25 Ingredients of Shampoo Explained

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If you’re curious like me, you’ve actually read the ingredients of a shampoo bottle, and tried to pronounce all the words. Today, we’ll make an effort to read and decipher an entire bottle of VO5 Salon Series Shampoo. First, we need to understand what shampoo is for: the goal is to remove the hair’s natural oils and any dirt they carry, and then replace them with another oil, often with a pleasing scent. Conditioner just does the last part of this procedure. Understanding that, some of these ingredients will make more sense. Others will simply be… odd.


1: Water (Aqua)

It’s not too surprising that the first ingredient is water. Being first means it has the highest content by weight. They put “aqua” after it because that is the official term as recognized in the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI). Water serves as the carrier for all the good stuff below.


2: Sodium Laureth Sulfate

This is basically soap. It adds foam and suds to the mix, and it’s pretty common. It’s one of the prime ingredients of shampoo, soap and even toothpaste. Do not confuse this with Sodium Lauryl Sulfate. They’re similar, but different


 3: Cocamidopropyl Betaine

As its name suggests, this substance comes from coconut oil, and it’s used to boost foam. It has the added benefit of acting as an emulsifier and it provides and anti-static effect. Don’t remember what an emulsifier is? That’s a chemical that helps form an emulsion: a mixture of two things that don’t normally mix, such as oil and water.


4: Sodium Chloride

Yep, this is plain old table salt. It’s used to regulate the consistency of the finished product. And just as some things dissolve better in salt water than fresh, sodium chloride has some emulsifying effects.


5: Polyquaternium-7

If polyquaternium-7 is a mouthful, know that it’s short for “Copolymer of acrylamide and diallyldimethylammonium chloride.” The long name simply describes the molecule’s shape, and indicates that it’s a polymer, that is a chain of similar molecules stuck together to form a bigger molecule. It’s used to help hair lie flat.


6: Dimethicone

This one might sound familiar as it’s the main ingredient in anti-gas medications such as Di-gel. Known formally a polydimethylsiloxane, and it’s used to make hair shiny.


7: Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Oil

Another odd name courtesy of the INCI, this is just coconut oil. It protects the proteins that make up hair from damage, and helps them retain moisture as well.


8: Dimethiconol

In chemistry, similar names don’t always mean the chemicals do the same things. In shampoo, dimethiconol stabilizes emulsions and makes hair have a silky texture.


9: Cyclopentasiloxane

This is a silicone fluid which provides a way for the desirable ingredients such as fragrance and moisture to stick to your hair.


10: Polyquaternium-10

Quaternized hydroxyethyl cellulose is its real name. It’s not dissimilar from paper, and it’s used for thickening.


11: Sodium Benzoate

Sodium Benzoate is a preservative. It prevents mold and other nasty things from growing in the shampoo.


12: Panthenol Ethyl Ether

It’s vitamin B5. Of course your hair doesn’t eat, and it’s quite frankly just dead tissue, but the panthenol does serve to make hair shiny, so it’s not just marketing fluff. The ethyl ether is one of the first anesthesias, but in this applications, it’s merely an effective way to dissolve and distribute the vitamin B.


13: Tetrasodium EDTA

EDTA stands for Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, and it’s softens hard water by sequestering metal ions, which prevents them from sticking to anything. The “tetra” part is just the form the salts take.


14: Laureth-4

This is another emulsifier that helps distribute the other chemicals in the shampoo. It is a polyoxyether of lauryl alcohol.


15: Polysorbate 20

This is a surfactant or wetting agent that helps emulsions stay as emulsions.


Mmm, brocooli.

Mmm, brocooli.

16: Ascorbic Acid, Panthenol, Tocopheryl Acetate, Biotin, and Niacinamide

Draw a line here in your mind, because we’re leaving the world of chemistry and entering the world of marketing. These five ingredients are the 5 vitamins in VO5, which stands for “Vitamin Oil 5.” This collection of vitamins was added to VO5 products to give the impression of “nourishing” hair. Again, hair is dead, so it’s unlikely that Vitamins E, C, H,B5 and B3 featured on the front of the label will actually do much more than help sell shampoo.

17: Food

Hydrolyzed Quinoa, Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein, Hydrolyzed Soy Protein, Aloe  arbadensis Leaf Juice, Pikea Robusta (Red Algae) Extract, Mel (Honey), Calendula Officinalis Flower Extract, Carica Papaya Fruit Extract, Actinidia Chinensis (Kiwi) Fruit Extract, Prunus Amygdalus Dulcis (Sweet Almond) Fruit Extract, Brassica Oleracea Italica (Broccoli) Seed Extract…

Yes, this is a very small amount of food that’s added to the shampoo. On this particular package, it’s listed as “11 Revitalizing Oils.” You can see all the fancy names there, but calling it salad dressing wouldn’t be far off. Again, hair is dead, it doesn’t eat, and this stuff probably doesn’t do anything noticeable. But it does let them say “papaya extract” or “kiwi essence” on the bottle.


18: Fragrance

FDA rules allow cosmetic companies to obfuscate fragrance ingredients if they’re below a certain percentage of the product. Often these scents are derived from unattractive sources such as whale vomit or anal glands, so that’s just as well.


19: Glycol Distearate

Anything this far down on the list is only present in minute quantities by weight. This chemical produces a pearlescent effect to make your shampoo pretty.


20: Sodium Xylene Sulfate

Another surfactant, it also helps the ingredients stay dissolved and adds a bit of thickness as well.


21: Methylchloroisothiazolinone

A fun word to say, this is a different preservative that attacks bacteria and fungi.


22: Methylisothiazolinine

Almost as fun to say as methylchloroisothiazolinone, methylisothiazolinine is actually a mistake. The proper name is methylisothiazolinone, and it’s another preservative. Why so many? Different preservatives protect against different microbes, and there are very few that can survive them all. Those that do, however, are going to be big trouble.


23: Titanium Dioxide

Despite its grand sounding name, this is simply white pigment. That’s it. It’s what makes paint and toothpaste white too.


24: Sodium Citrate

This is probably trisodium citrate, which is a buffer chemical. That means that it keeps the pH stable when it encounters acids such as the next ingredient. It’s also what gives bratwurst its distinctive flavor.


25: Citric Acid

Citric acid is used to adjust the pH down a bit as soap tends to be basic. This makes the shampoo less harsh. It also acts as a bit of a preservative.


So now you know what’s in your shampoo, at least if you use the same inexpensive brand I do. Some of the fancier brands have much more exotic ingredients, but they all follow the basic formula of strip the oils, and add them back, with a side of broccoli apparently.

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