What's In Your Go-To Horse Care Products: Breaking Down Common Ingredients
By Riesa Lakin
August 2, 2020
As consumers, more than ever, we are becoming increasingly aware of what ingredients are in the foods we eat and the products we buy. Just look at the beauty market, which is being completely transformed in part by indie brands and ingredient-centric product releases. Consumers have more options and more information to find both products and brands that better align with their needs. But what about the horse market? Are we, as consumers, paying as much attention to the ingredients that are in our go-to horse care products?
For those of you who are an ingredients expert, I applaud you. Sometimes when I look at certain product labels (if I can find them), I’ll admit that I really don’t know what I’m even looking at. There are so many words that I can’t even pronounce, yet alone remember which are actually good ingredients vs. toxic and unhealthy. Thankfully, I was able to speak with Nicole Papandrea, founder and CEO of Knotty Horse Products, which we carry on Corro, to breakdown what ingredients are essential to quality horse care and what to look for in order to identify marketing gimmicks.
Nicole Papandrea, founder and CEO of Knotty Horse Products. Image courtesy of Nicole Papandrea.
If you’re not familiar with Papandrea and her story, she worked as a product developer in the beauty industry for over 15 years, making color cosmetics, skincare, hair care, and now grooming products for the last 5 years for Knotty Horse. With her background, she focused on horse care products as a result of needing for something to help her then 18-year-old horse, Reese, with his thinning hair and sensitive skin. Papandrea went to work to create healthier treatment products she could feel good about using on beloved horse. After a year of trial and error, the Apricot Oil Detangling Treatment was born, proving that you can have a healthier alternative without compromising on amazing results. Within a few weeks, Papandrea noticed Reese’s hair was softer, stronger and his forelock showed signs of growth—and so did other horse owners and trainers at the barn whom asked for samples to try on their horses. You can now shop her full product selection of apricot oil and omega-based products here on Corro!
Nicole Papandrea with her horse, Reese. Image courtesy of Nicole Papandrea.
Naturally (pun intended), I knew that no one could help me better understand horse care ingredients quite like Nicole. While there are more studies and data becoming available every day, it’s hard to navigate what “human trends” also hold true for horses (and which don’t), as well as understand what half of the ingredients in products actually mean. Here are Nicole’s tips for helping you find the right products for your horse based on their own individual needs.
Let’s start with buzzwords that we’re used to hearing like natural, organic, certified organic, and even negative words like synthetic and silicones. What do they mean when it comes to horse products?
I enjoy this topic because education is key to understanding a complex response. There is a lot of hype and buzzwords like natural and organic, but consumers may rely a little too heavily on these buzzwords and not always know enough facts. Being someone that’s been a product developer for over 20 years combined in different areas in consumer goods and the equine industry, I’d like to share that there can be natural ingredients that can actually have a negative effect that we think are safe. Conversely, just because an ingredient is synthetic, it doesn't necessarily make it a problem for the skin as consumers are led to believe. It’s important to ask more questions and do your homework about what is in a product that’s being applied on ourselves and our pets.
It’s important to use products specifically formulated for our pets because of their naturally sensitive skin...In addition, just because a product has been around for years and has a reputation for working well, it may not be a healthy choice for your horse.
Not all “natural” products are organic, or even 100% natural. Some formulas can be partially naturally or some can be comprised of chemical compounds with some natural ingredients included. Neither is necessarily negative. So let’s talk organics. According to the USDA, in some cases the National Organics Standards Board votes to allow certain non-organic substances in products if the organic version of an ingredient does not exist. This can include certain synthetic or “lab derived” substances to be allowed. The definition of “organic” for the intention of manufacturing is to be produced or involving production without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial agents. In order for a food product to be legally certified as organic by the USDA, it must be comprised of having at least 95% organic contents. But when it comes to cosmetics or products applied to the body, there is no federal regulation on organic. Ethically, to make the organic claim, all ingredients must be certified by the NOP (National Organic Program) and meet the same standards as the USDA by having at least 95% organic product contents.
When we think of lab-derived or synthetic ingredients, it’s a common misconception to assume it must be bad for you, however because an ingredient is synthetic doesn't make it a problem for skin or hair as people are led to believe. On the flip side, not everything natural is good for you. Most us know of arsenic and its negative connotation, but you may not be aware that it’s completely natural and most arsenic is mineral-derived. The substance can be found in water, air, soil and food. Certain fruits can have low levels present from naturally occurring arsenic in soil, but only harmful in high doses or long-term exposure can be poisonous and have negative effects on our health. When it comes to products we purchase for our horses, one of the most common ingredients found in fly sprays is Pyrethrins. Pyrethrins are pesticides found naturally in species of chrysanthemum flowers. This naturally derived toxin is highly effective at repelling mosquitoes, fleas, flies, ants, etc. and while safe for use on horses, it is proven to have possible side effects when in contact with humans.
