What the best shampoo has
- Good cleaning power. The most important job for any shampoo is to clean dirt and oil from your hair and scalp. In general, clarifying shampoos do this job best, but they can also be harsher and more drying to hair than other shampoos.
- Gentle ingredients. A good shampoo should clean without drying out your hair or, worse yet, irritating your skin. Hair should come out soft and manageable, not tangled and straw-like. Gentleness is particularly important if your hair is on the dry side already. Experts say ingredients like shea butter and nut oils (such as almond oil) are beneficial ingredients for hydrating dry, frizzy or coarse hair.
- Pleasant smell. How you want your hair to smell is obviously a matter of personal taste. Checking out reviews can give you an idea how strong a shampoo smells and what type of aroma it has – citrusy, floral, medicinal, and so on. However, you can't always tell from these descriptions how a scent will affect you personally, so some trial and error might be needed to find a product with a scent you appreciate … or at least can tolerate. Some fragrances tend to leave a lingering scent that leaves hair smelling fresh or citrusy throughout the day.
- Reasonable price. When it comes to shampoo, the saying, "You get what you pay for," just doesn't hold true. Pricey salon-brand shampoos don't necessarily perform any better in tests than inexpensive store brands -- and in many cases, they contain exactly the same ingredients. So if a $3 shampoo gets the same enthusiastic ratings as a $30 shampoo, there's no reason not to choose it.
Know before you go
What's your hair type? Different types of hair call for different types of shampoo. For fine, limp, or oily hair, you should opt for a clear shampoo that can scour the excess oil from your scalp without weighing down your tresses. By contrast, dry hair – which includes almost all curly hair – needs a product that cleans gently without stripping away all of the hair's natural oils. Look for a thicker, creamy moisturizing shampoo with ingredients such as shea butter, plant oils, or silicone to coat the hair shaft and keep moisture in.
How often do you shampoo? Some shampoos -- particularly those labeled as deep-cleaning or clarifying shampoos -- are too harsh to use daily and are instead designed for once- or twice-weekly use. That doesn't mean you can't use them as needed to clean away oil and the residue of styling products; you should just plan to alternate them with a different shampoo that has a gentler formula. If your hair is curly, dry, or damaged, you might want to consider going longer between washings, as even a moisturizing shampoo can dry out the hair somewhat.
Is your hair color-treated? Sulfates and other ingredients found in many shampoos (particularly clarifying shampoos) can strip hair of color. Look for a shampoo specifically designed for color-treated hair, many of which use sulfate-free formulations or gentler cleansers that won't strip color molecules from color-treated hair.
How delicate is your skin? If your skin is especially sensitive, you'll need to steer clear of harsh ingredients that can cause irritation. According to the "Skin Deep" cosmetics guide from the Environmental Working Group, common irritants in shampoos include methylisothiazolinone, methylchloroisothiazolinone, and benzisothiazolinone. Fragrances can also cause problems for some people, so if you're having trouble finding a shampoo that doesn't bother your skin, a fragrance-free product could be your best bet.
Buying tactics and strategies
When you're choosing a shampoo, experts warn against being taken in by misleading product claims. For example, there is no such thing as a shampoo that can repair, restructure or nourish damaged hair. Hair isn't alive the way skin is; once it's left the follicle, any damage done to it is permanent, and the only way to undo it is with a pair of scissors. Shampoos can improve the look and feel of damaged hair, but only temporarily.
Other claims on a product label, such as "moisturizing" or "volume-boosting," may be accurate, but they're not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, so you get no guarantees. And one piece of advice on the label that you should definitely ignore is "Lather, rinse, repeat." Unless you use an unusually large amount of styling products, experts say it's only necessary to lather your hair once, using about a quarter-sized dollop of shampoo (or dime-sized for short hair) and slowly massaging it into the roots.