How to Read Active Key Ingredients

September 18, 2020


Verna Meachum

It's important to learn how to read key active ingredients on a curly hair product so that you can make an informed decision on the products you buy for your hair.

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Last Updated on April 10, 2023 by Verna Meachum

Have you ever wondered what some of the active key ingredients in your curly hair products actually do? Most people don’t know, and that is a problem.

There are many harmful chemicals used in hair products that can cause allergic reactions or inflammation.

This blog post will teach you how to read active key ingredients so you can find out more about what’s going on your head!

If you’re like most people, you probably only think about reading the ingredients on a curly hair product label when you have a specific question in mind.

For example, you might check to see if a product contains protein if you have protein sensitive hair or you might avoid ingredients like sulfates if you’re following the curly girl method.

However, did you know that understanding curly hair product labels is an important part of good hair care?

By reading the active key ingredients in a product, you can get a sense of how healthy it is and make informed decisions about what to buy.

There is a lot of information to take in when you are reading the ingredients label on a curly hair product. It can be hard to determine what each ingredient does and how it will benefit your curly hair.

In this blog post, we’ll discuss the importance of an ingredient list, what the ingredient list on a hair care product tells us, what active key ingredients are, and how we can identify the active ingredient used in a given product.

Various Sub-Categories of Curly Hair Products

There are various sub-categories for both skin and hair care products.

Tier One 

These products generally do not involve any chemical reaction:

  • Cleansing
  • Conditioning
  • Moisturizing products
  • Their pH is usually slightly acidic to neutral (or maybe slightly alkaline)

Tier Two

This tier involves ingredients that produce a chemical reaction that may alter the skin or hair’s structure and morphology.

  • Chemical peels
  • Hair bleaching
  • Oxidative coloring
  • Perms
  • Hair straightener
  • Depilatory products

In either category, the consumer has the right to know the exact “objective of the product,” “how to apply or use the product” and “what ingredients are used in the product.”

At the same time, regulatory bodies need to know the product description to ensure that the product meets the rules and regulations defined by the regulatory bodies.

To address this, the product label is generally located on the back, which generally includes all of the necessary information in a very concise, yet comprehensive way.

The International Nomenclature of Cosmetics Ingredients (INCI names)

In the early 70s and 80s, it was a voluntary practice to declare and put the names of all ingredients on the product label.

It is now required by law, and standard practice under ISO and other national and international standards.

Today’s globalization has had a significant impact on this job, as we may now purchase products from almost any place on the globe.

Furthermore, companies are willing to educate their users and provide them with a complete set of information about their products.

The most comprehensive database of all chemicals and ingredients is the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI), which is a worldwide nomenclature. This listing allows the sales team as well as consumers to comprehend the information printed on each product.

The INCI nomenclature is the result of years of comprehensive work that culminated over the years in the development of a global consensus about an international language for chemical ingredients used in a product.

Today, almost all products available in the markets of EU, USA, Japan, China, Latin America, and Asia follow the INCI listing.

More than 8000 ingredients are currently used in cosmetics, according to regulatory bodies from various countries.

Ingredient label: What does it tell us?

The fundamental question now is how to read the ingredient listing, and what does it tell us?

Here’s an example shown below:

Photo shows active key ingredient list

The picture is taken from a popular shampoo brand. The first ingredient we find is water.

As per practice, manufacturers generally put all of the ingredients in order of their decreasing concentration level.

So, water is the first listed ingredient (in the above example); this means water makes up most of the product mass (approx. 70-80%).

The 2nd and 3rd ingredients are two sulfate surfactants which imply that the product is a sulfate-based cleansing formulation.

The last ingredients are usually perfume and preservatives (Chloroisothiazolinone & Methylisothiazolinone in the above example).

The previous 4-5 ingredients are generally in the range of 0.50 – 0.05% of the total mass of the product.

So, the above ingredient list tells us that this cleansing product is made up of sulfate surfactants; thus, the consumer is informed, in case he/she is allergic to them or may want to avoid sulfate products.

Another example we want to analyze is collagen and protein treatment.

Photo shows active key ingredient list

Surprisingly, hydrolyzed collagen is listed before water, indicating that the ingredient is the actual base of the product and makes the most of the product mass.

The ingredient list places both hydrolyzed collagen and hydrolyzed vegetable protein in the top ingredients suggesting a higher level of concentration.

Active and Key ingredients: A slight difference in definition

The active ingredient is the ingredient that is added to the product for a specific function and is mainly responsible for the results of the product. In other words, they deliver the “promise” of a product.