So it’s important to use products specifically formulated for our pets because of their naturally sensitive skin. Human shampoo may great on your hair but disrupts the pH level in a horse or dog’s coat, being too acidic and can strip away natural oils. An imbalance in skin pH can be a contributing factor in skin sensitivities and irritation. In addition, just because a product has been around for years and has a reputation for working well, it may not be a healthy choice for your horse.
I pulled out products in my grooming tote one day and wanted to know, “What's in here?” I didn't know the answer because they weren't listed. I felt a little nervous about what I was not only putting on my horse, but what I was touching on my own skin. I wanted something that was going to be a healthier alternative but didn't compromise on results.
That's what drove me to create Knotty Horse. I'm conscious about what ingredients I'm using, and a lot of times I couldn't find out what I was putting on my horse because ingredient lists are not mandated for pet care. I pulled out products in my grooming tote one day and wanted to know, “What's in here?” I didn't know the answer because they weren't listed. I felt a little nervous about what I was not only putting on my horse, but what I was touching on my own skin. I wanted something that was going to be a healthier alternative but didn't compromise on results.
When I was developing Knotty Horse and conducting focus groups, people would say, “I prefer to have something healthier, but I'd rather have something that works and that I know works. But if I could get something else that did work, I'd be willing to pay more for a healthier formula.” That’s what really drove me and put me on a mission to prove that you don't have to compromise on results in order to use something with healthier ingredients. It’s really important to know that. Having the most expensive product doesn’t necessarily make it the best either, but it’s important to be aware that products produced with active levels of natural ingredients are more costly to manufacture, especially if made state side. But being an American-made company and offering effective products is what we pride ourselves on at Knotty Horse.
While we are on the topic of “organic,” I wanted to ask you about the difference between “organic” and “certified organic.” Also, there seems to be the notion that organic products typically tend to cost more. Is that true?
In order for a brand to claim that their product is certified organic, they have to certify it as such, which costs money and can be a lengthy process. You're likely going to have a product that's more expensive because the company paid to be labeled as such. However, as mentioned not all organic products are required to be certified unless intended for human consumption. Knotty Horse uses a lot of natural ingredients, but we're not certified organic, so we don’t make organic claims on our products.
Are there any major ingredients in horse care products that we should be on the lookout for that may be harmful to our horses?
Try to stay as natural as possible and look for botanicals and fruit extracts in products. Look for conditioning oils that are going to help your horse’s coat, but also make sure that they don't have ingredients that could be blocking your horse’s skin from breathing, because that in turn can cause a lot of skin problems.
There are some ingredients that are becoming common knowledge to stay away from, such as parabens and GMOs. Try to stay as natural as possible and look for botanicals and fruit extracts in products. Look for conditioning oils that are going to help your horse’s coat, but also make sure that they don't have ingredients that could be blocking your horse’s skin from breathing, because that in turn can cause a lot of skin problems. In fact, when I'm working at a trade show or an event I’ve heard customers tell me, “I'm really interested in trying your line on my horse because he has this particular skin condition.” I get that a lot, especially in the summertime and I started to notice when I would ask, “Do you use an oil-based fly spray? Do you use something with high-pyrethrins?” Often times I would hear a resounding yes, so I’d ask how often these products are applied. I would often hear, “everyday,” which is a normal response during fly season, but sometimes mixing your horse’s routine products that could have certain chemicals may react with ingredients found in pesticides or using sprays that with certain pore blocking oils on the daily can wreak havoc on your horse’s coat.
I know for my own horse, Reese, I have to use caution with oil-based fly sprays that do not react well on his individual skin because these ingredients are not breathable. It took some trial and error to realize that certain skin irritations and fungus were the result of using these sprays on the daily. I’m not saying these are not effective products, but being aware of your horse’s individual coat care needs can go a long way and save money if it can prevent having to buy additional products to clear up a preventable coat issue. On skin sensitive horses like Reese, I find a fly sheet is a great investment instead of going through lots of insect repellents that may or may not cause him irritation. Bottom line, while natural products are beneficial for the health of your horse, most horse owners do not want to compromise on products that are efficacious and that is understandable.
Not all silicones are bad. In fact, silicone-based ingredients have a certain job for skin and hair and function that is beneficial. Image courtesy of the Knotty Horse.
