Walk down the shampoo aisle at the drugstore, and almost every bottle claims to be better, more moisturizing, more age-defying, more anything than the bottle next to it. “Natural” shampoos and conditioners are no exception. They’re herbal! They have plant extracts! They’re free from parabens! But what do those claims actually mean — and are “natural” shampoos actually any better for your hair?

First off: “natural” has no meaning
The word “natural” doesn’t mean anything on a shampoo label — at least not to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which decides the standards personal care products have to meet when it comes to their labeling and claims. “Natural” isn’t regulated and has no specific meaning, so anyone can use it.

What about “organic?”
It depends. The USDA does have certain standards for meeting that claim about food, but it doesn’t apply to personal care products, reports CBS News. Some states have their own standards, though — California, for one, requires that your shampoo has to contain at least 70% organic ingredients to be labeled “organic.” As for the other 30%? That can be anything, including synthetic preservatives — and manufacturers sometimes count the weight of water (the main ingredient in many personal care products) toward that percentage.

Sensitive scalps, beware
Maybe you figure some organic ingredients are better than zero, especially if you’ve got sensitive skin. But the stuff that sounds nice in an ingredients list and smells healthy in a bottle isn’t always good for you. Tea tree oil, a common ingredient in shampoos labeled “natural” or “organic,” can cause rashes. Mint and menthol can cause an allergic reaction. And fragrance — found in 80% of shampoos — can irritate sensitive scalps.

What’s the deal with sulfates?

You may have noticed an uptick in shampoos advertising that they’re sulfate-free. Or maybe sulfates already strike fear in your heart and follicles, and you stay away from them. Does it make a difference? Commonly listed on shampoo bottles as sodium laureth sulfate and ammonium laureth sulfate, sulfates are basically what give your hair a good lather and help get the gunk out.

So why the panic? Some say it strips dyed hair of its color more quickly. Others claim it causes cancer. The latter is a myth that’s been debunked. As for your hair color? “Any time you expose hair color to water, hair swells up and some color can leak out,” Perry Romanowski, a cosmetic chemist, explains to the New York Times. “But the shampoo that you use is not really going to pull color out appreciably more than anything else.” That said, sodium lauryl sulfate is an irritant, but the risk can be mitigated by not getting it in your mouth or eyes, and not keeping on your head for longer than a few minutes. If you’re experiencing irritation after every shampoo, though, a sulfate-free shampoo could be more gentle on your scalp.

Bottom line?
The ingredients list on the back of the shampoo bottle will tell you more about it than the marketing claims on the front. If you’ve got sensitive skin or have reacted badly to some shampoos in the past, that list is worth a look for some top culprits, like tea tree oil and fragrances. An organic or sulfate-free shampoo may indeed be a better option for you — just ignore the ones making the meaningless “natural” claim.

Diana Vilibert is a freelance writer and copywriter living in Brooklyn, NY. She loves flea markets, martinis, to-do lists, traveling, and wearing leggings as pants. You can see more of her writing at www.dianavilibert.com and follow her on Twitter at @dianavilibert.