How to Read Hair Product Labels Like a Pro
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.
Deciphering Common Product Label Terms:
- Natural: When products are labeled "natural," it means that it contains at least one natural ingredient. There can be small amounts of synthetic ingredients in the mix, too, unless the label says "100% natural" or "all-natural." In fact, according to the FDA, they have no definition or regulation of this term for product labels. So, the "natural" label alone doesn't tell us much.
- Sulfate-free: Many hair-care products contain sulfates, which are surfactants (or detergents) that cleanse and remove dirt and oil. Sulfates are problematic for mature hair because they're super effective at their job, so they can strip hair of its natural balance of oils. Sulfate-free products like our Second Chance Repairing Shampoo and Wake Up Call Volumizing Shampoo use gentler, low-suds cleansers in place of sulfates to provide hydration and volume for mature locks!
- Paraben-free: Parabens are a common beauty and hair product ingredient. They help preserve cosmetics and hair-care products, but they have been linked to increased estrogen in women and many skin and scalp issues. To avoid parabens, simply scan your product labels for any ingredients ending with the word "paraben," such as methylparaben or propylparaben.
- Hypoallergenic: This means that the ingredients in a product have been shown to be gentler and non-irritating to sensitive skin. Often, hypoallergenic products contain little or no fragrances, parabens, sulfates or phthalates because these ingredients are known to cause issues for sensitive users.
- Fragrance-free: In contrast to "unscented" products, which can use fragrance to mask any unwanted smells from other ingredients, fragrance-free means exactly what it says: fragrance-free products contain no fragrance or parfum (the French term for fragrance).
- Vegan: The vegan label means that no cosmetic or hair product ingredients are derived from animals.
- Cruelty-free: This refers to how the product was produced and means that the product was not tested on animals.
- Noncomedogenic: If you are prone to oily skin or an oily scalp, this one is especially important for you. It means it doesn’t contain ingredients that have been proven to clog pores—also especially important when talking about maintaining a healthy scalp and follicles.
- Dermatologist-tested: This means a product was tested by or in consultation with a dermatologist for signs of a reaction. It doesn’t mean it is dermatologist-approved or endorsed.
How Should You Read Expiration Dates on Hair Products?
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.
Are Expired Hair Products Safe to Use?
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.
What Ingredients Should You Avoid in Hair Products?
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!
Should You Avoid Ingredients You Can't Pronounce?
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.
How Are Ingredients Listed on a Product Label?
"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."
Are Ingredients Listed in Order of Amount?
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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At Better Not Younger, we're proud that our product line is cruelty-free, sulfate-free and paraben-free. Our hair products are made without harmful ingredients and are designed specifically with mature tresses in mind. Let Better Not Younger help you find the best clean hair-care products, from shampoos and conditioners to serums and sprays, to help you achieve your healthiest, most vibrant hair yet!