You’d be forgiven for assuming that all those hundreds of different shampoos and conditioners promising different things were secretly the exact same stuff, just in different color bottles. To some extent, you’d be right. Most shampoos and conditioners are extremely similar to one another—they contain cleansers to clean and moisturizers to make hair softer and easier to manage. But while they’re not exactly worlds apart, they’re definitely not identical, either.
Where they vary is in the specific kinds of cleansers and moisturizers they contain. Shampoos and conditioners work their magic by leaving—or not leaving—certain ingredients on the hair shaft to effect a particular result, and certain products contain certain ingredients that are better for certain types of hair. Those bottles may look interchangeable, but those very subtle variations in formula can make a big difference.
Shampoos and conditioners that offer frizz control (whether it’s for curly or straight hair) create smoothness by depositing compounds like silicones onto the hair shaft to weigh it down and seal the cuticle against humidity. Standard frizz control products are often very helpful for those with medium to thick hair, but are sometimes too heavy for fine hair. Living Proof
frizz shampoo and conditioner contain a proprietary frizz-fighting molecule that seals the cuticle without the weight of silicones. ($24, Sephora)
Where frizz control products intentionally weigh the hair down, volumizing products do the opposite; they provide minimal moisture and rinse clean so that the hair shaft has maximum buoyancy and lift. Most volumizing products also contain wheat proteins or other compounds that bind to the hair shaft, plumping up each individual strand. Bumble and bumble’s best-selling Thickening line infuses hair with silk fibers to separate strands and create body. ($22?$23, Bumbleandbumble.com)
Great for people who regularly use styling products, clarifying shampoos like Origins No Deposit Shampoo ($13.50, Beauty.com) have strong cleansers to deep-clean hair and remove gunk, buildup, and residue. They also sometimes contain astringents like tea tree oil, which is great for keeping naturally oily hair grease-free. Conditioners specially designed for oily hair have gentle lightweight moisturizers that rinse clean, without unnecessary emollients.
Since curly hair is delicate and more prone to damage than straight hair, curl-specific products like Ouidad Curl Quencher Moisturizing Shampoo and Conditioner ($15?$17, Ouidad.com) offer gentle cleansing and deep but weightless moisture while also coating the hair with lightweight emollients that promote smoothness and flexible definition.
No topical or rinse-out product can actually make hair grow faster or thicker. Shampoos and conditioners that promise to lengthen or claim to help hair grow long work by fortifying the hair shaft with proteins and amino acids; the stronger strands are more resistant to breakage, which can help achieve longer lengths. Try Garnier Length & Strength Shampoo and Conditioner. ($5.49, Target)
Dandruff shampoo is different from other shampoos in that it actually contains an FDA-regulated ingredient to heal seborrheic dermatitis. In fact, it’s considered an over-the-counter drug. There are many different types of dandruff shampoos that are made to fight dandruff in different ways. Head & Shoulders contains an antibacterial and antifungal agent called pyrithione zinc, while Neutrogena T/Gel uses coal tar to control the process of skin cell sloughing. Nizoral A-D Shampoo contains a broad-spectrum antifungal ingredient. ($15.99, Folica.com)
Once hair is broken or ends are split, the only real cure is a cut. Hair is dead, and it can’t be “brought back to life.” Products earmarked for damaged or brittle hair, like Ojon Damage Reverse Restorative Shampoo and Conditioner ($24?$25, Sephora), can temporarily help, though, with polymers that can bind the ends back together. They can also make brittle hair feel softer with natural oils that strengthen the hair and protect against styling damage.
Color-safe shampoos use gentler detergents that are easier on color-treated hair, and both the shampoos and the conditioners are deeply moisturizing, making them a good choice for dry, damaged, permed, frizzy, or curly hair. Many products for color-treated hair, like L’Oreal Pro Color Vive shampoo and conditioner ($4.99, Drugstore.com), also feature UV filters to preserve color.
Products designed to maximize shine contain lipids, silicones, or other emollients that keep flyaways under control and that reflect light. Although shine-enhancing styling products are most effective, shampoos and conditioners, like Bumble and bumble’s Let it Shine Shampoo and Conditioner ($22?$23, Sephora) can prime the hair by removing dulling buildup.
So do you have to use a complete “system” to get the best results? Not at all. In fact, mixing products or brands might be the best and most customized solution. (Our advice: If you have to pick one product, go with conditioner.) It’s a delicate balance to find the right combination that will give sleekness without grease, moisture without weight, or volume without buildup. The best thing about hair products is that there’s a bevy of excellent options out there at each and every price point, so you can try them all.