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How to Read Shampoo Labels

Written by Irina Webb

How to read shampoo labelsHave you looked at your shampoo label? It is definitely not something easy to read and understand – a long list of unpronounceable ingredients.  After a few years reading labels, I think I finally have a good idea why shampoos have so many ingredients.  I’d like to help you learn to read a shampoo label so you can choose the least toxic and the most beneficial shampoo for your hair.  Also, check out this new Shampoo Rating List to find safe products out of over 110 items presented.



Ingredients are listed in the order of predominance on the shampoo label



Per the FDA’s requirement, shampoo ingredients are listed in such a way that the most prevalent comes first, down to the 1 percent level.  Below 1 percent, ingredients may be listed in any order.  While some toxins remain potent even in very small doses, I believe it is helpful to know what ingredients are dominant in your shampoo.  By the way, most shampoos list water/aqua first, which tells you what shampoos are mostly made of – water that you pay for.  (This is one of the reasons I favor shampoo bars or soap bars for that matter.)  Look at your shampoo label and tell me if water is listed first.


The core of shampoos are soaps/synthetic surfactants (aka detergents)



The core of any shampoo are substances that make your hair clean.  Most shampoos are made with several synthetic surfactants (cleansing agents or detergents) that are derived from a variety of chemicals.  There is a proliferation of synthetic surfactants and it is challenging to know which ones are safe as most of them are not sufficiently studied.  The safest cleansing agents are saponified vegetable oils (aka soap).  The problem is that they may leave soap residue in your hair.  On the shampoo labels, soaps or surfactants are listed after water.  Look at your shampoo label and tell me what cleansing agents it has.



Some of the surfactants to avoid:



Cocamide DEA, MEA, TEA or MIPA

Lauramide DEA

PEGs-(with PEG-n designation)

Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)

Ammonium Laureth Sulfate

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)

Cocamidopropyl Betaine



97 shampoos are rated and described so you can choose a shampoo that you truly want !



Carrying agents



Carrying agents are used as the base; they “carry” active ingredients.  Herbal extracts in most shampoos use water, vegetable glycerin, or grain alcohol.  Avoid propylene glycol as a carrying agent as it has been associated with dermatitis even at low concentrations.  Does your shampoo have propylene glycol?  Let me know in the comments.





Emulsifiers are added to a shampoo formulation to hold together opposites like oil and water to create good consistency.  Lecithin and guar gum are among the safest emulsifiers.  Emulsifiers to be avoided include all compounds with MEA, DEA, TEA, and MIPA, and ingredients with the PEG-n designations.  All may be potentially carcinogenic given the possibility of 1,4-dioxane and nitrosamines contamination.





Emollients inhibit the loss of moisture and are excellent for dry and damaged hair.  Lubricants reduce friction between hair strands while smoothing hair and adding shine.  Vegetable/plant oils such as olive oil and evening primrose oil are great natural emollients and lubricants.  Panthenol and aloe vera are great safe moisturizers.



Emollients to be avoided include mineral oil (a petroleum derivative) and silicones such as dimethicone.  Silicones do not biodegrade; thus, they pollute the environment.  Also, silicones coat hair.  If you’d like your hair to be coated (and it may sometimes be beneficial for very damaged hair), you might consider copernicia cerifera cera wax, which is biodegradable plant wax.  Does your shampoo have dimethicone or other silicones?





Humectants are used to attract and retain moisture from water.  They give hair the feeling of fullness.  They also prevent shampoo from drying out.  Safe humectants include vegetable glycerin and sorbitol.  The ones that are common, but may cause irritation and allergy, include propylene glycol, butylene glycol, and ethylene glycol.  Does your shampoo label have propylene glycol?





If you have damaged hair, make sure you have proteins in your shampoo.  Proteins strengthen hair by bonding to and filling damaged parts within it.  Rice and quinoa proteins are preferred over soy and wheat as they are less likely to have GMO and gluten concerns.





Shampoos with toxic chemicals in them always have fragrance.  They have to because that toxic stuff stinks.  Look for fragrance-free shampoos or shampoos with essential oils for fragrances.  And avoid synthetic fragrances/perfumes as they are a mixture of undisclosed chemicals.  Fragrance mixes have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system.





Since shampoos have water and are used in the shower – an area where water can get in easily – shampoos need preservatives.  Preservatives do not let microbes and mold grow.  The least toxic and least controversial preservatives are potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate.  These preservatives are used in food.  (I am not recommending eating food with preservatives.)



97 shampoos are rated and described so you can choose a shampoo that you truly want !



Preservatives to watch out for include:



Parabens (associated with interfering with hormone system),



Diazolidinyl Urea

DMDM Hydantoin

Imidazolidinyl Urea


Sodium Hydroxymethylglycinate

2-Bromo-2-Nitropropane-1,3-Diol (Bronopol)

Polyoxymethylene Urea

5-Bromo-5-Nitro-1,3 Dioxane

Benzyl Alcohol




Can you find a preservative in your shampoo?



I hope this helped to motivate you to look at your shampoo label. Tell me what you saw and ask any questions you may have about shampoo ingredients of your shampoo.  Next, we can apply this to reading a specific shampoo.


14 thoughts on “How to Read Shampoo Labels”

  1. Can’t thank you enough for this, I’ve been looking for an ok liquid shampoo for months, and can’t find anything without some naughty ingredient in it. My hair is so long the thought of using a bar sounds so laborious, but I guess that’s my only choice! Love your blog, thank you again!

