Everything You Need to Know About 2-in-1 Shampoos and Conditioners

I'm not gonna lie, I think I hold a bit of resentment over my boyfriend's 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioner bottle in our shower. I like to glare at it in frustration as I rinse three different hair care products down the drain every night before I spend another five minutes brushing out all the knots and tangles in my long hair once I step out of the tub. I envy my boyfriend’s super-quick shower routine, and sometimes fantasize about narrowing down my own hair care regimen to just a single bottle.

If you've also been thinking about making the switch to a 2-in-1 to save time, money, and sanity (or is that just me?), its useful to know how a 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioner actually works and who should be using it. Below, we've asked the experts to explain this double-duty invention.

What exactly is a 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioner?

A 2-in-1 shampoo is a product designed to give the cleaning benefits of shampoo while also providing some of the conditioning benefits of a conditioner. "Shampoos often contain anionic (negatively-charged) surfactants to cleanse, while conditioners contain cationic (positively-charged) ingredients like polyquats that will bind to hair to impart their conditioning properties," explains cosmetic chemist Kelly Dobos. "Trying to combine these two incompatible types of ingredients in one formula can result in a gunky, unpleasant product. However, cosmetic chemists have developed unique ways to deliver conditioning ingredients from shampoos by optimizing ratios of these ingredients, or 'hiding' the conditioning agents and polymers in an emulsion that releases those ingredients when rinsing." Conditioning shampoos are the subject of a lot of research in the industry with many, many patents issued, according to Dobos.

How do 2-in-1 shampoos and conditioners work?

Think of 2-in-1s as a shampoo that contains some of the conditioning benefits of a conditioner, rather than a true "best of both worlds" situation. Typically, two types of conditioning ingredients are "hidden" in this type of formula: silicones (like dimethicone) and cationic polymers (like polyquaternium-7). "When shampoo is diluted on hair, the micelles of the detergent break open and the silicone deposits on the hair," explains cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski. "Cationic polymers work similarly except they are not in the shampoo micelles. Rather, they are dissolved in the shampoo and then when the product is more diluted, they fall out of solution and plate on the hair."

The benefits of 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioners.

The advantages of using a 2-in-1 are aplenty — first off, there's the time-saving, one-stop-shop aspect of it all. "A 2-in-1 still moisturizes and cleanses your hair, but saves you time by not having to do the two separate steps in the shower," says Jana Rago, a hairstylist and owner of Jana Rago Studios. "When you're on the go showering at your gym or traveling, for example, bringing one bottle of 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioner not only saves you time showering but saves you precious space in your cosmetics bag."

The second benefit of a 2-in-1 would be the sustainability aspect. Not only are you reducing the number of products you're buying (meaning, theoretically, less plastic waste), but you're also (again, theoretically) reducing water consumption in the shower by streamlining your routine, notes Dobos.

Finally, saving money is another bonus of purchasing a 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioner. "[2-in-1s] could potentially be seen as a more budget-friendly option, as it's one product instead of two," explains Annagjid "Kee" Taylor, hairstylist, natural hair YouTuber, and author of All Hair Is Good Hair.

Case in point: Pantene’s 2-in-1 Classic Clean Shampoo and Conditioner costs $5, while Pantene Classic Clean Shampoo is $5 and the matching conditioner are $5 each. Garnier Fructis is similar with the Daily Care 2-in-1 Shampoo and Conditioner coming in at $4.49, but a Sleek & Shine Shampoo and Conditioner Twin Pack costing around $5.60. "Realistically, I wouldn't recommend only relying on a 2-in-1, as you'll still need a traditional shampoo and conditioner on hand," Taylor says. 

On that note, what might be the downsides of a 2-in-1?

Product buildup can be an issue when it comes to many 2-in-1 shampoos and conditioners. "Product buildup over time will start to make the hair look dull and weigh it down," says hairstylist Andrew Fitzsimons. "To counteract the buildup, you will need to use a clarifying shampoo to help strip the hair bare and start the process all over again."

Another issue that folks may face with 2-in-1 shampoos and conditioners includes how drying they can be to the hair and scalp, thanks to the surfactants used in the products. "Traditionally, shampoo over-cleanses sebum from the hair, drying it out, and then conditioner is needed to re-moisturize and smooth the cuticles with oils and waxes," explains Daniel Belkin, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. "While drugstore 2-in-1 products may contain emollients, and market as such, these emollients don't have a good chance to moisturize the hair when paired with strong surfactants, the purpose of which is to remove oils from the hair. Therefore, a 2-in-1 that promises both a deep clean and to make hair feel moisturized, shiny, and smooth is overpromising." Even if the hair only has to be rinsed once, Belkin says he would still expect it to come out relatively dry and frizzy.

On the other hand, there are products with extremely mild cleansing ability — like no-lather washes and cleansing conditioners — use the mildest surfactants available along with emollients, which can be great for hair that doesn't need a deep clean and prevents the over-cleansing and overdrying of traditional shampoos. "I suppose these could be considered a 2-in-1, though I'm not sure they would be marketed this way," explains Belkin.

Finding the best 2-in-1 for your hair type might take some time. The conditioning agents will vary and the resulting properties will depend on the chemistry of those ingredients, according to Dobos. "For example, some conditioning agents are better at improving wet combing, some give more shine, and then there are polymers that can add body," says Dobos. "While label claims provide a lot of insight, finding the right 2-in-1 may take some trial and error."

For those with curly or coily hair, 2-in-1s might not be the best formula for you. On the flip side, "if you find you have resilient hair that doesn't need a ton of maintenance, a 2-in-1 product could be an option for you to occasionally use," says Fitzsimons. "I definitely wouldn't recommend using it more than twice a week."

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