PICTURED: NATURALLYCURLY'S JAMIE

In my opinion, your shampoo may be the most important product in your arsenal. I say that because a good shampoo keeps your scalp healthy (which means better hair growth) and makes your hair easier to comb. A bad shampoo will lead to drier hair, scalp irritation, and unstoppable frizz. Your shampoo is truly the first step to smooth, manageable hair. You need a good shampoo in your life!

The best shampoos contain:

  • Sulfate-free cleansers to prevent excessive dryness and scalp irritation
  • Cationic ingredients to condition your hair while you cleanse
  • pH adjusters to balance the pH of the shampoo and prevent unnecessary cuticle damage to your hair

Sulfate-free Cleansers

Have you noticed all the “sulfate-free” shampoos popping up? It sounds like classic marketing hype, but there are a few good reasons to avoid sulfate-based cleansers. Every cleansing product, whether it’s shampoo, dish soap or laundry detergent, contains surfactants. Surfactants are the ingredients that allow oil to be dissolved from a dirty surface. If you put dish soap on a pot and leave it to soak, you’re waiting for the surfactants in your dish soap to break up the grease left from your food. Sulfate-based surfactants like sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate have been used in shampoo for many years, but current scientific research has found them to be significantly irritating for the scalp and drying to the hair.

Does that mean your hair will drastically change if you use a “sulfate-free shampoo”? Probably not. Most women are using sulfate-based shampoos because that’s the majority of what’s on the market. Even if a shampoo contains sulfates it can still be formulated to work well for your hair. However, I want you to have the most up to date information and the reality is there are better options for cleansing our naturally dry strands. To find the gentlest shampoos, look for products that contain at least one of the surfactants listed below in the top 5.

Gentle surfactants to look for

  • Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate
  • Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate
  • Sodium Methyl Cocoyl Taurate

Harsh/Drying surfactants to skip

  • Sodium Laureth Sulfate
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
  • Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate
  • Ammonium Laureth Sulfate
  • Sodium Myreth Sulfate
  • Saponified Oils 
  • Soap

Conditioners and Cationics

You should condition your hair at every step of your routine…during cleansing, after cleansing, and before styling. It probably seems like shampoo can’t cleanse and condition at the same time, but cosmetic chemistry makes it possible. You know how clothes get stuck together in the dryer and they make a popping sound when you pull them apart? That happens because of something called static charge. Curls and coils naturally have a negative charge that causes constant frizz and fly aways. You can make your hair smoother and easier to comb by choosing a shampoo that contains positively charged conditioning ingredients called “cationics”. The ingredients listed below spread over your hair while you lather the shampoo and they stay locked to your strands while dirt and product residue rinse away. The cationic ingredients in your shampoo will increase the effects of your conditioner.

Cationics to look for in your shampoo (the more the better):

• Amodimethicone

• Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride

• Polyquaternium-7

• Polyquaternium-10

• Polyquaternium-11

• Polyquaternium-44

• Polyquaternium-47

pH Adjusters

Is your shampoo pH-balanced? Chances are it is, but does that really matter? The answer is actually yes! The pH value of a liquid tells you whether it’s an acid (like orange juice) or a base (like baking soda mixed with water). pH values below 7 are acids, values above 7 are bases. Skin and hair are made of keratin proteins and all types of protein are sensitive to pH. Our skin and hair can better maintain their natural strength when they are kept at acidic pH values between 4.5 and 6.5. Manufacturers don’t make shampoos with pH values below 4.5, but there are a few shampoos out there that are above 7. When the shampoo is basic instead of acidic, the outer cuticle of your hair will swell excessively when you lather up. When your hair dries later, you’ll be left with the kind of volume you don’t like…stubborn frizz and tangles. Shampoos that are pH balanced help the cuticle resist unnecessary swelling. 

Most shampoos sold at drugstores and beauty supplies will be pH balanced. It’s standard practice for manufacturers to add pH adjusters to shampoo. If you’d like to test the pH of your product at home, I recommend Micro Essentials pHydrion plastic pH indicator strips.

Recommended Shampoos

All of these shampoos are sulfate-free and safe for color-treated hair.

L'Oreal EverCreme Intense Nourishing Shampoo
vailable at drugstores

You can’t beat the price of this shampoo for the quality. A very small amount of product produces a rich, easy to spread lather. Make sure to look for the word “Intense” on the label.

Giovanni Colorflage Daily Color Defense Shampoo
vailable at Vitamin Shoppe and Amazon.com

This shampoo contains “copolymers” which help hair dye last longer.

Free Your Mane Sulfate Free Hydrating Shampoo
vailable at FreeYourMane.com

Free Your Mane products were designed with Type 4 natural hair in mind. This shampoo lathers quickly and contains a high level of conditioners. 

Carol’s Daughter Chocolat Smoothing Shampoo

The Chocolat Smoothing Shampoo is the newest and best shampoo in the Carol’s Daughter line. It’s similar to the L’Oreal EverCreme shampoo, but it contains more conditioning ingredients.

CURLS Curliscious Curls Cleansing Cream

This cleansing cream is the best choice for those who prefer to wash daily because it contains very mild cleansers. It’s definitely worth trying if co-washing doesn’t agree with your scalp.


This article was originally written by chemist Nicole Harmon and published on CurlyNikki.