Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Maybe I'm alone here, but the shampoo and conditioner aisle is one of the most stressful stops in the drug store. Row after endless row of colorful bottles representing 20 or so brands overwhelms me with choices; trying to make a rational decision about which type of “volumizing” shampoo I want to purchase leaves me full of self-doubt. Whatever choice I make always seems arbitrary. What bottle looks nice? Which smells the least terrible? What’s on sale? And, no matter my choice, no given brand ever seemed to change my hair’s texture or volume very much.
Years of this stress led me to a single conclusion: All shampoo and conditioner marketing is a sham. Besides scent and color, there is no difference in the bottled viscous liquids, I eventually told myself. Soap is soap and conditioner is conditioner. Any other promises or so-called specializations must be false claims fueled by every girl’s dream of silky, bouncy, shining locks, reinforced by shampoo and conditioner advertising itself.
Doubtful about any single product’s magical capabilities, I talked to some cosmetic chemists to find out the truth about the shampoo aisle. And, it turns out that I was both right and wrong.
Most shampoos are very similar at their core since all have the same base component known as a surfactant. The surfactant is what contributes to the products’s foaming soapy action and that which strips dirt and oils from your hair and scalp. One end of the surfactant molecule is attracted to water, while the other is attracted to oil. When you rub shampoo on your head, the oil-loving end grabs onto oils from your hair. When you stick your head back under the showerhead, the water-loving end catches a ride down the drain, carrying your head oils with it.
Surfactants are the main ingredient in all shampoos, listed first on the bottle after water. Making matters more complicated,there are 75-100 different types of surfactants which vary in small ways, such as how much they lather, how they feel (the texture), and how much they cost to manufacture.
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
So how do shampoo makers pick one over the other? It comes down to the price and the market. Some of the most common surfactants found in drugstore shampoos are synthetic because they are cheaper to manufacture and easier to thicken. A soap maker targeting the “natural” market will lean toward non-synthetic ingredients that do less environmental damage, while one targeting babies (and their parents) will want to go with a surfactant system that doesn’t hurt when it gets into your eyes.
The differences in shampoos that make them “conditioning” or “volumizing,” “smoothing” or “strengthening,” “cleaning,” “damage-repairing,” “curl-protecting” or “color-maintaining” lie in the rest of the ingredients. And, if you pool them all together (leaving out anti-dandruff and sulfate-free shampoos), there are really only two kinds.
The first type is shampoo for thin hair, in formulas claiming to be volumizing, clarifying, balancing, oil controling, or thickening. These shampoos are designed to strip dirt and oil from the hair while leaving nothing else behind that could bind to the hair and weigh it down. Some also contain a light polymer (such as panthenol) that coats the hair to make it a bit wider — giving it more literal volume — without weighing it down. This resulting thin film has the added benefit of reflecting light better than hair alone, giving it more shine. The second type is shampoo for thick hair, also known as moisturizing, smoothing, anti-frizz, strengthening, color care, straightening, or hydrating. Along with the standard surfactant system, these shampoos also contain a moisturizer, like vitamins E or A, oils, or silicone that stay behind and coat the hair after the suds are washed away. The coating flattens the hair cuticles, which are the shingle-like dead cells that form the hair’s protective outer layer. Flattened and smoothed, hair looks shinier and is less prone to frizz.
That’s why this kind of shampoo is recommended for hair that is already dried out or damaged from hair dye or heat styling.
Similarly, there are two main kinds of conditioners for thin and thick hair respectively. Both types contain conditioning agents, which act similarly to the moisturizers in shampoo: smoothing down the cuticles for more shine and less frizz. All hair strands carry a slight negative charge, and damaged hair—think split ends — carries an even stronger negative charge. To boost the amount of conditioner that sticks to the strands (and especially the damaged areas), cosmetic chemists have developed positively-charged conditioning agents. Like magnets, the positively-charged conditioners will be attracted to the negatively-charged damaged spots that need it most.
Additionally, most conditioners contain other oils or silicones. Because they are heavy and can weigh down hair, conditioners for thin hair will include few or none of these. Conditioners for thicker or curly hair, on the other hand, will often contain heavier or waxier oils to provide moisture, add more shine, and slick down those cuticles.
Beyond those two main types of shampoos and conditioners, there really aren’t many differences, and most ingredients are the same or similar enough within a given type. “You know what type of hair you have, and you want to choose one that works for your strands,” said Marie Ardita, principal scientist at TurnKey Beauty. “But within the general categories, there is nothing out there that is so different that your hair will greatly benefit from it.”
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Then why are some shampoos and conditioners so much more expensive than others? A major difference is not in the type of ingredient, but how much of it is in the bottle. The higher-end brands can charge more for a single bottle, so they can afford to include four percent of a fancy protective oil instead of one percent, for example. Or, the bottle might have a wider variety of active ingredients of the same general type, such as several kinds of silicones.
Sometimes, however, the high price tag of one bottle is simply a matter of effective marketing. “A lot of the things that we're doing in the market, that we're forced to do as chemists, is based on bad information that has gotten out to the public and they have believed it, so they demand products that have different ingredients,” said Ardita.
One example of this is the current sulfate-free shampoo fad, Ardita notes. Many of the common soapy surfactants in drugstore shampoo are sulfates (such as sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, and ammonium laureth sulphate), which are excellent cleansers and quite foamy. The downside is that they can dry out your hair and skin. While this is a real problem for some people, the “sulfate-free” stamp has taken on a life of its own. Rumors have spread that sulfates are bad for color-treated hair, while others take the “sulfate-free” stamp to indicate a more natural or better product. This isn’t true, maintains Ardita. But, because there are so many people clamoring for sulfate-free shampoos, they're being produced and marketed at a high volume — often with a higher price tag — regardless of their effectiveness.
And, that’s exactly the kind of nonsense I suspected was happening in the drugstore aisle: marketing to make sales, deceiving unaware shoppers everywhere.
On the plus side, now I understand why there are hundreds of types of the same shampoo. If they all are slightly different, swapping out a single oil for another, adding in two different types of silicone instead of one, trying a new conditioning agent — how else could anyone tell them apart? “Now containing 2% panthenol” is no more clarifying to a shopper than one which reads “healthy volume” or “volumizing.”
The names hardly carry any weight. They’re just there to indicate the variety we have to choose from. The only way to know which works best for you is to find one that smells nice within your hair category (thick or thin), and see how you like it. Rinse and repeat.