Hotel Life: Satan’s Shampoo

free hotel shampoo

I’ve made the dire mistake, numerous times this year alone, of using the free shampoo and conditioner provided by whatever hotel I’ve happened to be staying in. Now I hate to generalise about hotel shampoos and conditioners (especially as I’m later going to present a rare exception to the rule) but let me describe to you what might happen to your hair – particularly if it’s already dry or colour-treated – if you decide to take a chance, mid-shower, and reach for the free hotel shampoo.

We’ve all been there. You don’t need to wash your hair, but you’re ever so slightly hungover and you think it’ll make you feel better. Or you’ve stepped into the hotel shower and turned it on and the spray has emerged with such force that it has hit the ceiling, cracked three tiles, bounced back onto the top of your head and soaked your hair, leaving you smelling like a wet dog. Or you’re on a rare night away, alone, and you feel as though you have all the time in the world, so what better way to spend it than having a leisurely, pleasurable hair-washing session with perhaps a deep-conditioning treatment thrown in.

Except hair-washing in a hotel is rarely pleasurable. Not if you decide to use their free shampoo, which has seemingly been formulated by Satan’s Science Laboratory. I can just imagine Satan gleefully concocting his moisture-stripping hair wash.

“Morning Science Minions! I hope that you have all been particularly evil overnight, for it is during the night that we do our most merciless and cruel work. I, myself, have eaten eight small children and run over a pensioner on my moped, skinned a cat and culled a herd of elephants.

Now, I have a job for you today, minions – it has come in from a large cosmetic company who provide toiletries to hotel chains. They would like a shampoo, for washing hair, that very barely does any cleansing but strips all available moisture from both hair shaft and scalp. Preferably the shampoo must leave the user looking they’ve been electrocuted with a cattle prod (we all know what that looks like!) before having each and every hair doused in battery acid and finally dried off with a blow torch.

Wait, Minions of Satan, return to your stations! I know that you are eager to start, but be still. Put down the teat pipette, Darren. Switch off the bunsen burners, for there is more to this brief. The company also requires an apparently well-known product called a conditioner. Yes my pretties, I can see that you are excited by this. And you should be. There is even more opportunity to damage and disappoint with this conditioner product than there is with the shampoo. The conditioner promises nurture, it promises care – but I wish you to create me a product with the de-tangling and hair-smoothing power of a treacle-saturated brillo pad. The product must feel silky and look silky but it must not, under any circumstances, make the hair it touches feel or look silky. It must make that hair more dry than it has ever previously been – so dry that it will snap in the breeze, so dry that even a manoeuvre called “tying it back” will fail to make it look presentable.

Now go, GO, my minions. Formulate and then distribute at will; stick different brand labels (some of them incredibly premium and pricey) to the bottles and then deliver to all the hotels of the world. Including the leading ones. Off with you, and remember: stay evil.”

Honestly, the number of times I’ve stepped out from a (posh) hotel lobby looking like someone who has spent the entire stay backcombing their hair with a piece of wire wool and a can of SprayMount. And you’d think that I would learn; not even the entire bottle of matching “conditioner” will fix the damage that a bad hotel shampoo does. Not even the entire conditioner dose, the bottle of body lotion, the pot of cream from the hospitality tray and a pat of butter from the breakfast buffet will make your hair into anything resembling a normal human offering.

Now there are exceptions to the rule – some hotels stock REN, for example, and a selection of boutique places carry the excellent Bramley range (post on them upcoming) – but in general my hotel/shampoo experiences have been dire. Thank the lord I usually have a Tangle Teezer with me and have never been forced to pick through my haystack with one of the free combs that inevitably lies on the “vanity tray”.

(On that note: who decides what free stuff gets provided in a hotel room? What absolute lunatic thought that more people would need a shoe-shining sponge than ear plugs? What tends to be more of a problem when you stay away from home – noise from the downstairs bar/next door party people/constantly-moving elevator, or the fact that your leather shoes look a little bit dull? Also, loofahs! Why is there always a loofah in the bathroom but a toothbrush and toothpaste set usually requires a call to the front desk? Which do you tend to need more? “Oh balls, June! I’ve forgotten the bloody loofah again!”)

