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Professional vs Drugstore Hair Products: What’s the Difference?

The million-dollar question.

Q: As far as using a good shampoo and conditioner for damage, do you find there is a big difference between drugstore and salon brands? Is it worth it to buy Kérastase over Pantene? — Kate

A: Kate, this is the kind of thing that keeps beauty editors up at night. (Okay, not really.) 

From The Styling Edit Archives

But ask any beauty editor on a magazine's payroll and she'll dance around it like the cast of Jersey Shore at Karma. (How do I know that's the nightclub they go to? OF COURSE I don't watch that show.)

But since I'm not beholden to any publishing house here (who are, as you know, not about to displease any advertisers), I can give my honest opinion on the whole Drugstore versus Salon Dilemma...

And truthfully? It depends. I could make an argument for either side:

If you ask any hair expert (a neutral one, not one who is affiliated with a certain company's products), they will tell you there is DEFINITELY a difference between drugstore and salon brands. The brands that come up time and time again as popular with hairdressers are Kérastase, L’Oreal Professionel, Shu Uemura, Redken and Oribe.

But then you hear these rumours (not just about hair products, but ALL KINDS of beauty products) that they're all made in the same factory, and therefore contain the same ingredients, etc.

And you know—there may be some truth to that. Not many people know that L’Oréal, for example, manufactures a truckload of different hair lines: Garnier, Matrix, Pureology, Biolage, Redken, Shu Uemura, and probably more that I can't even remember right now.

So it wouldn't be unreasonable to think that there'd be some R&D sharing between the high and low ends of their offerings. They certainly do it in skincare. (Pro-Xylane, anyone?)

As for the case for drugstore products...

I visited the Pantene labs at P&G's HQ in Cincinnati a couple months ago and there is no question that they put an INCREDIBLE amount of R&D time/money into creating products that perform. For serious. There are PhDs working there who come up with proprietary tests for EVERYTHING—stuff that right brain types like me would never dream up. (Like how fast a comb can get through your hair, or how it feels when you run your fingers on top of your hair versus through it.)

And you also have to think about the economies of scale—because Pantene is a mass brand, with sales in the bajillions, that means they’re able to invest that much more money into R&D… whereas a smaller-scale niche brand can’t. The niche types are the ones who have to rely on cult-brand positioning, cool packaging, unusual ingredients, etc. But in all likelihood they don't test their products to the same extent.

SO. Taking all of that into account, I think it just comes down to personal preference and budget.

Even though I have access to both the most spendy, luxurious, beautifully-packaged hair products (now don't be a hater...), I have love for drugstore things too. (Maybe not quite as MUCH. But it's there.)

If I can generalize, though, I’ve found the higher-end brands to have richer moisturizing ingredients… but again, it depends if you want/need/like that kind of thing. If your hair is severely damaged and you're desperate to nurse it back to health, then the answer is probably yes. On a daily basis? Maybe, maybe not.

So tell me what YOU think:

Are you a die-hard salon products lover?

Down with the drugstore?

Or are you like me, with about 78 random bottles in the shower, just using whatever's there?