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Shampoo: Understand how these work to make the best choice for your hair

Updated: Feb 18

By Dr Erum ILYAS



I get asked tons of shampoo questions by patients!



I break it down by main ingredients, what they do and what to look for.

⁃ Surfactants: these are the ‘workhorse’ of a shampoo. They are designed to specifically cleanse the hair and scalp via degreasing. 

⁃ Conditioning agents: in the process of removing oil from the scalp, shampoos will contain agents meant to leave some hydration behind. The hair follicle shaft isn’t a smooth- it actually is ‘scaly’ with little grooves. Conditioning agents find their way into these grooves and attract moisture to them.


⁃ ‘Special’ ingredients: these would be for specific concerns people are looking to address. Color treated hair types, dandruff, curly hair, frizzy hair, damaged hair, dry hair, etc..


⁃ Miscellaneous: this is the category be where I stick fragrances, preservatives, etc. 


A special note on sulfates - this is focused on the surfactant category. Surfactants are particles where one end ‘likes’ oil and one end ‘likes’ water. The end that ‘likes’ oil attached to the oil on the hair like a magnet. This leaves the end that ‘likes’ water exposed. As luck would have it, you use shampoo in the shower where there’s a steady stream of water. The exposed end of the surfactant that’s looking for water finds it readily and attaches like a magnet to the water. This pulls the oil off the hair and rinses it away with the water.


Sulfates are something everyone loves to hate. They got mislabeled as ‘bad’ for our health. The real issue when it comes to shampoos is that they are aggressive at removing oil and diet. Sulfates are strong and cheap so they are an easy thing to add to products for their ability to clean. It’s true that they are likely too strong for daily shampoo use because they can leave the hair feeling excessively stripped of natural oils.  

In choosing a shampoo focus on the desired effect. In subsequent posts we will discuss the specific ingredients for specific

effects.