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How do Shampoo and Conditioner Work?

what ingredients are in shampoo and conditioner

How do shampoo and conditioner work?

In many ways, shampoo is simply a body wash, with slight modifications to improve it’s performance for your hair. The same basic principles that applied to soap apply to shampoo. The basic cleanser in shampoo is the same surfactant that is used in soap. Lathering agents, thickeners and other additives to adjust pH and add moisture and fragrance are added, but the basic shampoo is very similar to a body wash.

Amphoteric- can change their behavior based upon pH of the environment, often they are very gentle on the hair and eyes, making them good options for baby shampoos as well as for those with chemically treated or fine hairbetaines derivatives (cocamidopropyl betaine)
sultaines derivatives
imidazolinium derivatives
Sodium lauraminopropionate

DetergentsLauryl sulfates- the main surfactant in most shampoos since a great lather is made, works in hard and soft water. Rinseable, but hard on hair.sodium lauryl sulfate
triethanolamine lauryl sulfate
ammonium lauryl sulfate
Laureth sulfates- Good lather, clean well and leave hair in better conditionsodium laureth sulfate
triethanolamine laureth sulfate
ammonium laureth sulfate
Sarcosines- Great conditioners, but poor cleansers, usually used jointly with another detergentlauryl sarcosine
sodium lauryl sarcosinate
Sulfosuccinates- Great at removing oil, often found in oily hair shampoosdisodium oleamine sulfosuccinate
sodium dioctyl sulfosuccinate
Foaming AgentsIntroduce gas bubbles, creating foam. Lather is pleasant (I love it!) but doesn’t say anything about cleaning power. Oil decreases lather, so you’ll see less lather with dirtier hair.
ThickenersIt should be obvious what these do
OpacifiersThese make your shampoo look “pearly”
ConditionersAgain, obvious what these are. Likely to be found in more varieties and higher amounts in shampoos for dry hairfatty alcohols
fatty esters
vegetable oils
mineral oils
humectants (look at the cleanser post for a good list)
hydrolyzed animal protein
propylene glycol
stearalkonium chloride
Sequestering agentsThese keep minerals and hard metals dissolved in the water. Without doing this, they would form a film on the hair.
pH adjustersMost shampoos are more basic (higher pH) which can damage hair by causing the hair shaft to swell and break. Some shampoos have adjusted the pH to more neutral, which is better for the hair.

Washing your hair too often can strip it of oils, leaving it dry and difficult to manage. As a result, conditioners were invented to help replace those oils, improving the hair’s condition leaving it silky and shiny. Back in the day, conditioners were made of things like wax and egg whites, today most conditioners are silicone. The amount of silicone in the conditioner and the amount left behind after rinsing will determine whether the formula is intended for those with fine limp hair (less silicone is left) or curly hair (more silicone is left).

Honestly, conditioners are just not as fun to write about as shampoos. We all know that conditioners will increase shine and flexibility, make our hair more manageable and help us with split ends. It turns out that it really does do all of this by smoothing down the hair’s cuticle (remember all of those Alberto VO5 ads?), and that by doing so a good conditioner can literally HEAL a split end! Well, a mild one, but still! It can happen!

There are a few specialized ingredients that you should know about, otherwise the composition of a conditioner is quite a bit like that of a shampoo, from what I can tell with my reading.


Film Coating AgentsYou want your conditioner to leave a film on your hair, really! They smooth down the cuticle and help to fill in gaps beween the cuticle scales. This also helps to dramatically improve shine.polyvinylpyrrolidone (PVP)
Protein Conditioning AgentsAgain, think of those Pantene and VO5 ads. Where the scale is missing, the cutex of the hair is exposed below. There is damage there, and the hair is very vulnerable to breakage. These proteins are broken up enough that they really can penetrate into the damaged areas and strengthen them. More penetrates as you leave on the conditioner longer. A 10% increase in strength can be seen (which means a lot of breakage can be prevented), but all benefits are washed away by your next shampoo!Keratin
Placenta (really)
SiliconesCreates a thin film similar to other ingredients, holding down the scale of the cuticle. However, silicones create a thinner film, and are less prone to creating limp hair.dimethyl silicone

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About Me

I’m a doctor, a mommy and a bit of a beauty addict. If you let me, I can take 2 hours to get ready in the morning. Really. I'm on a quest for faster beauty that works!

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  1. 6.9.13
    Anonymous said:

    If i shower everyday does that damage my hair ? Ive been told that it does but i go to the gym alot and i feel disgusted if i dont take a complete shower

  2. 6.9.13

    It can dry out your hair and your scalp, but if you use gentle products and mix in some extra moisture by using hydrating versions or doing some intense hydrating masks you should be fine.

  3. 2.7.20
    Hosanna said:

    Do you have a recommendation for pregnancy safe shampoo and conditioner? Thank you!

    • 2.7.20
      15mins said:

      I’m working on posts for that 🙂

  4. 5.13.20
    Stacey said:

    Hi Doctor,

    Could you please review this shampoo “Pura D’or Hair Thinning Therapy Shampoo” whether it is safe for pregnancy?

    Deionized Purified Water, Decyl Glucoside (Derived From Natural Sugar), Cocamidopropyl Hydroxysultaine (Derived From Coconut), Sodium C14-16 Olefin Sulfonate (Derived From Coconut), Cocamidopropyl Betaine (Derived From Coconut), Polyquaternium-71 (Derived From Plant), Cocamide Mipa (Derived From Natural Sugar), Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate (Derived From Coconut), Polyquaternium-80 (Derived From Plant), Disodium Lauryl Sulfosuccinate (Derived From Coconut), Melaleuca Alternifolia (Tea Tree) Leaf Oil*, Argania Spinosa (Argan) Kernel Oil*, Biotin (Vitamin H), Nigella Sativa (Black Cumin) Seed Oil, Emblica Officinalis (Indian Gooseberry) Fruit Extract, Urtica Dioica (Nettle) Leaf Extract, Serenoa Serrulata (Saw Palmetto) Fruit Extract, Cedrus Deodara (Cedarwood) Bark Oil, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf Oil*, Salvia Officinalis (Sage) Oil, Polygonum Multiflorum (He Shou Wu) Root Extract, Citrus Medica Limonum (Lemon) Peel Oil*, Hibiscus Sabdariffa (Roselle) Flower Extract, Nicotinic Acid (Niacin), Zinc Pyrithione, Tocopherol (Vitamin E), Soy Isoflavone (Non-Gmo), Beta-Sitosterol, Camellia Sinensis (Green Tea) Leaf Extract, Phenoxyethanol (Mild Preservative), Caprylyl Alcohol, Ethylhexyl Glycerin, Hexylene Glycol, Citric Acid (Derived From Citrus Fruits)

    Thank you!

    • 5.13.20
      15mins said:

      Looks ok

  5. 12.27.21
    Gina Guarino said:

    I know there is a pregnancy shampoo pay but it appears comments are closed… Is sodium benzoate safe in shampoos for pregnancy? I’ve seen it lists as not safe, but not noted on this site. It’s in so many so would love some insight.

  6. 1.5.23
    Sara said:


    Please let me know the ouai detox shampoo safe for pregnancy? Unfortunately, have been using it through out. Kinda scared.