An extensive guide to reading ingredient lists for the Curly Girl Method

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Starting the Curly Girl Method can be very overwhelming. Where previously you could just buy hair products without reading the ingredient lists, suddenly there are all these ingredients you need to avoid: sulfates, silicones, drying alcohols, mineral oils and waxes. And then there are also ingredients that you suddenly do want to include in your products, such as proteins.

While you can just buy products that other curlies have recommended, sometimes you just want to be able to walk into the drugstore, quickly check the ingredient list and know whether this product is Curly Girl Method approved.

In this guide, I will help you to read ingredient lists and recognize which ingredients are sulfates, silicones, drying alcohols, mineral oils, waxes and proteins – and which other ingredients to look out for. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of all ingredients in these categories. The purpose of this guide is to explain what these ingredients do and why the Curly Girl Method says to avoid them. I will also talk about online ingredient scanners that can help you find out whether a product is Curly Girl friendly.

5 products for curly hair on a navy blue background with white dots. The products from left to right are: Noughty Wave Hello Shampoo, Noughty Wave Hello Conditioner, Andrelon Pink Happy Curls Spray, Nature Box Spray Conditioner, Nivea Curl Plumping Mousse.

How to recognize a sulfate

Sulfates are surfactants, a type of cleansing ingredient, that are usually only included in shampoos. The reason they are not Curly Girl approved is because they can be quite harsh and stripping of the hair, especially when the hair is dry – which curly hair often is. The most used sulfates are sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate, also known as SLS and SLES, but there are also other sulfates such as sodium coco sulfate and ammonium lauryl sulfate. Sulfates are easy to recognize, as they will end in ‘sulfate’.

However, that is not all there is to it. There is one type of ingredient that ends in sulfate that is actually not a sulfate: behentrimonium methosulfate. This ingredient is often used in conditioners as a conditioning ingredient and has antistatic properties. So this won’t dry out your hair, but will instead help to make the conditioner work.

Then there are also other surfactants that are not sulfates, but look a bit like it: sulfonates (such as sodium C14-16 olefin sulfonate) and sulfosuccinates (such as disodium laureth sulfosuccinate). These ingredients are often considered to be less harsh than sulfates, and are often included in products that are marketed as sulfate-free. However, some people find them still to drying for their hair and want to avoid those as well. Ultimately, it is up to you whether you want to use these ingredients.

It is also important to remember not all sulfates are made equal: SLES is much less harsh than SLS, and sodium coco sulfate is a pretty mild sulfate as well. Some hair types can do quite well with using a (milder) sulfate shampoo every once in a while – my hair is one of them.

How to recognize a silicone

The reason we need to avoid silicones in the Curly Girl Method is because they build up over time, and usually need a sulfate shampoo to be washed out. However, silicones are not necessarily bad for your hair: they also have some good properties. They coat your hair strands, making your hair look smooth and shiny, and are good at keeping in moisture. If you regularly clarify your hair with either a sulfate shampoo or another good clarifying shampoo, it’s not necessary to be very strict about it.

But if you do want to avoid them, here is how to recognize them. Silicones usually end in either -cone or -xane. Some common ones are dimethicone, amodimethicone and cyclopentasiloxane. There are also some silicones that are water-soluble, and don’t need a sulfate shampoo to be washed out. These types of silicones will often have ‘PEG’ or ‘PPG’ before the name, but there are other silicones that are water-soluable or that evaporate. For a full list of different silicones and whether they are water-soluable or not, click here.

A hand holding a bottle of yellow hair oil. The ingredient list is readable and starts of with two silicones.

How to recognize drying alcohols (and which alcohols are good for your hair)

The Curly Girl Method also says to avoid alcohols. But it is important to remember that this doesn’t apply to all ingredients with alcohol in the name, because not all alcohols are created equal. There are two types of alcohols: drying alcohols that could dry out your hair, and fatty alcohols that are in fact good for your hair and are often necessary ingredients in conditioners.

This may sound confusing, but it is actually not that hard once you learn how to recognize these types of alcohols. First, let’s talk about the types of alcohols you need to avoid. If your product just states alcohol, alcohol denat., or ethanol (also known as ethyl alcohol), we are talking about the types of alcohols that are also in alcoholic drinks and that can dry out your hair. On top of those, you should also watch out for propanol or isopropyl alcohol, and benzyl alcohol. However, if these are very low in the ingredient list, there might only be very small amounts of it that evaporate quickly and won’t damage your hair – so even though strictly speaking the CG method forbids them, you might still be able to use these products.

Now, let’s move on to the good alcohols that you will want to see in your products, the so-called fatty alcohols. These work chemically very different from the drying alcohols mentioned above, and can provide moisture and slip. The most common ones are cetyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, lauryl alcohol, myristyl alcohol and behenyl alcohol.

A good rule of thumb would be that any ingredient ending in ‘-yl alcohol’ is a fatty alcohol, except for isopropyl, ethyl and benzyl alcohol. And when in doubt, you can always quickly look it up.

How to recognize mineral oils and waxes

The last two ingredients you need to avoid in the Curly Girl Method are mineral oils and waxes. The reason you need to avoid them is because they can build up in your hair over time and are not easy to wash out without sulfates.

