Curly Girl Chemistry: a Mini Guide!

The curly girl mini guide to deciphering the ingredient list on haircare products, is a bit of a blogging experiment for me. The idea is to translate a little bit of journal science into everyday information readily available for all curlkind.

Today Shampoo & Surfactants

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What are all those things in the ingredient list?


This post will be about surfactants which are basically detergents which clean and/or condition the hair and scalp in some cases.

To sulfate or not to sulfate? That is the question. A very common question for curly girls. Sulfates are part of the anionic surfactant group, are deep cleansers and are the cheapest products in the haircare industry.
The answer is maybe, it depends, not too much.


In the above table you can see the 4 types of surfactants or cleansing agents found commonly in Shampoos, conditioners, nopoos or cleansing conditioners.

Deep cleansers = anionic surfactants.

They usually lather and clean the scalp very well, but they have as a negative for curly hair a drying effect so if you are curly these agents should not be used everyday, once a week seems like a good enough frequency.

One reason a shampoo can be extremely drying is that it has a mix of 2 or more deep cleansers (as a curly girl this is something I avoid completely). I saw a shampoo that was called moisturizing but had sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate of course it will dry the hair, that is a no no no for curly hair.

Sulfates are known to cause irritation in some people, specially sodium lauryl sulfate which I have excluded from my haircare but other than that one most anionic surfactants do a pretty good job without causing problems, my favorites are sulfosuccinates & sulfonates because they have a smaller molecular size, hence less chance of causing scalp and skin irritation. I find Sodium laureth Sulfate ok as it does not irritate my skin either, but a lot of peopleavoid this ingredient.

Mild Cleansers = nonionic, amphoteric or cationic surfactants.

They usually don’t lather and are either added as a conditioning agent to make deep cleansers softer.

They are commonly used as the main ingredient in no poo products and conditioners.

The best ones as stand alone agents are the nonionic ones like cetearyl alcohol or any other fatty alcohol (these are hydrating alcohols unlike denaturalized alcohol which is drying) and the amphoterics like betaines, because they do a better cleaning job than cationic or natural surfactants.

Deep cleansers remove silicones, contamination & sebum while Mild cleansers can’t remove silicones, oils or butters.

Before starting to use a cowash or no poo product always wash your hair with a shampoo of your choice to remove any trace of hair products and dirt and make sure to not exclude shampoo completely from your routine in order to keep your scalp healthy.

Another good tip for successful cowashing is to avoid all silicones, butters and oils…and if product build up appears use a deep cleanser and then follow with a good deep conditioner.

No need to be afraid of deep cleansers just use them in moderation.

I hope this mini guide helps you and if you have any questions, just ask I am happy to help!

Let me know in the comments your thoughts!

Caring for Curly Hair can become expensive , so when buying products it is important we are selective about it.

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