  2. Dear Eliot: could you please take a picture of the ingredients on the shampoo bottle and email it to me? There seems to be a controversy over their ingredient disclosure. Thanks!

    1. natalie brandlein

      I have noticed in the last 1-2 weeks that my hair is shedding more than what is normal for me. So I’m trying to find a shampoo and conditioner that has good ingredients in it. I’ve been looking at high end products but a few of them seem to have not so great ingredients in them. Can you suggest a shampoo and conditioner line that has good ingredients in it, please?

      1. Hi, Natalie! Thank you for reaching out to I Read Labels for You! Please, check out shampoo and conditioner options in the Hair Care and Hair Color section of our shop: and our Shampoo and Conditioner Rating List e-book: You can also take advantage of our individual product review service: We hope this helps!

  3. Irina:
    I have curly hair that tangles very easily. I have tried many “natural” shampoos and conditioners and the only one that has worked for me so far is Shea Moisute coconut and hibiscus curl and shine shampoo. Can you please tell me what you think of the ingredients. I am interested in using the shampoo bars but worried it will tangle my hair.

      1. Irina: yes of course! Thank you so much for your quick reply.

        The list of ingredients is: water, decyl glucoside, sodium lauroyl lactylate, sodium lauroyl hydrolyzed silk, glycol stearate, fragrance (essential oil blend) glyceryl caprylate, butyrispermum, parki (shea) butter, panthenol, cocos nucifera (cocunut) oil, melia azadirachta seed oil, aloe barbadensis leaf juice, tocopheryl acetate, rosmarinus officinalis, guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride, glyceryl undecylenate, stearamide amp, sodium benzonate, sodium phytate.

        I also use their conditioner and other hair products and never realized just how many ingredients it has until I had to write each one of them down.
        I am also concerned about the conditioner.

        I was looking into solid shampoo bars byvelenti organics but was unable to find their products on ewg which is somewhat concerning to me.

        Thank you so much! I truly appreciate all of your hard and labor intestine work.

        1. Hi, Maria: sorry I did not mean to ask to type all these lengthy ingredients. The ingredients that I see on their website are a little different from what you typed.

          Coconut & Hibiscus Curl & Shine Conditioner: Deionized Water, Cocos Nucifera (Coconut ) Oil*, Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea Butter), Sorbitol Esters, Mangifera Indica (Mango) Seed Butter*, Simmondsia Chinesis (Jojoba) Seed Oil, Glycine Soja (Soybean) Oil, Olea Europaea (Olive ) Fuit Oil*, Cetyl Alcohol, Behentrimonium Chloride, Panthenol (Pro-Vitamin B-5), Proprietary Essential Oil Blend, Silk Protein, Aloe Barbedenis Leaf Extract, Hibiscus Sabdariffa Extract, Tocopherol (Vitamin E), Melia Azadirachta (Neem) Seed Oil, Rosemary Extract, Caprylyl Glycol

          Coconut & Hibiscus Curl & Shine Shampoo: Deionized Water, Decyl Glucoside (Coconut Oil), Cocos Nucifera(Coconut) Oil*, Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea Butter)*, Aloe Vera Leaf Juice, Vitamin E, Melia Azadirachta (Neem) Seed Oil, Sodium Lauroyl Lactylate (Coconut Oil),Panthenol (Vitamin B-5), Rosemary Extracts, Silk Protein, Proprietary Essential Oil Blend, Guar Gum, Stearic Acid, Lonicera Caprifolium (Honeysuckle) Flower (and) Lonicera Japonica (Japanese Honeysuckle) Flower Extract

          I do not see anything that is proven to be harmful in these products. It is good to know that these products work for your hair type. ~Irina

          1. Hi irina:
            I want to share something very surprising and exciting with you. I read your blog about by valenti organics and their castile bar soap. I decided to give it a try and one day while in the shower and before using my regular shampoo and conditioner (mentioned in my previous comment above), I decided I would use the bar soap in my hair and see what it would do to my hair. I used only the bar soap and nothing else in my hair while showering and as soon as I got out of the shower I rubbed some pure organic coconut oil in my hands and applied it to my hair as a leave in conditioner and then combed my hair as normal. To my great surprise the following morning my hair looked great, manageable and non frizzy. I have already had a couple of people ask if I did something different to my hair because my curls look so manageable and controlled. If my hair continues to react this way I do not think I will ever be going back to shampoo and conditioner. I am so excited! Great results with minimal, simple and natural ingredients. Thank you so much for introducing me to by valenti organics!

          2. Thank you for sharing the great news, Maria. Please let us know how your hair looks and feels as you the bar soap longer. I am very curious. Do you shower with filtered water? Is your water soft or hard? ~Irina

  4. this is soooo informative. thanks for sharing your knowledge. it’s very nice of you. after reading this, i kind of blur where i can buy a good shampoo without those ingredients. it seems every hair products i found in department store and drugstore in my country have most of those in the list. i did found a shampoo than have a short list and don’t have much of those thing but my hair felt a lot more dry and somehow i feel it became coarse. my scalp became itchier and the dandruff is wilder than before.

  5. Hello, can you recommend a shampoo that will help with scalp issues such as itchy, drying, and dandruff? My hair is only a few centimeters long and I need something that will protect my scalp

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