Picture this: You’re shopping for shampoo at the closest store to your house. You’re looking to try something new, so you pick up the bottles that look most interesting to you, read their labels, and then make an informed decision about which one is best for you.

Doesn’t sound familiar? That’s probably because the labels on shampoo bottles are so tough to understand they might as well be written in code. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother trying to read them—that would mean missing out on valuable information about what you’re about to put on your head.

That’s why we wrote this guide to understanding the labels on shampoo bottles (without having to memorize every chemical known to humanity).

Wait, why should I bother reading a shampoo label?

If you’re reading this article, you probably already know that it’s worth caring about what’s in the products you use, but it’s helpful to remind ourselves why that matters so much. In most cases, the higher the quality of the products you put in your hair, the better your hair will look. But it’s important to note that the best-quality shampoo on the shelf isn’t necessarily the one with the highest price tag.

So how do you tell a quality shampoo from a not-so-great one? You read the label, of course! But before that, you get familiar with which ingredients are good for your hair, which are probably not, and how to spot those ingredients on the label. So let’s get started.

Okay, but can we start with the basics?

Yep! You’ll find a lot of information wrapped around a shampoo bottle, including the brand that makes it, instructions for using it, and how much it weighs. But if you’re just trying to quickly figure out if this is the bottle you want to bring home with you, there’s one section you’ll want to skim for. It’s called the INCI list.

“INCI” stands for “International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients.” That may sound unfamiliar, but you’ve almost definitely seen an INCI list before—it’s the long list of ingredients you’ll find written in small print on almost every cosmetic product. The FDA requires that these ingredients be identified by standard names used across the cosmetics industry (“nomenclature” is the fancy way of saying “a system for naming things”) because it would get very confusing if different brands used different words for the same stuff.

These scientific names can be pretty intimidating at first, but you don’t need to understand everything on the list. That’s because the ingredients are also required to be listed in a specific order. The first ingredient is always the one that makes up most of the product. The one after that is the second biggest ingredient, and so on, until we get to the stuff that’s only 1% or less of the formula (those ingredients can be listed in any order).

That means that if you know the meanings of the first handful of terms on the list, you basically understand what’s in the bottle. Luckily, most shampoos use similar ingredients to form the basis of their product, so there are only a few key terms you’ll need to know. Let’s break them down.

What ingredients are included in most shampoos?

Carrying Agents

Typically found at the beginning of an INCI list, carrying agents are the stuff that’s only in the formula to help the active ingredients do their job. (If the active ingredients are the astronauts, carrying agents are the spaceship.) The most common carrying agent is listed as “aqua,” which you usually just call “water.”

Some shampoos use alcohol as a carrying agent instead of (or along with) water. Keep in mind that some types of alcohol can be drying for your hair, like ethanol, propanol, propyl alcohol, and isopropyl alcohol. So-called “fatty alcohols,” which have a different chemical makeup, are actually good for your hair. These include lauryl alcohol, cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, and cetearyl alcohol.


Most of the time, the second ingredient you’ll find on the list is a surfactant. Surfactants make shampoos effective at their most important job—cleaning your hair. They’re basically detergents that help you get that soapy lather that lets you know your hair’s getting squeaky clean.

Common surfactants include (in order from most to least mild) ammonium laureth sulfate, ammonium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, and sodium trideth sulfate. Some of these terms may sound familiar to you. If so, that’s probably because sulfates have developed a pretty bad reputation in recent years for drying out hair.

At the end of the day, all surfactants are drying because soap removes oil from your hair. If you’re not a fan of sulfates, there are sulfate-free shampoos available, but keep in mind that such shampoos usually include even more of whatever surfactant they replace sulfate with in pursuit of that all-important lather. More soap means more drying, which kind of defeats the purpose of avoiding sulfates in the first place.


Emollients are there to combat the drying effect of surfactants. While those soapy agents get your hair nice and clean, emollients help your follicles hang on to some of their moisture so you won’t step out of the shower with brittle, bone-dry hair. They also help lubricate your hair strands to reduce damaging friction, and make your mane look shinier overall. Some examples of emollients are vegetable oils, panthenol, aloe vera, and mineral oil.

Silicones are one type of emollient that’s gotten a lot of attention lately. Silicones are artificial ingredients that seal your hair cuticle to prevent frizz and improve shine. Some people avoid silicones because they’re not natural, but other people consider them a must-have for the shine they provide. The most common silicone you’ll find in shampoo is dimethicone.


Preservatives help prevent the growth of harmful (and gross) bacteria like mold—a serious risk when most of your formula is water. Preservatives like potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate are used in both shampoos and food.

Parabens are odorless, tasteless, and colorless preservatives found in many cosmetics. They’re also another controversial ingredient because some scientists think they may be linked to breast cancer. That’s because parabens have been found in cancerous tissue, but they’ve also been found in other parts of the body. The bottom line is that there hasn’t been enough research to definitively prove that putting parabens on your head can actually cause cancer.

Some parabens you might find listed on a label are butylparaben, ethylparaben, isobutylparaben, isopropylparaben, methylparaben, and propylparaben.

What ingredients are good for my hair?

Now that you have a handle of the different types of ingredients that make up most shampoos, you probably want to know which specific ingredients you should be keeping an eye out for as you confidently skim those labels.

It’s important to note that which ingredients are best for your hair specifically varies depending on what type of hair you have. For example, these ingredients are best for guys who are hoping for thicker, healthier-looking hair:

What ingredients are bad for my hair?

Again, the answer to this will vary from one guy to the next, but certain ingredients are known to have negative effects. We’ve chosen this list because they’re proven to be harmful, not just because they’re not natural:

  • coal tar dyes (can build up and cause cancer)
  • DMDM hydantoin (can release formaldehyde)
  • imidazolidinyl (can irritate skin and eyes)
  • parabens (may be carcinogenic)
  • phthalates (can cause a variety of long-term health conditions)
  • triethanolamine (can cause irritation at high concentrations)

Now that you know which ingredients do what, you’re ready to connect the dots between what’s written on the label and what happens on your head. But even if you memorized the names of every ingredient found in shampoo, you still wouldn’t know exactly which shampoo is best for you.

That’s because knowing what an ingredient does to hair doesn’t tell you what it’ll do to your hair—to figure that out, you’ll need to try different types of shampoo, pay attention to the ingredients, and see what your hair likes best.

The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely upon the content provided in this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.

Photo by George Van Gosh on Unsplash