Anyway, I’m rambling. Mainly because it has taken me almost two weeks to get my hair back to normal after a particularly bad hotel shampooing session. I honestly thought, mid-lather, that I had mistakenly used some sort of paint-stripping gel or toilet disinfectant – by the time I went to rinse the skin on my hands had shrivelled and my scalp needed some kind of moisture intervention!

Comments please: best and worst hotel shampoos. All anecdotes warmly received…

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  1. Natalia Ostrowska
    October 14, 2018 / 12:14 pm

    Usually never use the hotel shampoo and conditioner but was recently lured by a ‘This Works’ duo at a Radisson Blu when working away. Thought to myself, can’t go wrong with this, surely? WRONG. Hair is dry and full of hate.

    • October 15, 2018 / 2:49 pm

      Oh reallY? Interesting!!! I do wonder whether brands farm out their name sometimes to Satan’s Laboratory and get a generic formula put in. Not saying This Works do that – I’d be very surprised, in fact… You didn’t happen to keep the packaging? I feel I need to do a detective series on hotel toiletries.

  2. Claire Williams
    October 14, 2018 / 9:00 am

    Oh hallelujah, it’s not just me! I don’t stay in ‘top’ hotels, but there have been some broaching-upper-end stays of which I had high hopes for the freebies. I eagerly enter the bathroom, make a beeline for the sink and am filled with joy to see l’Occitane, Malin & Goetz and Peter Thomas Roth. Every one; rubbish! The lemon range from l’Occitane was particularly bad and the amount of SLS and other crap in the PTR was disappointing. I now take my own, decantered into travel-sized bottles. It saves the disappointment and leaves time to work out how the TV/heating/light controls work.

  3. Even Farma
    October 12, 2018 / 6:18 am

    Oh Ruth how much I enjoy your writing! As a hotel staff for many years, let me assure you that all toiletries are always icluded in the room rate, so please do take them if you like them. However , many hotels provide non-name cheap amenities for the low cost. Rest assured though that the amenities which are of a well known good brand are provided to the hotel at a very very low cost, as they are being promoted and advertised via the use from the guests. We provide Korres amenities and since every single guest loves them, many just go during their holidays to Athens and honestly stock up. As for the earplugs you are absolutely right and the shoe polisher is rather addressed for corporate travellers that want to look immaculate to their appointments. Kisses!!

  4. Adriana
    October 11, 2018 / 6:08 am

    Haha. I stayed at a 4 * hotel in Frankfurt recebtly, and they had a 3 in 1 sampoo/conditioner/soap. Of course I didn’t touch it. But I am “lucky” because my hair and scalp are so dry, that I can stay wihout washing my hair for 9-10 days at a time.

  5. Paulette
    October 10, 2018 / 3:37 pm

    This made me chuckle! I work at the front desk of a hotel and all the toiletries we provide smell like Lemon Pledge (the stuff you spray on wood furniture to repel dust) or now that I think of it insect repellent. Our toiletries smell like lemon repellent.
    I am very generous in giving them to our guests when they need more but deep down I want to direct them to the drugstore a block away . People regardless of quality will hoard hotel supplies and will complain LOUDLY when you don’t give them tons. We have guests that fill their suitcases with hotel toilette paper along side with our lemony fresh repellent products.
    We also provide toothpaste, combs, razors and a questionable shave cream .
    I know you asked who makes the decisions regarding the purchasing of said Satan products , well I work for a hotel chain and we are dictated by corporate for everything we use . So if you are one to equate corporations with Satan you have your answer right there. :)

  6. Anna S
    October 10, 2018 / 2:57 pm

    And can we also talk the god hotel awful hairdryers? The ones that are bolted to the wall (or to the inside of desk drawers with cables so short you basically have to stick your head in the drawer) and that require you to hold several buttons down at the same time to get them going, that are noisier than a Concorde at take off, hotter than a blow torch but don’t emit any air and invariably shut down half way through your blow dry AND suck your hair into the motor. I just lost a massive chunk at the front which I had to hack off with nail scissors after being caught in the dryer.

    • October 10, 2018 / 7:18 pm

      YES! And they never have a nozzle!!

