How Do Shampoos And Conditioners Work

We all do it. We all think we know how to do it. It’s just another task we’ve been doing since as long as we can remember. This menial task may seem like just another chore in hygiene that requires little to no thought, but it’s actually a bit more complicated. Shampooing and conditioning your hair may take a mere five minutes during a routine shower, but have you ever really thought about it? Just how do shampoos and conditioners work?

How do shampoos and conditioners work? Shampoos and conditioners work to both wash and repair hair for manageability, texture, and shine. While shampoos are used to cleanse buildup that can accumulate on and near the scalp, conditioners soften and replenish hair. Together, shampoo and conditioner can be used to achieve desired styles and healthy hair.

How do shampoos work?

No matter how often you shower, you get dirty from time to time. It just happens, and your scalp is no exception. While we try hard to keep our skin clean, it has its own ways of rebelling. Over time, your skin releases a greasy substance called sebum. This is the same substance that can clog pores and cause pimples, but it also coats hair resulting in greasy strands that stick together and collect dust and other particles. Water alone won’t rid the sebum–think of science class. Oil and water don’t mix; therefore, you need to turn to shampoo.

Shampoo is not completely unlike other cleaning agents. While it’s strange to compare shampoo to dishwashing or laundry detergent, it’s not that far off. Before you freak out and think that the shampoo industry has been conning you for years, consider that while shampoo contains similar detergents to these other cleaning items, it also contains agents to protect your hair and prevent damage. Think of the results you’d get if you washed your hair with dishwashing detergent–a frizzy mess that’s absolutely impossible to comb.

To prevent such hair disasters, shampoos are formulated to protect hair and help it look and smell great. Shampoos often contain conditioning agents like silicons to help detangle, fatty alcohols to help prevent static, and protectants such as sunscreen and other formulas to protect against heat, styling products/tools, and even swimming pools. Furthermore, many shampoos also contain pleasing aromas that persist even after rinsing.

How does conditioner work?

Unlike shampoo which is used to clean hair, conditioner is used to smooth it and make it more manageable to avoid that frizzy “dishwashing detergent” effect. Conditioner repairs damage to hair caused by styling methods like blow drying as well as environmental factors like smoke, pollution, and chlorine.

Consider looking at your hair under a microscope. What would you see? While you may guess that the image appearing would look similar to a smooth, straight line, you’d be mistaken. Rather, you’d find a very jagged looking line. This is because the actual hair follicle is encased in layers of skin cells called the cuticle layer. The flatter these flakey layers lie, the more silky and shiny hair appears; however, when they become damaged, they tend to fray up and result in dull, frizzy hair that tangles and catches–not a good look.

This is when conditioner comes to the rescue. While conditioners have few ingredients, they can prevent your hair from becoming a giant rat’s nest. Okay, let’s go to science class. conditioners contain surfactants. Simply put, these surfactants take a positive charge which then adheres to the hair strand containing a negative charge. This attraction results in the ability to coat the hair in a protective layer which helps allow the cuticle layer to lie flat. The effects of the conditioner lasts even after being rinsed.

How does 2 in 1 shampoo and conditioner work?

Ah, the time saver. This product is designed to have surfactants stay in the shampoo lather as the detergents in the shampoo clean the hair. While rinsing, the hope is that the surfactants adhere to the hair. Essentially, you should have clean hair that is also conditioned with one product alone.

While many of these products exist, they aren’t for everyone. If your hair tends to be longer, damaged, or colored, then 2 in 1 products are probably not the best choice. Experts agree that they tend to be hit or miss. Your best bet is to spend a bit more time with both a shampoo and conditioner.

What do shampoos and conditioners do to your hair?

Shampoos and conditioners are formulated to do a wide variety of things. Every product totes a different result. Looking for more body, shine, or manageability? hundreds of products exist for whatever desires you have for your hair.

Essentially, shampoos clean and conditioners go to work on manageability and detangling, but that’s not where they stop. Most shampoos and conditioners are sold as a set to help you achieve whatever you’re aiming for. Used together, they can promote color protection, volumizing, shine, damage repair, growth, color enhancement, and more.

How should shampoo and conditioner be used?

You might be letting out a satisfied sigh by now, but wait! There’s more. Let’s take that shower and just make sure you’re doing it right.

First and foremost, before shampooing, get your hair completely wet. Your shampoo needs water to activate. Think about using soap on dry skin. Ick.

Now, are you guilty of pouring shampoo directly in your palm and then glopping it onto your hair? If so, you might be using more product than necessary and not distributing it well. Instead, use a quarter sized amount and lather directly in your palm. Then concentrate on your roots rather than your ends which really don’t need cleaning.

Furthermore, while there’s nothing better than a good scalp massage, pay attention to your fingernails. Fingers are dirty. They carry germs that can easily hide under nails. Yes. It’s gross, so go easy or you might be contributing to dandruff and other undesirable results from scratches.

Finally, you should avoid shampooing too often. This can strip hair leaving it too dry and can also tell hair to produce even more of that icky sebum. If you shampoo everyday, it’s too much.

On to conditioner! You don’t need a ton, but you might want to modify the amount you use based on your hair thickness and length. In addition, make sure you concentrate on your tips rather than the root where the most damage occurs. You may also want to refer to the instructions. Some conditioner actually encourages you to leave it in your hair for a few minutes before rinsing completely.

How do I know which shampoo and conditioner I need?

You know your hair better than anyone, and most shampoos and conditioners clearly say what they are formulated to do on the label; however, because of the vast array of shampoos and conditioners available, it can be hard to choose, and let’s face it, that’s an understatement. A little experimentation goes a long way, but don’t be afraid to consult your stylist and explain what you’re trying to achieve. If you want to forge alone, start reading labels and reviews. If your hair is thin, opt for volumizing. If you’re hair is colored, protect that investment with color protectant. You get the point.

Moreover, Don’t be afraid to try new things. Some experts suggest changing your shampoo and conditioner over time to avoid buildup. Your hair can become so accustomed to a specific brand that it loses some of it’s first-time pizzazz. Some people even change with seasons or environmental factors. You may need different protection if you live in a city with more pollution or in an area that is particularly sunny.

Finally, consider your wallet. Like most things in life, shampoos and conditioners can also abide by the rule of “you get what you pay for.” Some people may be able to get by with very inexpensive products, but if you have colored hair, damaged hair, greasy hair, thin hair, frizzy hair, etc. you may struggle with the cheap stuff; however, there are generic brands that are formulated to be similar to the top brands. If you don’t have the budget for the high end brands, just read the label and look for the words “compare too…” Furthermore, many stylists are also willing to give samples of the pricey salon brands for free before you decide to invest in them.

So the next the time you mindlessly shower and reach for the shampoo, think twice and try to slow down. Shampooing and conditioning may seem as easy as turning on the water, but there’s a little science to it. Luckily, you don’t need to know what the shampoo and conditioner chemists do. Just consider what you want to achieve and slow down and give it a little thought. You just might have better hair in the long run.

Reading material

I hope by now you’ve learned everything you need to know about how shampoos and conditioners work. Want to know more!? Check out the articles below and start reading!
How does dandruff shampoo work?
How does volumizing shampoo work?
Can shampoo and conditioner be mixed?

Joy-Lee Founder and writer of


Hi, my name is Joy-Lee and I'm the owner of As you might've noticed, I'm a true beauty lover, and made it my passion, my work and my hobby. I love sharing my thoughts and feelings on a variety of beauty aspects and want to thank you for reading!