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The average hair-care product is composed of 50% to 90% water. Thickeners, cleansing agents (detergents/surfactants), styling ingredients, and conditioning agents, which make the product look and perform the way we expect it to, comprise almost everything else. Less than 1% of the product contains the buzzword ingredients that we think we’re buying, such as protein, panthenol, vitamins, and plant extracts. Some of these, such as proteins and panthenol, have merit for hair, but not when they are present in meager amounts.
Regardless of the formulas and the marketing, there are no secrets when it comes to whether or not a product works for your hair. You can tell immediately if your hair feels clean, soft, is defrizzed, easy to style, and whether or not it stays put.
Shampoos: Just Clean Facts
First things first—and the first step is cleaning your hair. Get this step right and you are halfway home. You’ll be relieved to learn that it is hard to get this step wrong. Most shampoos are kind to the scalp and do a good job removing oil, styling products, conditioning agents, mineral deposits, and dirt from the hair. For all their purported differences, all shampoos (especially the good ones) contain primarily water, detergent surfactants (SURFace ACTive AgeNTS), lather builders, humectants (ingredients that attract water to the hair), thickeners (ingredients that give the shampoo a pleasing consistency), and preservatives, plus whatever fad “natural” ingredient or fragrance is added to make you think you’re buying something special.
Shampoos (whether labeled as moisturizing, volumizing, restructuring, and on and on) contain varying concentrations of conditioning agents, which range from quaternary ammonium compounds (antistatic and detangling agents) to panthenol, collagen, protein, elastin, silicones, amino acids (conditioning agents), and film-forming or holding ingredients (these are hairspray-type ingredients) to oils and other emollients. These conditioning ingredients are meant to stay on the hair even after it is rinsed clean. Using a shampoo that contains silicones, film formers, emollients, and detangling agents can have an impact on your hair, an impact that is both good and bad. The good part is that they can help some hair types feel, look, and behave wonderfully; the bad part is that depending on the amount used and type, they can build up, eventually making hair look flat and feel heavy.
Shampoos do vary according to the hair type listed on the label; however, market segmentation tends to create more categories than are really justified by the slight differences between products. For example, even though you will find many different shampoos that claim to be for different hair types—color-treated, permed, dry, dehydrated, brittle, damaged, sun-bleached, and straightened—they actually differ very little because all of these hair types need the same ingredients to look their best.
Surfactants/Detergents and Lather Builders: The Worker Bees
In combination, are the essence of every shampoo you buy. The terms surfactant and detergent cleansing agent are often used interchangeably by chemists and researchers. We refer to these substances as “detergent cleansing agents.” And don’t let the term ‘detergent’ concern you, even though it may sound harsh. Most detergents are actually quite gentle to the hair’s cuticle and cortex, and generally have a hair-friendly pH of 4.5 to 7. Detergents effectively degrease and emulsify oils and fats and suspend soil, allowing them to be washed away without leaving any residue.
Interestingly enough, surfactants do not lather. They have no foaming ability. Lather builders, on the other hand, are what form suds into a bubbly mass over the hair. Yet all the lather in the world won’t clean one hair on your head! It is strictly the surfactants that clean the hair and scalp. However, lather can indicate how well a hair-care product is working. When oil or styling agents build up on hair or are not removed, it will prevent lather agents from working. Therefore, seeing copious bubbles on the head is a good sign, indicating that your hair is clean or is getting clean.
The detergent cleansing agents used in almost every shampoo (there are many more, but these are the most common,) are:
- sodium laureth sulfate
- ammonium lauryl sulfate
- ammonium laureth sulfate
- cocamidopropyl betaine
- sodium cocoglyceryl ether sulfonate
- sodium lauryl sulfate
- sodium lauryl sarcosinate
- cocamide MEA
- lauramide MEA
- lauric DEA
- lauramine oxide
- cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine
- polysorbate 20
- cocamidopropyl betaine
- sodium lauraminodipropionate
- disodium monoleamide MEA sulfosuccinate
- disodium monococamido sulfosuccinate
- disodium cocamphodipropionate
- disodium capryloamhodiacetate
- cocoyl sarcosine
- sodium lauryl sarcosinate
- sodium lauryl sulfate
- TEA-lauryl sulfate
- sodium C14-16 olefin sulfonate
As drying as some surfactants can be, there are lots of natural ingredients that are also drying and irritating to the scalp, such as lemon, grapefruit, orange, menthol, peppermint, lime, balm mint, oregano, essential oils (which are really just fragrance, a major source of skin sensitivity), horseradish, papaya, and a long list of other fragrant plant extracts.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): Often Maligned, But Kind Surfactant
This is a common cleansing ingredient in shampoos, and a large amount of misinformation about it is still being circulated online. SLS can be derived from coconut, and is used primarily as a detergent cleansing agent. Although it is a potent skin irritant, it is not toxic or dangerous for skin. However, in concentrations of 2% to 5%, SLS can cause allergic or sensitizing reactions in lots of people. It is so well-recognized for this that it’s used as a standard in scientific studies that compare the irritancy or sensitizing properties of other ingredients.
