What is an Email Header? Uses, Best Practices, and Examples

What is email header cover

An email header is the area above the email body that contains critical information about the email, such as who the sender and recipient are, as well as the sending date. Email headers are also called X-headers and help you verify the authenticity of an email and track an email message’s origin, path, and other technical details. 

To grasp the email world fully, we need to understand even the most basic parts, such as the header. So, let’s explain the email header definition, its components, types of email headers, best practices in approaching them, and how to read them in different email clients. 

What is an Email Header?

Email headers contain the technical details of your email message — hidden snippets of code that show if the email message was authenticated. Email headers are usually not visible to the recipients unless they know how to read them.

You can see the following information on the email header:

  • Subject,
  • From Field,
  • To Field,
  • Date,
  • Time.
Gmail Email Header Example
Gmail Email Header Example

However, spammers can still manipulate the email headers and make it seem like the email came from a legitimate source. To find out the details, look for the complete header information, like the one below.

Email Header Snippet Code Example
Email Header Snippet Code Example

Email headers help you track the source of spam or phishing emails and understand the path the emails took to reach the destination. To effectively understand email headers, you should familiarize yourself with the different components of an email header.

Email Header Components

Aside from details like from and to addresses, email headers typically contain other fields, such as:

  • Subject: The title of the email,
  • Return-Path: Where should the email return if it fails,
  • Received: A message through the servers that email has successfully passed,
  • Authentication checks: Methods to check if the email came from the intended sender.

Each component plays an important role in the delivery of your email messages. Understanding the importance of email headers ensures proper email delivery and formatting.

Why Are Email Headers Important?

Email headers carry essential information for timely delivery, authentication, and security of your messages. Without it, your email messages will not reach the intended recipient, and your recipients will not know if they should trust the message

Here’s why email headers are important:

  1. Know the Sender and Recipient Details: With the increase in phishing and spoofing, it’s easy for anyone to pretend to be you. Email headers allow us to identify the sender and the recipient and implement safety measures.
  2. Trace Message Routing: Email headers contain critical information about the path from you to your recipients. It tracks the trail in case of delivery issues.
  3. Authentication and Security: Every recipient wants to know if the sender is genuine, and email headers are the place to look. They contain information about authentication protocols such as DKIM, DMARC, and SPF. These protocols verify the sender authenticity, prevent email spoofing, and protect against phishing attacks.
  4. Message Identification: Each email is assigned a specific Message-ID that helps track, organize, and archive email messages.

Email headers also contain spam test results that help email clients look for malicious emails before sending them to the recipients.

So, when exactly should you check email headers? — it depends on your circumstances. 

When To Check Email Headers?

You don’t always need to check the email header for every email. Let’s say you receive an email from an unknown source, and the situation requires you to take action. In this case, verifying the email header can prove beneficial. 

Here are other instances you should check email headers: 

  1. Security concerns: If you suspect an email message is malicious, checking its header will help you find out the sender details and email origin. This is important to identify phishing or scam attempts.
  2. Email delivery issues: When your emails are not delivered to the destination, examining the path will tell you about issues encountered along the way.
  3. Verify legitimacy: If you’re concerned about the authenticity of an email, looking at the email header can give insights into the protocols and security.
  4. Investigating spam: Understanding email headers can help you spot spam emails and separate them from the rest, manually if you need to.

A well-done email header acts as a safety net for your emails and sets the tone for your message. Knowing how to access email headers puts you in the front seat so you can take control of your email communication.

How to Access and View Email Headers in Different Email Clients

The email headers can look different for each email client. Here are general instructions for a few popular clients:

View Gmail Email Headers

  1. Login to your Gmail account,
  2. Click on the three vertical dots in the top right corner,
  3. Click on ”More”,
  4. Choose “show original.”
How to check email header in Gmail
How to check email header in Gmail

How to View Email Headers on Outlook?

  1. Open the email,
  2. Click on the three dots on the right,
  3. Click on ”View”,
  4. Choose ”View message source”.
How to check email header in Outlook
How to check email header in Outlook

View Apple Mail Email Header

  1. Open an email on iCloud.mail,
  2. Click on the reply icon and select ”Show all headers”.
iCloud Email Header
iCloud Email Header Example
iCloud Email Header Technical - Full Header Code
iCloud Email Header Technical – Full Header Code

Note that viewing an email header and reading it are two different things.

Let’s see you how to read email headers and the different metadata that accompany them.

How to Read Email Headers?

The email headers are blocks of code that could look confusing at first glance. However, 

you can use shortcuts to find specific information in them — use command + F in Mac and Control + F in Windows.  

