Bored kids read cereal boxes. Smart women read shampoo bottles.
While products like hair color and styling gels command greater
attention, choosing the wrong shampoo can have a serious impact
on how your hair looks. You’ll never achieve the result
you want if you buy the wrong shampoo—or use the right one
It all starts with shampooing frequency. And with a penchant
for cleanliness, Americans tend to overwash their hair.
"The hair and scalp should be cleaned, on average, every
other day," says Dr. Andrea Lynn Cambio, a board-certified
dermatologist in New York City.
But women with exceptionally dry hair, such as African-Americans,
need to reduce shampoo frequency. Conversely, if you have incredibly
oily hair, daily shampooing may be required to cut the grease.
"The consequence of overdoing it is stripping the hair of
sebum [oil]," Dr. Cambio tells Stellure.com. "This causes
the hair to look dull, feel coarse, be prone to static electricity
and be a styling nuisance."
Shampoo & Your ’do
By definition, shampoo is designed to remove dirt and excess
sebum from the scalp and hair. Sebum is necessary for hair health.
It is secreted by sebaceous glands, found in skin all over our
bodies, including the scalp. These glands provide healthy lubrication
to our skin and hair. Scientists estimate that the average woman
produces approximately 1 ounce of sebum every 100 days, so it’s
a substance worth protecting!
If you have oily hair, your sebaceous glands secrete too much
sebum, and you’ll want to select a shampoo designed to control
it. If you have dry hair, your glands secrete too little sebum,
and you’ll want to choose a shampoo that provides extra
moisture. If you have “normal” hair, sebum production
is how Goldilocks described her final bowl of porridge: “Just
While Goldilocks may have been a porridge expert, it’s hard
to say whether she knew how to choose the right shampoo for her
specific hair type. Gentle shampoos, like baby shampoo, remove
the bare minimum. Harsher shampoos, like dandruff shampoos and
those made for oily hair, are manufactured to cleanse more thoroughly
and remove more sebum. Problems typically occur when, for example,
a woman with oily hair accidentally buys a shampoo intended for
dry hair. She may not discover why her scalp has become an oil
slick until she checks the shampoo bottle.
As with food products, ingredients in shampoos are listed by
the amounts contained in the bottle, in descending order of weight.
The higher up on the list, the more of the ingredient in the shampoo.
Normally, the first ingredient in shampoo is water. If it, alone,
could cleanse the hair, we wouldn’t need shampoo. Water,
however, cannot remove oil, sebum or product buildup, so manufacturers
must add detergent agents known as “surfactants.”
Surfactants cleanse the hair and create lather. Manufacturers
can choose from inexpensive or pricey surfactants, and these generally
determine the quality of your shampoo. Cheap surfactants, such
as sodium lauryl sulfate and ammonium lauryl sulfate, are popular
among manufacturers because they keep down costs. You’ll
find these particular surfactants in generic, supermarket, drugstore
and certain mass-market brands. (They’re also the chemicals
most commonly associated with eye irritation.) The problem, however,
is that these surfactants are harsh on hair, stripping it of oil
and causing hair color to fade more quickly.
The more expensive “designer” or salon brands contain
more expensive surfactants, such as sodium cocoyl isethionate
and methyl cocoyl taurate (sometimes labeled simply as “coconut
oil” or “fatty acids”), cocamidopropyl betaine
and cocamidopropylamine oxide. Yes, they’re certainly a
mouthful, but they are nondrying, much more gentle on the hair
and tend to work well regardless of whether you have hard or soft
water. They’re also more expensive for manufacturers to
use, so that’s why you’ll pay more for a bottle of
shampoo. (Many manufacturers compromise, mixing low-cost sodium
lauryl sulfate with a coconut-oil surfactant. This can work well.)
Some shampoos contain detanglers and anti-static agents, which
function exactly as their names imply. A common agent to look
for is “quaternary ammonium.”
“Humectants” behave like tiny sponges, attracting
and holding water. You’ll find them in shampoos for dry,
damaged or color-treated hair. Commonly used humectants include
glycerin, sorbitol, sodium lactate and hyaluronic acid.
“Conditioning agents” help soften hair and allow
it to retain moisture. Look for amino acids, collagen, panthenol,
elastin and proteins on ingredient lists.
“Thickening” or “volumizing” shampoos
increase bulk and improve manageability. They contain ingredients
like hydroxyethyl cellulose, gum arabic, guar, xanthan and chitin.
One of the newest products on the market is Aveda’s Pure
Abundance Volumizing Shampoo, which contains coco/babassu sulfate—a
substance derived from organic coconut and babassu oils. Shane
Wolf, Aveda’s executive director of global hair care marketing,
recommends it for the “one-third of American women who describe
their hair as naturally fine or limp."
“Preservatives,” such as methylparaben, quaternium-15,
methylisothiazolinone and propylparaben, help prevent shampoo
from becoming contaminated by mold or bacteria. “All-natural”
shampoos that contain no preservatives have a tendency to “spoil”
if not used within their designated shelf life.
Never buy a shampoo based on its fragrance, which is no reflection
of a shampoo’s quality. It’s only one more ingredient
manufacturers use to convince you to buy their products. (Who
doesn’t open the cap and sniff before buying a shampoo?)
What’s Best for You?
Since each of us has individual needs, experiment with different
shampoos to determine which ones make your hair most manageable.
Many women fail to take their hairstylists’ recommendations
on shampoo, assuming the stylist is “ripping them off”
or “trying to sell them something” so the salon can
make more money. In reality, stylists know that salon-quality
shampoos are generally superior to their drugstore counterparts.
If you trust your stylist, it’s worth taking her advice.
The worst-case scenario: You won’t like the product, and
you can express your disappoint to her.
If budget is a problem and you simply cannot bear the thought
of spending $10 to $15 for a single bottle of shampoo, dilute
the $3 brand you’re currently buying (one part water to
two parts shampoo). This will reduce the harshness.
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