Ask the Experts: Caring For Your Curls

Have you ever wondered if your hair products could be doing more harm than good?  Worry no more. Cosmetic chemist and author of Coils & Curls: The Hair Product Handbook Nicole Harmon decodes the best — and worst  — product ingredients for natural hair.

Nicole Harmon Sep, 13, 2012

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Remember when we had to go to the beauty supply to get products for our hair? Even after spending money on products that promised awesome results, we were usually left disappointed. Now, those days are over! You can go to any drugstore and find products that will leave your hair smooth and manageable. Smart shopping starts with the ingredients list on the back of products. Here are the ingredients to look out for!

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This category of ingredients has gotten a bad reputation online, but you just need to try a few products to know that silicones work well for natural hair.  Silicones will help detangle coils and curls without breakage, which means your hair will be able to grow longer.  They also help seal moisture into each strand so your hair can stay smooth and manageable between washes.

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Look for silicones like “dimethicone” and “trimethicone” in rinse out conditioners.  If your hair responds well to the product, pick up a silicone serum or a glossing spray for styling and protection from humidity.

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Cetearyl alcohol smoothes and softens natural hair better than any oil or butter.  I do not recommend leaving in products when the instructions say otherwise.  Conditioners and shampoos usually contain other ingredients that irritate the scalp and skin if left on for more than a few minutes.

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Instead look for leave in conditioners and styling products that list cetearyl alcohol as one of the first five ingredients.  You might also see “cetyl alcohol” or “stearyl alcohol”, which are similar ingredients that will produce similar results.

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Many women endure tangles, breakage, and hours of frustration on wash day, but it doesn’t have to be like that!  A healthy hair routine begins by using the right shampoo.  The best shampoos contain sodium methyl isethionate.   SMI is a cleansing ingredient that is scientifically proven to remove dirt and product buildup without stripping the hair.

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SMI is the active ingredient in many “sulfate-free” shampoos, but still check the product’s ingredient list to be sure.  Shampoos made with sodium methyl isethionate don’t lather as much as their sulfate-based counterparts, but that doesn’t mean your hair is not getting clean.  When in doubt, rinse and repeat until you are satisfied.

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Nobody likes sticky, crunchy hair and often gels made with PVP are to blame.  PVP is intended to hold hair in place, but it causes the strands to stick together and break when you try to pull them a part.

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Avoid PVP-based gels and hairsprays at all costs.  For lasting style, look for products that say “flexible hold”.

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Not all alcohols are bad, but this is one to skip.  Denatured Alcohol (usually listed as Alcohol Denat. or SD Alcohol) causes moisture to evaporate from your hair very quickly, which can lead to brittle strands.

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Denatured alcohol is used to dissolve styling ingredients that will not dissolve in water.  Depending on the product’s formula, you may not notice negative effects, but why risk it?

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This cleansing ingredient has been used in shampoos for decades but current research shows it is very drying for the hair and skin. That is because unlike sodium methyl isethionate, SLS is a smaller molecule and it can penetrate inside each strand.  Usually penetrating ingredients are good, but in the case of cleansing agents, they cause over-drying.

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You’ll also find similar sounding names on labels like sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) and ammonium sulfates (ALS and ALES).  When you shop for products, you will see sulfates listed in many of the shampoos, but those are older formulas.  The best new shampoos are sulfate-free.

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When shopping for shampoos, conditioners, and styling products, focus on the top five ingredients. Look for at least one of the good ingredients from this list and avoid the bad ones.  With natural hair, your goals are moisture, manageability and style.  You will know you have the right routine when it is easy to achieve the styles you love!

More of the best product ingredients and suggested hair care routines can be found in Harmon's new book, Coils & Curls The Hair Product Handbook.

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