Deciphering your shampoo’s ingredients

In an extract from his book, Great Hair Days, hair magnate Luke Hersheson shares everything you need to know about shampoo ingredients. 


The ingredients are listed in order of concentration – water (or aqua) is usually the first on the list and perfume usually occupies the last spot. Here are the ingredients you need to know about.

Sulphates (often shown as sodium laureth sulphate, ammonium lauryl sulphate, sodium trideceth sulphate and cocamidopropyl betaine) are the main cleansing ingredients in shampoo and they’re what creates a lather. If you have a sensitive scalp you may find some sulphates irritating – a trichologist (hair doctor) should be able to narrow it down for you, or alternatively you could try a sulphate-free brand such as Pureology. Body Shop Rainforest Shine Shampoo has also been formulated without any sulphates.

Silicones or siloxanes seal the hair’s cuticles and make it shine. A lot of bad things have been said about them over the years, primarily because they can’t be rinsed away and need to be removed with shampoos, so they can build up on the hair over time. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing and you may have no problems at all with silicones, but they can feel heavy on very fine hair.

Sodium chloride is essentially salt, which sounds like an odd thing to put in a shampoo but it does serve a purpose. Sodium chloride roughs the cuticle up a little and so can make fine, flat hair look fuller. If your hair is very coarse you may not want to use a shampoo containing it.

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Fatty alcohols often appear on conditioner labels as cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol or cetearyl alcohol. Despite being alcohols, they actually moisturise your hair. Fatty alcohols are great for almost all hair types, though if you have a sensitive scalp they may not agree with you.

Parabens are a group of chemicals that have been used for decades to prevent harmful bacteria from forming and preserve the shelf life of your products. They are a controversial ingredient that has received negative press (much of it inaccurate) over the years. Despite being demonised, parabens are deemed safe to use in small quantities in beauty products.

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxyl acid (or BHA) and it’s used a lot in skincare products to keep pores clear of bacteria and to treat acne. It works just as well on the scalp and that’s why you’ll find it in a lot of shampoos; if you have a flaky, irritated scalp then look for shampoos containing this clever ingredient.

Detanglers are used in conditioners for obvious reasons. The most common ones are cetrimonium chloride and cetrimonium methosulfate. Brilliant for coarse and curly hair.

Proteins are used in conditioners and masks to give their hair strength. Look for wheat protein and soy amino acids. Excellent for most hair types including damaged, over-processed and regularly heat-styled hair. 


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