Label Bias, Pt. 2: When the Best Professional Shampoo Isn’t *Really* the Best

Are professional shampoo brands really worth top dollar?

A few months ago we did a rundown of why supermarket shampoos were just as good as salon-brand formulas (a.k.a. Suave’s popular WAWA claim, which stands for “works as well as” and brought to the fore via the viral “evaus” campaign), together with the “label bias” that makes us think otherwise.

That said, and in the spirit of offering our readers their fair share of information, we decided to go deeper into this popular topic, even enlisting the help of one of our resident experts to help debunk any lingering myths. Is there really truth to claims that the best professional shampoo, or a salon-professional brand, is better than your drugstore variety? Unilever R&D’s Senior Manager for Hair in North America, Leon van Gorkom, helped separate the fiction from fact (and quite possibly even saved us some extra dollars in the process!).

Read on:

best professional shampoo
Has your label bias given salon brands an unfair advantage over mass-market formulas?

All Things Hair: Hi Leon! Hope you can help us with this one. Is there really a difference between regular drugstore-brand shampoos and professional shampoo brands?

Leon Van Gorkom: “They’re usually overpriced, that’s one! But there’s no real difference in the way they work.”

For some reason, we knew that answer was coming. So how can they afford to charge that much if it’s the same batch of ingredients?

“People believe they’re getting quality. First of all, if you go to a salon and you listen to a stylist, he or she would most likely recommend the shampoo that he or she is selling. The stylist is going to say that his shampoo is the best there is. Then, you’re going to be overly pampered in the salon: They wash and condition your hair, massage your scalp, put on a mask and then leave it on for 20 minutes, because the longer you stay in the salon, the more they can charge you. And then they style your hair, and [of course] it’s going to look marvelous because any trained stylist can make your hair look so much better than you can by yourself, as it’s hard to style your own hair. It’s easier for somebody else to do it for you, especially if they know what they’re doing and if they’re trained to do so.”

I see. But how does all this lead one to believe that their professional shampoo and conditioner system is far more supreme than what you can get in-store?

“Okay, so [at the salon], you’re feeling good, and believe what they say. They would tell you a story about whatever ingredients are in [their product] and what these can do to the hair (and this is where can get bogus), so people believe those things because their stylist tells them so.”

Does the best professional shampoo have absolutely nothing going for it though? In other words, is there a plus side to purchasing a salon brand?

“They usually have nice packaging, and the fragrances tend to be really good because they can afford to spend much more money; if I sold a shampoo bottle for $30, I can spend more money on its fragrance if I wanted to than if I sold it for $3.99. But the way that these shampoos work, they use surfactants to clean.”

Are there any hidden secrets or tricks that some salon brands use to differentiate themselves from the mainstream competition?

“One common thing is that stylists tend to condition a little bit less. If you look at some well-known professional shampoo and conditioner systems, they tend to be on the low-conditioning side. This may be great for a stylist, because he or she then can put additional products in which he can sell to you as well, versus if you used a regular shampoo and conditioner at home and you don’t necessarily want to spend extra money or extra time [on your hair].”

Wow—is that a common trick?

“We know of one brand that tends to do it, but I’m not sure how common it is. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was more common.”

How about the claims that salon brands make that their products are gentler, or in some cases, sulfate-free?

“Yes, another difference between mass brands and salon brands is that a lot of the salon brands are going sulfate-free now. Once again, it’s not that difficult to make a sulfate-free shampoo, but it’s harder to do at $3 than at $30.”

Editor’s note: Suave has Suave Professionals Sulfate-Free Cleansing Shampoo for Natural hair.This product is a steal $4.99

But generally, there’s really not much difference in how effective they are?

“No. And you can tell, because in Suave Professionals we claim we work as well as them. The technology is no different. Sometimes I think with brands like Suave and Dove, we have more technology in ours than they have. Their products look good, their bottles look magnificent and their fragrance smells great, so there’s nothing wrong with it. But talking about technology, the mass brands I think have a lot of technology in their formulas.”