What do you think of when you read the words “ultra-luxurious,” “professional,” and “salon”? Do you imagine a five-star spa experience that exhilarates your senses? Or perhaps an upscale salon where every follicle gets the VIP treatment as you sip on citrus-steeped water? What if you could get a similar experience out of a giant bottle… for $14? Have I built this up enough?

Well, I stumbled upon such a product, not at my neighborhood salon or even a dime-a-dozen drugstore... but at Costco. That’s right - the bountiful big-box store that specializes in feeding families the size of small armies. A classic episode of Modern Family devoted an entire storyline to overturning preconceived notions about this members-only warehouse, when Cameron introduces his persnickety partner Mitchell to Costco amid many an eye roll. They end up leaving the store with two shopping carts full of Mitchell’s bargain bulk purchases. Cameron deadpans, “I’m sort of like Costco. I’m big, I’m not fancy and I dare you to not like me.” Coincidentally, that would be a fitting tagline for Kirkland Signature Professional Salon Formula Moisture Shampoo.

For the uninitiated, Kirkland is Costco’s home brand. Many Kirkland products piggyback on popular brand-name items, selling for 10% to 30% less. The Signature Professional Salon Formula Moisture Shampoo, packaged in a huge (34 oz.) purple pump bottle, doesn’t outwardly appear to be a copycat of any particular shampoo that Costco carries. The fact that I was drawn to a generic Costco beauty product was a first for me.

I was on the lookout for a new-and-improved shampoo after going to a trendy salon in my neighborhood in early March for a fresh cut and highlights. The stylist took one look at my hair and pronounced that the strands framing my face were badly damaged. This should have come as no surprise given that my hometown stylist Melissa and I had conspired to go a few shades lighter than my natural blonde for my wedding last fall. Over time, the color-treated hairs became dry and brittle, splintering at the slightest pull from a ponytail. I assumed that the texture of my hair was evolving as I aged, and that I would just need to accept this coarser, frailer condition as a permanent change. But, after sprucing up my cut, the stylist said that I could reverse the damage and bring my hair back to life with the right shampoo.

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The following weekend I found myself in Costco pausing in front of the Kirkland shampoo bottle, labeled “sulfate free,” “100% vegan,” “paraben free,” and “gluten free.” I was first drawn to the ingredients that were conspicuously left out rather than those inside. Sulfates, particularly sodium lauryl sulfate, are some of the cheapest surfactants to manufacture and are so good at cleaning that a version (more concentrated than the cosmetic one) is used to degrease engines. If they can strip grease from an engine, just think of what they can do to the natural oils in your hair and skin. In addition, sulfates fade color-treated hair with each wash.

I didn’t want my expensive highlights getting flushed down the drain, nor did I want to add insult to my already injured hair. Though I knew sulfate-free was the safest way to go, I dreaded the frothless feeling that typically accompanies sulfate-free ’poos (see my review of Cutler Specialist Cleanser + Conditioner). I’ve also found that shampoos lacking sulfates tend to cause build-up and to require more frequent washings. Nonetheless, Kirkland’s ingredients list swayed me to give its signature shampoo a chance.

In lieu of sulfates, Kirkland’s shampoo employs the same primary cleansers as Enjoy Hydrating Shampoo: sodium cocoyl isethionate, sodium lauroyl methyl isethionate, and disodium laureth sulfosuccinate. The latter two sound like distant relatives of sulfates but are in fact much gentler and made up of larger molecules that can’t penetrate the skin. Sodium cocoyl isethionate, a fatty acid derived from coconut oil, allows dirts and oils to be more readily rinsed away. This surfactant has been shown to cause eye irritation in high concentrations, which certainly applies to this formula (as its second ingredient). Nonetheless, each of these surfactants is generally considered mild and safe.

Another cleansing agent, decyl glucoside, is so gentle that it is approved for use in baby products and has the added benefit of binding moisture to the skin. The drying effects of the cleansers are offset by the nourishing powers of natural ingredients like sunflower seed oil, goji berry, aloe leaf, green tea, cucumber, avocado, pomegranate, and grape seed. Some combination of these are pure organic extracts that make up Kirkland’s trademarked “Moisture Nutrient Complex.” As a humectant, glycerin attracts water molecules from the atmosphere and helps hair stay moisturized. Meanwhile, panthenol (the provitamin of B5) binds to the hair, seals the follicles, and lubricates the shaft. The hair gets a boost of antioxidants from phospholipids, superoxide dismutase, and vitamin E.

