Skin of Color

Hair Care Products Used by Women of African Descent: Review of Ingredients

In Collaboration With the Skin of Color Society

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Consumers of African descent use an array of hair-grooming products. They are attracted to products that promote moisture and minimize breakage because their hair is prone to dryness and fragility. Herein, we discuss popular hair care products used by African Americans as well as their ingredients, including sulfates, surfactants, silicones, oils, and parabens. Knowledge of popular hair and scalp products and their ingredients, indications for use, adverse effects, and misconceptions can assist dermatologists in delivering culturally competent care. In addition to being proficient in the diagnosis and treatment of hair and scalp disorders in this population, dermatologists must be aware of common hair and scalp products.

Practice Points

  • Dermatologists must be aware of common hair and scalp beliefs, misconceptions, care, and product use to ensure culturally competent patient interactions and treatment.
  • Common ingredients in popular hair care products used by African Americans include sulfates, cationic surfactants and polymers, silicone, oils, and parabens.



In the African American and African communities, information regarding the care and treatment of hair and skin often is obtained from relatives as well as Internet videos and bloggers.1 Moreover, fewer than half of African American women surveyed believe that their physician understands African American hair.2 In addition to proficiency in the diagnosis and treatment of hair and scalp disorders in this population, dermatologists must be aware of common hair and scalp beliefs, misconceptions, care, and product use to ensure culturally competent interactions and treatment.

When a patient of African descent refers to their hair as “natural,” he/she is referring to its texture compared with hair that is chemically treated with straighteners (ie, “relaxed” or “permed” hair). Natural hair refers to hair that has not been altered with chemical treatments that permanently break and re-form disulfide bonds of the hair.1 In 2003, it was estimated that 80% of African American women treated their hair with a chemical relaxer.3 However, this preference has changed over the last decade, with a larger percentage of African American women choosing to wear a natural hairstyle.4

Regardless of preferred hairstyle, a multitude of products can be used to obtain and maintain the particular style. According to US Food and Drug Administration regulations, a product’s ingredients must appear on an information panel in descending order of predominance. Additionally, products must be accurately labeled without misleading information. However, one study found that hair care products commonly used by African American women contain mixtures of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and 84% of detected chemicals are not listed on the label.5

Properties of Hair Care Products

Women of African descent use hair grooming products for cleansing and moisturizing the hair and scalp, detangling, and styling. Products to achieve these goals comprise shampoos, leave-in and rinse-out conditioners, creams, pomades, oils, and gels. In August 2018 we performed a Google search of the most popular hair care products used for natural hair and chemically relaxed African American hair. Key terms used in our search included popular natural hair products, best natural hair products, top natural hair products, products for permed hair, shampoos for permed hair, conditioner for permed hair, popular detanglers for African American hair, popular products for natural hair, detanglers used for permed hair, gels for relaxed hair, moisturizers for relaxed hair, gels for natural hair, and popular moisturizers for African American hair. We reviewed all websites generated by the search and compared the most popular brands, compiled a list of products, and reviewed them for availability in 2 beauty supply stores in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 1 Walmart in Hershey, Pennsylvania; and 1 Walmart in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. Of the 80 products identified, we selected 57 products to be reviewed for ingredients based on which ones were most commonly seen in search results. Table 1 highlights several randomly chosen popular hair care products used by African American women to familiarize dermatologists with specific products and manufacturers.

Tightly coiled hair, common among women of African descent, is considered fragile because of decreased water content and tensile strength.6 Fragility is exacerbated by manipulation during styling, excessive heat, and harsh shampoos that strip the hair of moisture, as well as chemical treatments that lead to protein deficiency.4,6,7 Because tightly coiled hair is naturally dry and fragile, women of African descent have a particular preference for products that reduce hair dryness and breakage, which has led to the popularity of sulfate-free shampoos that minimize loss of moisture in hair; moisturizers, oils, and conditioners also are used to enhance moisture retention in hair. Conditioners also provide protein substances that can help strengthen hair.4

Consumers’ concerns about the inclusion of potentially harmful ingredients have resulted in reformulation of many products. Our review of products demonstrated that natural hair consumers used fewer products containing silicones, parabens, and sulfates, compared to consumers with chemically relaxed hair. Another tool used by manufacturers to address these concerns is the inclusion of an additional label to distinguish the product as sulfate free, silicone free, paraben free, petroleum free, or a combination of these terms. Although many patients believe that there are “good” and “bad” products, they should be made aware that there are pros and cons of ingredients frequently found in hair-grooming products. Popular ingredients in hair care products include sulfates, cationic surfactants and cationic polymers, silicone, oils, and parabens.


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