The Truth About Cheap Shampoo

Photographed by Liberti Fernanda.
When it comes to hair, the internet is a fountain of knowledge. Something that's currently dividing opinion is hair washing — specifically, whether you're using the right shampoo.
It's a trend among TikTokers in particular. Lately, you might've noticed a handful of videos calling popular shampoos into question. The one thing those shampoos have in common? They're on the more affordable side.
At Refinery29 Australia, we’re here to help you navigate this overwhelming world of stuff. All of our picks are independently selected and curated by the editorial team, but we may earn commission or other compensation from the links on this page. 
Advertisement
Plenty of beauty enthusiasts list off 'bad' or 'cheap' shampoos without a reason, while others claim that many of these products are packed with 'chemicals' and 'harsh ingredients'. Videos captioned "Shampoos you should NEVER use" and "The Worst Shampoo Brands For Your Hair" are sure to catch your attention as you scroll through your FYP. But how much of this is true? And should you really ditch your affordable shampoo?

There is very little difference between high street shampoos and professional or designer brands.

Dr Hasan Benar

Is cheap shampoo bad for your hair and scalp?

The majority of TikTokers blasting affordable shampoo brands are wary of certain ingredients. The main ones with a bad rap include sulphates (which make your shampoo lather up to cleanse your hair), silicone (used to reduce frizz and add shine) and parabens (preservatives that stop products going off). These ingredients are often lumped together as 'bad chemicals' for the hair and scalp — but this isn't necessarily true.
"In general, sulphates and silicones are safe to use," explains Dr Hasan Benar, dermatologist at Dr Elif Clinic. Dr Benar is aware that sulphates in particular have earned a shady reputation over the years for being drying, causing scalp issues and stripping hair colour. Dr Zainab Laftah, consultant dermatologist, says it's true that some people might react to sulphates in haircare, for example if you have sensitive skin or eczema. But for the majority, they're fine to use. "Sulphates strip the dirt and impurities, and do a great job of getting the hair and scalp clean," adds Dr Benar. "If you get dandruff, sulphates can also help improve this as they will reduce the oil on the scalp, which can make dandruff worse."
Advertisement
The Ordinary recently set out to bust the myth that sulphates are bad with the launch of its Everything Is Chemicals campaign (yes, even water is a chemical) and its new Sulphate 4% Cleanser for Hair & Body, 12.80. The brand hits home that sulphates offer "superior cleansing ability" and when formulated properly at the right concentration, they don't bother the skin barrier.

Ultimately, it all comes down to your budget and what you're able to spend. Just because a hair product is on the cheaper side doesn't mean it's bad.

So what about silicone, often found in shampoo and conditioner? Dr Laftah says the ingredient, which creates something of a waterproof coating on hair, is used to minimise frizz and boost shine. It's what gives hair that silky-soft feel and glossy look — and no, it's not toxic to hair.
If TikTok is anything to go by, cheap hair products which contain silicone 'strip' hair of moisture and leave you with 'dry, damaged' lengths underneath. Some silicones might weigh down certain hair types (for example fine hair) but those with thick or dry hair which is prone to frizz can absolutely benefit from the ingredient. As silicones are waterproof, they lock in moisture rather than take it out.
The main reason why you might want to avoid shampoo or conditioner which contains silicone is if you are prone to oily hair or spots on the scalp, says Dr Laftah. If you're worried about silicone build-up, a shampoo containing sulphates will remove it easily. Dr Laftah also suggests looking for shampoos with beta hydroxy acids (like salicylic acid) which will help dissolve excess oil and silicone build-up.
Advertisement
As for parabens, current research shows that they are safe in cosmetics, and "there is no empirical evidence that parabens can adversely affect human health". That doesn't stop people claiming that they can play havoc with hormones, referring to them as 'endocrine disruptors'. Speaking to R29 previously, consultant dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto argued that this is mostly blown out of proportion. "Many synthetic and even natural chemicals have endocrine activity but there is no convincing evidence that ingredients found in our cosmetic products have the ability to cause hormone disruption and harm our health," said Dr Mahto.
The dermatologist added that it's important to take the concentration of ingredients into consideration. "Many substances found in our cosmetics that are shown to have endocrine activity are weak compared to the body's natural hormones," said Dr Mahto.

Is luxury shampoo better than cheap shampoo?

Not necessarily. Contrary to popular belief, Dr Benar says: "There is very little difference between high street shampoos and professional or designer brands." While he says that the more expensive brands will often add certain ingredients to make your hair and scalp feel nicer, he adds that generally, they "both do the same job". Likewise, Dr Laftah says any differences may depend on the concentration of ingredients and any additional ingredients that help to support the advertised benefit. "For example, some [more expensive] shampoos contain extra hydrating ingredients to help add moisture, shine and reduce frizz," she explains.
Advertisement
The truth is, if you compare the ingredients lists, even luxury hair brands use ingredients like silicones and sulphates. Ultimately, it all comes down to your budget and what you're able to spend. Just because a hair product is on the cheaper side doesn't mean it's bad.

When should you change your shampoo?

You don't have to ditch your shampoo if it's working for you, no matter how many TikTokers tell you to. "The need to change your shampoo regularly is also a myth," says Dr Laftah, "unless you are experiencing a reaction or itchy scalp." She adds: "If you have dry skin or eczema, then opt for a shampoo which contains amino acids and coconut oil to hydrate the scalp. If this is not effective or you can see some redness, then a medicated shampoo may be needed."
Dr Benar seconds this and recommends changing your shampoo if you have an itchy scalp or skin irritation. "Some people may have allergic reactions to certain products or ingredients," he says, "and if this happens, it's a good idea to try something different."
Want more? Get Refinery29 Australia’s best stories delivered to your inbox each week. Sign up here!

More from Hair