Although differences of opinion exist regarding the quality/efficacy between professional and store brand hair products, most experts agree that these products are not the same thing. The question, therefore, is not whether they differ but by how much; it then becomes a question of how well they work for each individual’s personal hair needs.
Why each hair type needs individual attention.
Although most people have a pH of between 4.5 and 5.5 (on a scale of 1 thru 14, 1 being most acidic and 14 being most basic), most normal, healthy hair is more acidic than basic. Consequently, shampoos that promise pH balanced hair (as is often the case with cheaper store brands) may actually not be best for your hair. You need shampoos and conditioners that help you maintain that acidic characteristic.
Salon products are usually dispensed by people who have years of experience and training in cosmetology. Such professionals usually conduct a thorough evaluation of specific particular hair types and recommend products specially tailored for the specific hair types. One disadvantage of store products is that they do not come with that type of individualized attention.
How do the ingredients in store brands differ from that in salon products?
While both sets of products may contain the same ingredients, the amounts of said ingredients may differ. Salon products, for which you may often pay more, may also contain special herbs, oils and vitamins that will either not be in store brands or, if they are listed, in much lower concentrations.
Perhaps the most important ingredient to look at is surfactant. This is the “detergent” that creates the lather and that is meant to thoroughly clean the hair. The problem is that not all surfactants are the same. Salon brands, for example, usually contain sodium laureth sulfate, which is gentler on the hair, although it may produce less lather.
Cheaper store products, though, may contain ammonium laurel sulfate or sodium laurel sulfate, both of which tend to be more abrasive, to the point of stripping sensitive hair of essential nutrients, moisturizing agents and even hair color. They are often used in cheaper products because they create more lather (often giving the idea of cleansing better), are less expensive for manufacturers and often give short-term superficial benefits.
What do salon professionals use, in general?
Perhaps one way to objectively assess the differences between store brands and salon products is by inquiring into which of the two salon professionals use themselves. After all, these are the people who are best informed (other than the chemists who actually design and mix them, although they don’t necessarily have to use them) about these products.
In most cases, professionals in the industry seem to prefer salon products. Even those who occasionally use store products insist that salon products can cost less in the long run (because the amounts used may be less), help hair maintain shine and luster in the long run (as opposed to the short run), and have a long history of working better for those who use them consistently, correctly and in conjunction with other hair care practices/guidelines.
Are best-informed consumers better prepared to make the best decisions?
As in other areas plagued by differences of opinion, perhaps those consumers who are best informed are likely to make the decision that is best for them. Some facts, therefore, that you need to keep in mind include:
1. There are sulfate-free shampoos out there that may help those who are allergic/sensitive to sulfates or who are concerned about the damage such detergents may cause hair (especially in the excessive amounts that may be found in cheaper products).
2. The salon brands found in department stores may not be as fresh or potent as those found in salons.
3. Salon products often come with special guarantees of quality not matched by store brands.
4. Cosmetic companies spend lots of money creating salon products; store brands may not receive as much attention/devotion.
Perhaps the best thing you can do is try both salon and store brands to see what works best on your hair. Determining what is best for your hair in the long run, however, may require the expertise of professionals who know what to look for and are qualified to run special tests available.