The Truth About Salon-Purchased Professional Shampoo

Is it Really Better Than the Stuff You Buy at the Store?

Cosmetic section with conditioners
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The battle between professional and store-bought shampoo has always been a thing. In one corner is your beloved hairstylist, touting the pros of her fancy $30 bottles of premium shampoo. In the other is your best friend with great hair who pays $1.99 for a gallon of shampoo at Walmart. What's really the difference? Is salon shampoo really worth the price? After all, we're talking about soap here, right?

The Shampoo Connoisseur's Angle

Think of shampoo as wine. All wine is made of grapes and with similar processes; some is worth $3.99 a bottle, while some go for hundreds. A professional wine steward can tell subtle differences in many aspects of any bottle of wine when compared to another. A professional hairdresser feels the same way about shampoo.

The bottom line is that there really is very little difference between pricey professional salon shampoos and store shampoos. They are all meant to wash the hair and scalp. They are all made of similar ingredients. Both professional and non-professional companies are forever formulating what they tout as safer, more effective shampoos with specific ingredients for specific purposes. At the end of the day, though, they are all soap. Alas, it is not the end of the day, just yet. Some people splurge on expensive shampoos for the same reasons wine snobs fork over big for premium wines: All have similar effects, but in the end, it's simply a matter of taste.

What's important to you in a shampoo might not mean anything to someone else—so focus on a few factors that matter and go from there.

Shampoo Performance

The first thing a consumer wants to know is, "Does it work?" For many folks, buying shampoo at the salon is a huge luxury, at a cost they can't justify.

We've all had the experience of visiting a friend who had "the good stuff" in her shower, and chances are good that you snuck a drop or two. And you may or may not have noticed any difference. So many variables are at play here: Your hair's texture and condition affect how the shampoo's ingredients perform. So does the water. Hard water with lots of minerals doesn't rinse as easily as soft water and leaves substances in your hair that affects how it feels and holds a style. The best thing to do is experiment. Ask your stylist if she has samples you can try, and compare how they perform against your favorite bargain brand.

Shampoo Value

When defending the price of professional shampoos, a stylist will almost always tell you that salon shampoo is more concentrated. You use less per session, so it lasts longer, and the cost difference isn't really as great. This can be true. Salon shampoos might contain the same ingredients as their off-brand counterparts, but the concentrations of these ingredients are not the same. You've seen the gallon-sized jugs of "bargain" shampoo that have the consistency of water, which is evident when you pick one up from that bottom shelf and shake it. That's because much of it is water.

Of course, you can't always tell at the store how concentrated a shampoo is from the bottle. In that case, check the directions: How much shampoo do they say to use? 

Shampoo Ingredients

Again, what you need from a shampoo depends on your hair and how you want it to behave. Store-bought shampoos tend to have more water, sulfates, and fillers with fewer vitamins, oils, and minerals than salon formulations. If your hair's in great condition and all you want to do is get the oil and dirt out of it, you don't need anything special. If using "gentle" shampoos with fewer fillers, sulfates, and build-up creating waxes is important to you, then go for it. 

Color-Safe Shampoos

Shampoos that claim not to strip color typically don't contain sulfates, the ingredients responsible for bubbles. They're tested in labs, not in real life, so your mileage may vary.

A lot depends on the kind of color you use, how long it's been in your hair, and other factors. If the foamy experience isn't important to you, try one of these shampoos to see how your hair color reacts.

Where Your Money Goes

The biggest difference between salon and store shampoos might just have more to do with where your money goes than anything else. When you buy a bottle of shampoo from the drug store, your money goes to the store and the company that makes the shampoo. The shampoo company uses your money to develop more shampoo, market it, and turn a profit.

When you buy a shampoo from a salon, your money goes to the salon owner and the shampoo company that made the shampoo. Your salon owner uses the money to support herself and her family, invest in her salon, and, as a locally taxed business, contribute to the community. Even when you buy shampoo from a chain salon, the stylist who educated you and sold the shampoo to you typically earns a commission off the sale of your shampoo.

At the very top, the shampoo company that made your shampoo uses its money to develop more shampoo, market it, and turn a profit, just as makers of non-professional shampoo brands—but it goes even further. Many companies put money back into the salon industry via education, which is absolutely huge for salon professionals. Hair product companies do a lot for large-scale salons and small booth-renters alike. The hair industry thrives and evolves because of the focus that these companies have on the individuals who sell their product.

The Goodwill Factor

When you purchase your shampoo from your stylist, he likely feels honored that you trust his recommendation and expertise. Plus, many salons offer a money-back or equal-exchange guarantee on products. Your stylist will stand behind his recommendations and will help you find a great shampoo without your having to buy several different bottles to get the right formula. Your local drug store can't offer that same level of tailored service.

In the end, your choices in shampoo—and wine—come down to whatever is important to you.

Both store-bought and salon formulations do the job. If cost is your deciding factor, going with the cheap drugstore version won't do your hair any harm. If your relationship with your stylist is important to you, splurge on the premium brand. If fragrance is your thing, go with whatever your sniff test tells you. When it comes to shampoo, value is subjective—and the answer to the salon vs. store-bought shampoo question is a solid "It depends."