Hair Product Ingredients Explained

Woman checking hair product ingredients before buying
Buying hair products - Photo: Shutterstock
We’ve all done it a time or two before: read that list of arcane words on the back of the bottles and packages of our hair care products. We’ve seen those multi-syllabic words and the scientific nomenclature and wondered what those names had to do with how the stuff in the bottle colored your hair or cleaned it, or made it shiny and soft.
Well, each of those ingredients in the various products - either on their own or in combination with other ingredients – has a function and what follows is a list of some of these ingredients and their function.
Before we can get into the actual lists of ingredients, we need to cover a few terms that may need some explanation:
An emulsifier (also known as an emulgent) is an ingredient that when added to a combination of two unblendable substances allows them to become stable in their blended state. As an example, mayonnaise is an emulsion of oil-in-water that is stabilized by the lecithin in egg yolks.
Emulsifiers are used to create creams and lotions, and the emulsion principle is what allows the surfactants in soap to remove grease in cleaning.
The word surfactant is a blended word from the base words “surface acting agent” and are usually organic compounds that contain lipophilic (oil attracting) and hydrophilic (water attracting) agents allowing the compound to combine attract oily dirt in hair and skin and wash it away.
A solvent is a liquid or gas that dissolves a solid liquid or gaseous solute resulting in a solution. Most solvents have a low boiling point, evaporate easily and can be removed by distillation. Water is the most common solvent in everyday life.
Now that we’ve covered these most-basic terms, let’s look at some of the more commonly found ingredients in hair care products and see what purposes they serve in the products in which they are found:
This is a high-foam surfactant that makes a good base for cleansers because of the way it disrupts hydrogen bonding in water. This has the effect of allowing the water to more easily penetrate cloth fibers and hair for deeper cleaning. It is primarily used in shampoos and body cleansers.
This is a detergent and surfactant commonly used in soaps and shampoos. It is a very effecting foaming agent for generating cleansing lather.
This wax-like organic compound is used as an antistatic agent and disinfectant, it is commonly used in conditioners, hair dye and mousse.
This colorless liquid has a mild pleasant aromatic odor and is a natural constituent of essential oils including jasmine, hyacinth and ylang-ylang. It is also a useful solvent due to its polarity, low toxicity and low vapor pressure. It is generally used as a solvent for inks, paints, lacquers and epoxy resin coatings.
This compound (blended of saturated-fatty alcohols – cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol) is a non-ionic surfactant that works by attracting both water and oil at the same time. It is frequently used as an emulsifier in soaps and cosmetics.
This compound is a quaternary, water-soluble conditioning agent that adds shine to the hair.
Chlorhexidine salts are antibacterial agents used for human and animal disinfection and have a wide range of antimicrobial activity, being effective against a variety of organisms as well as fungi and spores. It is used in hair products to maintain purity and as a preservative.
This is a mild fruit acid commonly used in hair products for its ability to open the cuticle layer and allow deeper penetration of other products that are beneficial to the hair. It is often used in clarifying shampoos and deep conditioning treatments.
This is silicone oil and is used in shampoos to make the hair shiny and slippery to resist tangles. It is also used widely in moisturizing lotions as a “skin protectant”.