How to read email header snippet code
How to read email header snippet code

What is Email Metadata and Its Types?

The field that shows the essential information is the metadata. Here are the common metadata you will find in an email header:

Meta Data Meaning
From Shows the email address of the sender. There are high chances of spoofing in this field.
ToSpecify primary recipient details. 
Subject A brief description of the email content.
Date Shows the date and time of the email
Received Records the email journey; names of the IP address the email passed through to get to the recipient’s inbox.
Return-Path Indicates the email address ​​to which the bounce notifications will be sent.
Reply-To Optional address where recipients can reply to.
DKIM Signature The DKIM sign ensures the email is safe from spoof. 
SPF SPF is an authentication protocol that checks if the email was sent from an authorized IP address.
DMARC DMARC prevents email spoofing by combining the results of DKIM and SPF.
Message – ID A unique identification for the email messages.
Authentication-Results Shows the results of all authentication checks: SPF, DMARC, and DKIM.
Spam score Various spam ratings are based on the anti-spam platform used.
Content-Type Specifies the content type: HTML and text.
Message Body The main content of the email.
Email Metadata Types

If you’re new to email marketing, locating and reading email headers can be daunting. You can always use an email header analyzer tool to help you authenticate your emails; here’s how.

How to Use an Email Header Analyzer 

An email header analyzer like MXToolbox is efficient and easy to use — paste the email header into the field and hit the analyze button. The software turns the code into human-readable data and shows if the message was authenticated. 

How to analyze email header in MXToolbox
How to analyze email header in MXToolbox

With that in mind, let’s jump into the best practices and how to keep your email headers consistent across your email campaigns.

Email Header Types

Email headers are generally categorized into technical email headers and design headers. 

The technical email header contains code, and the latter is the top visual element of your email. 

Design Email Header Best Practices

Design headers are optional, but they are a great way to attract your customers and create urgency. Your email header design must introduce your brand and email message in a way that resonates with your audience. 

Let’s talk about the best design tips and best practices for your design email headers:

  1. Maintain consistency with brand elements: Your email header template must contain your brand elements, such as logo, colors, and fonts. They don’t have to look monotonous, but including these elements will make your subscribers remember you.
  2. Use an image: Visual storytelling is a powerful tactic in email marketing — use clear and consistent images with the right color tones. Ensure they complement your brand kit to feel aesthetic.
  3. Add your brand mascots: If you have a mascot, use it in the header to create a personable feeling for your subscribers. 
  4. Use screenshots: You can also use product or customer review screenshots to make your email unique and informative. 
  5. Include a strong CTA: Your headers must contain simple and clear CTAs such as ‘Unsubscribe’ or ‘Update your preferences.’ 
  6. Use store locators: Store locators level up user- experience for your subscribers. The information is handy, and your subscribers will likely want to check the nearest location.
  7. Use Categories: 91% of customers report shopping with brands that offer recommendations. If you have too many products and categories, including them in email headers can increase the chances of purchases.
  8. Implement personalization: Personalization extends beyond audience segmentation. Speak to your readers in their language and include relevant information to increase conversions.
  9. Give Compliments: Email headers are a good space to compliment your customers. A simple ”Hey good looking” or ” We can’t stop thinking of you” makes it more endearing. Remember to tie your email header copy to your brand goals and email campaign type.
  10. Use good copywriting: Your email header gives away your brand story, and it helps to hook the reader. Use short and compelling words that address the reader’s pain point and move them through the sales funnel. 
  11. Animate your email header: Moving objects capture attention and retain them, and what better way than animating your email headers? Use a simple and easy-to-understand animation relevant to your brand. You can also use GIFs to make it more fun.
  12. Use Email Safe fonts: Not all email clients support all email fonts. Using regular fonts like Arial, Georgia, and Times New Roman will help deliver good-looking emails.
  13. Use white space: Don’t crowd your header with brand elements or images. The more breathing space, the better your headers look.

Which Brand Elements Should You Include in Your Email Headers?

Your email headers represent your brand and the story behind it. You can never miss these elements from your email headers, ever:

Brand Element  Purpose
Logo Instant brand recognition 
Company Name Reinforces brand identity 
Tagline or Slogan Encapsulates brand message 
Color scheme Builds a cohesive appearance 
Contact information Adds credibility and builds trust 
Social media icons Encourages engagement across different platforms
Brand elements in the email header 

Using these elements differs with your email type and purpose, and you don’t necessarily have to use them together. A good rule is to include your basic brand information along with a clear CTA to maintain consistency and draw attention.

