Shampoo and conditioner make up the most basic and straightforward hair care regimen.
Even if you’re not into hair care and don’t have shelves of serums, gels, and finishing oils for your locks in your powder room, you’ll surely have bottles of shampoo and conditioner lying somewhere in the house.
Even people who aren’t familiar with the world of hair and beauty will know how to use shampoo and conditioner. Many will even argue that those are things impossible to live without.
Today, these shower products that cleanse our dirty hair strands and hydrate them back up again are synonymous with proper hygiene.
They’re the foundation of any hair routine, whether it’s low-maintenance or meant to treat your hair like royalty.
Shampoo and conditioner work together to keep your hair healthy. But even if you use them daily, do you actually know the difference between the two?
Here’s the lowdown on shampoo and conditioner and what each one does for your hair.
What are the main differences between shampoo and conditioner?
Shampoo and conditioner always go together—you can even get them as kits in the grocery. But they’re two separate products that contribute different benefits to your hair.
Shampoo is what cleanses your hair, kind of like soap for your body.
It’s meant to strip your scalp of all the sweat, dirt, and oil stuck in the area, whether it’s from excess sebum production since your last shower or residue from your styling products.
To clean out nasty contaminants and impurities effectively, shampoos are formulated with cleaning agents called surfactants.
The most common of these surfactants are sulfates, which are responsible for that satisfyingly foamy lather you get when you start working shampoo into your hair.
On the other end of the spectrum, conditioner is there to soften and moisturize the hair, leaving it smooth and touchable.
It usually contains nourishing and protective ingredients, from hydrating oils to silicones that seal your hair cuticle and make it frizz-free.
Together, shampoo and conditioner keep your hair purified and moisturized. They also leave a pleasant and fresh smell in your hair, usually fruity or floral, thanks to beautiful botanicals.
They complement each other—shampoo is for the scalp, while conditioners are for your full head of hair.
One clarifies and detoxifies your roots, ridding them of icky grime and gunk, while the other replenishes lost moisture to keep your hair strands soft and hydrated.
Shampoo usually comes first in the hair wash routine.
Once you give your scalp a good scrub with foamy suds, all the oil and dirt in your hair dissipates. But shampooing can dry out your hair, leaving it rough to the touch and even a bit knotty and tangly.
That’s where creamy conditioner comes in. It’s the next step after cleansing to help bring back all the lost moisture in your locks. It makes your hair hydrated and smooth.
How often you use shampoo and conditioner will vary, depending on how often you’ll need a wash.
If you have dry hair, you can get away with washing your hair maybe twice or thrice a week instead of every day, which is more recommended for people with oily scalps or who work out at the gym daily.
What is a shampoo for, and what does it do for my scalp?
Some people like to step into the shower just for a quick rinse with water. This does feel refreshing, but merely wetting your hair doesn’t give a proper cleanse and detoxification.
To eliminate oil, sweat, and other impurities that make you feel greasy and smell a bit fusty, you need a good old shampoo.
Shampoos are laced with surfactants that serve as detergents to strip away all the nasty stuff sitting in your hair and scalp.
Most shampoos contain sulfates, a super effective cleansing agent that is still a bit controversial because of how drying it can be on certain hair types.
For dry hair types like curly hair or chemically-treated tresses, it’s not recommended to wash with a sulfate shampoo, especially every day.
More mind formulations are all the rage today. Many brands are coming out with sulfate-free shampoos that don’t dry out the hair.
Instead, they contain naturally-derived surfactants from coconuts or other organic sources. This washes the hair just the same, but without the drying factor.
There are different types of shampoo depending on your scalp’s needs, so it’s best to listen to your hair and skin to pick the right one.
Some of these shampoos are medicated and contain ingredients like tar or ketoconazole. They wash the hair thoroughly while soothing the scalp.
This type of shampoo purifies the hair intensely. It’s usually used by athletes who swim in chlorinated pools, encouraging mineral build-up in the hair.
Whichever the case, shampoos are there to care for your scalp. It gets rid of all the gross gunk stuck in your hair and ensures that your scalp and roots are completely clean.
Because of this, shampoos are a huge factor in healthy hair growth. After all, you can only grow strong, long hair if your follicles aren’t being suffocated and the skin on your scalp is clean and fresh.
In fact, many shampoos are enriched with botanical to stimulate your scalp and follicles.
These include hair-growing oils and extracts from tea trees, rosemary, ginseng, lemongrass, lavender, and more. They provide aromatherapy while encouraging hair growth by keeping your scalp happy.
Shampoos also help soothe dry and itchy scalps. Many shampoos are infused with nourishing and calming ingredients to keep itchiness and irritation at bay.
This is helpful if you continuously suffer from dandruff.
Using volumizing shampoos is also an awesome way to get the volume back in your hair.
Oil and product buildup can weigh down your roots, making your hair look lip and lifeless. At worst, hair can be sticking to the sides of your face because of how weighed down they look.