    • Diane
      March 17, 2019 / 10:18 pm

      And they are never near a mirror! (Sorry, just catching up onthis)

  7. Alex
    October 10, 2018 / 2:55 pm

    Love this! So funny and so true. I think they refill the dainty little bottles with value-brand washing up liquid. Hotel shampoo always has that weird, runny consistency, doesn’t it.

    And what’s with the multi-purpose shampoo/conditioner/body wash products that you get in some places?!? Who uses the same thing for everything from washing your hands, to conditioning your hair? You know you’re onto a loser when you see this. Xx

    • October 10, 2018 / 7:19 pm

      Haha, yeah. I’m sure Bill Bryson wrote about that in one of his travel books!!

  8. October 10, 2018 / 6:46 am

    I don´t even think about touching the provided bottles in hotels, I always travel with some of my own. Even the shower gel is impossible to use safely!

    Anne – Linda, Libra, Loca

  9. Erin
    October 10, 2018 / 6:36 am

    I usually stay at budget lodgings that offer shampoo plus conditioner packets. Obviously they neither shampoo nor condition.

    • October 10, 2018 / 7:21 pm

      Mind you, Vidal Sassoon managed it – remember Wash n Go?!

  10. Shelby
    October 10, 2018 / 1:54 am

    I have stayed at a hotel for work that has Breydo and its….honestly its heaven.

    • October 10, 2018 / 7:21 pm

      OMG. Actually The Edition stocks them I think.. x

  11. Farah
    October 10, 2018 / 1:03 am

    I stayed at a very fancy hotel that provided Roberto Cavalli shampoo and conditioner and I was terrified of it! Housekeeping kept bringing me more and more and even pointed out to me that they had provided me with extra but I could not bring myself to even try it. Too many bad experiences with hotel shampoo that always seems to be the worst smelling dishsoap inside whatever pretty packaging on the outside. And really what does Cavalli know about shampoo and conditioner? Super sexy yacht wear yes– but shampoo? I was dubious and stuck with my tried and true drugstore brand. I’m sure housekeeping thought I was out of my mind! Look you have Cavalli– why are you using this drugstore garbage?! I will never know if I missed out on the most amazing luxury shampoo and conditioner of my life…

    • October 10, 2018 / 7:22 pm

      But so many of those designer brands just stick their label on the same substandard stuff.. I think you were wise! : )

  12. Trimperley
    October 9, 2018 / 9:58 pm

    Best was big bottles of Penhaligans Quercus shampoo in a lovely Cornish hotel by the sea. Floated around all holiday in a fragrant cloud. Also learnt that the original Penhaligan was from Cornwall.

    Worst was shampoo that made my hair very flat but with static. And then there was the hotel bathroom with Ren products but that was so tiny I kept burning my bum on the towel rail every time I turned round.

  13. Anni
    October 9, 2018 / 8:14 pm

    I am dying from laughing…

  14. Marie
    October 9, 2018 / 7:43 pm

    Elemis white lotus and lime shampoo and conditioner is the best. I don’t seem to be able to buy it -so it must be just for hotels.

    • October 10, 2018 / 7:22 pm

      Oh never tried that one!! Must!

  15. Fran
    October 9, 2018 / 7:34 pm

    Quebec’s in Leeds was wall to wall L’Occitane Verveine. I smelled delicious.

    Park Plaza use something that is branded Elemis but leaves your hair looking like that of the shittiest dolly in the corner at playgroup.

    • October 10, 2018 / 7:23 pm

      Haha!! OK – here’s where things get complicated, because we have a vote FOR the Elemis above.. x

  16. Carole Frost
    October 9, 2018 / 5:31 pm

    A rather deluxe hotel in Mexico had Bulgari toiletries, the shampoo of which was so lush I immediately bought a bottle on my return.

  17. Elizabeth Eveleigh
    October 9, 2018 / 5:08 pm

    Hmmm . . . Not all hotels serve up potent hair products. Here in Canada, I’ve stayed in a few high-end hotels, and if memory serves me correct, all had impressive product lines on their bathroom counters. The Fairmont Empress hotel in Victoria, BC offered the same brand that was sold in their luxurious, high-end spa.
    I have to agree with you, though, about many low to mid-range properties I’ve used over the years. That is why I, and many others, invest in travel-size bottles.
    Love your social media accounts!
    (Note to self: Google what you can do with the unused little bottles of mystery hotel hair products!)

