What’s the real difference between cheap and expensive salon shampoo?

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Do you buy your shampoo from a hair salon, a chemist, or just grab the cheapest one in the supermarket aisle? Does it really make any difference to your hair?

Yes, according to all four hair product experts ABC Life spoke to. But whether you care about it depends on your hair type, and how you like it to feel.

Search online for info on shampoo and you’ll come across a hell of a lot of marketing. Brands make all sorts of claims about what their products can do for your head, and needless to say, hair care is big business.

“I think the turnover for something like Pantene is about $8 billion a year,” says Rodney Sinclair, professor of dermatology at the University of Melbourne.

“The research and development that goes into that … is absolutely enormous.”

While much of the research and development from big brands does go into the product that ends up on your head, they also put a lot of research into their packaging and imagery.

To help you navigate the marketing, we asked some people who know a bit about hair and how to look after it for tips on how to choose the best shampoo for you.

What actually is shampoo and why do we use it? 

A black and white photo of a woman in 1922 leaning over a sink to wash her hair.
IMAGEFilm star Mary Pickford, shown washing her hair in 1922 with the caption reading “she takes an ordinary shampoo just like the rest of us”. Liquid shampoos were still a few years away, so Mary would have used powder or a solid bar.(Wikimedia Commons: Photoplay Publishing Company)

A very brief history of shampoo 

While humans have been using various substances to clean ourselves and make us smell nice for thousands of years, it wasn’t until the 1900s that what we now think of as shampoo was first brought to market.

It was a German man called Hans Schwarzkopf who first began to sell shampoo in a liquid form in 1927. His earlier attempts with a powdered cleaner hadn’t been as successful.

The word shampoo evolved from the Indian word “champu” — a type of head and body massage using a fragrant oil.

The main function of shampoo is that of a detergent designed to remove oil from your scalp and hair.

The oil in your hair is called sebum, produced by the sebaceous glands all over your body, but it’s mostly noticed on the hair. It oozes out over the hair fibres to help the hair be smoother, stronger and makes it sit better on the body.

Sebum is a fatty oil, so stuff in the air sticks to it quite well — this is why your hair takes on the smell of a campfire more than the rest of your body — and this is why unwashed hair can smell a bit funky.

Laura Waters, professor of pharmaceutical analysis at the University of Huddersfield in the UK, says most shampoos clean away the oil with chemicals known as surfactants, such as sodium dodecyl sulfate (SDS), also known as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS).

“It’s the same way that soap or washing-up liquid works, simply stripping the hair of unwanted oils and dirt,” Dr Waters says.

“Other ingredients are there to add colour to the shampoo, provide fragrance, keep the ingredients stable to increase shelf life, help the ingredients stay uniformly mixed and maintain a suitable pH.”Your rights at the hair salonDon’t be foiled: Get to know your consumer rights to prevent (or deal with) a hair-raising bill at the salon.Read more

So if all you want to do is remove the oil and dirt, you could theoretically use your dishwashing liquid. But removing all the oil leaves hair feeling pretty bad to most people — dry, squeaky and static-y.

“More expensive shampoos tend to also include extra ingredients, mainly conditioners, [to] leave the hair in better condition,” Dr Waters says. 

It’s these conditioning agents and added extras that tend to make the difference between a cheap shampoo and a more exxy one.

Shampoos can often be medicated as well, with fungicides or anti-yeast agents for example, says Dr Sinclair, to help tackle problems such as itching and flaky skin.

‘Your hair is not Lazarus’ — how to avoid the scampoos

Close up of the face of a highland cow with his eyes covered in hair
IMAGESome people prefer to leave their locks au naturale, letting the natural oils condition the hair without adding and removing stuff through shampoos.(Unsplash: Livin4Wheel)

Craig Jones founded a skin and hair care company based on the Gold Coast after seeing the trouble his mother and wife went through with skin and itchy scalp problems.

He says it’s important to remember that your hair strands are dead. 

“Your hair is dead, it’s just like finger nails, it’s dead cells essentially,” he says. 

“So all those advertisements about bringing your hair back to life — your hair is not Lazarus, it’s not coming back to life.”