However, it does not mean that the “Active Ingredient” will always be the first or second positioned ingredient in the ingredient listing. That’s why in some countries, it is standard practice to declare an active ingredient separately and distinctly.

For example, in the case of an oxidative hair dye cream, the active colorants are enlisted separately. The same is true for lye or no-lye relaxers and thio based perming systems.

However, the key ingredient might have a slightly different definition.

For example, in the above cleansing formulation (1st example), sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate are high in the list and therefore are the key ingredients.

They are the main surfactants added and responsible for the overall efficacy and performance of the product.

The same is described for the second example where “Hydrolyzed Collagen” is the key ingredient.

Responsibility and Consumer Rights

It is the absolute responsibility of the product manufacturer to declare all of the ingredients of the product, and the consumer has the right to know everything a product contains.

Any negligence on the part of the manufacturer may lead to serious consequences.

Incorrect ingredient listing may misguide the consumer and may cause allergy, skin discomfort, or other dermatological issues.

The problem may result in serious health issues and it is possible that a lawsuit will follow. As a result, the manufacturer is supposed to reveal each and every ingredient used.

Why Do We Need to Know the Ingredient Label?

In recent times, the general public has recently set a higher bar for awareness.

Consumers are well-informed and concerned about public health, legal, and environmental concerns today.

We all want a mild, skin-friendly, biodegradable, and environmentally friendly product.

Over the last two decades, for example, the sulfate-free movement has been a popular trend.

Sulfates (SLS & SLES or ALS & ALES) are high foaming and relatively low-cost surfactants used in household and personal care cleansing products.

However, they have high irritation potential and can induce severe skin dermatitis.

Consumer awareness has forced the formulators and manufacturers to replace these sulfate with milder and skin-friendly sulfate-free formulations.

Parabens are another example. These preservatives have been used for ages.

However, because of concerns over their carcinogenicity, they may be harmful. Because of the growing scientific knowledge and public awareness about the possible health hazard, formulators have begun looking for alternative preservative systems.

In both cases of sulfate and parabens, the user must be informed accordingly, and the ingredient list will help guide them in selecting the right product. That is why the ingredient list must be given correctly.


Should I be afraid of the ingredients I cannot pronounce?

No, ingredients are listed in descending order of concentration. So, if you cannot pronounce an ingredient, it is likely that it is present in very small quantities and is not a major component of the product.

Does this mean that I should avoid products with long ingredient lists?

Not necessarily. A long list of ingredients does not always mean that a product is complex or contains harmful ingredients. It may simply indicate that the manufacturer has used a variety of ingredients to improve the performance and efficacy of the product.

Should I be concerned if an ingredient is near the top of the list?

Yes, ingredients are listed in descending order of concentration. So, if an ingredient is near the top of the list, it is likely that it is present in high quantities and is a major component of the product.

What ingredients are bad for curly hair?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, as the ingredients that are bad for curly hair vary from person to person. However, some ingredients that are known to be harmful to curly hair include sulfates, parabens, and silicones.

What ingredients should I look for on a product’s label if I have curly hair?

Depending on the ingredients that you wish to avoid, a product with ingredients such as argan oil, aloe vera juice, honey, hydrolyzed protein, shea butter, natural oils, etc. These ingredients are known for their benefits in treating dryness and damage.

Is there an ingredient that all curly hair products must contain?

Due to the fact that everyone’s hair is unique, the simple answer to this question is no, meaning, an ingredient that is good for your hair may not benefit someone else’s hair.

Is it bad to use too many curly hair products?

No, it is not bad to use too many curly hair products. However, using too many products can overload your hair and may make it difficult to determine which product is causing the problem (if you have a problem). It is best to start with one or two products and add more as needed.

If however, you use too many products and are having a problem, we suggest giving your hair a reboot by clarifying it.


We as consumers have become more aware and cautious of the ingredient list. The ingredient list gives the complete picture of the formulation.

The order of listing describes the approximate level of concentration, and the first two to three ingredients are the key ingredients of the formulation.

However, active ingredients might be down in the list, having a low concentration level, yet solely responsible for the objectives of the products.

Has this article helped you better understand the difference between active ingredients versus key ingredients?

Let me know in the comments below.


1. Zviak, C., The Science of Hair Care. Taylor & Francis: 2005.
2. Robbins, C. R., Chemical and physical behavior of human hair. 5th ed.; Springer: 2012.
3. Kirk-Othmer, Chemical Technology of Cosmetics. Wiley: 2012.

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