  18. October 9, 2018 / 4:52 pm

    The Carlyle, NYC, has deluxe sample-sized Kiehl’s products, and Hudson New York has Malin+Goetz. I particularly like the M+G peppermint shampoo.
    (Funny story: on a girls’ trip to nyc one fall, my cousin dumped the whole sample of cilantro body wash in the tub and nearly smothered herself in the foam, a la Bobby Brady in the laundry room…)

    • October 10, 2018 / 7:24 pm

      Love M&G but is the Hudson not THE noisiest hotel in the entire world? Or is it just me?!!

      • Nora
        October 11, 2018 / 4:37 pm

        We’ve been lucky. I always feel like there’s no one else on our floor… ?? And I love the location. But maybe I’ve just jinxed myself–I’ll let you know the noise level of my next stay!!

  19. Caroline
    October 9, 2018 / 4:37 pm

    Pevonia products at Monart hotel and spa (Ireland) are the BEST. They smell amazing and are nice and moisturising, I can’t say enough good things about it. Just sad I can’t pop into my local shop to buy some on the reg.

    • October 10, 2018 / 7:24 pm

      They sell it online by the looks of it! x

  20. Emma
    October 9, 2018 / 3:51 pm

    Some hotels say they don’t put toothpaste in the room because not many guests ask for it. The tricky part is that not many guests know they can ask for it. On top of that, the tiny toothpaste costs more than the no-brand shampoo/conditioner/body wash. Ridiculous, but true. So a lot of the chains are trying to cut costs with it. As for the rest of the toiletries, after too many frizzy hair days in hotels, I’ve started buying minis of the shampoos I like and I take them with me. I do the same with body wash as my skin hates everything that contains SLS and is not PH neutral.

    • October 10, 2018 / 7:25 pm

      Yes I can imagine those tiny tubes cost a bomb – I know from Colab that the mini bottles are so much dearer to make than the bigger ones! Weirdly..

      • Emma
        October 11, 2018 / 10:42 pm

        Ha! That also, but the tiny toothpaste costs more than the tiny shampoo, which says a lot about the quality of that shampoo…
        As others mentioned, in Asia you’re more likely to get good quality toiletries. You don’t even have to go to super luxury hotels for that. In Tokyo we tried a capsule hotel for one night and it had Shiseido toiletries in the capsule, plus at the showers a dedicated common room for blowdrying and makeup, with hairdryers, curlers and straightners, together with cosmetics like cleanser, moisturizer from the same brand.

        • October 12, 2018 / 10:17 am

          I seem to remember Shiseido being REALLY cheap in the supermarket!! Maybe it was a diffusion line?

  21. Hayley
    October 9, 2018 / 1:55 pm

    Best – This Works in transit reviving shampoo and rebalancing conditioner (annoyingly only available at the Radisson Blu hotels)
    Can’t remember my worst. I seem to have blocked that experience out.

    • October 10, 2018 / 7:25 pm

      At Radisson?! Interesting! Love This Works.. x

  22. Claire
    October 9, 2018 / 1:37 pm

    Oh god… I’m travelling hand luggage only to New York next week and have been convinced by my husband that it’ll be fine to use the hotel shampoo and conditioner… I now have The Fear!

  23. Hellen
    October 9, 2018 / 12:55 pm

    Massive vote for Bramley over here! I stayed at The Pig at Combe recently and they have their products in the bathrooms. I washed with trepidation but a beautiful glossy mane was the result! I’ve been through most of Space NK trying all of their (some outrageously priced) shampoos and conditioners but to be honest I’ve never tried a conditioner as good as theirs. I’ve already placed an order and cannot recommend enough.

