Our definitive guide to what those confusing shampoo ingredients actually do


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If you’ve spent way too long making your way down the skin-care aisle carefully going through every ingredient listed on each bottle, you’re not alone. It’s an intense, time-consuming process, and it’s crucial in choosing a product that’s going to benefit your skin—not harm it. But can you read shampoo bottles the same way you would your balms and serums?

Whatever your skin-care products are promising to do—be it “anti-aging” or “brightening”—there are generally active ingredients listed that give you the results you’re looking for. And just like you’re set to snag a beauty product that will address your skin’s needs, you probably want a shampoo that does the same for your hair, whether that’s helping with breakage, dandruff, or frizz. Good news: New York City dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, says you can treat hair and skin similarly when it comes to your products.

Essentially, you’ll want to choose the ingredients that best address the needs of your hair, and here’s exactly what you should be looking for depending on what those might be. Keep scrolling for the 411.

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Graphic: Well+Good Creative

Boosting volume

If you want an extra dose of volume and body, start by looking for ingredients that are going to properly cleanse your hair. “Micellar water and surfactants are the best ingredients to keep hair clean, fresh, and free-flowing. Clean hair has more body and volume than hair that’s dirty and weighed down,” says Rachel Zipperian, chief beauty scientist at Herbal Essences. In addition, keep an eye out for some prime plant ingredients: “Mint, birch water, and citrus extracts are also known to be great disinfectants and cleaning agents,” she notes.

Enhancing curls

The number one tip for curly girls? Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize. “Aloe vera is an excellent ingredient that moisturizes and cleanses curly hair at the same time. It allows curly hair to retain its elasticity without over stripping or changing its texture when it dries,” Anita Sun, hairstylist at Eliut Salon in New York City. says. Also, really take advantage of your conditioner—especially those with coconut oil or coconut milk. “Conditioner in general is a best friend for those with curls, especially with heavy application toward the ends,” Zipperian adds. “The ends of curl strands dry out much faster than the roots because it’s such a twisty, turny path for natural oils to move from the scalp.”

Adding moisture

In order to up the moisture and get rid of unwanted dryness and breakage, Zipperian says it’s important to restore the lipid or oil-like properties in your hair. “For frizzy, dry hair, use products with conditioning oils,” she explains. A great place to start? With botanicals. “Argan oil has been used by women in Morocco for centuries to moisturize hair and skin. Other water-based botanicals, like aloe and coconut milk, are also known as moisture-boosting ingredients in the beauty world.”

Clarifying your scalp

One of the best all-star natural hair purifiers is none other than apple cider vinegar, and it’s in plenty bottles of natural shampoos. “Apple cider vinegar clarifies the hair by removing buildup or daily debris that can accumulate from product and dead skin on the scalp,” says Sun. “It also helps restore the natural pH balance of your hair and your scalp.”

Color management

If you want your fresh new color to last longer and stay brighter, look for a shampoo that contains amino acids. “They help protect the hair from environmental damage, which maintains the color and minimizes oxidation, fading, and even dulling of the hair,” Sun says. Also check for antioxidant-loaded ingredients—like argan oil—which protect your strands against free radicals. “The damaging free radicals that are absorbed by your hair during your showers will interfere with your hair’s ability to take up hair color. By removing the free radicals, your hair color stays more intense or saturated,” Zipperian explains.

Here’s how to stop using so much shampoo—and save some money in the process. Or, check out the best toning shampoos to banish brassy tints from your hair.

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