Being a skin irritant, however, is not the same as saying that it may be linked to cancer, which is what erroneous warnings on the Internet are falsely claiming about this ingredient!
Quaternary Ammonium Compounds: The "Smoothers"
A wide range of ingredients, called “quats” for short, that share a unique molecular structure that makes them strongly attracted to hair. When one end of the quat grabs the hair, the other end sticks out, providing a handle for another quat molecule to grab onto. This linking creates a lineup on the hair that resembles a temporarily smooth surface, allowing combs and brushes to more easily glide through hair. Found primarily in shampoos, rinse-off and leave-in conditioners, and any product that claims to detangle the hair, these less-than-poetic-sounding ingredients are essential for having manageable hair. Typical quats on an ingredient list include:
- guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride
- dicetyldimonium chloride
- dihydrogenated tallow benzylmonium chloride
- behentrimonium chloride
- behenalkonium betaine
- benzalkonium chloride
- quaternium 18
- stearalkonium chloride
- cetrimonium chloride
- and many more!
Help keep water in the hair to prevent dehydration and thus keep the hair expanded to its natural shape, providing a feeling of thickness and softness. Common humectant ingredients include:
- hyaluronic acid,
- sodium PCA,
- propylene glycol,
- glycosphingolipids, among others
Such as collagen, wheat or keratin protein, amino acids, silicone, panthenol, and triglycerides are often included in shampoos for the same reasons they are included in conditioners: They help make hair easier to comb, softer, shinier, and more silky feeling. The only problem with most conditioning agents, except for silicone, is that they can’t stand up to water and tend to get washed or rinsed away. That’s why conditioning shampoos rarely work well on their own for damaged, dry, or coarse hair, because the shampooing process doesn’t allow enough conditioning agent to be deposited to make that kind of hair manageable.
We wish there were more to tell you about protein and other conditioning agents, but there just isn’t. Whether it comes in the form of wheat germ triglycerides, silk protein, or some other enticingly named ingredient, it brings no added benefit (such as strengthening) to the hair shaft. It simply provides a protective coating that is washed away the next time you wash your hair.
Whether conditioning agents can penetrate the hair shaft is open to much debate. What we do know, however, is that there are no unique ingredients with a special molecular structure that can do this. Even if conditioning agents could penetrate hair they would have a hard time staying there, because how would that happen and what would occur to cause the hair to hold onto the conditioning agents? It is important, however, not to shortchange what conditioners can accomplish: clinging and attaching to the layers of the cuticle. The cuticle is as important as the cortex, if not more so. What all conditioning agents can do, and do quite effectively, is temporarily protect and reinforce the hair’s structure, mostly on the outside, and to some extent (how much and for how long is unknown) on the inside.
Plant Extracts: Just Hype for Hair
These show up in hair-care products claiming to perform miracles for hair. The list of such ingredients is literally endless, and their individual merits and hypes are mostly way too complex to deal with in the space of a few paragraphs. Generally speaking, while some plant extracts do have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties for skin, when they are used in products such as shampoos and conditioners, the benefits are just rinsed off the scalp. Antioxidant benefits from plant extracts could help hair in terms of environmental protection, but again, these ingredients don’t cling to hair very well and they don’t remain stable when hair is being rinsed in the shower.
For the most part, plant extracts have little benefit for hair. It is also important to remember that just because an ingredient comes from a plant doesn’t automatically make it good for skin or for hair. There are plenty of natural ingredients that have the potential to irritate.
Thickeners: The Unsung Heroes
Responsible for the texture, appearance, and movement of the final product you use. Literally hundreds of thickening ingredients are used in shampoos, conditioners, and styling products. Typical thickening agents you’ll see on ingredient lists:
- cetyl alcohol
- stearyl alcohol
- hydrogenated lanolin
- glycol stearate
- palmitic acid, and so on
Vitamins For Hair?
