By Sarah Y. Wu
Color Wow contributor + Forbes senior contributor
Our haircare and styling routines differ according to individual texture, length, and style, but one thing remains the same: We all want to avoid unhealthy hair and scalp, and to choose the best ingredients possible. You might already be well-versed in the basics (like knowing that sulfates mess with color and cause dehydration), but that’s just the beginning of decoding your ingredients label. To simplify the overwhelming amount of information out there, we broke the process down into three steps that guarantee you’re getting hair products you can trust.
Here, your ultimate guide to choosing safe, effective hair products. Ask these key questions when you think about which products are best for healthiest haircare results.
1. The most basic question: Do the hair products meet international industry standards for ingredient safety?
They definitely should, since this is the easiest criteria for any brand to meet. At Color Wow, we consider this the first basic step of formulating safe products. Beyond domestic FDA guidelines, we meet all critical international industry standards for ingredient safety, throwing out anything even borderline questionable for your health. This process rules out controversial ingredients including parabens, Selenium Sulfide, and Formaldehyde.
But it’s not enough to stop here—because, and this may surprise you- many common ingredients that pass through these guidelines can still have damaging effects on your hair. It's important to understand the SIDE EFFECTS caused by so many ingredients that are commonly used in hair products.
2. The second critical question to ask when evaluating the safety of which ingredient to avoid in hair care products: Do any ingredients fade, warp, or adversely impact hair color? Or, do any ingredients compromise the healthy quality and condition of the hair?
In developing truly innovative, first-of-a-kind hair formulas, Color Wow uses a uniquely rigorous ingredient screening process that weeds out any ingredients that cause negative SIDE EFFECTS.
Over 70 ingredients have been identified and banned that will never make it into a Color Wow formula because of their negative impact on hair color or texture.
And...also surprising! Some of the ingredients Color Wow bans are touted as “organic” or “natural”.
Which BTW raises the question and the ongoing debate “Is organic and natural beauty always better for you?”
The truth is, “natural” is a completely unregulated term, making it an unreliable determiner for product quality. While organic is a more telling certification, some organic ingredients are either ineffective substitutes for cleansing agents or come with unwanted side effects. A great example: essential oils like rosemary, peppermint, rose, vanilla, cedar, and patchouli. They might make your shampoo or conditioner smell delicious, but they’re also color darkeners and potential irritants. Our take? Not worth the trade-off. The net-net: “organic” and “natural” are words often used as marketing ploys to hook consumers into believing that a product is safer, healthier or superior.
Instead of relying on blanket labels, look more closely at individual ingredients. Along with essentials oils, here are the 70 color-disrupting ingredients we never use, so your hair's natural vibrancy can fully shine through:
Citrus: Lemon, orange, melon, pomegranate, neroli, and apple oils can give an unwanted yellow cast to hair.
Sulfates: These harsh detergents have a stripping effect on hair, damaging hydration and color.
Oxidizing Agents: Hydrogen Peroxide, bromates, and persulfates can break down natural and chemically processed color.
Color-Distorting Preservatives: Methylisothiazolinone, Methylchloroisothiazolinone, Diazolidinyl Urea, and Polyaminopropyl biguanide have also been shown to distort hair color.
Nitrogen Compounds: These compounds darken when exposed to air and light, which can stain your hair. Here’s a list commonly found in conditioners and hairsprays: Stearalkonium Chloride, Dicetyldimonium Chloride, Steartrimonium Chloride, Aminoethylaminopropyldimethicone, Divinyl Trimethylsiloxyamodimethicone, Bis-Hydroxy/Methoxy Amodimethicone, Aminopropyl Triethoxysilane, polymers (PVM/MA Coploymer, Octylacrylamide/Acrylates/Butylaminoethyl Methacrylate Copolymer, Polyurethane -1, Polyurethane-14, PVP/Vinyl Caprolactam/DMAPA Acrylates Copolymer, VA/Vinyl Butylbenzoate/Crotonates Copolymer), and compounds containing Triethanolamine (TEA), monoethanolamine (MEA), or Ammonia.
Dyes: Dyes add color to formulas, which naturally also impacts your hair. Common dyes we avoid include Para-phenylene Diamine (PPD), Diaminobenzene, Toluene-2,5-diamine, Nitroaminophenols, Ortho or Para-aminophenols, Lead Acetate, and henna.
Endocrine Disruptors: To avoid impact to hormones and color, we never use Bisphenol A (BPA), resorcinol, Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), Phytoestrogens, nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), and Dioxin.
Do they incorporate heat protection?
3. Now that you’ve made it past every ingredient to avoid to ensure the safest hair care routine, we want to share ingredients you want to embrace because of one, powerful, special benefit: HEAT PROTECTION
We love making hair magic with wavers, crimpers, and flatirons, but any hot tool exceeding 266 degrees F (130 degrees C) causes damage on unprepped hair. Color can go brassy from contact, while the keratin proteins that impart strength and elasticity start breaking down. Your hair cuticle also experiences cracking, fraying, and moisture loss the more you apply heat. This doesn’t mean you need to hang up the hot tools; you just need to layer on the heat protection.
Our in-house expert, Dr. Joe (PhD and Color Wow Chief Chemist), recommends checking for polymers, hydrolyzed keratin proteins, conditioning agents (like Behentrimonium Chloride and Stearamidopropyl Dimethylamine), and humectants (glycerin, Sodium PCA, and propylene glycol) to shield yourself from damage. Besides creating a buffering layer on the hair’s surface, they also work together to slow heat conduction and fight against dehydration. The more of these ingredients your styling heroes contain, the better protected you’ll be.
That’s why we build layers of thermal protection into every formula that doesn’t wash out, leaving you free to perfect your style, safely.