What about silicones? I know that can be a hot topic.
Before I can give a straight answer to this question, it’s important to understand facts rather than opinions. Silicones are one of the most misunderstood ingredients found in the market. What do they do? For topical application, silicone-based ingredients have a certain job for skin and hair and function in one of the following ways: as an emulsifying agent to help combine substances in a product, as an emollient to help soften or smooth the skin, or as a surfactant for better distribution and application of the product when used (such as soap suds). In the case of active ingredients in a formula, silicones act as a carrier agent, suspending the active ingredients so that they are absorbed into the skin and hair effectively.
There are lots of different types of silicones. Are all of them good for you? No. Are all of them bad for you? Absolutely not. In fact, most silicones are hypo-allergenic and tested under clinical conditions, as well as non-comedogenic and even used for irritation relief from skin issues such as dermatitis. In terms of hair care, there are high-grade silicones that work great for dust repellency, thermal protection and to help to deliver actives in high-end formulas to help fortify the hair cuticle. Silicone is another buzzword a lot of people assume is bad and that couldn't be further from the truth.
Essential oils are hot in the market right now and someone who is well versed in essential oils knows that because these are active oils, a carrier oil is important when applying these topically. Similarly, silicones when used for hair care can have the same function to act as a carrier for actives. Quality cosmetic products such as facial creams and body lotions are made with high-quality silicones, or what I like to call “breathable silicones,” because they do not clog the pores.
Furthermore, silicones are sustainable ingredients, derived from quartz (sand), the second most abundant mineral. All silicones evaporate, which is why incorporating other hydrating ingredients in a formula with silicones is important for hair and skin care. As a result of fast evaporation under the influence of direct sunlight, silicones cut the carbon footprint on our environment in comparison to other ingredients, making it planet friendly.
Because horses are generally outside and in the sun for lengthy periods of time, using a silicone-free product is not necessarily a good thing. A quality silicone in a hair product will protect the hair follicle from further damage, help to detangle, add shine, and repels dust (which otherwise leads to further dehydration and possible breakage in the hair).
The next question I get a lot is, “what silicones do I stay away from?” Stay away from products with heavy silicones intended for you or your horse that feel heavy and greasy on your hands and take a long time to absorb. These silicones will have the same effect on the hair shaft, sitting on top of the hair and not allowing for hair and the scalp to breathe. Over time, these silicones can make hair dry and brittle. These heavy feeling silicones contain high molecular weight gums. You know the type—they’re the kind that have you wiping your palms on your jeans after applying a product in your horse’s tail. A product containing a high-quality silicone will feel lightweight and absorb quickly!
What about parabens? Are those prevalent in horse care products?
We aren’t seeing parabens anymore like we used to in products. Yes, they are still out there in older formulas that haven’t been revamped but I don't see a need for parabens. While there really isn't any sound medical proof that parabens are linked to causing harm, they just have no use in formulas anymore. Parabens were once used as preservatives in products, but they are outdated and do not belong in products with so much new technology today.
Much like the term “organic,” covered earlier, natural preservatives are not regulated and there is no definition by law of what constitutes a natural preservative. The pros of preservatives in products far outweighs the cons of harmful bacteria that can cause serious illness.
What about alcohol versus alcohol-free products? I know there’s a lot of debate over whether alcohol is good to have in horse care products.
Like other ingredients, not all are created equal. This rule of thumb applies to alcohol in hair and skincare due to one common ingredient often found in these products, called cetearyl alcohol. The good news is that cetearyl alcohol isn't bad for your skin or hair. This is a fatty alcohol that can be derived from plants or is lab-made as an emulsifier and prevents oils and liquids from separating in a formula. Cetearyl alcohol is a far cry from other alcohols in that it functions differently as a fatty alcohol compared to other alcohols, such as isopropyl alcohol, which acts as a drying agent.
While not all formulas require preservative systems, many do. Whether a product is natural-based or synthetic, most will require preservatives to extend the shelf life and prevent harmful bacteria from growing. Much like the term “organic,” covered earlier, natural preservatives are not regulated and there is no definition by law of what constitutes a natural preservative. The pros of preservatives in products far outweighs the cons of harmful bacteria that can cause serious illness. Synthetic preservatives can be used at lower levels for efficacy but natural preservatives can also do the job if formulated at the correct concentration. This is where another type of alcohol comes into play. Benzyl Alcohol is extracted from plants, acting as a natural preservative and can be found in skin care, hair care and essential oils.
Image courtesy of the Knotty Horse.
What are some other key ingredient buzzwords popping up in horse care that we should be on the lookout for?