And for better email campaign metrics, you can use the email header to encourage engagement and click-throughs.

The Impact of Email Headers on Email Marketing Campaigns

Open rate determines the success of your email marketing campaigns, and email headers are a gateway to increasing your open rates and other email metrics. They hold the power to interest your subscribers to engage and take action. 

What else can they do? They can shoot your email deliverability rates and keep you top of mind with your subscribers. When you optimize your email header, you show email providers that you follow email marketing best practices. 

Email headers can impact your campaigns in more ways than above:

  • Encourage the reader to click through,
  • Increase conversion rates,
  • Increase website views (if the CTA leads to it).

These best practices are the ones you should start with, but we know there’s more you can do. That’s why we have picked good and bad examples to show you how it’s done.

Visual Email Headers: Good Examples in Design and Messaging

Let’s see the good ones first and how they increase appeal in email marketing.


A good email header is concise, creative, and creates urgency. That’s why we like TurboTax’s visual email header, which draws attention with a compelling image and a helpful CTA.

TurboTax Email How to prepare for the tax season 
TurboTax Email How toe prepare for the tax season. Source

Grammarly Weekly Writing Update

Headers that are simple and to the point are more compelling than a generic header with a few elements thrown in. This example from Grammarly perfectly mirrors the KISS(keep it simple, stupid) principle. With a sneak peek into the user’s performance, the copy urges the reader to continue using the software. 

Grammarly Weekly Progress Update
Grammarly Weekly Progress Update. Source

American Express

While you might think visual headers are more pleasing, American Express takes exception. The header is simple and includes critical information about the account holder. This one-window view makes it easy for the reader to know the email content and its importance. 

Image of American Express email header
Image of American Express email header. Source

Seams of Change – Eathfolk

Not all your subscribers are visual beings— a few might want a brief explanation or interesting copy along with the design. Earthfolk does a great job at this; consolidates the importance of repairing nature into a single header.

Example of a good email header - earthfolk's save mother nature
Example of a good email header – earthfolk’s save mother nature. Source

Missed Opportunities in Design — Visual Email Header Examples

Each email header is built differently and has varied purposes. No matter how much you try to make it compelling, it can fail for many reasons, such as misplaced content, too many graphics, and unclear CTA. Below, we have compiled a few not-so-great email headers to help you differentiate the ‘better’ from the best.

Get Ready For Twitchcon Paris 

Email headers are an opportunity to show your brand personality and include important information. Sadly, this brand has missed the chance to create an engaging header. A generic header with a plain background and no CTA will bore the readers and not want them to take action.

Example of a simple email header 
Example of a simple email header, too simple. Source

Spotify Playlists 

While a clean design is nice, redundancy creates a boredom loop. In this example, the audio streaming giant missed a potential opportunity to say something memorable. Although it sounds personalized, a stronger copy with product benefits would have done the trick.

Image of Spotify Playlist email header design 
Image of Spotify Playlist email header design. Source

& Open – Thanks For Saying Hi

Who doesn’t love a cute graphic, right? But when your subscribers notice a doodle without words or CTA, it’s a wasted opportunity to convert them. Even though it’s a ‘Thank you’ email, adding a few words would make all the difference to your recipients.

Example of a graphic email header
Example of a graphic email header with little words. Source

Mod Shop Design 

This is a perfect example of a cluttered email header. With numerous texts and CTAs, it becomes difficult for a reader to focus on the main aspect — purchasing the product. 

Example of a cluttered email header 
Example of a cluttered email header design. Source

A feature that sets good and bad email headers apart is — loyalty information. There are many ways to build an email header, but the ones that encourage conversions are the most effective.

So, how do you build your email header that aligns with your email marketing campaigns?

Stay with us while we tell you how!

Create Effective Email Headers With Campaign Refinery 

While technical email headers help you stay safe, unique design headers allow you to build a lasting impact on your subscribers. When you’re starting or revamping your campaigns, look for accessible email templates that let you build engaging email headers.

At Campaign Refinery, you can create email headers that reflect and align with your marketing goals, alongside high deliverability and sender reputation. How? Our exclusive automatic email list cleaning feature phases out inactive email addresses to safeguard your emails. And our engagement feature rewards your subscribers as they open and interact with your emails. 

In short, you create your email campaigns with our easy-to-use templates, powerful analytics, and features, and we maintain them for you. With a sleek dashboard and intuitive interface, create powerful email headers that resonate with your subscribers and get you the best results on the market!  

Apply to become our client now!

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