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Price Tag Cage Match: Drugstore vs. Salon Shampoos

By Amalah

“I can’t spend $20 on shampoo. I just can’t.”

I get this a lot. And I understand! I do! And yet…I kind of don’t. I mean, have you ever spent $20 on a shirt? That you maybe wear once or twice a month?

You wear your hair everyday. And you will wear your hair for the rest of your life. Take care of it. Cheap out on t-shirts and eyeshadow and skip the grande nonfat lattes, but invest in the long-term health of your hair and skin.

All that said, I am NOT saying you should buy expensive products just because they are expensive. And I am NOT saying that all expensive products are worth the money, or that anything inexpensive is automatically garbage.

I used drugstore shampoos for years. And for awhile, they worked. Of course, that was when I was 1) 13 years old, 2) not coloring my hair, and 3) had not discovered blow-dryers, curling irons, hot rollers or straightening irons.

I was in college when my hair stylist finally sat me down for a little come-to-Jesus moment about my Pantene usage. I’d been seeing her for years (she did my hair for my wedding and then attended as a guest). She always politely ignored my sloppy, at-home dye jobs because she knew I simply couldn’t afford salon highlights, but shampoo and conditioner was another thing.

She told me to stop buying the stuff for oily hair. She told me it was stripping my hair of the oil it needed and thus making my scalp produce more to overcompensate. (Sadly, it was still YEARS before I realized the same concept worked for skincare too.) She told me to stop using the 2-in-1 garbage because my ends were parched and split. She told me to stop using the cheap shampoos that contained harsh ingredients like alcohol and salts because they were turning my blond hair orange and brassy. She handed me a Matrix shampoo and conditioner for dry colored hair, which I balked at, because OMG, my oily roots! Gross! And OMG, they cost over $12 a bottle.

I bought them because I trusted her. And they changed my life. I loved my hair for the first time in years. My color lasted longer, my roots stayed clean and my hair felt softer and healthier. I also realized that a little bit of the Matrix stuff went a long way, and that I actually didn’t need to buy shampoo as often as I used to.

(Then Matrix discontinued that particular line of shampoo, thus sending me on a never-ending quest to find something just as good, or even better.)

ANYWAY. That’s my personal shampoo testimony. I do believe the stuff sold in your salon — the stuff your hairstylist recommends — is usually better than anything you’ll find on the shelves at CVS. (Provided you trust your stylist, of course, which is why I say never buy products on your first visit to a salon, but wait until you have a bit of a relationship with a stylist and they’ve got an established interest in keeping you happy and coming back). For me, it’s a worthwhile purchase.

Then again, I might just have extra-assy hair that needs way more help than yours.
bbshampoo.jpgSome of you may remember the $100-for-everything Target Challenge I did here a few weeks ago. For shampoo and conditioner, I chose Burt’s Bees Very Volumizing with Pomegranate and Soy.

I had actually never used this particular shampoo. I once used another shampoo by Burt’s at a hotel and liked it, plus Burt’s does avoid a lot of the things I generally loathe about other drugstore brands. You can pronounce everything on the label, they use quality ingredients and they don’t test on animals. And I like the company. I like their reasonable price points and I like that they are making organic, natural products more readily available. No, I don’t believe everything they make is awesome and the absolute best version out there, but mostly everything I’ve tried is pretty darn good for the price.

(I also adore the Baby Bees line and how well it cares for Noah’s skin and hair, so perhaps that’s why I have such a deep affection for the company. It’s like how mothers all tend to develop crushes on their children’s pediatricians and Steve from Blue’s Clues..)

So now that summer is here and it’s hot and humid and awwwwwful, I decided that my Pureology shampoo and conditioner might be a little too heavy for my hair. I’ve noticed a little oily build-up. They are ultra-rich and moisturizing, but I’ve been using them non-stop for awhile and figured it might be time to switch things up. So I put my money where my advice is and bought the Burt’s Bees Very Volumizing shampoo and conditioner for $8 each. ..that’s a full $24 less than the same combination by Pureology. (Pureology is 100% vegan, but I’ll admit, there’s a load of stuff on the label I’ve never heard of, so hey, I’m all for simplifying.)

Okay. Cage Match time.

The Burt’s shampoo is watery. It’ll drip right through your fingers if you’re not careful. It eventually works up to a nice lather but it’s still…thin. I’ve also found that I need to rinse and then shampoo again to ensure that I’ve gotten all my roots really clean.

I use about a dime-sized squirt of Pureology. I need about five times that amount of the Burt’s.

The same goes for the conditioner. I need a ton of it and it doesn’t seem to cling to my hair very well. (I generally let conditioner sit on my roots for a few minutes before rinsing.) To give you an idea of the consistency…you can usually use conditioner in lieu of shaving gel if you’re in a pinch. We ran out this morning so I used the Burt’s to shave my legs…and got out of the shower with four bleeding gashes around my knees.

