Reading the ingredient list on beauty and hair products can sometimes feel like you're taking a chemistry class. While it can feel overwhelming, understanding what is in the products you use every day is important, and can help you figure out what active ingredients provide you with the most benefit. As you start to get more familiar with these labels, one ingredient you're guaranteed to see listed time and time again is xanthan gum.
Used in everything from conditioner to cookies, xanthan gum is utilized across industries and product lines. It has managed to fly under the radar despite its inclusion in every step of our haircare routines. But for something most of us are using (and eating) every day, do we really know what xanthan gum is?
To find out what xanthan gum is and why it's included in so many formulations, we turned to Dr. Nava Greenfield, MD, and Dr. Jenny Liu, MD, FAAD, to give us the full scoop. Read on for what they had to say.
Xanthan Gum for Hair
Type of ingredient: Thickener and emulsifying agent
Main benefits: Thickens formulations, stabilizes hair products, and conditions hair and skin.
Who should use it: In general, anyone with a dry scalp or dry, thin hair. It is safe for all hair types and textures, but its conditioning factors may provide additional benefits to curly hair. Anyone with a history of allergies to corn, wheat, soy, or dairy should consult their doctor, as xanthan gum is usually derived from these sources.
How often can you use it: Xanthan gum is an ingredient in most hair and beauty products and has no known negative effects, so it can be used daily as long as it does not cause an allergic reaction.
Works well with: Almost all ingredients; xanthan gum is often used as the glue that binds all other ingredients together in a formulation.
Don’t use with: There are no known ingredients that interact with xanthan gum negatively.
What Is Xanthan Gum?
While its name might imply otherwise, xanthan gum is actually a naturally derived ingredient. Typically, it comes from corn, wheat, soy, or dairy, which means it can be included in products that are marketed as "all-natural." It is made from sugars, so it may be able to provide moisturizing and conditioning benefits to the hair and scalp by keeping oils locked in, Greenfield explains.
Benefits of Xanthan Gum for Hair
Despite its constant inclusion on haircare ingredient lists (it's the most frequently named natural substance), xanthan gum does not actually provide many benefits to the hair itself. Xanthan gum is a stabilizer made from sugar and causes formulations to stick together and not fall apart. Xanthan gum helps to thicken and create an even, smooth texture, so its concentration will vary depending on the product. It also functions as an emulsifier, ensuring that active ingredients work well together, Liu explains. Greenfield echoes this, adding "I think of it as the egg inside cakes that holds it together after it is baked."
- Thickens formulations: Xanthan gum is an emulsifier and can be used to thicken formulations. This allows brands to create consistent, smooth products that are the correct consistency for their intended use (leave-in versus wash-out, etc.). The feel of a product can make all the difference, as silky consistencies are often mentally associated with high quality.
- Conditions the hair and skin: There is not much known definitively about the effect xanthan gum has on skin and hair, but Greenfield says this ingredient has been shown to moisturize the skin by keeping oils locked in. If you have dry hair or a dry scalp, Greenfield says the inclusion of xanthan gum could offer some benefits. Liu agrees that there are some conditioning benefits, but cautions that not a lot of research has been done behind its use in skin and hair care.
- Stabilizes hair products: Unlike the active ingredients, xanthan gum's inclusion in hair products is a molecular necessity. Greenfield shares that xanthan gum often acts as a stabilizer in hair products, ensuring the formulation stays together. Without xanthan gum, the formulation might separate between production and ending up in the consumer's home.
Hair Type Considerations
Our experts agree that xanthan gum is safe for all hair types, as it has little to no effect on the hair or scalp. Greenfield says it may be more beneficial to those with a dry scalp or dry, thin hair, as well as those with curly hair, due to its suspected ability to lock in oils. Too many products containing xanthan gum may cause excess grease in those with naturally oily scalps.
While there is little risk to the hair itself, the origins of xanthan gum do make it a potential allergen. Anyone with corn, wheat, soy, or dairy allergies may experience sensitivity or a reaction to products containing xanthan gum, as it is typically derived from these sources. Any new product should be patch tested before use to avoid irritation, and a dermatologist should be consulted if one occurs.
How to Use Xanthan Gum
Despite all the heavy-lifting it does in product formulations, xanthan gum is not an ingredient that you would seek out on its own for your hair. Instead, you're likely to see it listed as an ingredient in many of the products you already use. Xanthan gum is a goo-like substance that makes many of your favorite shampoos, conditioners, and styling creams possible. So the next time you're admiring the dreamy consistency of an all-natural hair product, scan the ingredient list for this unsung haircare hero.