In a Lather : Pricey Shampoos Bubble With Claims, But Are They Better Products?

A $17.50 SHAMPOO? La Prairie, an upscale cosmetics line sold at Bullocks Wilshire and Neiman Marcus, now offers a 3.4-ounce tube containing placenta protein and plant extracts that “draw impurities from the hair” rather than cleanse it with detergents, according to Georgette Mosbacher, La Prairie chairman and chief executive officer. At more than $5 per ounce, La Prairie probably won’t provide major competition for Procter & Gamble’s Head & Shoulders, America’s sales leader. Nonetheless, there is room in the expanding shampoo market for a product that costs about 25 times more than the 20-cent-per-ounce best seller.

In search of shine, manageability, body, volume and relief from itching, Americans spend $30 million a day on shampoos that are becoming increasingly specialized. Two of the newest--Upjohn’s Progaine and Redken’s Vivagen--are for thinning hair. Their makers emphasize that they are gentle and don’t contain conditioners that coat the hair. This is an approach that Dr. Vera Price, dermatology professor at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine, supports. She notes that, contrary to what many believe, a shampoo for thinning hair “ideally . . . should have a minimum of conditioning ingredients” so that the hair is not weighed down.

Other new shampoos, including Aveda, have claims of aromatherapy benefits, which supposedly promote well-being through the sense of smell. Cherimoya Cleanz is said to remove calcium deposits. And Redken’s Shinsen is filled with extras such as orchid oil. But do costly ingredients make better shampoos? It depends on who you ask.

According to Consumer Reports, all shampoos are basically the same. The magazine compared 59 brands based on amount of lather, how long lather lasts and ease of rinsing and combing. It concluded that cheap shampoos often outperform expensive ones. In that study, Pert Plus by Procter & Gamble ranked No. 1. Head & Shoulders finished last.

Many in the shampoo industry took issue with the criteria. “The amount of lather a shampoo creates does not correlate with effectiveness,” maintains Redken’s David Cannell, a chemist. Mosbacher adds: “Europeans consider a shampoo superior when it has very little lather.”

Another problem, from the shampoo industry’s perspective, is that the study did not evaluate long-term effects. Valencia-based chemist Henri Mastey says: “The real test is how it leaves your hair after a few weeks, not after one or two washings.”

Mastey, whose company makes salon treatments that are sold worldwide, says the problem with many shampoos is that they dry the hair or coat it with conditioners. Over time, ingredients such as balsam or lanolin derivatives may cause greasiness, creating a need to shampoo more frequently. That strips the hair of natural oils. Some newer shampoos address this problem with “light” formulas.

The many new options may make selection seem complex, but Dr. Steven R. Weiss, clinical instructor of dermatology at UCLA School of Medicine, says: “Finding the best shampoo is really a matter of trial and error--and personal preference.”

Styling: Karen O’Neil; model: Nancy Sheppard / Prima