But! It smells (really, REALLY) good and it rinses clean and easily.

But! My hair is a knotted mess afterwards. Since using Pureology, I’ve eliminated the need for a detangler. Now I need it again.

Once I get the knots out, things look better for Burt’s. My hair is really shiny (am guessing it’s the fruit extracts…like the Garnier Fructis line) and very soft and manageable. I definitely notice improved volume around the roots.

But in the interest of full disclosure…Jason used the shampoo once and declared it “terrible.” His hair was still dirty and full of product residue (he uses a light styling wax) after shampooing it twice.

prod_pureology.gifPersonally, I don’t think the Burt’s is terrible. It’s a very nice shampoo that does what it promises. But I don’t think it’s worth the hassle of repeated washings, especially since the upfront savings of $24 are pretty much destroyed by how very quickly you’ll go through these bottles. The Pureology shampoo and conditioner last me about four or five months. I’ll be lucky if the Burt’s last me two. Plus I’d need to buy a leave-in conditioner or detangler AND probably a deep conditioning treatment (another thing I no longer need with Pureology). These two product purchases alone will cost $24, at least.

I’m sticking with Pureology. I’ll probably use the Burt’s shampoo once a week or so to help with the oily buildup problem, and the conditioner has been permanently transferred to Noah’s bathroom, since an ultra-light conditioner is perfect for his hair.

I buy all my shirts at Target anyway.

Published July 2, 2007. Last updated June 1, 2017.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • julie

    July 2, 2007 at 9:52 am

    I am a recent convert to “expensive” shampoos and I pretty much have you and my wonderful stylist to thank.
    Now I am using the Smooth Infusion Shampoo and Conditioner. It’s worth every penny and the smaller bottles of both have lasted me for over a month (and still going). It makes my hair all shiny and smooth and wonderfully soft to the touch. I straighten my hair a lot and it makes it so much easier and it lasts longer!
    (I tried to link it to this comment but I’m not so tech savy)
    Now that I officially sound like an advertisement I will go….

  • Holly

    July 2, 2007 at 9:53 am

    I will first say that I worship at the altar of the pricey hair products, too (current obsession = Kiehl’s Olive Fruit Oil Conditioner). But, one thing that I’ve discovered from writing stories about the science of hair and skin productry and the safety of ingredients found therein is that the big-name drugstore brands (Pantene et al) oftentimes have the mega budgets (courtesy the larger brand families they belong to, like Proctor and Gamble or whatever) that allow them to more thoroughly test products/hone formulations before they go to market, whereas the salon brands, well, usually don’t.
    But conveniently, of course, I manage to forget this when faced with the trove of products each time I go to get my hair cut!

  • Tone

    July 2, 2007 at 10:00 am

    After the $100 challenge, I went out and bought some Burt’s Bee’s shampoo (not the very volumizing as my Target didn’t carry it), but I did not like it at all. I ended up returning it after using it twice because it took twice as much to clean my hair, so that seemed like a waste. However, I am currently using a GASP! Suave Professional product, and am not hating it. With my very oily hair, it seems to keep the oil at bay. Perhaps I am doing my hair more harm than good though. I’ve been in such a quest for good skin lately that I’ve ignored my hair (explaining why my last hair cut at the Hair Cuttery was the first one since Christmas). But my new Philosophy skin care line up pretty much explains the Suave Professional shampoo and conditioner. At least that’s how I justify it to my husband.

  • robin m

    July 2, 2007 at 10:20 am

    FWIW I’ve been using “Conditioner only” “shampoo” for about 20 months and I love it. I have a gentle shampoo I use every 2 weeks or so just on the scalp, but the “clarifying” conditioners have enough in them to keep my hair clean. My hair is 1000% softer since I started this.

  • Stephanie

    July 2, 2007 at 11:37 am

    When I can get myself to a salon and convince my poor I can drop $40 in one shot, I love the Pureology volume shampoo and conditioner. It leaves my hair so soft, and when it isn’t summertime and I actually wear it down, it looks great all day. In the summertime when I wear it up, I usually wash my hair only every other day unless I’ve put a lot of product in it or actually exercised (ha!), but I condition every day because it’s long and tangles easily. It does last a long time since you don’t need to use a lot product, but when I last ran out of the conditioner, I wasn’t able to go out and get a replacement right away. So instead, I picked up the L’Oreal Vive PRO Nutrigloss conditioner at CVS, and I have to say that I really like it. I use about the same amount as the Pureology and it leaves my hair incredibly soft. I may try the shampoo when I run out of the Pureology and see if they work well in combination, but at least for now I think the L’Oreal conditioner is a good bet for being on a budget.

