Cosmetic chemists - brands of shampoo/conditioner with best formulation?
October 8, 2017 7:43 AM   Subscribe

I think I remember reading somewhere that cosmetic chemists consider Pantene to have an excellent formulation. Is this true? Are there any other brands that are highly approved by the experts?

(In anticipation of answers:
1) I am wary of silicones, as I have a feeling (not sure if the effect is real) that they tend to make my hair tanglier a couple of days after a wash (maybe because they attract dirt; I don't know) - so are silicones necessary for an excellent formulation? And do silicone substitutes have the same negative effects as silicones?
2) Are stronger detergents - sulfates - actually worse for hair than weaker detergents?
I'd *love* it if someone with scientific knowledge could answer, because there's sooo much anecdotal evidence around these questions.)
posted by tangerine_poppies to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (2 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I probably don't know enough to answer this, but...I have a tenuous and dated link to P&G which gives me a tiny and dubious bit of insight.

It depends on what you mean by "excellent". IIRC, P&G became a aware of a company that had developed a way to combine shampoo and conditioner. They snapped up the company, or at least the idea, and built it into an industry leading brand in Pantene. Right there, you have one definition of excellent.

Slightly differently, the genius of being P&G is knowing more about detergent and cosmetic chemistry than anyone else, thereby being able to put an superior product in the bottle with a cheaper manufacturing cost. There is a different definition of excellent.

Maybe, probably, you have some different criterion for excellent.
posted by SemiSalt at 12:43 PM on October 8

I am a chemist, but not a cosmetic chemist. Generally, shampoos are mostly the same, with very minor changes in their formulations (usually tenuously tied to "volumizing" or "straightening"), but the biggest selection criteria is your personal preference.

So, as you've probably seen, there's no real "best formulation" because everyone has different preferences (scents, packages, company history/ethics/sourcing), different lifestyles (how often you shampoo/condition, how much dust you get in your hair, how many other products do you use in your hair), and ultimately different hair (short/long, curly/straight, thin/thick, more/less sebum production, etc.). Generally, unless you have very damaged hair (bleaching), use tons of styling products, or have a scalp issue, you should use a "normal shampoo" which contains a sulfate surfactant to remove all the oil/gunk, and then a "normal conditioner" with a cationic surfactant to restore some sebum-type oil to your hair (without the dirt/gunk contaminants).

I wrote a whole lot more about the details, since you mentioned you were interested in the scientific aspect:

The critical component of the shampoo formulation is the surfactant (or "detergent"), which is usually a sulfate. Sulfates are NOT bad for hair or dangerous at all (unless, for instance, you dump a whole bottle of shampoo all over your body and leave it there - then you'll feel a bit scratchy). They are the best way to clean your hair/scalp, and are uniquely capable of doing so, because of their amphiphilic functionality: hydrophobic segment (dislikes water, likes the oils on your head and all the dust/pollen stuck in the oils) and hydrophilic segment (likes water, which means it can be washed out of your hair).

The usual alternative to sulfates are sulfonates... but these just react and turn into sulfates when they're in water, so it's the same active ingredient. [there are differences between these for formulation purposes - sulfonates are more tolerant of pH changes - but not really any different from an end-use perspective]. Many shampoos have multiple surfactants. Special-use shampoos like baby shampoo or color-care shampoo use different surfactant classes, which are less effective for cleaning, but have added benefits in others ways (no eye stinging; easier manageability for badly-damaged hair). If you're not interested in thoroughly cleaning your hair/scalp (some people aren't, and don't use shampoos), then you don't need a surfactant at all.

Conditioners are usually used because shampoos are SO GOOD at removing oils, so some oil needs to be replaced (but nice, clean, oil - not that old hair oil that had gunk stuck in it). Sebum, the naturally-occurring hair-oil, is what most conditioners try to replicate. In order to get the oil back onto your hair, more surfactants are used (but a different kind). The idea with these surfactants is to create a chemical attraction to hair (which is negatively charged) by using a positively-charged ingredient. Other ingredients in conditioners (silicones, collagen-derived polymers, waxes, proteins, etc) are not critical for conditioner-like-performance, but can provide other attractive performance characteristics, like shine or thickness. If you find you don't like the feel of silicones, there's no reason to use them. They're not necessary. Other components might make you feel similarly; you can avoid those too if you want.
posted by chemicalsyntheticist at 1:11 PM on October 9 [6 favorites]

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