What’s the Difference Between Drug Store and Salon Shampoo/Conditioner?

One of my besties is a very well known hairstylist, and years ago she convinced me to steer clear of drug store shampoos because they were not as good for the health of your hair as the products sold in the salons.  The rational was that drug store shampoos and conditioners were made of lesser quality ingredients and the pH was either really acidic or alkali (base).  I did some research and found that hair’s natural pH is actually 5 – slightly acidic, so now we know what we want our shampoos and conditioners pH to be.


I decided to test several popular brands of shampoo and conditioner, several drug store brands as well as my favoritest brand (and by far the most expensive and hardest to find), Kevin Murphy.  What I found was really interesting…

suave_clarifyingThe first to submit to the litmus test was Suave Daily Clarifying Shampoo.  I buy this shampoo for my man because it’s cheap, he keeps his hair short and is constantly getting haircuts.  Why spend more money than I need to for him to get that squeeky clean feeling he loves after spending a day in the Georgia heat playing golf?

I was expecting to find a pH really far away from 5 because it’s terribly cheap (and really, you get what you pay for, right?).  Turns out Suave Daily Clarifying Shampoo came in at a pH around 4.  Now I can’t be super specific because litmus paper only gives you a general idea, so I don’t know if it was a 4.2 (the same as acid rain – yikes!) or if it was a 4.8.  The most astounding thing was that it was in the general realm of the other products I tested!  So really, if you’re needing to do a clarifying wash to get rid of residue, products, etc., this one is a pretty good choice.

tresemme-naturals-nourishing-moisture-shampooThe second shampoo I tested was TRESemme Naturals Nourishing Moisture Shampoo.  They boast “Lower Sulfates” on the packaging and tote themselves as being a “natural” alternative with “salon quality”.  Now, technically you want a sulfate-free product, because sulfates strip color and are generally not good for your hair, but good luck finding a product like that at the grocery store!  I have used this shampoo on occasion, and I have to say, I’m impressed with how my hair feels when I use it in conjunction with the TRESemme Naturals Nourishing Moisture Conditioner that is labeled “silicone free”.  It’s soft, tangle free, shiny and frizz-free.  This drugstore gem came in with a pH of 6.

tresseme_conditionerI then tested the TRESemme Naturals Nourishing Moisture Conditioner.  It had a pH of 4.  This means that the TRESemme haircare products, when used in conjunction with each other are pH balanced to 5 (Shampoo = 5+1, Conditioner = 5-1).  This tells us that more than likely when commercials say that their products are pH balanced, what they really mean is when they are used together they are balanced to your hair’s natural pH, not that each individual product is pH balanced.  I had heard this before when my hairstylist friend told me they did litmus tests on Pantene back in beauty school.  She said they were WAY off (I’m talking like a pH 8 and pH 2).  That frightened me because you are putting something extremely acidic on your hair and then turning around and putting something extremely alkali on your hair to counteract the acidity.  YIKES!  But a +1 and -1 doesn’t seem to be that far off to me.  And, again, we don’t know if the 4 was a 4.8, and the 6 was a 6.0, which would make them very much in the realm of being 5.  Pretty great for being a brand you can pick up at the grocery store!

dove_oilcare_shampThe next brand I tried was Dove.  I was really rooting for this one because I love Dove Sensitive Skin body wash and soap.  It’s one of the only soaps I use because it’s so gentle on skin, is fragrance free and doesn’t dry you out like so many soaps can (thank you 1/4 moisturizer!).  I tested the Dove Nourishing Oil Care Shampoo because the commercials show it transforming frizzy out of control hair (mine, if left to it’s own devices in Atlanta summers), and if it’s as good as the “real” girls on the commercials claim AND it turns out to be pH balanced, then this might be a good drug store alternative for me to keep my mane looking fabulous despite extreme odds down here in the south.  Turns out it has a pH of 4, just like the Suave Daily Clarifying Shampoo.  Ok, so that’s not terribly off if the conditioner is a pH 6, right?  Still not fantastic – in a perfect world, your shampoo and conditioner would both have a pH 5 so neither process would alter your hair.

dove-inte-repair-condI tested Dove Intense Repair Conditioner, which may have been a problem because, while it’s still Dove brand, it’s not the Nourishing Oil Care Conditioner.  I had the Oil Care conditioner, but I threw it out.  I used it twice with the Oil Care Shampoo and it left a terrible residue – picture having freshly washed hair but having it feel as if you haven’t washed it in a week.  Yeah, that’s what it was like.  So I threw it out and grabbed this conditioner.  It came in with a pH of 4 as well.  Not good if you’re using it in conjunction with the Dove Nourishing Oil Care Shampoo, but certainly within my findings so far in the conditioner category.  I really do like this conditioner – it doesn’t weigh hair down, it’s silky, shiny and 100% tangle free straight out of the shower…and for me that’s a HUGE thing!  Perhaps the Intense Repair Shampoo has a pH of 6, which would balance the system to 5.  I’ll have to grab a bottle and test it.  Stay tuned for the results of that one!