Even the formula’s less desirable synthetic, a silicone, is top-of-the-line. Amodimethicone, belonging to a family of silicones modified to have certain properties, provides selective conditioning to the areas that need it most through electrostatic attraction. After being deposited on the surface of the hair, this polymer spreads out, seals moisture inside the hair shaft, and forms a film that holds the cuticle flat and repels buildup. Considered among the best conditioning polymers in the haircare industry, amodimethicone offers the added benefits of increasing color retention and imparting shine. Another beneficial synthetic, polyquaternium-10, can reduce static electricity, increase body or sheen, and improve the texture of hair that has been damaged physically.

Of course, Kirkland’s salon-quality shampoo is not quite perfect. Though it avoids controversial preservatives like parabens and phenoxyethanol, the formula uses chlorphenesin, proven to cause contact dermatitis and suspected of more adverse effects internally, as well as potentially irritating methylchloroisothiazolinone. As with all PEGs, PEG 120 Methyl Glucose Dioleate is considered a moderate hazard due to concerns of contamination with harmful impurities. Likewise, C12-13 pareth-3 can be contaminated with toxic components. I wonder if the company where Kirkland outsources its cosmetics manufacturing can be entrusted with adhering to strict purification standards. There is also a large dose of artificial fragrance, which smells intoxicating but can be irritating to sensitive skin (and noses).

But what a wonderful scent it is - not floral or musky, but natural and subtle. The fragrance is most powerful as the shampoo is massaged into the hair, but it fades to a faint whisper after it’s rinsed out. Thanks to its crew of mild surfactants, the shampoo cleanses without stripping natural moisture and foams even better than some shampoos containing sulfates.

After one and a half pumps, I was greeted with a thick, peach-hued emulsion that coated my hair with a generous lather of cleansing goodness - the kind you usually find in higher-end products. It might sound like blasphemy, but the foamy lather and enticing aroma were evocative of Phillip B’s $140 Russian Amber Imperial Shampoo. My hair felt so healthy and moisturized after rinsing out the shampoo that I only needed a dime-sized drop of conditioner (compared to my usual fifty cents). Speaking of dollars and cents, the value of this shampoo can’t be beat. The same amount of Enjoy Sulfate-Free Hydrating Shampoo would set you back $33, while the more mainstream L’Oreal EverPure Sulfate-Free Moisture Shampoo costs $7 for 8.5 oz.

The true test came after my hair had dried. It didn’t appear dull or weighed down, as I was accustomed to seeing after my shower. Twenty-four hours later, my hair still looked clean (though an additional day off gradually brought on a grease bomb that I had to temper with dry shampoo). On a humid day, my hair held a nice natural wave without frizzing out. After using Kirkland’s signature shampoo for over a month, my husband (who has dramatically different hair from me) raved that it has tamed his poof-prone hair and reined in a recent bout of dandruff. Meanwhile, my highlights have hardly faded and those formerly decrepit strands around my face relearned how to shine. My hair has a new lease on life that previous shampoos had squelched with harsh chemicals. Kirkland’s shampoo may not be for everyone (salon snobs, all-organic disciples, etc), but this bulky purple bottle far exceeded my expectations.

Ingredients: Water, Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate, Cocamidopropyl Hydroxysultaine, Sodium Lauroyl Methyl Isethionate, Disodium Cocoyl Glutamate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate, Decyl Glucoside, Ammonium Cocoyl Isethionate, Divinyldimethicone/Dimethicone Copolymer, Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate, Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil, Lycium Barbarum Fruit Extract, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Extract, Camellia Sinensis Leaf Extract, Cucumis Sativus (Cucumber) Fruit Extract, Persea Gratissima (Avocado) Fruit Extract, Punica Granatum Extract, Melanin, Vitis Vinifera (Grape) Seed Extract, Glycol Distearate, Glycerin, Fragrance, Quaternium-91, Sodium Cocoyl Glutamate, PEG-120 Methyl Glucose Dioleate, Amodimethicone, Panthenol, Polyquaternium-10, PPG-3 Benzyl Ether Myristate, Chlorphenesin, Methyl Gluceth-20, Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, C11-15 Pareth-7, Laureth-9, Phospholipids, Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein PG-Propyl Silanetriol, C12-13 Pareth-23, C12-13 Pareth-3, Trisodium Ethylenediamine Disuccinate, Trideceth-12, Superoxide Dismutase, Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate, Tocopheryl Acetate, Methylchloroisothiazolinone, Methylisothiazolinone

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