They come up in conversation a lot. Either as a proud declaration of being “green/natural/eco” because “I use a shampoo bar”. OR I get told “I used one for a bit but didn’t get on with it” upon further probing it is always because of this mysterious waxy/dirty feel they leave.
Let me enlighten you a little on the chemistry behind shampoo bars. It is a bit more complex than you may think!
Of course, no plastic is great! But there are other plastic free options too.
Firstly, it all depends on the ingredients and deciphering them to know if you have either one of the two;
a SOAP BASED bar or
a SURFACTANT BASED bar.
They work very differently indeed!
So, surfactant containing bars are basically the same as most liquid shampoos and lather a LOT and therefore, not particularly gentle or natural as they claim to be. Some people rub them straight onto the hair which is questionable, in my opinion.
Some brands do contain gentler surfactants (sodium cocoyl isethionate for example) whereas some use sodium coco sulfate which is not SLS but not as gentle as you might think.
Lush are mostly surfactant-based and actually use the “big bad buzzword” SLS in plenty of their bars, a particularly demonised and harsh sulphate. I really do not recommend them…BUT have to thank Lush for their very stripping shampoo bars! They were part of my journey.
I too thought I was being kinder to the planet and my hair years ago when I purchased a lemon one with a little tin to take travelling.
Through this I discovered the power of DILUTION when I tipped some of the water from the tin into my hair and it worked considerably better. It dispersed over my scalp and was a revelation. I still dilute EVERYTHING! Gentle or not.
(Although I got a bit in my eye once and my eye was searing stinging for hours!)
My advice is if you have one, dilute by either leaving in 50-100ml of warm water for 10 mins before use, or grate a teaspoons worth into some hot water and stir to dissolve. Then dilute again! Play with ratios. It is shocking how much you can dilute some products.
Then I would recommend to use it only once every 2-4 weeks. Some people who are still breaking out of a heavy grease cycle may want to use once a week…but my point is to not use it EVERY time you wash your hair!
These days I do a diluted shampoo once or twice a month. Some people every 2-3 or even 6 monthly.
I do this because of pollution in the city.
Also IMPORTANT TIP, when you use a harsh shampoo, pre-condition or oil the ends of your hair to protect them from stripping detergents. Shampoo increases dryness, brittleness and breakage to ends of hair (especially fine hair).
SOAP based bars contain “saponified” oils. The addition of sodium hydroxide or lye, is the alchemic ingredient that creates soap when added to oils. This also makes it pretty alkaline, which when combined with hard water is really not an ideal solution for hair…or even skin, dare I say. As our hair and skin is mildly acidic (between 4.5-5.5) many companies selling these bars will include a disclaimer about “transition phases” and unsuitable for hard water areas. You can indeed, and should follow with an acidic rinse (eg Apple cider vinegar or lemon juice diluted).
This will help, but not always…and the science behind it is underestimated again.
I aim for a PH of 5.0 for an acidic rinse or spray generally. This equates to somewhere between ONE Teaspoon to a Tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice per 250ml of water. *If you can use rainwater, even more softening results on the hair*.
Sometimes you may wish to have a slightly more acidic rinse, to treat dandruff or headlice for example. However for day to day rinsing less is more.
The bar will leave the hair dull and a bit waxy after washing…this is usually connected to the PH as alkaline solutions actually cause the cuticle (protective layer of hair that we open when colouring) to raise and be open. The perfect slightly acidic solution rinsed through hair after using a bar should help to restore the correct PH.
Consider the difference when you use a liquid hand soap as opposed to a traditional bar of soap on your hands. Solid soap shall usually leave a different FEEL on your hands to a foamy lathering one. Both are drying when overused, however soap is actually usually more alkaline…unless they add certain ingredients to raise the overall PH of the product.
Our water is a little alkaline. It is also heavy and the limescale that you see in your kettle and sink can build up on the hair when using soap-based shampoo bars. We end up using much more product in hard water areas as it inhibits the lather. Essentially, sulphates are so effective as they are “cleaning” the water at the same time! On a molecular level they trap dirt and anything in the water, and so it comes away with the water. This is why other ways of cleaning can take a little more time and effort for the same squeaky clean effect.
So to summarise, it is all down to Biology and Chemistry and affected by our PH levels of the following…
A) the product B) the rinse you may use after shampooing C) our natural unique PH level and D) whether we have hard or soft water!
Some people do have success with them and get through this mysterious transition. However, some people also manage to have presentable hair and use zero product, water only. We are all different!
I recommend a gentle liquid shampoo diluted to last longer, than a soap based shampoo bar. I.e the Living Naturally liquid botanical shampoo (the main one I use).
Another option is Beauty Kubes, diluted again…and no plastic! But a bit pricey.
Furthermore, if you want to be kind to your hair and the planet you can avoid using shampoo every single time, and use plenty of herbal solutions like conkers/soapnuts, rye flour, nettle rinses etc.
Co-washing is another great alternative…but again I don’t recommend this for every single time you wash your hair.
Hair actually benefits from mixing up products and general diversity. Protein, moisture and porosity effect how products work too!
Also try to rotate your washes between a few different things. If you need more help or advice, come and visit me in salon for a “Hair Health consultation”.