-by-product basis, so proceed with caution! Without full knowledge of the product, it is best not to use products after set expiration dates as they may not function as intended.
Avoid ingredients to which you have known sensitivities. If you have fine, delicate hair, stay away from heavier conditioners and oils, as they will weigh down your hair. For dry, brittle hair, harsh cleansers can damage the hair further, so steer clear of clarifying, high-foaming shampoos that contain sulfates. And those with sensitive scalps should look for fragrance-free formulas.
Our brand-new Full Transparency Pure Revitalizing Shampoo and Full Transparency Shine Revitalizing Conditioner check all of these boxes! Designed with sensitive scalps in mind, they are lightweight, hypoallergenic, dermatologist-tested, sulfate-free and fragrance-free, and gently cleanse and condition hair with nutrient-rich ingredients like chia seeds and yuzu for gorgeous volume and shine!
Not necessarily. Perfectly safe ingredients in hair products can have complex scientific names. For example, tocopherols are just vitamin E, and dihydrogen oxide is water.
Protein is also a great example of why we can't rely just on name recognition or complexity in deciding if hair product ingredients are safe. Protein hair product ingredients can take many names that are less clear or familiar: amino acids, hydrolyzed protein, hydrolyzed collagen and hydrolyzed keratin. Each of these is a protein component, but only one actually says "protein" as the ingredient.
When we compare this example of protein ingredients to moisturizing ingredients, which often stand out to us because they're pretty straightforward (butter, oil, aloe vera and honey), you can see what we mean! Both protein hair product ingredients and moisturizing ingredients, however, are safe and super-important because our hair requires a balance of both. (Plus, our hair is made of proteins!)
On the other hand, sometimes these complex-sounding ingredients will be ones you will want to avoid. To make the most educated purchase when seeking out hair products without harmful ingredients, try searching for any concerning ingredients on a reputable consumer information site like the FDA or the Environmental Working Group (EWG) websites.
"Most ingredients on a product label are listed using their INCI name, which stands for the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients," says Dr. Lin. "The INCI follows the rules established by the Personal Care Products Council, which was established to help identify cosmetic ingredients in a systematic and consistent manner that is internationally recognized."
Some brands in the U.S. will also include the common product name on the label to help consumers identify ingredients. For example, argan oil is the common name while argania spinosa kernel oil is the INCI name. So brands can list the ingredient as either "argania spinosa kernel oil" or "argania spinosa (argan) kernel oil."
Yes. Ingredients are generally listed in order of highest concentration to lowest concentration for ingredients that make up more than 1% of a product. Ingredients that make up less than 1% of a product can be listed in any order. The first ingredient in the list is the one with the highest amount.
"It is important to note that ingredient levels are tied to their function and safety levels," notes Dr. Lin. "Some ingredients are efficacious at levels below 1%, and some ingredients have what are called 'use restrictions' at higher levels." This is why an active ingredient may fall at the end of the list, even though it’s an important one—a little can go a long way! More does not always mean better or more effective, and learning how to read product labels can help provide information on relative amounts!
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