Haircare can be frustrating no matter which way you slice it—especially when it comes to shampoo, which is not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. Do you splurge on the designer line your salon keeps trying to pedal at the end of your appointments, or is a drugstore brand sufficient? Do these fancy-sounding ingredients that brands are trying to entice you with actually do you any additional good?
To help you navigate the countless formulas (for instance, you wouldn’t want to waste money on something designed to cut through oil when your hair has never been dryer in your life!), we chatted with people who really know hair, from stylists to trichologists.
So if it comes down to needing a little more TLC for your ‘do, here are the most important ingredients to look out for in drugstore shampoos and the best brands that include them, according to the experts.
The Best Shampoo Ingredients: What To Look For and What To Avoid
The good news is that everyone’s hair has the same basic necessities: hydration and moisture. The shampoo—and conditioner—you choose serves as the foundation for your haircare routine. “You’re going to want a product that will open the cuticle, remove product buildup, and rehydrate,” Carissa Clearwater, owner of Rat’s Nest, a salon based in Worcester, Massachusetts, tells Mental Floss. If you’ve chosen a good foundation and are still noticing issues that need to be addressed, that’s when you’d want to start looking into additional products to help treat it, according to Clearwater.
Kerry Yates, founder of Colour Collective and a trichologist (a.k.a., someone well-versed in the science of hair, including its structure, function, and the diseases that can impact both human hair and scalps) points to a few “up-and-coming super ingredients” that could be helpful to look for when it comes to caring for your hair. She suggests the following:
- Black cohosh, or Actaea racemosa, which Yates claims is a “brilliant sebum regulator [and] natural anti-inflammatory.”
- Chufa (or tiger nut) milk, also known as Spanish horchata, which is a “natural moisturizer [that] contains amino acids to help rebuild and nourish the hair.”
- Neem, or Azadirachta indica, which is a “natural anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial [with a] soothing astringent [that] make[s] the perfect scalp tonic.”
But just as important as finding the right ingredients is making sure you’re avoiding the wrong ones. Clearwater says that no matter what your hair type is, the following should be nixed from your hair’s regimen:
- silicons that are not water soluble
- heavy/raw oils that don’t absorb into the hair (like coconut oil)
According to Clearwater, heavy oils, waxes, silicons, and paraffins will all lay on top of your hair and seal the cuticle. As the water evaporates out, that seal will prevent water from reentering, leading to dry, brittle locks. Because these components are not water soluble, it’s very difficult to remove them from your hair, and they will continue to build up and lead to more damage.
Sulfates in particular can be extremely harsh on the scalp and lead to dryness and irritation. And if you color your hair, sulfates will “absolutely strip [the dye] out,” Clearwater says. Note that sulfate-free shampoos may also have other problematic ingredients you may want to avoid, such as cocamide DEA (a known carcinogen derived from coconuts, which may be linked to cancer); cocamide MEA (also derived from coconuts, and can contain traces of cocamide DEA); and propylene glycol (a liquid alcohol synthetically made from petroleum, which may cause irritation or dryness for those with sensitive scalps).
Drugstore Shampoos vs. Designer Shampoos: Which Are Better?
Now that you have an idea of what to look for in a new shampoo, it’s time to decide if you’re going the drugstore route or opting for a designer brand.
Drugstore brands—think Herbal Essences or Aussie—may be tempting due to the assumption that they’re much more affordable than high-end brands, while designer options may be more appealing because we think that they’re better formulated. According to Allyson Carter, a hair stylist and editor-in-chief at Hair Spies, drugstore brands may actually be the better option. “There [are] many drugstore shampoos that contain more natural ingredients than designer-brand shampoos, which is obviously better for your hair,” she says.
Stylist Katelyn Ellsworth, founder of The Roslyn, one of San Diego’s top salons, claims that many drugstore products have been incorporating more and more clean ingredients over the years, which has made them better for your hair’s health than they used to be. According to Carter, drugstore shampoos also often have a wider array of formulations than designer brands do, making it easier to find the one best suited to your needs. (In particular, she loves that “many drugstore brands offer sulfate-free options now.”)
The Best Drugstore Shampoos By Hair Type
1. Best Drugstore Shampoo for Curly Hair: SheaMoisture All Day Frizz Control Shampoo; From $12
Carter recommends that curly-haired individuals look for shampoos designed specifically for maintaining curls—not only in looks, but in health. “The cuticle of curly hair is often more raised than that of straight or wavy hair, resulting in less shine,” she says, adding that it’s the hair type most prone to tangles, knots, and breakage. “Curly hair may also be drier than other hair types due to the fact that natural oils produced by the scalp have a harder time traveling down the curlier, kinkier shafts.”
While heavy oils (like coconut oil) might not be ideal for hair, Carter claims that certain options (and specific types of butters) can actually be good for curly hair, because this type has special needs. “Shea butter and jojoba oil are good ingredients for curly hair to help keep [it] hydrated and shiny,” she says.
According to Yates, papaya is another important ingredient to look for if your locks are curly. It’s high in vitamins A and C, which are natural antioxidants that help to maintain the balance of moisture and prevent frizz.
Specifically, she recommends SheaMoisture’s all day frizz control shampoo and conditioner, as it includes not only papaya but neroli, elderflower, and fair-trade shea butter, plus both products are paraben and sulfate-free.
2. & 3. Best Drugstore Shampoos for Natural Hair: Carol’s Daughter Black Vanilla Sulfate-Free Shampoo for $9; Mielle Organics Rosemary Mint Strengthening Shampoo for $9
When it comes to natural hair, the individual strands tend to be much thicker than other hair types. Though it’s usually characterized by its coarseness, density, and kinkiness, natural hair can range in texture from tight curls to being completely straight, according to Carter. “Natural hair also tends to be very dry and brittle, which can make it difficult to style and manage,” she says.
