Most shampoos are effective cleansers
Contrary to popular belief, no shampoo can permanently alter the natural state of your hair. The most a product can do, experts say, is temporarily improve its appearance and manageability. Pretty much all shampoos on the market today contain the same basic ingredients: water, cleansing and lathering agents, and a few preservatives. The main difference between brands is in the additional ingredients they include to treat specific types of hair. In general, shampoos fall into four basic categories:
- Moisturizing shampoos, also called conditioning shampoos, are the most common type. Ideal for users with naturally dry or frizzy hair, these products contain conditioning agents such as silicone, panthenol, and natural oils. These compounds smooth and nourish the hair shaft, resulting in a softer, sleeker appearance. Conditioning shampoos are also excellent for hair that's been damaged by heat styling or color treatments.
- Deep-cleansing shampoos, also known as clarifying shampoos, contain extra detergents to rid the hair and scalp of buildup. These shampoos are ideal for individuals who use a lot of styling products, such as gels and hairsprays, on their hair. Over time, such products can coat the scalp and hair shaft, leaving a residue that can reduce manageability. The high levels of cleansing agents in clarifying shampoos clear away that residue, but they can also strip away the hair's natural oils. Experts recommend following up with a good conditioner after using a deep-cleansing shampoo to replenish any moisture that was washed away.
- Dandruff shampoos contain antifungal ingredients to reduce the fungi that cause dandruff. They are considered over-the-counter drugs and are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Many dandruff shampoos are harsh on hair and should be rotated with a regular shampoo to keep hair from becoming too dry.
- Baby shampoos contain mild, low-foaming detergents that won't sting babies' eyes or irritate their sensitive skin. The downside is that these gentle shampoos aren't as effective as other types at cleaning dirt, oil, and product buildup from adults' hair. However, if you don't use a lot of styling products, a baby shampoo may be all you need for basic cleaning.
While traditional shampoos are used in the shower with water, dry shampoos are becoming an increasingly popular alternative. These powder or spray products, which are applied to the roots of hair, contain ingredients like cornstarch that absorb oil, making hair appear cleaner in between washings. Most dry shampoos also contain fragrance to give hair a fresh, clean scent. Experts say these products are good for adding volume to fine, limp hair. They can also extend the length of time between wet shampoos, which makes them handy for travel. However, they don't clean well enough to completely replace your standard shampoo.
According to our sources, a shampoo's effectiveness has little, if anything, to do with its price. Because there are only a few effective ingredients used for cleaning hair, there isn't that much variation from one shampoo to the next. We found at least as many recommendations for drugstore shampoos costing less than $10 a bottle as we did for the pricey salon brands with their fancy packaging and celebrity endorsements, which can cost $20 or more. The one exception is dandruff shampoos: here, pricier products with stronger ingredients can handle tougher cases than inexpensive brands.
The most reliable way to evaluate shampoos is a blind comparison test, in which the users don't see the product's label and can't be influenced by the brand name. However, we found only one test of this type: Good Housekeeping's evaluation of dry shampoos from 2014. To pick the best shampoos in other categories, we looked at recommendations from style pros at beauty magazines like InStyle and websites like Paula's Choice, as well as reviews from thousands of users on sites like Amazon.com and Makeup Alley. Based on these reviews, we've identified the shampoos that do the best job of getting hair clean, soft, shiny, and manageable, without irritating the skin.
The best shampoos leave hair clean, soft, and shiny
Most shampoos that aren't otherwise labeled are moisturizing shampoos, which contain extra ingredients to soften and condition the hair. Some products promise to do this with exotic botanical ingredients, like argan oil or shea butter; others use scientific-sounding compounds like "conditioning polymers" and "lipid agents." In the final analysis, though, what matters most is not what's in the shampoo but how well it does what it's supposed to do: get hair clean, shiny, and soft.
For this job, beauty experts are most likely to recommend Alba Botanica Natural Hawaiian Shampoo Body Builder Mango (Est. $16 for two 12 oz. bottles). Paula Begoun, owner of Paula's Choice web site and the author of 20 best-selling books on beauty and personal care, says it's a great choice for thick hair, which tends to be dry. By contrast, Julyne Derrick, the beauty expert at About.com, recommends it for adding body and volume to fine hair.
Users at Amazon.com and Makeup Alley rave about this shampoo's fruity, tropical scent. They also say it really does add volume and leaves hair soft, shiny, and manageable. Some users on Makeup Alley say this shampoo cleans so well, they can even go an extra day between washes. However, some reviewers find the Alba Botanica shampoo too harsh, saying it leaves their hair very dry (although a good conditioner helps). Others are disturbed by the fact that this natural shampoo doesn't produce as much lather as they're used to.
Alba Botanica bills itself as a "natural" company, and this shampoo's label boasts that it contains "mango, papaya, and other tropical extracts" -- several of which are certified organic. It's also guaranteed to be free of parabens and phthalates, two specific types of ingredients widely considered harmful, and it's not tested on animals, a process many consumers object to. On the downside, it does contain retinyl palmitate. Some -- but not all -- experts -- have raised concerns that retinyl palmitate can become carcinogenic when exposed to sunlight, though that's likely to be more of a concern in sunscreens (and many popular sunscreens contain retinyl palmitate for its anti-oxidant properties) than in a shampoo. It also contains synthetic fragrance, which can be irritating to some users.
If you're concerned about retinyl palmitate, Aussie Moist Shampoo (Est. $12 for six 13.5 oz. bottles) is a good alternative. It skips that ingredient and earns fairly strong reviews from experts and users. Real Simple magazine recommends it as the best all-around shampoo under $10, saying it was "the source of many good hair days for testers." This inexpensive shampoo earns fairly high ratings at Amazon.com and Makeup Alley, where most users say it left their hair soft, manageable, and oil-free. Most reviewers also enjoy Aussie's scent, but some found it unpleasant or too strong for their taste. We also saw some complaints that it's too drying and has a tendency to "strip" the dye from color-treated hair, and Aussie generated more complaints about scalp irritation than Alba Botanica.
Another product that gets good overall ratings – particularly from curly-haired users – is DevaCurl No-Poo (Est. $15 for 12 oz.). Derrick says this "super-moisturizing" shampoo works wonders for her curly-haired friends, and most users at Amazon.com and Makeup Alley agree. Reviewers typically say their curls come out clean, soft, and shiny, but many of them feel this shampoo doesn't really moisturize well enough to be worth the price. Also, not all users are fans of this shampoo's scent, which they describe variously as resembling mint, citrus, eucalyptus, and cold cream.