  24. Stephanie
    October 9, 2018 / 12:49 pm

    YOU. ARE. KILLING. IT. BRAVO. Hysterical….
    This is so true & so sad at the same time.
    I always give my husband & 12 yr old son that poison. One lovely establishment had L’Occitane for both women & men AND toothbrushes/toothpaste.
    Just think, the free hotel toiletries masquerading as luxury products are a reminder to us all…”there is no such thing as a free puppy…”.
    *new blog post idea… travel toiletry treats: who’s who: the best & the worst

  25. October 9, 2018 / 11:33 am

    Ahhhh, I don’t remember any shampoo /conditioner destroying my hair, but I must say I’m not impressed by the bathroom goodies provided in Japanese hotels, and I’ve stayed in very nice ones. The face cleansers have left me with stingy eyes, most things you’re not even sure what to do with them, the toothpastes are so small they’re not even worth making, but I still took them all back to England, toothbrushes included, because ‘they’re from Japan’. I’m going back soon and won’t be bringing as much, silly me!! Their hotel toothbrushes are often bad quality.

  26. Migss
    October 9, 2018 / 10:49 am

    Last year my man and I stayed at a really nice boutique hotel in Rome that stocked Diptyque toiletries – just the basics but still nice. I used everything except the shampoo and conditioner because I have a dry scalp problem and I’m afraid of straying from my tried-and-true Head&Shoulders eucalyptus shampoo and Aussie 3 Minute Miracle conditioner.

    • Mezzo
      October 16, 2018 / 1:08 am

      Please tell us the name of the hotel! I’d love to go back to Rome.

  27. C
    October 9, 2018 / 10:48 am

    I only use the conditioner for shaving my legs! I swear hotels supply crappy toiletries these days because we all know if it’s nice it’s going with us. For me if it’s Molton Brown or Elemis it’s coming with me. I unashamedly clear my bathroom daily so they replenish. In my defence I make up packages of lovely minis for my local shelter. We all deserve an Elemis skin nourishing body lotion or a pink pepperpod shower gel right?!

  28. Lisa
    October 9, 2018 / 10:02 am

    Love this…hilarious and v true. It’s been such a long time since I actually went to a hotel let alone stayed overnight that I can’t give any feedback on products…suffice to say I would always take my own x

  29. Yara
    October 9, 2018 / 9:26 am

    Thank goodness I never go anywhere when I’m travelling without my trusty old Moroccan oil. It saves my hair in warm and dry climates but it also keeps my hair looking good in wet climates. And I always throw the shampoos and conditioners in a bag and hand them out to the homeless or give them to a shelter where ever I’m staying. I don’t use it and the hotels throw them out after every guest leaves. So why not give them to people who need it.

    • Claire N
      October 10, 2018 / 3:28 pm

      I brought travel size Ogx Argan Oil of Morocco to Ibiza for my honeymoon in Sept and was I glad I did, it left my hair lovely and soft despite swimming in the sea and the sunshine. I hadn’t used it before but figured I’d treat myself in Boots.

  30. rachel
    October 9, 2018 / 9:23 am

    The lovely Thai hotel I stayed in that took its toiletries inspo from the restaurant and went with a chilli infused range of shampoos and shower gels. You can imagine that was a pleasure on sunburn shoulders and lets not mention the effect on the unmentionables

    • Claire N
      October 10, 2018 / 3:23 pm

      Omg how could they do that?! Why did they think it was a good idea?! Maybe it was an evil joke to play on unsuspecting tourists?

  31. October 9, 2018 / 8:59 am

    Hi Ruth, I’m using these shampoo cubes called Beauty Kubes and I’ve also started selling them in my online shop Set Me Free. They come in paper packaging and don’t contain any sulphites. The founder of Beauty Kubes created them so there would be no need for little plastic bottles in hotels and I guess if the quality overall is crap then that makes sense :) I wholeheartedly recommend Beauty Kubes though, very easy to carry with you and even if it feels funny putting a little cube in your hair it washes really well. I’m quite passionate about plastic waste, so this comes with the added benefit of being plastic free.