  • Kim

    July 2, 2007 at 12:21 pm

    I am a convert to the Pureology line. I got a bonus at work a few weeks back and with my 35th birthday coming I have decided I have to start spending a little more time and money on my hair and skin. Thanks for the great advice. I seem to have the same hair that you do. I went with the Pureology shampoo and conditioner and the root lift. I’ve also been using the Tigi after party. Wow, I cannot believe the difference. I saw some pictures of myself from a few months ago and oh, the shame. Too bad I didn’t switch sooner. Hurray for good hair, finally!

  • Erin

    July 2, 2007 at 1:08 pm

    My stylist at my fancy schmancy salon says that in a pinch, the best drugstore stuff, in her opinion, is Dove. I like the conditioner, and I use it every couple weeks.
    Oh, and as for where to use conditioner–for volume keep it away from the roots and only put it at the ends of your hair.

  • jodifur

    July 2, 2007 at 2:15 pm

    Ok-you convinced me! I’m one of those can’t spend $20 on shampoo (actually, my salon has it for $30), but I just ordered it on salon I just spent a ton to color my hair and this way I won’t ruin the color. And we have very similar hair, so I’m giving it a try. If I hate it, I’ll send it to you.

  • cagey

    July 2, 2007 at 3:43 pm

    Chiming in to say, that if you have long hair, a good shampoo and conditioner is CRUCIAL to your hair’s health. I use Aveda and Matrix, but mix in Suave and Garnier to offset the costs of the pricier ones. Oddly enough, Suave and Garnier got good reviews from that “don’t go to the cosmetics counter without me” gal, Paula Begoun. I agree with Amy that Garnier styling products pretty much suck, though. WAY too heavy.
    Anyway, if you have long hair and use good products, then you don’t battle split ends as much and thus, you can actually save a little on hair trims since you won’t need them as often.

  • tarheelbaby

    July 2, 2007 at 4:43 pm

    I love Wella Color Preserve Hydrating Shampoo and Conditioner. It’s not crazy expensive and you can find it on sale sometimes. For a long time, I thought my hair was frizzy and I slapped on anti-frizz products, but since switching to this, not so much. Turns out my hair was thirsty, not frizzy.

  • suziwon

    July 3, 2007 at 2:31 am

    I used to use the salon products. I used them for years. Then I became a poverty stricken college student. And I learned that I could use products that were far less expensive and still have my hair look like ass.
    Enter my fourth year of college and the recommendation of someone I knew to try using hot oil on my hair. It helped some. Then a couple of years after that, enter the suggestion of my Aunt to hook up with some Aussie 3 minute miracle.
    Now? I use cheap old Suave shampoo in which ever scent makes me happy and the 3 minute miracle *EVERY* time I wash my hair (which is every one to two days). I still try to use the hot oil on occasion when my hair starts to get too dry (which amazingly enough does happen). Sadly, I’ve not been able to get my hands on the cheap Tresemme that I’ve been in love with for awhile now.
    I *FINALLY* don’t run around looking like I was on the losing end of a battle with an electric socket, as long as my hair doesn’t get past shoulder length.
    Now, on the occasion that I do use heat on my hair, I have a quality product that I slap on that contains silicone. I usually follow up with some shine enhancer that helps to tame the frizzies.
    Just my 2cp worth.

  • Dapbim

    July 3, 2007 at 4:11 pm

    Just before reading this, I was looking on eBay in a desperate attempt to find the salon shampoo I loved back in the UK over here in Germany, and I came across this:
    5 litres of shampoo for about 4 dollars looking like anti-freeze for my windscreen wash. I may have wept a little…

  • MeghanC

    July 3, 2007 at 11:03 pm

    Question, though: do you still stick by never ever buying salon products from the drugstore? Would it change your mind if at my drugstore here in New York there was a whole aisle almost just of salon shampoos with a fancy “salon” sign over them, and they are all sold at full price? They still have that “only buy in a salon” fine print on the bottles, though…

  • PaintingChef

    July 5, 2007 at 10:13 am

    I have finally converted to expensive shampoo and conditioner as well. Philosophy’s “Shear Splendor” line and I are now totally BFF. Its a 3-step process that starts with a “hair marinating oil” and then include a shampoo (that you will hate the way it makes your hair feel… but be patient!!) and a big tub of conditioner. (They sell a starter kit on Sephora) And something else I’ve learned? Those of us with that dry frizzy straw masquerading as hair really and truly should only shampoo once or twice a week. It took me a few months to gradually make that transition as I used to be REALLY dumb and shampoo and condition ever single day but I’m telling you. I think the change in frequency was the best thing I ever did for my hair. So that’s my suggestion… PHILOSOPHY! SHEAR! SPLENDOR! (But Pureology is totally my second favorite, that stuff smells like heaven!)

