I don’t use a lot of commercial (store-bought) products but I have a few in my cabinet. Normally I use a light conditioner right after rinsing my weekly muds. The conditioner does just that – conditions my hair especially in case where the mud has a drying effect. With the strengthening muds like Brahmi, Henna and Bhringraj my hair loses it’s softness (hair feels strong and very rigid, almost the same as after a protein treatment but not as hard). A light conditioner efficiently moisturizer the hair to rebalance the strands elasticity and softness. Light conditioners work well for my light density hair (a.k.a low density/thin). Aside from re-balancing the hair, light conditioners are great for efficient rinsing since remnants from the mud cling to the conditioner and are washed out during the rinsing process.
Two things are important when I decide on a conditioner: first is the ingredients in the product and second is the PH of the product. There are ingredients like “cones” that just dry my hair out so even though some people swear by them I will not go near any product that has any kind of “cone” in it. After a terrible experience (that took me months to figure out the culprit was dimethicone) I began analyzing ingredients in the products I bought along with testing the PH (Ideal ph for hair is between 4.5 – 5.0). Once past these two features then it’s simply a question of whether I like the appearance, texture and effect the product has on my hair.
VO5 Shea Cashmere moisturizing conditioner has been one of the few conditioners I have kept around and mostly use religiously as rinse off conditioner after my muds. I have glided over the ingredients just to make sure there’s nothing adverse to my health or that of my hair. I can (proudly) make out 10 of the 17 ingredients in the conditioner so I decided to take a closer look at what the can’t-pronounce-this-name ingredients really are in an effort to understand why this conditioner works so well with my hair. So here’s the ingredient line up in the v05 Shea Cashmere Moisturizing Conditioner. Keep in mind ingredients are listed by proportion – 1st on the list means most abundant ingredient in the formulation:
Water (Aqua, EAU), Cetyl Alcohol, Stearalkonium Chloride, Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea) Butter, Panthenol, Hydrolyzed Keratin, Tocopheryl Acetate, Ascorbic Acid, Biotin, Niacinamide, Cetrimonium Chloride, Glyceryl Stearate, Alcohol Denat., Polysorbate 20, Disodium EDTA, DMDM Hydantoin, Fragrance (Parfum)
Let’s analyze this, shall we:
Water (Aqua, EAU)
Water as a first ingredient is always good news; it means the conditioner is largely made up of water. The common term for this is water-based conditioner.
Contrary to popular belief this does not mean alcohol (as in vodka or rubbing alcohol). It refers to a fatty alcohol, which means it has a hydroxyl molecule (-OH – oxygen bound with hydrogen in a covalent bond, if you want to get all fancy). In chemistry any compound with -OH is referred to as an alcohol. Cetyl alcohol appliance is white solid flakes (similar to emulsifying wax) and is also known as palmityl alcohol.
Cetyl alcohol is used as an emulsion stabilizer (to keep water soluble and non soluble ingredients in the conditioner from separating) as well as an opacifier (make the end product opaque). Increasing opacity increases viscosity, which in return creates a velvety texture.
A quaternary Ammonium salt also known as quats. Analogs (very similar in structure) to ammonium salts (Salts in which organic radicals (like akyl, aryl etc.) have been substituted for all four hydrogens of the original ammonium cation – if you want to get technical)Quats have a unique positvely charged structure that makes them attracted to hair. Because of their linking structure, they form a temporary smooth surface over the hair. This makes many of them great for detangling.
Stearalkonium Chloride is a positively charged salt that attracts and binds keratin (protein fibers), which are negatively charged. Stearalkonium Chloride adds antistatic element to the conditioner, which helps with detangling.
Panthenol is a form of pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), used as a moisturizer and lubricating compound.
Hydrolysis (hydro-, meaning “water”, and lysis, meaning “separation”). Hydrolysis therefore means the breaking of a bond in a molecule using water. Hydrolyzed keratin is animal derived from bone material of cows, pigs or poultry. Primary source of hydrolyzed keratin is pigs. In reality this is hydrolyzed animal protein but most cosmetic companies dropped the animal reference for the more appealing hydrolyzed protein. Hydrolyzed Keratin does not penetrate the hair shaft. It acts as a film-forming ingredient, which creates a protective coating on the hair. Protein particles are known to fill in the cracks along damaged (natural wear and tear mostly) areas in the hair shaft subsequently strengthening the hair.
A (ester)mixture of acetic acid (vinegar) and tocopherol (vitamin E). Tocopheryl Acetate’s primary function is as an anti-oxidant that protects the hair against the sun’s ultraviolet rays. It’s also used to stabilize acidity and extend product shelf-life.
Naturally occurring (one form) of vitamin C, an organic compound used as an antioxidant and preservative. Ascorbic acid also regulates the product’s final PH because of the citric acid content.