  32. October 9, 2018 / 8:59 am

    Please write a book ❤️

  33. Stephanie
    October 9, 2018 / 8:58 am

    This made me smile! It happened to me recently… I was away for two nights and thought – somewhat naively- that I could manage without washing my hair. I was only away for a couple of exams after all, definitely not glam stations. Anyway, didn’t pack shampoo or conditioner, thought I’d succumb to Travelodge‘s offering. I could always do a deep moisturizing treatment at home. Of course, those minions also put a good deal of effort into making sure that those dispensing units in the shower don’t actually function properly (I know, I know, this all points towards a hair disaster, and I did consider going to the next-door shop to buy something decent, but by this time I was already stripped down and in the shower so you know…). So, I ended up washing my hair with the foaming antibacterial handwash. I swear I could feel the moisture being stripped from my hair just like you describe. Oh, matted mess. At least they had a hairdryer so I could continue the assault on my hair.

  34. susannah
    October 9, 2018 / 8:46 am

    Yes, even the body washes strip all the oils in my skin and then I’m left with their body lotion. I always think do I really have to take body care with me too? I already take enough for my face. Looking forward to your app.

  35. Sarah
    October 9, 2018 / 8:40 am

    The best I have come across is the Park Hyatt in Tokyo where they have Aesop everything. Including the shampoo and conditioner. Needless to say, I kept pinching it and they kept replacing it, I came back home with loads of bottles!

  36. Laura
    October 9, 2018 / 8:19 am

    Ha totally agree with this! The exceptions are Bramley, cowshed (really good) AND the piece de resistance – a hotel I stayed in LA had Le Labo (!!) Rose (!!) shampoo and conditioner and it was honestly the most luxurious and delicious smelling shampoo and conditioner I’ve ever used. (Almost all other hotel shampoo and conditioner – even with a fancy label – tends to be total shite)! X

  37. Tai Anderson
    October 9, 2018 / 1:27 am

    Great writing!!!! :D

    The shampoo and conditioner are truly of the devil, but the lotions… *shudder*. Why do they STING the skin?

  38. Claire N
    October 9, 2018 / 1:19 am

    Haha so true! Yes, use at your peril! I wonder if it’s actually posh bottles refilled with liquid soap? *strokes chin*. Bramley is lovely, I won a body lotion and hand lotion set last year in a giveaway, they smell so good and lasts and lasts. I need to try out the rest of the range!

  39. Andrea
    October 9, 2018 / 12:36 am

    I’ve had samples of Aveda, Bliss, June Jacobs, L’Occitane, Peter Thomas Roth (yes!) and natural/artisan/unknown brand shampoos. The Aveda was the Rosemary Mint which is clarifying in my opinion and drying; while the L’Occitane is a bit too rich and I never get on with the latter.

    Spent 2 weeks in Louisiana with a triple shampoo/conditioner/body wash dispenser bolted to the wall AND hard water. After my first hair wash I spent a good hour trying to brush through that mess. It looked as if I had nits and was de-nitting (is that a word?) myself. After that I just washed it with conditioner and used dry shampoo to give it some shape and experimented with lots of updo hairstyles. Should have gone to a salon to get a blowout…

  40. Riley
    October 8, 2018 / 11:36 pm

    Stop! You’re killing me. I have tears running down my face, and cramps in my belly from laughing.

  41. Jo
    October 8, 2018 / 10:42 pm

    Am in a (surprisingly lovely) hotel for work and joy of utter joys – they only have Caudalie as their toiletries! The des Vignes shampoo, conditioner, shower gel and soap, what a gorgeous treat. Along with L’Occitane that we had in our Veronese hotel in the summer, they are quite the loveliest hotel freebies I can recall. Usually yes, paint stripper across the board (naturally curly, highlighted long hair, so much moisture is required).

  42. October 8, 2018 / 10:18 pm

    I’m even afraid of the Ren shampoos/conditioners in hotels. Rationally, I know that it’s Ren and that they wouldn’t dare mess with their brand to the extent of providing rubbish shampoo to hotels, but irrationally the fear of hotel shampoos is so great that I won’t dare touch it.

      • October 11, 2018 / 11:13 am

        Ruth I am going to put you on a routine every day! ok?

    • Esteban
      October 24, 2018 / 9:41 pm

      I don’t remember the Hotel name where I stayed in NY a few years ago, but they carried the Aveda Rosemary and Mint shampoo/conditioner and it was fantastic!
      But, yeah, in general I try to stay away from free toiletries (on airplanes too)

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