How often should you wash your hair? 

There is no one answer to how frequently you should clean your hair. All four experts say it all depends on you.

A lot of variables come into the decision, such as: whether you straighten or dye your hair, how much of it you have, whether you get sweaty and dirty throughout the day and what type of skin you have on your head.

If you’re washing your hair fairly frequently, don’t worry about the wash, rinse and repeat instructions on the back of the bottle. If you wash it rarely or have a build up of ickies, then you might need to give it more of a scrub.

If you have no problems with your scalp and your hair is doing what you want it to do, then just keep doing whatever it is you’re doing.

If your head is itchy, flaky and your hair is not behaving like you want it to, you probably need to make changes.

It’s best to speak with a dermatologist if you have persistent skin problems. It may also be worth asking your hairdresser for tips to better manage your locks.

No products can “heal” damaged hair — all they can do is coat the hair strand to change the appearance or how manageable it is.

Many brands do this with silicone, which makes the hair feel smooth and shiny, but some people find this builds up over time and makes their hair heavy. Some prefer to avoid it for environmental concerns.

Mr Jones says it’s a good idea to read the back of the bottle of shampoo or conditioner to work out just what’s in it. For example, ingredients ending is “cone” are types of silicone. 

It takes some knowledge to work out what things such as Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, Cocamide MEA or TEA-Dodecylbenzenesulfonate even are, let alone what they do. This can make people want to give up shampoo altogether.

The “no poo method”, as it’s known, is where people stop using commercial shampoos and instead wash their hair with things like bicarb and vinegar.

Jane Davies, a consultant trichologist in Perth, WA, says she’s “not a fan” of the no poo method at all, as she worries about the scalp not being cleaned properly.

But she says as long as what you do works for you and you don’t have any skin problems, it doesn’t really matter.

“As long as it’s cleaning the hair correctly and you’re happy … then all good,” she says.

Salon vs supermarket shampoo

Six shelves of shampoo and conditioners in a chemist shop
IMAGEThe choices of shampoos and conditioners feels endless, but they all do the same thing with slight variations.(ABC Life: Carol Rääbus)

Ms Davies says while everyone’s hair is made of exactly the same stuff, the way it behaves varies from person to person. This is why there are so many options when it comes to what we stick on our noggins.

“It’s more related to how you want your hair to appear and how you want it to behave.”

Dr Sinclair says one of the problems with trying to pick the right shampoo is that most of us don’t really know what type of hair we have.Is DIY hair dye risky?Dyeing your hair can be fun, but there are risks with pouring chemicals on your head that you should know before you dive right in.Read more

We might pick a shampoo for oily hair, and then find our hair is stripped of too much oil, leaving it hard to manage and feeling a bit brittle. We’re then likely to blame the brand for making a bad shampoo.

“You can’t rely on the consumer to choose the right shampoo,” he says.

“If they’re selling it through the salon they can be a little bit fancier because they can rely on the hairdressers.”

Dr Sinclair says brands tend to sell more specialised products through salons, where a hairdresser can recommend the right product for the customer. The stuff they sell in the supermarkets tends to be more generic.

“They dumb it down a bit if they can’t rely on the hairdresser’s expertise,” he says.

Solid shampoo bars are growing in popularity, with some customers looking to them as an option to reduce plastic packaging. Solid bars are often made of very similar ingredients to liquids, but some people find them more drying.

Again, read the ingredients to see if a solid shampoo will work for you, and don’t forget to use a conditioning agent after if your hair needs it.

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The cheapest shampoos are mostly just detergents that remove the oil from your hair.

More expensive brands typically add other ingredients that makes your hair feel nicer and easier to manage after it’s washed. Using a conditioner after shampooing for those with drier hair is a real help.

Finding the right shampoo for you depends on your hair type and what you want it to do — the most personalised products are sold through salons where a hairdresser can help you choose. 

How much you spend, how often you wash and even if you wash your hair is all up to you and what you want.

This article contains general information only. It should not be relied on as advice in relation to your particular circumstances and issues, for which you should obtain specific, independent professional advice.