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Washing Out the Hype: Making Sense of Hair Care Formulas & Ingredients, Part 1
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In the upcoming weeks, we'll take a look at the occasionally mystifying claims of hair care products, their formulas, and a breakdown of the main types of ingredients used. Armed with a better understanding of what makes a shampoo, conditioner or styling product work, you will be better prepared for the hair care aisle!
What Do They Mean When They Say…?
What startles us most in the world of hair care is how incredibly repetitive the formulations are. Despite the claims, the differences in formula composition between shampoos, conditioners, and styling products are minor. To compensate for the missing variety, an immense amount of marketing language is created to help support the illusion that there are amazing differences, when in fact there are little to be found.
So what is the difference between a product that builds body and one that builds volume? Are they one and the same or is there a difference? How does a product build volume or add body to the hair? Is a product designed for color-treated hair really very different from one designed for permed or damaged hair? What makes a product good for color-treated hair but not for dry hair, or vice versa? Can a hair-care product that claims to put curl back into the hair or to revitalize a perm really do that? Good questions!
One of the more confusing aspects of reviewing the hair-care industry’s products is trying to keep the terminology and claims straight. Names for product types, descriptions of what they do, and the results they promise are not consistent from line to line or even within lines. Our previous reviews have revealed surprises such as products claiming to clarify or deep-clean hair may contain ingredients that add more buildup, or be formulations that can’t deep-clean. A shampoo claiming to be good for oily hair may contain conditioning agents that will only add up to a greasy feel. One line may have a host of products claiming they can add volume to the hair, but those products may have nothing in common with those from a different line that claim to do the same thing.
It is difficult to wade through this stream of contradictions and inconsistencies. The following general guidelines can help you get started:
- Most products
designated either separately or in combination for permed,
color-treated, coarse, chemically processed, dry, damaged, porous,
or sun-bleached hair tend to contain similar ingredients.
These products all tend to be more emollient and conditioning than other product types, and generally there is little difference in how the products in this group are formulated. The reason these formulations can be the same and still function well is easy to understand. Although the cause of each of these hair problems is different, their effect on the hair shaft tends to be the same. Hair damaged by the sun, hair dyes, perms, or styling tools suffers the same injury regardless of the source.
Dry hair is a result of the hair losing its moisture content, often because damage has destroyed the hair’s own ability to keep moisture in the hair. But it also can happen to healthy hair just because it’s in a dry environment (in that case your hair could be dry without being damaged). Either way, the product you use to make your hair manageable, soft, and silky calls for the same formulation, even if the source of the problem is different (Sources: Cosmetics & Toiletries, May 2003, pages 28–32, and May 2004, pages 64–68).
- Products that claim to add body, volume, or thickness to the hair almost always contain the same ingredients.
A combination of lightweight water-binding agents such as glycerin, propylene glycol, amino acids, panthenols, and proteins, along with a small amount of styling agents (film formers and plasticizing agents) such as acrylates, PVP, and PVM/MA (polyvinyl methyl ether/maleic anhydride) are standard in products professing to make hair fuller and thicker.
These styling agents are the same as those often found in hairsprays and especially in styling gels. The water-binding agents keep water in the hair to prevent dehydration and thus keep the hair swollen, helping to add a feeling of thickness. The styling agents cover the hair shaft with an almost imperceptible layer that adds to its thickness. None of these ingredients or products is in any way capable of changing the actual structure of hair; they merely add a coating that creates an illusion and feel of thickness.
- Many products in many different forms claim to reduce frizzies or straighten hair.
Anti-frizz and straightening products almost always contain some form of silicone, emollients, film formers, and detangling agents. These ingredients put an emollient layer over the hair, changing the way it feels to the touch by binding the cuticle down and slightly sticking the hairs together without making them feel as bonded as they do with hairspray, gel, or mousse. The silicones also provide some measure of heat protection for when you’re straightening your hair with a flatiron.
- What about products that say they can add shine to the hair?
When the cuticle lies flat it has a smoother, more even surface that can reflect light. For example, think of a lake. When the surface is smooth, you can see your reflection shining back at you. When a breeze picks up, the surface becomes rough and uneven and its reflecting qualities are broken up.
So how can you make the cuticle lie flat and appear smoother? There are three major ways— shampoo, conditioner, or styling product—all of which involve adding a low-pH product over the hair to make the microscopic layers of the cuticle close tight. As it turns out, most shampoos and conditioners these days have the right pH range to create this effect.
Silicone is an outstanding hair-care ingredient and the unsung hero of the hair-care world. Not only does silicone add reflection and sheen, it also imparts an unbelievably sensual, silky feel. The only trick with these types of products is to not get carried away thinking more is better—too much can build up to a greasy mess that looks more wet and sticky than shiny. Forms of silicone used in hair-care products include cyclopentasiloxane, cyclohexasiloxane, dimethicone, and phenyl trimethicone, among others.
Conditioners vary according to the amounts of emollients, water-binding agents (for moisturizing), detangling agents (for comb-ability), film formers (for volumizing), antistatic ingredients (for manageability), silicones (for shine, detangling, and a silky feel), and oils (for dryness) they contain. When a conditioner contains only small amounts of these, it is best for someone with normal, limp, fine, or oily hair. When a conditioner includes more of these, it is best for someone with any level of damaged or dry hair.
Styling products, with their film-forming ingredients and silicones, are the perfect adjuncts for imparting the most shine and silky feel to hair.
Next week, we're going to examine the specific ingredients that do the work! If you have ever wondered which actually clean, soften and style hair (as well as which may be best for you,) check back next Friday for the details. For more on hair care products, see our article The 7 Hairstyling Products to Skip, and the 7 Fabulous Formulas to Try Instead!