Waxes are the most easy to recognize, as they will usually end in ‘wax’. Another wax you need to look out for is lanolin, which is a wax made out of wool. Mineral oils will usually be in the ingredient list as paraffin, petrolatum or paraffinum liquidum. Other ingredients that are often mentioned to avoid are ingredients such as dodecane, isododecane and isohexadecane, because they are often derived from petroleum and work similarly to mineral oils.

However, it is hard to find a lot of information about how these ingredients ending in -decane work in hair products, as they are most often used in skincare. They are emollients, which means that they keep in moisture in your hair, but it is unclear how hard they are to wash out compared to waxes. Additionally, I found that sometimes dodecane is derived from plant oils rather than petroleum. The main take-away seems to be to be cautious with these ingredients, but if you regularly clarify your hair with either a sulfate shampoo or a clarifying shampoo, it might not be necessary to avoid them.

A hand holding a bottle of conditioner with the ingredient list up. One of the first ingredients is a protein, hydrolyzed soy protein.

How to recognize proteins

Another ingredient that is talked a lot about in curly hair communities are proteins. The purpose of proteins in hair care is to strengthen the hair strands. While proteins are good for every hair type, some need them a lot more than others – so it can be important to know which products contain proteins. This way, you can easily pick and choose when you want to use proteins in your hair, and when you don’t.

Generally, a protein will be easily recognizable, as it will usually end in ‘protein’. Examples are rice protein, wheat protein, soy protein and milk protein. However, there are also types of proteins that don’t have the word protein in the name. The most common are keratin, collagen, amino acids and peptides. Another way to recognize proteins is that they will often start with the word ‘hydrolyzed’. This means that the protein has been broken down into smaller parts that are taken up by the hair more easily.

Which type of proteins to go for depends on your hair type. Generally, proteins that are derived from plants, vegetables or milk are bigger and are better suited for hair that needs a lot of protein, such as high porosity hair. Proteins such as keratin or amino acids are smaller, and are better suited for hair that needs less protein – although they can work with many different hair types. You can find more in-depth information on proteins here.

What other ingredients to look out for

There are several other ingredients that are Curly Girl approved, but that don’t necessarily work for every hair type and that you might still have to be careful with. The main categories here are ingredients that can build up in your hair, and humectants.

Ingredients that build up

The main ingredients to be careful with when it comes to build-up are heavy oils and butters, and polyquaterniums. Ingredients like coconut oil and shea butter can be found a lot in CG-friendly products, especially those on the more affordable end. However, for hair types that are on the finer or thinner side, these ingredients can easily be too heavy, weigh your hair down and cause build-up. That is why you still might want to be careful even with natural oils and butters depending on your hair type.

Another ingredient, that is often found in stylers and gels, are polyquaterniums. Polyquaterniums, or polyquats, are ingredients that can help to condition the hair, prevent frizz, and provide hold. Most of the time, polyquats can be very beneficial for curly hair. However, they can also potentially build up over time. More information on polyquaterniums can be found here and here.

Humectants

Humectants are ingredients that help to hydrate your hair by extracting water from the environment, which is incredibly important for curls. However, in certain weather types you might want to avoid them or not use too much of them. When the weather is too humid, the humectants might draw too much water from the air, causing frizz. On the other hand, when the weather is too dry, the humectants might draw water from the hair strands instead, which can also cause frizz, dryness and breakage.

Common humectants are glycerin, panthenol, sorbitol, hyaluronic acid, sodium PCA and ingredients ending in -glycol. Hydrolyzed proteins are humectants as well, as are glucose, fructose and xylitol. Honey and aloe vera can act as humectants as well. More information on humectants can be found here.

A hand holding a small bottle of curl cream. The ingredient list is visible and shows a fatty alcohol, two humectants (glycerin and panthenol) and a polyquaternium.

A little help from ingredient scanners

When you have checked the entire ingredient list, but still don’t know whether a product is Curly Girl approved, or when you simply just can’t remember all those different ingredients, there is still another solution: online ingredient scanners. While these scanners usually also don’t know every single ingredient out there, they are still a very useful tool. Although I am fairly good at recognizing a lot of ingredients, I still regularly use these scanners just to be sure – especially when writing a review and I need to be sure whether my claim that it is CG friendly is actually correct.

My favourite scanner is https://isitcg.com. This scanner doesn’t only tell you whether an ingredient is CG-approved, but also what an ingredient does and when it should still be used with caution (for instance, because it can cause build-up or because it can be irritating to some people). Just be careful that you use commas between every ingredient and that every ingredient is spelled correctly.

Another ingredient scanner is https://curlsbot.com. In my experience, this scanner is not as thorough as the previous scanner, but some find it a bit easier to use. And if you just want to know whether a product is CG-approved without having to scroll through a lot of extra information, this can also be a good tool. Additionally, Curlsbot actually has a page with a long list of ingredients to avoid as well, which can be really useful to quickly look up an ingredient.

Conclusion

So now you know all (or well, almost all) about the ingredients that you need to avoid in the Curly Girl Method, and which ingredients are CG approved but still might need to be used with caution depending on your hair type.

However, ultimately I believe it is up to you which ingredients you want to use and which you want to avoid! Most of the time, as long as you regularly clean your hair with either a sulfate shampoo or a sulfate-free one that says it’s clarifying, these ingredients are perfectly fine to use. In the end, it all depends on your hair type and what works for you. If you want to follow the CG method very strictly, that’s great! And if you take the things that work and leave the things that don’t, that’s great too.


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