Carter recommends Carol’s Daughter black vanilla sulfate-free shampoo, which she considers a “super hydrating and moisturizing shampoo that is especially great for [those] with thick, curly, natural Black hair.” Ingredients include shea butter, aloe vera, and rosemary, which Carter says are all great for “restoring and giving new life to dry and damaged hair.”
There are other good ingredients to keep in mind. Ellsworth recommends black onion seed and castor oil, while Yates suggests looking for products with babassu oil. “[It’s a] nourishing, conditioning oil [that] expertly conditions the fragile bends of coily hair,” she says. Mielle Organic’s rosemary mint strengthening shampoo, which Yates recommends, includes babassu oil, as well as biotin to strengthen hair. It also comes from a women-owned brand and is specially designed for curl types 3A to 4C, but does contain propylene glycol, so you may want to keep that in mind before you try it.
4. Good Drugstore Shampoo for Colored Hair: L’Oreal Paris EverPure Sulfate-Free Glossing Shampoo; From $8
Colored hair usually refers to any tresses in a shade that wouldn’t be naturally occurring, i.e., the strands are dyed, bleached, or chemically treated in some way. Carter says that this type is generally very susceptible to damage and breakage as the chemicals used to change their hue are usually harsh on hair. “As such, it is important to use gentle shampoo and conditioner formulas, and to avoid heat styling whenever possible,” she says.
For this type of hair, Ellsworth emphasizes the importance of selecting not only sulfate- and paraffin-free products, but those free of sodium chloride. Yates advises folks to seek products with argan oil, a “natural oil [that] adds shine and enhances color-treated hair’s overall beauty.”
She suggests L’Oreal’s EverPure sulfate-free glossing shampoo, which is paraben-free, suited for all colored hair types and textures, and leaves strands with a shiny finish. (However, it does contain traces of propylene glycol, so you may want to keep that in mind before purchasing.)
If you're looking for another alternative, Clearwater recommends you only cleanse your colored hair with products your stylist has recommended. “The shampoo and conditioner [your] stylist recommends is more than likely formulated to [help] retain the hair color and can [guarantee] the results,” she says.
5. & 6. Good Drugstore Shampoos for Oily Hair: Garnier Fructis Pure Clean Shampoo from $3; G+H CLEAR+ Apple Cider Vinegar Hair Rinse for $13
According to Carter, oily hair is caused by an overproduction of sebum, which can also make it appear greasy or, at times, even wet looking. Genetics, hormones, diet, and certain medical diagnoses can all contribute to it as well. While you probably can’t solve greasy hair permanently, there are certain treatments that can help minimize the look of it.
If you’re dealing with oily or greasy hair, Yates recommends looking for shampoos that have aloe vera as a key ingredient. “Natural enzymes help regulate sebum, helping to alleviate that ‘greasy’ scalp without stripping the hair,” she says.
Yates recommends Garnier Fructis Pure Clean shampoo, as it’s made with aloe extract and is paraben-free. (However, it’s also important to note that the shampoo and matching conditioner are not sulfate-free and contain sodium chloride, so some might want to check out alternatives.)
Meanwhile, Carter recommends tea tree oil for oily scalps, which she claims can help give you “a fresher look.” Additionally, she notes that clays like kaolinite and bentonite may be good for folks with oily hair, as “they will reduce scalp oil production.” Ellsworth suggests incorporating dry shampoos and apple cider vinegar rinses to help cut back on oil.
7. Best Drugstore Shampoo for Dry Hair: Not Your Mother’s Activated Bamboo Charcoal & Purple Moonstone Shampoo; From $18
Dry hair, on the other hand, is the result of a lack of natural oil production and moisture, according to Carter. “The texture is often rough, brittle, and/or frizzy,” she says. It’s typically prone to breakage and further damage, so to prevent that, Carter recommends using gentle, sulfate-free shampoos and conditioners (and getting regular trims to minimize split ends). She says it’s a good idea to “avoid heat styling whenever possible, and use a leave-in conditioner or serum to help protect the hair from damage.”
As far as ingredients go, Carter says that natural oils like argan oil or avocado oil can help hydrate hair and make it look healthier. For dandruff/dry scalps, tea tree oil is another good ingredient to help minimize that dryness, according to the stylist.
Carter recommends Not Your Mother's activated bamboo charcoal and purple moonstone shampoo to her clients “all the time.” According to her, it’s because this blend is free of damaging ingredients, including silicones, parabens, sulfates, and dyes, and it can make your hair “super soft.” It’s good for any hair type, she says, but works especially well on dry, damaged, or even colored hair—especially bleached: “It’s great for freshly dyed hair that tends to yellow and it will help avoid this coloring.”
8. Best Drugstore Shampoo for Damaged Hair: Native Vegan Strengthening Shampoo with Almond & Shea Butter; $10
If you over-process your tresses, use heat-styling tools frequently, or have regular exposure to harsh environmental conditions, your hair likely suffers from some type of damage. Carter describes this hair type as dry, brittle, and straw-like, and notes that it may be difficult to manage and style.“If you have damaged hair, you may want to try using a deep conditioner or protein treatment to help restore moisture and strength. You should also avoid using heat tools as much as possible and protect your hair from the sun and wind,” she says.
Ellsworth recommends using vitamin C and manuka honey, which she says are good for both dry and damaged hair, while Yates claims that almond or shea butter can be great for damaged strands. She urges folks with this hair type to check out Native’s vegan strengthening shampoo with almond and shea butter, which is sulfate-, paraben-, and silicone-free.
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