pantene_shampMoving on to the Pantene.  I was excited to test this brand because I’ve heard for so long how terrible it actually is.  The story goes like this:  Pantene shampoos are extremely alkali that it’s almost like putting ammonia on your hair.  It strips out all of the natural oils, leaving your hair dry and brittle.  Then you use the Pantene conditioner, an extremely acidic substance, to counteract the damage the shampoo has done and make your hair feel lovely again.  The moment you start using another brand of shampoo & conditioner, you notice that your hair doesn’t feel as lovely as it did when you were using Pantene because you can see the damage and you switch back to Pantene, vowing to never again stray from “the only shampoo and conditioner that can tame your unruly hair”, when in reality it is the Pantene that is causing the damage in the first place.  Pretty smart Pantene…Pretty smart.  But is the old Pantene wives-tale true?

I tested the Pantene Beautiful Lengths Breakage Defense Shampoo.  It came in with a pH 6.  In the same ballpark as the others in the bunch, and definitely not as bad as my hairstylist friend made it out to be.

pantene_conditionerNext up was the other half, Pantene Beautiful Lengths Breakage Defense Conditioner which came in with a pH of 4.  So the Pantene is “pH balanced” when using the system together, just like the TRESemme.  Interesting.  So that story I was fed was embellished…and they were trying to get me to buy $20 shampoo at the time.  Nice sales technique…  I feel bad having retold that story to so many girlfriends over the years!  By spreading that rumor, I am 100% positive I am responsible for at least a dozen or so of my nearest and dearest steering clear of the grocery store shampoo isle and laying down big bucks that their local salon.  Oops.  Sorry ladies.

So now we come to the Kevin Murphy…  This has been my favorite haircare line for a few years now.  I’ve met Kevin Murphy himself, I believe in the product and I’ve scoured Atlanta to find a salon that carries it in case I am in a bind and can’t wait for my Amazon shipment to arrive.  This line is supposedly made of grade A, food quality ingredients, and is supposed to be magnificent for the health of your hair.  My favorite is the Kevin Murphy Luxury Wash and Rinse.  It smells amazing and your hair feels thick and luxurious, just like the name promises.

kevin-murphy-luxury-wash-shampoo-250mlFirst on my litmus chopping block is the Kevin Murphy Luxury Wash.  I cannot stress enough how amazing this shampoo smells.  It’s not overpowering, but I get compliments on my “perfume” when I’m wearing none and you get a whiff of the shampoo every time you do a flirtatious hair flip (which I do A. LOT.).  The bar was set high for me as I dipped my litmus paper.  After all, it’s $25 for 8.4 ounces of this hair miracle.  Turns out it has a pH of 6.  In all fairness, the Kevin Murphy website discloses it’s pH, so it’s not like they’re trying to hide it (they say it has a 6.3-7 pH).  Why so harsh, Mr. Murphy?  I tried to shelf my disappointment in the hopes that the conditioner would balance it out to a 5 because that’s what the other, less expensive brands do.  Maybe it’s an industry-wide thing.

kevin-murphy-luxury-rinse-conditioner-250mlThe Luxury Rinse tested at a pH of 7.  The website claims it has a pH of 4.5-5.5.  Interesting.  Even if I got the same result as they claim, it’s still not pH balanced to 5, like the less expensive brands.  I was starting to get concerned.  Was I throwing good money (and lots of it) at a product that was chemically harsh on my hair?

km_maxiwashThe final shampoo I tested was Kevin Murphy Maxi Wash.  This is the clarifying shampoo I have been using once a week for the past 4 years.  It’s also an astounding $25 per 8.4 ounce bottle, but I have been a believer.  This detoxifying shampoo came in at a pH 6.  So definitely not out of line with some of the other shampoos, but when paired with the Luxury wash, you’re doing a ton of damage to your hair!  YIKES!

So what’s the lesson here?  For me it’s that you don’t always get what you pay for.  Salon products aren’t necessarily better than drug store products.  They just cost more and have a perceived value because they are harder to get and fewer people can afford them, making them very desirable.  The second thing that this little chemistry experiment has taught me is that you should really stick with one haircare system (at least at a time).  You don’t want a shampoo that is a pH 6 and a conditioner that is a pH 7.  Because the brands are “balanced” to 5 when used together, this is your best bet.  When you switch brands of shampoo, switch to the conditioner that goes with the shampoo.  I’m sure the quality of ingredients is better with more expensive products, and I know you want to steer clear of silicone and sulfates, which cheaper brands are more likely to have, but as far as pH goes, there’s not much of a difference between drug store and salon brands.

If you have any brands you would like me to test, drop me a line!  I’d be happy to do so!


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