  • TasterSpoon

    July 5, 2007 at 7:45 pm

    MAN! I just plunked down a dollar ninety-eight for VO5 shampoo and conditioner yesterday! And now you come across with all this sensible argument about self respect and whatnot. I like the “you wear your hair everyday” remark. I never thought of it that way.
    What should I do with my VO5 now?? Save them to wash the dog I may someday adopt? Can you mop the floor with shampoo?

  • Pammer

    July 6, 2007 at 10:48 am

    Totally de-lurking for this one. MUST pimp out THE best conditioner – and not feel shameful about the price:
    Loreal Kerastase MASQUE OLÉO-RELAX. It’s anywhere from $44.00 to $60.00 depending on salon markup, but OMG there is nothing like it.
    For those of us with thick, coarse, curly hair that tends to get dry or frizzy, THIS, my friends, is the nuts. You only need a tiny bit, so it lasts forevah – and totally handles the hot styling stress / tools hair gets subjected to.
    I heart it immensely and will be buried with a pot of it.

  • BaltimoreGal

    July 6, 2007 at 12:01 pm

    OK, now about the Pureology products- Has anyone tried the non-volumizing products? (volume I gots, baby!) My hair is that wavy-straight hybrid that gets humidity-caused frizz but isn’t quite curly, that gets fried if I don’t treat it before I blow-dry it (only 2 times per week) and it’s thick but fine hair that can’t hold a style without hairspray, etc. I’m willing to drop the cash if the products work but Pureology’s seem to overlap so much… I’m lost. And my salon (which I’m NOT leaving) doesn’t sell it.

  • Cha

    July 7, 2007 at 2:29 am

    Amy, you whore. I just dropped over $80 on Pureology crap at salonsavings. Are they giving you kickbacks or something? Because I couldn’t just get the Hydrating shampoo and conditioner. Oh no! I had to get the Nano Shine Polish buzzword buzzword and some other Glaze shiny pretty hair promise product. My hair better frickin’ *blind* people after this!

  • Melissa

    July 8, 2007 at 7:42 pm

    I have the sameish hair as Baltimoregal and therefore the same question. I don’t mind spending the money, but where do I start?
    Unrelated…omg, I seriously thought I was the only new mom in love with her baby’s pediatrician. I am SO glad that it’s not just me.

  • eadesq

    July 9, 2007 at 7:32 pm

    I have tried so hard to love Burt’s Bees… they’re hippie-ish and entrepreneurial and from the Northeast… what’s not to love?
    Their tinted moisturizer is one thing not to love (greasy, non-absorbing mess). And I’ve found that the shampoo and conditioner I tried left my hair very waxy.
    HOWEVER!! The Avocado pre-butter shampoo is the best deep conditioning treatment I have EVER tried. It is relatively cheap, it smells good, and it is so good for your hair. It’s a little thick, but once you get used to emulsifying it, it’s really awesome.

  • Kookaloomoo

    July 10, 2007 at 1:49 pm

    I gave up expensive shampoo about 4 years ago, and have actually found that my hair is much happier now than when I was plunking down $45 for a bottle of Kerastase. I now use Suave Daily Clarifying shampoo on my mid-length, fine hair. I know it’s counter-intuitive, but my hair is way more shiny, healthy, cooperative, and has more body than ever before. I converted after I found out that it’s what my S.O. has been using on her gorgeous, thick, healthy, straight, Indian-princess hair since she was in junior high school. My hair stylist is dumbfounded, but agrees that the $2 a bottle shampoo is definitely doing a better job than anything she has sold me in the past.

  • Debbie

    January 12, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    I would never use Suave products EVER! They have way too much alcohol in them and dry your hair out. If you would like to try a good shampoo and conditioner that is not as expensive, try Back To Basics. They have many different kinds. The one that I use is the Coconut/Mango. It smells amazing and makes my hair very light and soft. It only costs $12/liter. So $24 for 2 bottles that last anywhere from 3 to 4 months, depending on how many people use it in the family. I have a 13 year old daughter who shares mine so it’s great.

  • Heidi

    November 8, 2015 at 9:54 pm

    I keep trying salon shampoo and keep getting disappointed  and find myself  going back to pantene.  The main issue is scent. I can not tolerate  strong scents and most salon brands are way too overpowering.  I will try new salon brands when there is a big sale  but i always find myself going back to pantene or Sally’sBeauty Supply  which sells shampoo  that is better than  drugstore but cheaper than salon.

    I just recently paid big money for Joico color endure and it was a whopping disappointment. More money wasted.   it was gentle alright but also my hair felt dirty by afternoon 🙁