The Truth About Cheap Shampoo

Photographed by Liberti Fernanda.
When it comes to hair, the internet is a fountain of knowledge. Recently we discovered that oils aren't actually that great for natural lengths, while the jury is still out on the benefits of air-drying. Something else 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 and mostly available on the high street.
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 and British Skin Foundation spokesperson, 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."
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, £6.80. 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.
As for parabens, current research shows that they are safe in cosmetics, including haircare. 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, who mentioned that beauty products in the UK and EU are highly regulated to ensure our safety.

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.
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."

What is the best affordable shampoo?

If you're on the lookout for a brilliant shampoo that won't burn a hole in your pocket, try these, adored by beauty editors.

The best affordable shampoo for thick and damaged hair

Beauty editor and R29 contributor Tori Crowther recommends OGX Anti-Breakage+ Keratin Oil pH Balanced Shampoo, £6.99, for hair prone to damage. "It leaves my hair feeling really soft without any residue and much less frizzy," she told R29. "I've found myself relying less on heat to smooth out my hair so this has become my go-to shampoo before I do heatless curls overnight. It smells fresh and not sickly sweet like a lot of high street shampoos. Plus, the bottle lasts me a really long time."

The best affordable shampoo for curly and natural hair

When it comes to curls and natural hair, freelance beauty editor Ava Welsing-Kitcher rates Maui Moisture, which enlists nourishing ingredients like coconut oil, shea butter and coconut milk. Rhea Cartwright, The Stack World's head of brand partnerships, also suggests Creme of Nature for curly hair. "This has been my go-to affordable range for years," she says.

The best affordable shampoo for coloured hair

Freelance beauty writer and R29 contributor Ellen King, who switches up her colour often, says that Noughty is her favourite shampoo brand. "It's cruelty-free and there are loads of different formulations for curls, colour and more." Blondes will love Noughty Purple Reign Shampoo, £7.99, while Wave Hello Curl Defining Shampoo, £6.99, has five-star reviews all round.

The best affordable shampoo for a sensitive scalp

Freelance beauty journalist and R29 contributor Lucy Partington loves Garnier. "It's so affordable and so good, especially the oat range, which has been a saviour for my scalp." Ultimate Blends Delicate Oat Milk Shampoo For Sensitive Scalp, £2, is brimming with vitamin E and glycerin to soothe and moisturise dry skin, plus gently exfoliating salicylic acid to chip away at product, oil and flaky skin build-up.

The best shampoo for fine and oily hair

Tara Ledden, beauty editor at Fabulous magazine, likes R29 favourite ARKIVE. "I've had so many compliments on shine and the shampoos make my hair really soft and smell amazing. They lather well and last ages. I also like L'Oréal Elvive's Hydra Hyaluronic Acid Shampoo, £3.50," says Tara. (It's a favourite of Lucy's, too.) "It makes my greasy roots feel clean and gets rid of any dry shampoo," says Tara. "It stops my fine, flat hair getting static without weighing it down."
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