Shampoo 101: Choosing the Right Shampoo for Your Hair Type

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OHLAMOUR STUDIO / Stocksy

Buying shampoo can be a confusing endeavor. Hydrating, strengthening, smoothing, color-safe, thickening—how do you match the lingo on the bottle with the hair on your head? We're scratching our heads right there with you. That being said, finding the right one can make you feel like you've hit the hair jackpot. And, it doesn't have to be a head game if you know what you're looking for.

We tapped board-certified dermatologist Sharleen St. Surin-Lord and trichologist Shab Reslan to learn how to find the best shampoo for your hair type. It turns out, it all starts with a very simple step of knowing what kind of scalp you have.

Meet the Expert

Ahead, experts share how to find the right shampoo to make your hair look its best.

Define Your Scalp Type

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"What's the best shampoo for me?" is something all beauty junkies ask themselves (after all, healthy-looking hair starts with the first thing you put on it). While you might think of shampoo strictly as a hair cleansing agent, it's equally important to consider your scalp when choosing a shampoo. "Shampoos all have different cleansing capabilities; therefore, it's important to identify your scalp type before choosing one," Reslan explains. "By design, shampoo is meant to cleanse your roots more than any other part of your hair, so if you're prone to oily roots, for example, you may need a less moisturizing and deeper cleansing shampoo." And on the flip side, if you have a dryer or a more tight scalp, you likely need something more moisturizing.

Here's how to tell what your scalp type is. "A scalp that feels tight after washing (or just by itself) or a scalp that is itchy (with or without flakes) are signs that you may have a dry scalp," says St. Surin-Lord. "An oily scalp, on the other hand, may be shinier, and someone with an oily scalp and dandruff can have flakes that appear clumped together." Finally, there's combination scalp, which refers to a scalp that's neither dry nor oily. You'll know if your scalp is combo if it gets oily two to three days after shampooing versus the day after. (Consider yourself lucky if that's you).

Think of it this way: shampoo is for your scalp and roots, while conditioner is for the ends of your hair. If your scalp is oily and your ends are dry (a common combination), then you should choose a shampoo that is best suited for an oily scalp and leave the moisturizing up to your conditioner, which should be applied only to your dried ends.

The sebaceous glands in the scalp skin bathe the actual hair shaft with oil, so if you have oily hair, you're likely the owner of an oily scalp.

Shampoos for Oily Scalps

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 (even twice daily) to allowing days between shampoos to control excess oil and sebum production. 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 tend to add too much moisture to your already oily scalp.
  • Look for labels that mention volumizing, strengthening, or balancing. These products are non-moisturizing and more effective at removing excess oil.
  • A clarifying shampoo can be a big help for super-oily scalp conditions, but be careful not to overuse the product and dry out your scalp. Dry skin can stimulate more oil and sebum production.
  • Try a double shampoo. Similar to a double-cleansing your face, a double shampoo consists of washing your hair with two separate shampoos to target different needs. Use one formula to address your oily scalp, followed by a different formula to wash below your roots.
  • Spend extra time working the shampoo into your scalp to break up oil, and rinse your scalp very well.
  • After shampooing, avoid working your conditioner into your scalp. Instead, concentrate on the mid-shaft and ends of your hair. Rinse well.

Shampoos for Dry Scalps

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When your scalp is dry, itchy, or flaky, choosing the right shampoo can be your first line of defense against the uncomfortable, sometimes embarrassing conditions that can occur. It's essential to choose a shampoo that doesn't add to the issue when you have a dry scalp. Try these tips:

  • 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 or flaking, look for shampoo labels that promote moisture, hydration, smoothing, or curls. These products encourage moisture retention and can be beneficial to your dry scalp.
  • 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.

If your scalp is very dry, itchy, or flaky, consider shampoos that are specifically formulated for dry scalps. Ingredients such as menthol and tea tree can help moisturize.

Shampoos Based on Hair Type

  • Fine Hair: Look for volumizing shampoos that can boost your strands without weighing hair down.
  • Thick Hair: Hydrating or moisturizing shampoos are great for adding moisture, shine, and smoothness to thick hair that lacks moisture.
  • Straight Hair: Smoothing or straight hair shampoos are typically rich in extra moisturizers and smoothing agents that help seal the cuticle and provide a great start for straight and smooth styles.
  • Wavy Hair: Balancing shampoos are typically a nice middle-of-the-road option. They're not too moisturizing but won't dry your hair out.
  • Curly Hair: Look for very moisturizing shampoos that contain ingredients that reduce frizz without weighing down the curls.
  • Damaged/Colored/Brittle Hair: Strengthening or fortifying shampoos are good for damaged, over-processed, highlighted, weakened, or brittle hair, as they usually contain extra protein to improve hair's condition.

Other Factors to Consider

Markers of healthy hair include shine and bounce, and bouncy hair comes from elasticity. If you feel yours lacks bounce, St. Surin-Lord says your hair likely isn't well-moisturized. "To be bouncy and elastic, the hair must not be weighed down by heavy ointments or silicones," she says. "Instead, a humectant such as glycerin will help draw in moisture and is great for dry scalp." Mango seed oil is another ingredient to look out for since it's moisturizing and lightweight, as is argan oil. The ceramides and fatty acids in sunflower seed oil can also hair repair hair, moisturize it, and restore elasticity.

Dealing with dandruff? Reslan says that in most cases, dandruff is a byproduct of an oily and flaky scalp condition that's caused either by infrequent shampooing, gentle cleansing shampoos, or, in some cases, diet. "If someone is experiencing an imbalance in their scalp and they haven't changed their environment, products, diet, or frequency of shampoos, they should have their medical professional take a look at their overall health to make sure their scalp imbalance is not a sign of something internal," she recommends.

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