Also known as vitamin H is a water-soluble B-vitamin ( also referred to as vitamin B7). Biotin is necessary for cell growth, the production of fatty acids all improves keratin infrastructure that’s why people take it internally.
Biotin is used as a texturizer (to improve the feel) and moisturizer in conditioners.
Niacinamide (nicotinic acid amide, Nicotinamide)
A form of vitamin B3 (Niacin). In conjunction with Panthenol, Niacinamide has been documented to increase the diameter of individual hair fibers, which improves the overall thickness of hair.
A quaternary Ammonium salt also known as quats. See Stearalkonium Chloride above (Ingredient no. 3). Centrimonium Chloride’s cationic (positively charged) nature attracts and binds to the negatively charged protein fibers (hair strands) making the strands smoother, which minimizes fiber tangling and knots.
Centrimonium Chloride also has ability to inhibit the growth of microorganisms thus functions as a preservative as well.
Glyceryl Stearate the natural glyceryl ester (made from) from stearic acid and glycerin. Glyceryl Stearate is used for its emulsifying , conditioning, thickening, stabilizing and opacifying properties.
Alcohol Denat is a a mixture of ethanol (ethyl alcohol) with a denaturing agent. Denatured alcohol is altered by adding isopropyl (like rubbing alcohol) to make it unfit for drinking but okay for use use in cosmetics and haircare.
Alcohol Denat is a substance that changes another substances natural qualities or characteristics e.g dissolves a chemically different solid or gas resulting in a solution. I’m not sure what role Alcohol Denat plays in the conditioner.
Polysorbate 20 (sorbitan monolaurate)
Made from a mixture of sorbitan (sugar alcohol) and fatty acids, Polysorbate 20 is then treated with 20 parts of ethylene oxide (a flammable gas with a sweet odor made up of oxygen and two carbon atoms). Polysorbate 20 is an emulsifiers used mostly to solubilize (help them dissolve) essential oils into water-based products.
Disodium EDTA (Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid)
A colourless, water-soluble solid used as a chelating agent. Chelating ingredient that attracts the minerals and metal ions away from the hair shaft and helps them rinse away. Once bound to EDTA, metal ions remain in solution but exhibit diminished reactivity. They are then dragged off the hair shaft as conditioner is rinsed away. Disodium EDTA’s ability to remove metal ions in water allows conditioners and even shampoos to be more effective.
Hydantoins are formed when glycolic acid and urea react. DMDM hydantoin works as a preservative because the released formaldehyde makes the environment less favorable to pathogens and other microorganisms. Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel has evaluated DMDM hydantoin and concluded, “that it was safe to a great majority of consumers but has limited the concentration to 0.2%.”
The word “fragrance” or “parfum” on the product label represents an undisclosed mixture of various scent chemicals used to increase scent appeal of the end product. I figure Warm Vanilla is the fragrance in the VO5 but there’s no way to tell where is from because cosmetic/haircare companies are not require to disclose that information.
Alberto vo5 Shea Cashmere measure between 6-6.5 on the PH scale. Ideally we want ph 4.5-5 for the hair. Keep in mind ph is not linear; it’s logarithmic. Most people assume that ph 4 is only a few times more acidic than ph 5 but in fact is ph 4 is 100 more times acidic than ph 5. These simple litmus strips are a great affordable way to measure pretty much any product. Shea Cashmere’s vo5 is not acidic enough but thankfully it close enough that adding some apple cider vinegar (PH 2) or aloe vera juice/gel (PH 4-4.5) – the amount will depend on how much conditioner you are using, start slow especially with vinegar – will instantly lower the PH and optimize it for hair.
EGW Cosmetics Database is a great place to start your search on ingredients. You can either search for a product or a single ingredient. Select from the results and then scroll down to “Data Sources” for the different scientific researches that have been done about a particular compound as well as useful information on synonyms. Also, use it to check out ingredients other products like make-up and toiletries.
Cosmetic and Toiletry Formulations is the only directory that gives the complete proportions of ingredients in different commercial formulations. It’s pricey but a girl can wish, no? All formulations contain a listing of ingredients and percent weight of the ingredients. Most formulations also contain the suggested formulation procedure. If you are a chemistry junkie you’ll understand when I say I need this book like yesterday.
I hope this post was helpful in demystifying some of the common ingredients in most conditioners and you are inspired to analyze your favorite products. Remember knowledge is power and familiarizing yourself with ingredients will enhance your judgement when selecting products for your hair, whether home made or at the store.
IMPORTANT: The biggest takeaway here is this; Not all lab manufactured ingredients are horrible for your hair. In fact some are formulated by chemists (funded by billions of dollars) who study hair and superior ingredients that enhance haircare. I make most of my products but I have learned by studying components of commercial products. So even though I am pro diy, it doesn’t mean I think all commercial products are evil.