Shampoo 101: Choosing the Right Shampoo

Woman in bathtub shampooing hair, rear view
PhotoAlto/John Dowland / Getty Images

Shampoo can be confusing. Moisturizing, hydrating, volumizing, strengthening, smoothing, curling. How do you match the lingo on the bottle with the hair on your head? It doesn't have to be a head game if you know what you're looking for. This guide will help you match your hair and the results you seek with shampoo.

Define Your Scalp Type

Before you choose shampoo it's important to know what shampoo does, how to use it, and how that relates to your hair and scalp type.

Shampoo is meant to clean your hair and scalp of dirt, oil, and hair products. While it's common to think of shampoo as a hair cleansing agent, it's more important to consider your scalp when choosing a shampoo.

My rule of thumb is this: shampoo should be chosen based on your scalp condition; conditioner should be used to treat your hair. This way, if your scalp is oily and your ends are dry (which is a common problem), choose shampoo that is best suited for an oily scalp and a conditioner that is best suited to hydrate your dry ends. Why? Because like your face, treating the oil conditions on your scalp (whether it's dry, oily, or somewhere in the middle) begins with proper cleansing. Introducing the proper moisture back into your hair can be accomplished by selecting the right conditioner.​

Oily Scalp Shampoo Advice

If your scalp tends to be oily or greasy you've likely been through dozens of shampoos with little luck.

You've tried everything from washing daily (sometimes twice daily) to putting days between shampoos in an effort to control oil and sebum production. It can feel embarrassing when your scalp feels oily. Here's what to look for and what to avoid when choosing a shampoo for an oily scalp:

  • Avoid shampoos that are hydrating, moisturizing, smoothing, or good for curly hair. These shampoos tend to add too much moisture to your already oily scalp.
  • Look for labels that read volumizing, strengthening, or balancing. These products are less moisturizing and more effective at removing excess oil.
  • A daily clarifying shampoo can be a big help to super oily scalp conditions, but be careful that you're not over drying your scalp when choosing to use a clarifying shampoo. Overdrying can actually stimulate more oil and sebum production.
  • Try a super clarifying treatment when your oily scalp is really out of control.
  • Be sure the shampoo you choose for your oily scalp is color safe.
  • Spend extra time working the shampoo into your scalp to break up oil. Rinse very well. Follow these steps to ensure proper shampooing.
  • After shampooing, avoid working your conditioner into your scalp. Rather, concentrate on keeping conditioner on the mid-shaft and ends of your hair. Rinse well.

Dry Scalp Shampoo Advice

When your scalp is dry, itchy, or even flaky choosing the right shampoo can be the first defense in the uncomfortable and sometimes embarrassing conditions that can occur. It's important to choose a shampoo that doesn't add to the issue when you have a dry scalp. These tips can help you choose a shampoo for your dry scalp:

  • Avoid strengthening, fortifying, and volumizing shampoos. These products can strip your scalp of necessary moisture.
  • For scalps that are only slightly dry with little to no itching and that do not flake, look for shampoo labels that promote moisture, hydration, smoothing, or curls (especially handy if you have curly hair). These products promote moisture and can be beneficial to your dry scalp.
  • If your scalp is very dry, itchy, and or flaky consider shampoos that are specifically formulated for dry scalp. Ingredients like menthol and tea tree can help moisturize your dry scalp.
  • Nioxin can be an excellent investment for moderate to severe dry scalp concerns.
  • Avoid shampoos that contain sulfates, which are very drying to the hair and scalp.
  • Even when your scalp is dry, it's important to properly shampoo your hair for best results.

Shampoo Glossary

When your scalp isn't necessarily dry or oily (or maybe you just want to know what on earth all these shampoo types mean), you can easily choose a shampoo that's perfect for your desired hairstyle:

  • Hydrating/Moisturizing Shampoo: great for adding moisture, shine, and smoothness to hair. Good for thick, curly, or coarse hair. Biolage makes a great hydrating shampoo that will leave your hair silky soft and is also gentle enough to use every day. Buy on Amazon.com.
  • Volumizing Shampoo: excellent choice when your hair is fine or limp. If your hair or style needs a boost and lift, a volumizing shampoo can be a great foundation. I recommend checking out Nexxus Hydra Light Shampoo as it is formulated for fine hair and provides moisture without weighing hair down. Buy on Amazon.com.
  • Strengthening/Fortifying Shampoo: good for damaged, over processed, highlighted, weak, or brittle hair. Usually, contains extra protein to improve the condition of your hair. My favorite strength fortifying shampoo is Klorane Shampoo with Quinine because it provides volume and is gentle enough to use on damaged and brittle hair. Buy on Amazon.com.
  • Balancing Shampoo: balancing shampoos are typically a nice middle of the road shampoo. Not too moisturizing, but won't dry your hair out. American Crew makes a great balancing shampoo that is great for cleansing hair while also maintaining moisture. Buy on Amazon.com.
  • Smoothing/Straight Hair Shampoo: extra moisturizers and smoothing agents help seal the cuticle and provide a great start for your straight and smooth hairstyle. Aveda makes my favorite smoothing shampoo because it reduces unwanted frizz and creates a smooth surface. It also protects the hair from heat styling. Buy on Amazon.com
  • Curly Hair Shampoo: shampoos that are formulated for curly hair are typically very moisturizing and make an extra effort to reduce frizz. Kerastase Curl Definition Shampoo is a great option for curly hair as it gently cleanses hair and won’t weigh down your curls. Buy on Amazon.com.