Walking down the shampoo aisle in the drugstore or grocery store can give you sensory overload. Hundreds of brands and specialized types of shampoo boast that they can give you the perfect bouncy, curly, wavy, shiny, or smooth tresses that you dream of. But how different are they really? And how do you know which one is right for you?
Here, two top stylists explain some of the most common buzzwords you see on shampoo bottles and what they mean for your hair.
What Makes a Shampoo?
All shampoos contain two things: a cleanser and a conditioner, says Cary O'Brien, owner of Cary O'Brien's Design and Color Spa in St. Charles, Mo. (Even shampoos that aren't billed as combination shampoo-conditioners have somekind of conditioner in them.)
How much of each is in the shampoo depends on what kind of hair it's made for.
"If your hair is lightweight, fine, or fragile, you want to clean it very well because any kind of oil or buildup will be heavy on it," O'Brien says. "You don't want too much conditioner, because that will weigh it down."
Very thick and coarse hair might need even stronger cleansers to keep it clean, because it can be oilier and hold in dirt more. "For this kind of hair, you probably want to beef up the conditioning agent, because that hair can handle it and probably needs it," O'Brien says.
Shampoos for Oily or Dry Hair
Oily hair is due to an overactive oil-making gland, says Vaughn Acord, owner of mizu salon, with locations in New York and Boston. "You want a shampoo that removes the oils and hydrates both the hair and scalp," he says.
Dry hair, on the other hand, usually results from damage to the hair itself. "The central part of the hair shaft is where we find all the proteins that give hair its strength,” says dermatologist Michelle Hanjani Galant, MD, of Columbia University Medical Center. "Surrounding the hair shaft is something called the cuticle, made up of flattened cells like shingles on a roof. If their edges aren't lined up perfectly, then hair is dull, brittle, and has no shine," says Hanjani Galant, who specializes in hair and hair disorders.
That can result from using shampoos with a strong detergent, chemically processing hair (such as getting a perm, relaxer, or coloring it), and using heat to style it. Even wind and other kinds of friction can damage the cuticle, Hanjani Galant says. "The more of this damage it sustains, the more dry and lusterless it becomes."
"When this damage happens, there is a loss of the keratin protein that makes up the hair, and we try to replace this using shampoos that contain keratin, as well as other keratin treatments," Acord says.
But there's only so much a shampoo can do to repair that damage, especially the kind that results from perms and coloring. "That process starts by opening the cuticle to allow the chemical in to the central part of the hair, and then another part of the process closes the cuticle," Hanjani Galant says. "But every time you do that, the 'shingles' don't line up exactly the way they were, and the damage keeps building."
Straightening and Smoothing Shampoos
Shampoos that claim that they'll straighten or smooth your hair generally have a coating ingredient in them.
"It's usually silicones...[or] oils," Acord says. "They will aid in coating the hair, and allowing hot tools to straighten and/or smooth it out."
What about the shampoos that claim to give your hair more volume? Most of them are formulated to open the hair's cuticle, making it thicker, Acord says. "But that, too, can damage the hair, and it will also remove color as well as reversing perms and relaxers."
No shampoo is going to make hair lighter and fluffier, O'Brien says. "Your best bet for more volume is a shampoo that has a nice, lightweight conditioning agent that rinses off really well."
But most people don't pick conditioners that do that. "The consumer wants something we in the industry call 'slip' -- that slippery, smooth feel you get from your hair after you rinse the conditioner out," O'Brien says. "But feeling 'slip' doesn't mean it's helping your hair. In fact, it means the conditioner is staying on your hair, and you don't want it to stay."
"Clarifying" sounds clean and clear -- but they can be rough on your hair, O'Brien says.
"Very few people will really need a clarifying shampoo," he says. They're generally used because someone has some kind of condition or is going to get a chemical treatment, and they really need to cleanse the hair. They rough up the hair's cuticle, for example, so the perm or color might take better. But some of them can be extremely harsh."
You should definitely avoid clarifying shampoos aftergetting your hair colored. "Even the mildest clarifying shampoos will unwind that color really fast," O'Brien says.
Shampoos for Color-Treated Hair
These shampoos are made to help make your color last. Acord recommends checking on the shampoo's "ph" level, which is a measure of how acidic or alkaline the product is. He suggests looking for a ph between 4.5-5.5 to help prevent fading. If the ph level isn't shown on the shampoo bottle, try searching the product's name and "ph level" online.
Good shampoos for color-treated hair may also use an ingredient like an oil, sea kelp, or algae to help color stay in your hair, O'Brien adds.
Want to refresh your hair without a full shower and blow-dry? Try a dry shampoo.
"They can really be a lifesaver and break that every day shampoo habit," O'Brien says. "Pump a burst [of dry shampoo] down your hairline, in the part, and at the crown, and take your blow dryer and brush and fluff it up, and you're probably out the door in five minutes."
The Buildup Myth
Whatever shampoo you use, you don't need to switch periodically in order to prevent "buildup." That's a myth, Acord and O'Brien say.
"The products are so good now that you aren't going to get a product buildup unless you're a crazy hairspray person, which is not how hair has been styled for the last 15-20 years," O'Brien says.
The best way to pick the right shampoo for you: Ask a stylist. "A runner shouldn't pick the right shoes based on what color they are," O'Brien says. "They should go to a running specialty store and get fitted for the best shoe. It's the same with shampoo. Don't pick your shampoo based on what your friend likes or because you like the fragrance. Get a recommendation from a stylist that knows your hair."