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 want to avoid unhealthy hair and 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 a routine you can trust. Here, your ultimate guide to choosing safe, effective hair products.

Do your 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 many common ingredients that pass through these guidelines can still have damaging effects on your hair.

Do they fade, warp, or impact hair color?

In the great “Is organic and natural beauty always better for you?” debate, we advocate for nuance. 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.

Instead of relying on blanket labels, look more closely at individual ingredients. Along with essentials oils, here are the 60 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?

Now that you’ve made it past every ingredient to avoid, the last thing to check for is adequate 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 use smarter formulas.

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.

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