Curl Care Series Part 2: What are those ingredients and what do they do?

As mentioned in Part 1, my main issue was with how things were presented. For instance, being told to completely avoid sulfates and alcohols. Well, it just isn’t that simple; especially if you’re just starting out and learning the difference between all the kinds of sulfates and alcohols and everything else.

It’s incredibly important to remember that your health and diet play a huge role in your hair health. Your hair is fed from a tiny blood vessel leading to each follicle of hair, so if you’re lacking water and protein, your hair probably is too. External ingredients can only do so much with the canvas that they’re provided.

What are sulfates and why do we have feelings about them?

Sulfates are surfactants, commonly used as cleaning agents and degreasers, and to help water spread the products more easily. The short version is that they’re mostly responsible for the lather that most people associate with “clean”. They’re effective cleaners for sure, but more heavy duty than most hair requires. Being so effective at cleaning is what removes your color and the moisture your hair needs to stay healthy. They also have a history of being common skin irritants.

Healthline had a few great articles about sulfates in shampoos and skin care if you want to read a bit more there.

To save you the same time I spent going down this rabbit hole, I’ve tried to condense a few of my notes for you.

What’s an emollient?

Emollients are the part of moisturizers that keep your skin soft. They fall into a few different categories depending on how oily or greasy they are, and what the desired outcome will be. The higher the oil content, the more effective it is at forming a protective layer on your skin (or hair) to trap moisture in (or out).

  • Ointmets are the heaviest kinds of emollients. Being extremely thick allows them to most effectively keep moisture where it needs to be. On the downside it can be harder to spread and stain clothing and other fabric.
  • Creams are a mixture of oil and water, which makes them easier to spread but less moisturizing.
  • Lotions are mostly water with small amounts of oil, which means they’re the easiest to spread and the better choice for finer hair textures.

The Curly Girl Method specifically mentions using Shea Butter, and olive and vegetable oils. The theory isn’t bad, good fats and nutrition that’s good when you put them inside of you. I’m definitely not suggesting you avoid these things, because when used properly they can be quite effective, but do make sure you’re looking into it first and not just grabbing a bottle of oil from your kitchen to take into the bathroom with you.

  • Shea butter has hit and miss search results. On the one hand, yes, it’s super moisturizing. For the skin. On the other hand it’s often overdone and can actually keep your hair strands from absorbing the moisture it needs from the water in the air, or from actual, you know, water. Same goes for coconut oil, by the way.
  • Olive and vegetable oils: the short version is going to be that if it was designed for use in the kitchen, it probably wasn’t designed with your hair or skin in mind and should stay in the kitchen. Will some of those things be found in your products and derived from the same ingredients? Of course, but things put in hair and skin products were usually designed for that purpose and most people don’t have the hair type that would benefit from such extreme measures.
  • So what happens when you use an extremely effective way to seal your hair strands that doesn’t wash away easily? It becomes that much more difficult to get moisture in the next time and eventually leads to your hair being too dry.

Proteins and moisturizers

I combined these two because it’s so important to have the right balance of moisture and protein, and to be aware that those needs may shift depending on the season/your diet/etc. Overdoing it on moisture tends to result in limp, lifeless curls, where as overdoing it on protein tends to result in dry, brittle hair.

  • Keratin is probably the number one thing that comes up when dealing with protein for hair products. This is because it’s the main protein that your hair is made of.
  • Wheat, wheat germ, and soy based proteins came up the most frequently after that. How you’ll see them in ingredient lists most commonly is as “Hydrolyzed wheat protein” and “Hydrolyzed soy protein.” Being Hydrolyzed means that the protein has been broken down into smaller chains of amino acids (the building blocks of protein), helping them penetrate the hair strand more effectively. If you have a topical sensitivity to soy or gluten, I would recommend avoiding products with those ingredients in them.
  • Collagen is another common recommendation, but much like the oils in the emollients, the way you use it will matter. The most effective results will probably come from your diet, but in your external products, a Hydrolyzed collagen will probably be the most effective.


Humectants are actually considered to be part of the moisturizer family. They’re used to increase the retention of moisture.

  • Common humectants are panthenol, vegetable glycerin, and sorbitol
  • While an important ingredient, this is one that I wouldn’t base my entire purchase on. Humectants pull moisture to the surface of whatever they’re on and sometimes this backfires when it comes to hair. Naturally Curly and Curly Hair Lounge both have incredibly detailed information on this that I just can’t do justice in a summary.,


Silicones are used to help detangle your hair, as well as to add shine. The biggest reason they end up on the “avoid” list is that not all of them are water soluble, which means that they build up on your hair and end up causing more harm than good in the long run.


Most alcohols are drying, so if you see them on the ingredient list, you may want to avoid that product. There are a few exceptions to this rule in hydrating alcohols, which include cetearyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol, myristyl alcohol, and behenyl alcohol.

Other mentioned ingredients

PVP and PVP/VA were mentioned as something to look for in gels. Much like a lot of the other ingredients we covered, this one has some mixed results when searching. At the end of the day, only you can decide what ingredients are compatible with your goals and lifestyle.

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