How to Choose the Right Shampoo

What's in a shampoo? We break it down and help you find the right one for your hair type.

From the WebMD Archives

Staring at an aisle of shampoo bottles is enough to get anyone into a lather. But the words on the labels are backed up by science. The bottom line is that "most shampoos are basically cleansing agents, thickeners, preservatives, and humectants," says Ni'Kita Wilson. She's the CEO of Catalyst Cosmetic Development in Union, N.J.

You need the right combination to make a formula that's precisely right for your hair. We asked shampoo chemists for a guide to the best options depending on your hair type.


Some people have the Goldilocks of locks -- a just-right balance of oiliness and dryness that isn't too fine or frizzy. If that's you, you need a fairly even ratio of conditioning agents and detergents, Wilson says.

You may have to hunt a bit. "You won't find a lot of 'normal' shampoos these days, because brands create versions for specific hair types," says Perry Romanowski, an independent cosmetic chemist in Chicago.


An excess of sebum or heavy, waxy styling products can leave a greasy residue that requires a clarifying formula to remove.

"These tend to have salicylic acid to break down gunk left on the hair and scalp," Wilson says.

The ingredients list should be shorter (because you don't want to deposit anything else on your hair), and you want detergents like sulfates to remove dirt and oils.


The key to fattening up skinny strands is to look for polymers like the "quats" (polyquaternium 7 or 10), which can make hair look and feel thicker, Romanowski says.

Wilson says fine hair will feel bulkier with shampoos that have film-formers, such as hydrolyzed wheat protein and PG-propyl silanetriol. These increase the diameter of the hair shaft.

"You also want to avoid silicones, which can feel heavy on fine textures," Romanowski says.

Frizzy or Curly

To tame an unruly mane, you need high levels of conditioning agents for smoothness and moisture. In this case, new products called cleansing conditioners offer that blend of benefits.

"A cleansing conditioner is basically a conditioner with a little bit of mild surfactants to help lift dirt," Wilson says. These offer high levels of moisture and gently cleanse to keep the hair cuticle smooth and fight fly-aways.


Dry, Damaged, or Chemically Treated

Whether your scalp naturally makes less sebum or you have dehydrated strands caused by heat damage or a chemical process, you need a moisturizing formula.

The best options deposit ingredients to make brittle hair feel more supple. Ingredients like dimethicone and cyclomethicone provide the softness and shine that make hair look healthier, Romanowski says.

Higher levels of conditioning agents like a polyquaternium, guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride, or hydroxyethyl dimonium chloride seal down the cuticle to make your hair smoother and more manageable, Wilson says.

Find more articles, browse back issues, and read the current issue of "WebMD Magazine."

WebMD Magazine - Feature Reviewed by Mohiba Tareen, MD on October 10, 2014



Ni’Kita Wilson, CEO and director of innovation at Catalyst Cosmetic Development in Union, N.J.  

Perry Romanowski, independent cosmetic chemist in Chicago.

© 2015 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.


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