Hear Me Out: This $5 Shampoo Has Worked Better Than All of My ‘Fancy’ Formulas
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Sometimes you just need to return to your roots
Having worked in the beauty industry for nearly a decade, I’ve gone through my fair share of shampoo trials: purple formulas, “natural” blends, formulas that claim to help you grow more hair… you name it. For my thin, slightly wavy, color-treated hair, I gravitate toward shampoos that will impart a healthy amount of moisture and volume but won't won't strip my color, and luckily, there have been a number of products on the market that have fit these criteria on paper. However, with each new test, I've found myself increasingly frustrated and disappointed. The end result is oftentimes incredibly dry and straw-like to the point where I can't even get a comb through my wet hair without dousing my strands in detangler or a leave-in treatment first, meaning my hair quickly appears string-y and oily and requires a quick follow-up wash. It's a vicious cycle.
Interestingly, a lot of these drying formulas end up being pricey department store or prestige brands, despite also using their corresponding conditioners. My hair hasn't always been dry, though — when I think back to my college years, when I was living on a ramen-noodle budget, I was using drugstore shampoos and my hair was sleek, soft and shiny. It got me thinking, Could cheaper shampoo actually be better for me? I picked up a bottle of an old favorite, Pantene's Daily Moisture Renewal Shampoo ($5) and conditioner ($5) to test my theory, and the results were a bit shocking.
Knowing I would be embarking on this hair experiment, I had my husband snap a picture of my hair prior to this test. As you can see in the above "before" photo, my hair looks dry and has visible breakage. It's in its more natural wavy state here because I could barely get a brush through it in order to blow it out (the tangles were a-plenty). However, in the "after" photo, my hair is shiny, smooth, and has no visible damage or frayed cuticles. Combing out my hair was a breeze, even just after the first wash with Pantene, so I blew it out with a round brush to reap the maximum shine and smoothness benefits — no flat iron needed. When I was done, I found myself constantly touching my hair, amazed at how soft and healthy it felt.
Buy It! Pantene Daily Moisture Renewal Shampoo, $5, walgreens.com
Also available on Amazon ($8) and Target ($5)
Buy It! Pantene Daily Moisture Renewal Conditioner, $5, walgreens.com
Also available on Amazon ($17) and Target ($5)
I have enough industry intel to know that a likely cause of the marked improvement in my overall hair state is dimethicone, a common haircare ingredient that coats the cuticle of the hair, helping to retain moisture and give it that sleek texture. It's a bit divisive though — some camps will rule it out as being "bad" for your hair due to the fact that it's a silicone that repels water, thus preventing moisture from entering the hair cuticle, as well as its propensity to "build up" on the hair. Curious if this slick ingredient was giving me a false sense of security in my newfound soft-hair victory, I reached out to a cosmetic scientist to both evaluate my old luxury shampoo's ingredient list and Pantene's.
"There's nothing 'bad' in the luxury formula," says Essntls Lab CEO and founder and cosmetic scientist Arielle Nausieda. "I'm sure the major claim in this formula is that it's 'sulfate-free' and the multiple active ingredients that are supposed to help your hair like coffee oil, extracts, and peptides. In reality, your hair might be feeling dry and straw-like because there are multiple different surfactants or cleansing ingredients that will still dry out your hair, and the extracts and the coffee oil are not enough to rehydrate and create that softness back in your hair while cleaning it."
There are also surfactants in the Pantene formula, such as sodium lauryl and laureth sulfate, another divisive set of ingredients for their potential to cause skin irritation. But the saving grace in this shampoo are ingredients like dimethicone and polyquaternium, which Nausieda says help to balance out the moisture in your hair. "As a chemist, silicones like dimethicone are actually my favorite ingredient because they are so effective," she tells me. "...you really want to use dimethicone because it seals the cuticle layer of the hair that helps hold in the moisture in the hair shaft and improve shine."
RELATED: The Best Hair Dryers We Tested in Our Lab
When it comes down to it, Nausieda says you can pore over a product's ingredient list, bit what matters the most is how it works for your particular hair type. "Other ingredients that can dry out your hair are salt, alcohol, or fragrance, but it's hard to take out all of these 'drying' ingredients without sacrificing some other benefit. You can scan all the ingredient lists of formulas but you really don't know how well it will actually perform until you try it... you can still have a really great product with these 'bad reputation' ingredients if they're formulated well." For me, Pantene's formula has given me the type of hair I've been hoping for after many unsuccessful trials with "fancier" products, and even on my thin hair, I haven't noticed any buildup (though if you do, you can use a clarifying shampoo weekly to deep-cleanse your strands). It's been a win for both my hair texture and my wallet, and that's a major victory in my book.
Up next: We Tested a Ton of Hair Oils in Our Lab, and These Performed the Best
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