Are Salon Shampoos Better Than Drugstore Shampoos? (Part 1)

Have you ever been in a quandary about whether to spend the huge premium on salon hair products, as opposed to buying the ordinary, cheaper drugstore/shop products? This is something that has always bothered me as I simply haven’t known the answer.


When I’ve asked about this at salons, I’ve always been confronted with some bird brained sales pitch that has absolutely no basis whatsoever in any form of science, but has been a mixture of new age jargon combined with beauty industry psychobabble. It is blatantly transparent that the genius sprouting this nonsense is on a commission and it is in their interest to sell their product as opposed to answer my question without bias.

My idiotometer always goes off the scale at this point, because surely if there was some real reason why the salon stuff is better, it would be trivial for the manufacturer to provide the backing science in some form or another, however simple or watered down?

So let’s look at whether there is any basis for the theory that salon hair products are better quality, and thus better for your hair than drugstore products.

Before we start this, I’d like to qualify what “better for your hair” actually means. In my view, “better for your hair” means:

  •  It does not damage your hair.
  • It makes your hair look and feel great.
  • If your hair is color treated or has something like a perm in it, then it doesn’t reduce the lifespan of the treatment eg make the color fade.

Before I make a case either way, I propose that given the volumes of sales of shampoo over the last fifty years, the science behind hair shampoo ingredients ought to be pretty much understood. Beauty products are big business, and the research has been happening for decades, so one would imagine that broadly speaking, the basic science is no longer a mystery.

Typical Shampoo Ingredients

Typical Shampoo Ingredients

So what would make salon products more expensive than drugstore products. Here are some possible reasons:

  • There is some secret formula or combination of ingredients that is better for your hair that only the manufacturers of the salon product know.
    Fact: Many salon products are manufactured by the same companies as the drugstore products. So there can be no secret formulation or clever combination of ingredients only known to some.
  • There are perhaps some higher quality ingredients that are more expensive to manufacture which are only financially viable in the more expensive salon products.
    Fact: If you take the time to read the ingredients in the salon brands you will find the same subset of ingredients reappearing in various combinations across all salon and drugstore brands. The cheap products contain the same  ingredients as the expensive products. The ingredients are all listed in order from the highest concentration to the lowest on the product bottles. This sequence is roughly the same in the expensive and the cheap products. So it is unlikely that the salon products contain some super expensive combination of the ingredients forcing the price up.
  • The salon hair products are better PH balanced.
    Fact: The PH of salon and cheaper products range from 5 to 7 at random. They are all PH balanced.

Given that we live in a capitalist society where free market forces are in operation, it is highly unlikely that competing manufacturers of the cheaper shampoos that contain the exact same ingredients in the same concentrations as these same manufacturers’ expensive brands, are deliberately doing something that is “bad for your hair” to compel you to spend about seven times the price on products that contain the same ingredients.

They would lose market share immediately if they did this, since the majority of people who cannot afford the expensive brand anyway, would move to a quality brand manufactured by a less stupid manufacturer.

The expensive brands are there as an up-marketed version of the cheap products so that with little extra effort these manufacturers can sell the same stuff at seven times the price to those who can be fooled into believing that they are getting something better.

I’m not saying that some expensive salon brands aren’t absolutely great for you hair. What I’m saying is you’ll also find the same quality with a little trial and error amongst the cheaper brands. Everyone’s hair is unique so what works for one person may not be the same as what works for the next person. But what works for you, will, in the majority of cases, most certainly not depend upon whether it is from a salon vs from a regular store.

In conclusion, I’d suggest that instead of spending your money on salon products, experiment until you find a cheaper product that is great for your hair, and use the money you save towards something else that will make a real difference.

If, like some, out of sheer perversity, you don’t like the look of the cheap brand shampoo bottle because it screams “cheap”, then consider decanting it into an attractive classy looking bottle (like the one below), which you can easily buy anywhere for very little.

In Part 2, I’ll provide a comparison of the ingredients of 9 shampoos (3 salon brands, 2 “ex”-salon shampoos, and 4 common cheap shampoos), with an analysis of what might be expected from each shampoo based on the constituent ingredients.

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