Ask LH: Does It Matter What Kind Of Shampoo And Conditioner I Buy?

Ask LH: Does It Matter What Kind Of Shampoo And Conditioner I Buy?

Dear Lifehacker, I buy a cheap shampoo and conditioner combo, and it seems to work just fine, but I see higher-priced options all the time. Why do they cost so much? Are they better? Should shampoo and conditioner stay separated? What’s the best option to buy? Please help! Sincerely, Hairbrained

Dear Hairbrained,

We spoke to a few hair care professionals to find out the answer. And, yes, it does matter which shampoo and conditioner you buy. But that doesn’t mean you can’t purchase a cheap option and still get a good product. Looking for shampoos and conditioners that avoid harsh chemicals will make most people happy, but there is something to be gained from premium brands. You’ll have to decide whether or not that extra benefit is worth the cost for you.

What You Should Avoid in Shampoos and Conditioners


Although it shouldn’t come as a surprise, harsh cleaning agents can damage your hair. The following chemicals are believed to be harsh and potentially damaging, but no definitive evidence has surfaced to prove it:

  • Sodium Lauryl Sulphate
  • TEA Lauryl Sulphate
  • Ammonium Lauryl Sulphate
  • Ammonium Laureth Sulphate
  • Ammonium Xylene Sulphonate

If you’re purchasing dandruff-eliminating shampoos, you’ll also want to consider avoiding selenium sulphide and sulphur. Either way, you should notice a trend: types of ammonium and and sulphur show up a lot in the “bad stuff” list. Sodium Laureth Sulphate sounds just as bad, however, but is a supposed to be a gentler alternative to the chemicals in the list above. Some argue you should avoid it as well, but, again, there is no definitive evidence. If you want to be extra careful, however, you should steer clear of these chemicals.

What You Should Look for in Shampoos and Conditioners


You know what to avoid in shampoos and conditioners, but what do you actually want to look for? Whatever you want, really. No shampoo or conditioner will work any miracles, so pick one that you enjoy using. If that means an inexpensive option, that’s OK. It’s really more important that you take good care of your hair in other ways. Don’t wash it in exceptionally hot water, and if you have to use a hairdryer, you should also use the cold setting.

As we’ll discuss in the next section, the application of your shampoo and conditioner can help yield better results more so than the type you’re using. If you’re looking for a place to put your money, put it towards styling product (if you use any). While certain brands may or may not be more effective than others, their advertised purpose actually tells you something about what they do and certain products will work better for you than others. That will require a bit of trial and error.

When You Should Avoid Shampoo/Conditioner Combos


Using a shampoo and conditioner combo isn’t bad for your hair, but you negate some of the benefits of each when they’re combined. Shampoo washes your hair and conditioner attempts to make it softer. Shampoo tends to lighten your hair whereas conditioner can weigh it down (by adding moisture and essential oils). You want to apply shampoo more aggressively to your scalp, because that’s primarily what you’re trying to clean, but conditioner is more effective when you focus on the ends of your hairs. (In fact, putting the bulk of conditioner in the centre of your head and on your scalp can make it kind of gross when you have longer hair.) Because the two types of hair products are pretty different, you lose the ability to use them to their greatest benefit when they’re combined. Basically, there’s nothing wrong with shampoo and conditioner combos, but they’re more effective when applied separately and effectively. The impact is far greater on long hair than short. If you have short hair, you likely won’t notice much of a difference.

The Benefits of Paying More


Most shampoos and conditioners will do the job they were intended to do: clean your hair and help keep it soft. The benefit of paying more is pretty minor in that pricier products generally include higher-quality ingredients. Pricier brands also tend to include essential oils, plant or fruit extracts, and botanicals (where cheaper brands do not).

The hair care professionals we spoke to don’t believe that these ingredients may only play a small role in the health of you hair. Instead, you’ll likely find more personal benefit in the texture and scent they provide. For example, a shampoo might use mint, which smells nice and can help perk you up a little in the morning. It won’t do much for your hair, but you might appreciate it because of how it makes you feel when you use that shampoo in the shower. Whether that feeling is worth a price hike to you or not is a personal decision.

To sum it all up, it does matter what you buy, but why it matters will be mostly up to you. You probably want to avoid harsher shampoos just in case they do cause problems, and shampoo and conditioner combos aren’t ideal. Overall, however, you can be served just as well by a cheaper brand as you can with an expensive one.

Cheers Lifehacker

Got your own question you want to put to Lifehacker? Send it using our contact tab on the right.

Picture: nikkytok (Shutterstock), Goodluz (Shutterstock), Tubol Evgeniya (Shutterstock) and Perfect Locks


  • I distinctly remember a hairdresser friend of mine telling me the detergent levels in supermarket shampoos is up to around 35% while for salon shampoo is closer to 7%. I’ve got nothing to back it up though so I’d love to hear from someone in the know.

  • A partner of mine worked as an industrial chemist making hair products for a huge UK manufacturer of such things in the late 1980s (they what was the most famous TV-advertised branded shampoo at the time, and lots of other badge-engineered products). The only technical research they did was for consumer health and safety; in other words, they had no idea whether the products actually did what they claimed or not.

    The *only* difference between their cheap and expensive products was what they added to make the products look/feel/smell nice (or at least expensive). All the product bases were exactly the same. My partner used the cheap ones.

  • I think talking to a “hair care professional” might not be the best source of unbiased data. Would be nice to know from a scientific standpoint, if there is any physical difference between hair washed with different products.

  • I know this is radical – until I tried it, I didn’t believe it either… Just stop shampooing your hair – but you still need to clean it… Here’s one (of many links) on the Internet. Do a Google search if you have any questions.. Like the girl in this article, I asked my hair dresser if my shampoo was doing a good job … he said that my hair was in good condition and clean 🙂

    The only person that uses shampoo in my house now is my son – because of the chlorine in his hair from swimming. You can’t get that out with a water rinse – no matter how hard you try…

  • I only use organic conditioner and for shampoo I use the coal tar (I think it’s derived from birchwood) because I get itchy scalp from dry skin issues I’ve always had.

  • Once I tried a premium brand, I never looked back. Trust me, you don’t need your hairdresser to tell you the stuff they sell in supermarkets is horrible.

    Once I switched to a real shampoo and conditioner, I got zero frizz, my hair feels much more luxurious, much less dandruff, and the smell invigorates me in the morning with a classy and professional air.

    I believe the cheap brands are also a false economy. Washing twice a week, one $25 bottle of decent shampoo lasted me almost a whole year.

  • I always used a premium brand while growing up. I used to get compliments all the time on the quality of my hair. However the price on it tripled over a few years reaching a hideous cost (I stopped when it neared $100 for a small tub of conditioner) so I changed to other cheaper but still premium brands, never found one as nice and settled into ordinary brand product. I still have nice hair, though not as nice but for literally a tenth the price I can live with a bit less nice 😛

    I do wonder though if growing up using the stuff I did affected my hair nowdays or if it always would have been like that.

Show more comments

Log in to comment on this story!