Perhaps the most overhyped ingredients in hair care; when it comes to hair, even though it’s dead, we still want to believe vitamins can somehow feed or nourish it. They can’t. There is no research proving their effectiveness for hair. Panthenol and biotin are vitamin B derivatives that work topically on hair, but it’s because of their consistency, not because of their nutritional value. There can be benefit in taking vitamins for hair growth, but the extremely complex internal digestive process just doesn’t translate to topical application. Besides, even if vitamins could somehow affect the hair via the scalp—from the outside in—vitamins are present in hair-care products in such tiny amounts they couldn’t cover even one hair shaft of your hair, much less your entire head.
Preservatives: Keeping Hair Care Funk-Free
An integral part of every hair-care formula because hair-care ingredients are combined together in a very liquid solution, and this wet environment is a perfect breeding ground for bacteria, fungi, and microbes. It is therefore of primary importance that we include preservatives in all formulations to prevent this normal, though potentially harmful, growth from taking place. To that end, antibacterial, antifungal, and antimicrobial agents are included to keep contamination to a minimum. The most popular preservatives used in hair-care products are
- DMDM hydantoin
- imidazolidinyl urea
If you have dry, damaged, or coarse hair, a moisturizing shampoo (followed by a great conditioner) can be your best friend. In essence, moisturizing shampoos are similar to the two-in-ones discussed below. A well-formulated moisturizing shampoo should contain gentle detergent cleansing agents, conditioning agents, water-binding agents, and silicones. The good news is that’s exactly what most of them do contain. For those with dry, damaged, or coarse hair it is still important that you follow up with a leave-in conditioner. Even for other hair types a leave-in conditioner is a great follow-up product, particularly if you heat-style your hair.
Most hairstyles require some fullness, as flat hair is rarely considered aesthetically desirable. If you happen to have fine, thin, limp, or fragile hair you have probably used or considered using shampoos labeled as volumizing to impart a feeling of thickness and fullness. Most volumizing shampoos contain a group of ingredients that are essentially just standard styling agents, such as acrylates, PVP, and PVM/MA. Styling agents, also referred to as film formers and plasticizing agents, are used in hairsprays, gels, and mousses to hold hair in place. When used in styling products, depending on the type and amount of film former or plasticizing agent, the hair can feel either rigid and impervious to movement or flexible and pliable with a slight amount of hold.
When film formers are used in small quantities in shampoos, these ingredients (which are resistant to rinsing) remain on the hair shaft, covering it with an imperceptible layer that adds to its thickness. The amount of styling agent left behind on a single strand of hair doesn’t amount to much, but multiply that microscopic layer by the 100,000 hairs on your head and it can give your hair a slight impression of feeling and looking thicker. It can also easily feel heavy—after all, an imperceptible layer is still a layer, and if this layer isn’t shampooed off every time you wash your hair it can easily build up, resulting in hair feeling heavy and looking limp, not full.
As volumizing shampoos are designed to deposit film-forming ingredients on the hair and those ingredients don’t wash out easily, it is essential to alternate your volumizing shampoo with a shampoo that doesn’t contain any of those ingredients. Doing this at least every second or third shampoo will ensure that you remove all the buildup. Suave Clarifying Shampoo is a great, inexpensive option to consider as your shampoo to remove buildup from other hair-care products.
A clarifying shampoo—or any shampoo claiming it can deep-clean hair—is simply a shampoo that does not contain any ingredients other than detergent cleansing agents and possibly a small amount of detangling agents (or at least that’s all they should contain). By omitting the moisturizing, conditioning, and volumizing ingredients, clarifying shampoos leave no deposit on the hair, so there is no risk of buildup.
If you are using a shampoo that does contain moisturizing, conditioning, and volumizing ingredients, these ingredients can build up because you are depositing and redepositing them every time you wash your hair, eventually weighing it down. Using a clarifying shampoo every other time (or every two or three times) you wash your hair will eliminate the buildup from these other types of shampoos and help hair retain a feeling of fullness and softness.
Baby shampoos are definitely gentler than most shampoos designed for adults, but as gentle as baby shampoo can be, there is truly no such thing as a “tearless” shampoo. Just a few drops of plain water in the eyes will cause enough irritation to produce discomfort and tearing. A product can be made friendlier to the eyes by using gentler surfactants, but it can still cause some irritation, and for some kids, that will cause tears.