A good, thorough wash with shampoo helps eliminate any oils or products weighing your hair down.
They add more lift to your roots, which consequently gives your hair more body and fullness for that voluminous wind-in-your-hair effect.
How does my hair benefit from a conditioner?
As we discussed, shampoo is amazing for cleansing and detoxifying your hair of all the gunk and grime stuck in your scalp. But sulfates often leave the hair too dry and stiff.
Shampooing can strip the hair even of healthy moisture from natural hair oils that keep the hair shiny and hydrated.
It’s essential to keep the hair that soft and moisturized for its overall health and beauty. That’s where conditioner steals the spotlight.
Conditioner is pretty much the opposite of shampoo.
While shampoo tends to be drying and stripping, the conditioner’s main job is to moisturize the hair because so much of it has been lost to the shampooing process.
All these help hydrate the hair, plumping up your hair shaft to add some bounce and radiance. They also strengthen the hair while keeping it smooth, shiny, and nourished so that it’s no longer parched.
Because conditioners are so hydrating, it’s best to apply them from the mid-hair to the ends of your strands.
Your tresses’ tips are the driest area of your hair, so it’s vital to concentrate the conditioner there to give it the moisture it craves.
Conditioning is also super helpful when it comes to detangling knotty hair. (Check out: The 15 Best Detangling Shampoos and Conditioners)
It can be challenging to brush out tiny tangles in your locks with a brush. It’s even more difficult to do it as your shampoo since your hair will feel a bit rough immediately after.
But if you detangle your hair with your fingers after letting your conditioner (especially the conditioner for tangle hair) settle into your strands, it’s going to be a breeze to pull out even the most stubborn knots effortlessly.
Conditioners are also the secret to hair that’s smooth, tame, and frizz-free. They keep your hair strands free from flyaways even in humid environments, where big, curly hair tends to become poofy and huge.
Many conditioners contain silicones, which are compounds that create a protective layer around your hair strands.
This layer seals the hair cuticle, making it smoother, more frizz-free, and more manageable throughout the day.
But silicones offer way more than just keep your hair silky-soft and smooth.
They also help strengthen your hair so that your strands aren’t prone to breakage or snapping, especially when exposed to the elements like the sun and harsh weather conditions.
Silicones can even protect your hair from heat styling since they prevent high heat levels from damaging your hair cuticle directly.
In a nutshell, your hair can be so much weaker and more fragile if you don’t follow up your shampooing session with a nourishing conditioner.
Without it, your hair can be dry, tangly, and prone to split ends, breakage, and heat damage.
The rise of the two-in-one shampoo and conditioner
In the modern hair care world, many brands carry two-in-one shampoo and conditioner products.
That means you get the cleansing benefits of shampoo and the super hydrating and protective properties of conditioner in a single bottle.
They have sulfates to clean your scalp but are infused with nourishing oils and silicones to make up for the lost moisture the sulfates have stripped away.
It’s meant to be a more convenient alternative to fussing with two separate bottles during your hair wash day.
It’s also beneficial because it’s more affordable to buy a two-in-one than spend on different products.
Twofers were both out of the realization decades ago that most people were shampooing, but not everyone understood the importance of conditioning.
Thus, huge hair brands combined the two to give people the detoxification their scalps need while still enjoying healthy moisture in their tresses.
It’s a popular option nowadays for people in a rush to get ready in the morning and can’t be bothered to have multiple steps to wash their hair in the shower.
But is it really the better option?
Is it better to have a separate shampoo and conditioner?
To be frank, it all depends on your lifestyle.
If you’re a low-maintenance gal who wants a fuss-free shower, a two-in-one will work just fine.
But most haircare lovers will appreciate having separate products for shampoo and conditioner.
Being able to choose separate ones gives you the freedom to choose products infused with ingredients you and your hair will love.
It will also allow you to plan which shampoos to use for specific days according to what your hair needs.
You can switch to a clarifying shampoo if you feel product buildup settling in your hair without having to worry about silicones and oils weighing your locks down again.
Choosing a conditioner is just as beneficial because you get to choose one with rich oils and proteins you prefer instead of settling for whatever is infused in your shampoo.
If you had to strip down your hair care routine to its most basic core, the two steps you should not sacrifice are shampoo and conditioner.
Shampoo cleanses your scalp to keep your roots oil-free and healthy for proper hair growth, while conditioner gives your locks that hydration and shine you can flaunt when you’re sashaying down the street.
They help make your hair look and feel beautiful, but each plays a different role in your wash routine. While one detoxifies, the other nourishes—and together, they bring life back to your dull, dirty tresses.
Now that you know the difference between shampoo and conditioner, as well as how they work hand in hand to help you achieve your healthy hair goals, don’t take either of them for granted or favor one over the other.
Having both of them in the same wash day routine is the key to lively, shiny, voluminous hair.