As far as ingredients in products, these are a few most people choose to stay away from: GMOs or genetically modified organisms, as these can have unexpected health effects. Triclosan and Phthalates are other irritants and classified as carcinogens.
With the exception of some known carcinogens, when it comes to buzzwords and dissecting ingredients, you can Google almost any ingredient and find a negative connotation. First, consider the source in terms of whether it is a credible scientific source or a blogger’s opinion. When on the hunt to learn about what’s good vs. what’s bad, it becomes one of those questions you kind of have to ask yourself, “Where does it end?” It’s not feasible to purchase only 100% natural products, but educating yourself on ingredients that have important benefits and using naturally derived products as much as possible helps a customer to steer clear of unwanted, harsh ingredients. Don’t assume if it’s not all-natural, it’s bad or that all ingredients classified as natural are good. We know that sunscreen, as an example, isn’t natural but highly beneficial with frequent use and outweighs the serious risk of sunburn and potential skin cancer. When it comes to being ingredient conscious, it’s important to have a ‘checks and balances’ mindset.
You mentioned earlier that some products don’t list ingredients on them. How should we go about knowing what’s in the products we’re buying if they’re not listed on the bottle?
The pet care industry is not mandated to include ingredient listings on products. Scary, right? However, when available by the manufacturer, read the ingredient label. Some beneficial ingredient complexes are a proprietary blend that is protected by the brand so it is not easily replicated by other companies, but in short, main ingredients should be listed and not hidden from the consumer. The highest concentration of ingredients is required to be listed at the top, while lesser concentrated ingredients at lower percentages are listed further down on an ingredient label. Keep this in mind when noticing where the “healthy” ingredients, such as vitamins and botanicals, are listed on the ingredient label. If these ingredients are far down on the list, they are not formulated at active levels and will not do much at all in your product. Your money is better spent on a product that may be more costly but is concentrated with the good stuff. In order for nutritive ingredients to do their job, they need to be formulated at active levels and should be listed at least in the top five of the ingredient label.
Choosing products made with ingredients to help your horse looking and feeling their best is important not only for their health, but for yours if you are applying the product. My own rule of thumb is if I don’t know what ingredients I’m touching when thinking of purchasing a product, it’s not going on my pets!
If product shopping online, a lot of retailers these days are more insightful than ever and offering ingredient information in the product details or offer an ingredient section in the product description. If that information isn’t available and not on the back product label, don’t be afraid to ask the manufacturer for it. The more you ask, the more demand will be placed to offer ingredient information, holding brands accountable for what they're putting into products.
Image courtesy of the Knotty Horse.
So, what are the steps you recommend for consumers to be more conscious about the type of products they’re buying and how they can make informed decisions about products that are good for them to use on their horses?
Don’t fall simply for marketing gimmicks. As mentioned before, there are a lot of ingredients that are added at marketing trace levels. That means it's a small sprinkling into a formula so that an ingredient claim can be made, but it's not actually effective towards doing anything in the actual formula. The main takeaway is whether the product you are applying on yourself, your horse, or other pet has an active level of a nutritive ingredient or just the marketing trace level which is fairy dusting amount and will be listed in the lower half or bottom of the ingredient list.
Brands that have been around for a long time are catching on to how much smarter consumers are these days when it comes to ingredients because of available resources readily available at our fingertips. Some may add more botanicals or vitamins to formulas that have been around for a while, but at what level is yet to be determined. The reason why most brands use marketing trace levels is because it’s so costly to formulate with actives and the cost would translate to consumers when purchasing these products at a higher price point. But for me, I believe that when you formulate with actives, you know you're getting a quality product with ingredients that are proven. And knowing I’m making a healthier choice for my animal and for myself is worth paying a little bit more, especially if the results are visible.
What’s your advice to help make it a little less overwhelming for the average consumer to not get bogged down by the full ingredients list if they're not sure if it’s good or bad for their horse.
That's a great question and the answer is keep it simple when you’re shopping for products. If it's something you can't pronounce, it's probably not something you want at the top of an ingredient list. Focus on what’s on the top portion of the ingredient label. Keep in mind that not all ingredients intended for topical application are listed by their basic names but rather by the INCI name (International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredient), which you may not recognize. But generally speaking, a manufacturer wants for natural ingredients to be called out and will list the common ingredient name in parentheses next to the INCI classification so that it is recognizable to the consumer. While it takes a little more homework to get the answers in the equine market, knowing the right questions to ask is imperative and an ethical brand should provide the basics to its customer.
Nicole Papandrea with her two horses. Image courtesy of Nicole Papandrea.
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