You can buy shampoo for $3 and you can buy it for $30. They’ll both get the job done — so what’s the difference?
Do you really need to spend a small fortune to get good results, or is it possible to find inexpensive shampoo that leaves your hair healthy and happy?
We spoke to dermatologists and hair experts for their best tips on identifying quality shampoo that’ll keep your locks clean and healthy.
Here’s What Shampoo Actually Is…
Shampoo consists of two basic components: water and surfactants, which are responsible for the lathering and cleansing.
Those two elements comprise between 50-80% of the contents, says Nikki Goddard, a certified hair stylist and shampoo expert from San Jose, and senior editor at The Right Hairstyles magazine.
The rest includes silicone, thickening agents, perfume, natural oils and extracts.
…and Here’s Why Some of Them Are So Expensive
Both cheap and inexpensive products contain surfactants that remove oil and dirt almost equally well. So why are some of them so outrageously expensive, while others cost less than $5?
Sometimes the higher prices are simply due to marketing, says Anna Chacon, a board-certified dermatologist based in South Florida.
“Other times, I think it could be due to imported materials or products that may come with their own unique high costs,” she said.
The shampoos may also have fragrances and conditioning agents to leave hair feeling soft and smelling good, says Vanessa Thomas, a cosmetic chemist, founder of Freelance Formulations.
And some professional product lines made for hair salons can include components and formulations that actually do improve the health of the hair and the scalp, says Goddard. For example, she says sulfate-free and all-natural products usually cost more, but she believes the higher price is justified.
Shampoo Ingredients to Seek Out — and Ones to Avoid
You can get a sense of which inexpensive shampoos will be of good quality by checking out the ingredient list. Look for these ingredients, all of which serve a purpose in keeping your hair clean and healthy:
- Moisturizing agents (glycerin, hyaluronic acid, lanolin)
- Anti-sebum ingredients (ketoconazole, piroctone olamine, zinc)
“Note that adding vitamins, fruit acids, antioxidants, SPF agents and less than 25-30% herbal extracts makes no point,” Goddard said. “They won’t penetrate and nourish hair.”
If you see superficially active substances (SAS) like magnesium laureth sulfate, decyl glucoside, lauryl glucoside along with those moisturizing agents, you can safely assume the shampoo will be an effective product.
Of course, you should also take your own specific needs into consideration.
If you have skin-related conditions, like eczema or dandruff, you’ll want to look for shampoos that contain ketoconazole, selenium sulfide and/or pyrithione zinc, which are antifungal agents that can help treat itching, flaking and dry skin on your scalp, says Dawn Clemens, founder of Larwe Hair.
On the other hand, try to avoid sulfates, paraffins, silicones and peroxides within haircare products, as they add frizz and can damage your hair, Chacon said.
Make sure that a cheap shampoo does not include toxic SAS (which includes the majority of sulfates, cetrimonium chloride, lauramide DEA, and PEG-150 distearate), mineral oil, BHA and BHT, Goddard said.
You should also try to avoid formaldehyde, triclosan, dimethicone, cocamide MEA and artificial perfume agents, Goddard said. These chemicals have come under scrutiny for a variety of reasons. For instance, the FDA banned triclosan for use in hand and body washes in 2016, while formaldehyde can pose a problem for people with sensitive skin.
Should You Ever Opt for More Expensive Shampoo?
Women who have specific hair concerns may need to opt for something a little pricier. Typically, cheaper shampoo brands sell products that aren’t necessarily geared toward a specific hair type, Thomas said.
If you have specific needs for your hair, here’s what you should look for when shopping for shampoo:
- Dry, damaged hair: Avoid clarifying shampoo, which are clear shampoos focused on removing oil from the scalp. Instead, opt for shampoos and conditioners with moisturizing ingredients like glycerin and avocado oil.
- Fine hair: Avoid heavy moisturizing shampoos, especially those containing silicones, which will weigh down the hair. Silicones are best for controlling frizz, as they coat the hair follicle, locking out moisture.
- Thick, coarse hair: Opt for a product containing oils and humectants in a creamy formula, and avoid volumizing shampoos, Thomas says. Because Black hair tends to be dryer and textured, Black women typically wash their hair once per week or may co-wash, which is washing your hair using only a conditioner. If you have dry, brittle hair that’s washed too often, it may be bad for your hair’s health.
3 of the Best Cheap Shampoos That Pass the Ingredient Test
Here are three inexpensive shampoos that have the ingredients you want — and none of the ones you don’t.
- Dove Daily Moisture Shampoo: It’s got glycerin to keep hair super moisturized and soft, and the scent is nice and subtle. ($3.49 at Target)
- Pantene Fortifying Damage Repair Shampoo with Castor Oil Got some damage? This will strengthen your hair, thanks to the castor oil. ($8.69 at CVS)
- Neutrogena Shampoo The Anti-Residue Shampoo Use this just once a week to remove up to 90% of residue caused by your products and other shampoos. It’s made for every hair type. ($6.99 at Neutrogena)
Danielle Braff is a contributor to Codetic.