When it comes to cleansing agents, the group of ingredients considered the most gentle are amphoteric surfactants. As stated in the Hair and Hair Care, Cosmetic Science and Technology Series (volume 17, 1997), amphoteric surfactants do not cleanse as well as other surfactants, but their one unique property is their very low irritation potential. Amphoterics are so gentle that they can even reduce the irritation of other surfactants known for their sensitizing potential, such as sodium lauryl sulfate. It also stated that, “The skin irritancy of sodium lauryl sulfate in the presence of cocamidopropyl betaine [an amphoteric surfactant] is reduced substantially.”
This explains why Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Shampoo was such a phenomenal success when it launched in the 1960s. Johnson & Johnson’s 1967 patent established the mild, nonirritating capacity for the amphoteric group of cleansing agents. As it turns out, the primary ingredient in Johnson & Johnson’s baby shampoos is cocamidopropyl betaine. This also explains why, when you try to use baby shampoo on your own head, it doesn’t work very well. The amphoteric surfactants just can’t clean like other surfactants can, and given the styling products and conditioners most adults use it is essential to use a shampoo with good cleansing properties. Nowadays most baby shampoos contain a combination of cleansing agents to lower irritancy and improve cleansing, but they are still almost always more gentle than adult shampoos.
Shampoos for Swimmers
Whether you swim in a swimming pool or in the ocean, or you happen to live in a home that uses well water, you’re likely to have hair problems. Swimming pools can cause copper and chlorine buildup on the hair; salt water can cause dryness, breakage, and hard-to-remove tangles; and well water can deposit calcium, magnesium, and iron salts on the hair.
We tend to blame the chlorine in swimming pools for turning blonde hair green, but chlorine isn’t the culprit in this case. Chlorine does dry out the hair by breaking through the cuticle, staying put, and tearing at the cuticle every time you brush. But the green discoloration comes from the copper leached from copper pipes into pool water.
Salt water, if left to dry on hair and combined with sun, wind, and sand, can leave the hair in a tangled, dried-out, frazzled state. These hazards are especially significant for someone whose hair is already damaged. Damaged hair is more porous and, therefore, more susceptible to the invasion of salt, chlorine, and copper. Interestingly, “surf spray”-type styling products designed to give you “beach hair” typically contain higher amounts of sodium and magnesium, two minerals that, in the forms used in these products, cause the cuticle to become roughed up and frayed, leading to the appearance of fuller, more textured hair. Although these products work for their intended purpose, they can also be damaging, leaving hair feeling dry and somewhat “gritty”.
To battle swimmer’s hair in either situation (pool or ocean), and if a swimming cap isn’t in your fashion forecast, you might want to consider loading your hair up with silicone serums each time before you go into the water. The silicone can cling to hair even in the presence of water and can act as a barrier to the copper in the pool and the salt in the ocean. When you’re done playing in the water, if at all possible, be diligent about washing the hair (most of the silicone washes away with a clarifying shampoo). It also helps to rinse the hair like crazy with fresh water each time you leave the pool or ocean, the sooner the better. Do not comb or brush through your hair until you’ve shampooed and applied conditioner. Wet hair is far more prone to damage, and hair that is wet and laden with salt or other minerals is that much more prone to injury.
When you wash your hair after being in the water, or if you live in a house that uses well water, be sure to use a shampoo that contains disodium or tetrasodium EDTA. These chelating agents help by attracting the minerals away from the hair shaft and making them easier to rinse away. Then apply a generous amount of conditioner to the ends. Never comb through your hair without the aid of a conditioner. Trying to smooth out tangles after a swim without conditioner is just asking for damage. The cuticle is already in a vulnerable position—wet and laden with minerals—which makes driving a brush or even a wide-toothed comb through it a highly risky procedure that can easily rip apart the hair shaft.
Taking the Mystery Out of Hair-Care
Demystifying hair-care products comes from learning what ingredients can and can’t do for the hair, and how they can affect your hair despite the claims on the label. Cosmetics companies can say practically anything they want on their labels, brochures, advertisements, and in their sales presentations.
Even if a hair-care company can substantiate a claim, the results are often evident only with the aid of an electron microscope that blows up the image of a hair shaft to countless times its original size. That’s great from a scientist’s point of view, but it might not have anything to do with how a product or a specific ingredient will affect your hair, especially in various climates.
Next week, we'll take a closer look at the ingredients that power your conditioner (whether leave-in, deep, or detangling, and etc !)