Why I ditched bottled shampoo for good
Do you know what’s in your shampoo? Or how it achieves that “squeaky clean” feeling? The truth might convince you to wave your bottled shampoo goodbye for good.
I switched to using a natural shampoo bar four years ago and have never looked back. Previous to this, trips to my hairdresser meant weeks of anxiety knowing he would examine my ends sadly before chopping three inches off my precious locks. He was right to - my hair was dry, damaged and prone to breakage.
It was as part of my mission to use less plastic that I first bought a shampoo bar. And, I have to admit I was worried. If expensive salon shampoos and conditioners with fancy-sounding ingredients couldn’t restore life to my hair, I didn’t hold out much hope for a simple little bar of, what looked like, soap.
It was life changing. Or hair changing. My hair became healthier, stronger, more hydrated and, because I had less breakage, longer. What witchcraft was this? I started to research how traditional shampoos work, the ingredients they contain and why natural shampoo bars are different.
The effect they have on my hair is not the only reason I love shampoo bars. They’re also easy and fuss-free to use, light and liquid-free for travel, gentle enough for the whole family to use (even the small members) and you don’t even need a conditioner.
So, if you’re debating taking the plunge when it comes to switching to a shampoo bar, read on.
However, in order to understand how shampoos got to where they are today, we have to go back to the beginning.
A Hairy History
Shampoo as we know it has only been around since the 1930s. However humans have been washing their hair for thousands of years.
Records show that way back around 4000 BC, the upper echelons of society congregated at bathhouses to partake in cosmetic routines including hairstyling.
The very first concoction made specifically for washing hair originated in India in the 1500s. Sapindus, otherwise known as soapberries or soapnuts, were boiled with dried gooseberries and other herbs to create an extract which lathered.
The word ‘shampoo’ comes from the Hindi word ‘champo’ which means ‘to press or massage’. Cleansing the hair and body massage (champu) during your daily bath was a practice adopted by early colonial traders in India. Shampoo or ‘shampooing’ was then introduced to the English by Indian traveller, surgeon and entrepreneur, Sake Dean Mahomed. In 1814, Mahomed and his Irish wife Jane Daly opened the first commercial ‘shampooing’ vapour massage bath in Brighton. During these early stages, shaved soap and herbs were boiled in water to use to cleanse hair.
During the 1880s, many people used an all-purpose bar of soap called Slidall’s Soap to wash their hair. You could use it for many other purposes including washing your body and teeth and cleaning your toilet. Needless to say, it didn’t leave your hair looking particularly healthy.
In 1898, Berlin chemist, Hans Schwarzkopf, developed a water-soluble dry shampoo which, within a year, was available in every drugstore in Berlin. Its popularity then spread to Europe. Previous to this, commercially made shampoo simply wasn’t available. If you were lucky enough to get your hair washed, it would have been done by a hair stylist at a salon. So, most people had no idea how to actually do it. Consequently, in 1908, The New York Times published an article on how one should wash one’s hair. In the article, hair specialists recommended washing your hair as often as every two weeks, though every four to six weeks was also acceptable. They also stated that hair is best shampooed at night, following thorough combing and brushing, and singeing split ends. Castile soap should be applied with a stiff brush before rinsing.
Getting closer to the commercial shampoos we recognise today, in 1927 Hans Schwarzkopf introduced the very first liquid shampoo in 1927. Shortly after this, in 1930 the first liquid shampoo containing synthetic surfactants arrived on our shelves - it was called Drene. The surfactants in these fledgling shampoos ruthlessly stripped hair leaving it dull and brittle. However, in the 1960s, chemists discovered a way to suspend polymers in shampoo - these filled in the bumps, ruts and general damage done to the hair by the surfactants.
Skip forward to the 1980s and pharmaceutical companies managed to suspend silicones in shampoo thus inventing the 2 in 1 shampoo and conditioner and a flurry of patents. The silicones are triggered by water to bind to the hair follicle. Despite this, most silicone is washed away in the rinse so a huge amount of silicone is added to ensure enough is left behind.
Since the 1980s, marketing companies have used every trick in the book to get us to buy more and more shampoo. From encouraging us to wash our hair on a more regular basis to the familiar “Lather. Rinse. Repeat.” which we encounter emblazoned on the back of most commercial shampoo bottles. Use twice as much shampoo, buy twice as much shampoo.
It’s in the interests of hair care companies to ensure that we wash our hair as often as possible. After all, more hair washing equals more profits. But at what cost to us, our hair and the environment?
Why traditional shampoos are bad for your hair and the environment
As we have covered above, early shampoos were most commonly soaps made from lye and lard. Due to their high alkali pH levels, they left hair dry, damaged and brittle. Many people preferred to have oily hair which at least could be easily styled rather than frizzy, unmanageable locks and a dry, flaky scalp.
Then, in the 1930s, along came sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS), the first man-made detergent. Originally developed to wash laundry, manufacturers began adding it to all sorts of cleaning products such as shampoo because it was cheap, easy to make and, most importantly, it lathered like mad. Consumers loved this as they associated it with cleaner hair and, although it still stripped hair, it was less damaging than lye and lard.
Today, many shampoos still contain SLS, or its best friend, sodium laureth sulphate (SLES). In order to understand why these shampoos are not as good for your hair as you might think, we need to understand how they work.
Detergents used in shampoos, such as SLS or SLES, contain surfactants. Surfactants work by suspending dirt and oil in water and holding it there as it is rinsed out of your hair, down the drain and into the water system.
The tail of a surfactant molecule is attracted to oil and dirt but is hydrophobic (repelled by water) while the head is hydrophilic (attracted to water). So when you wash your hair with a shampoo containing surfactants, the tails of the surfactant molecules attach themselves to the oil and dirt particles. As your lather, massage and rinse,, these surfactant molecules cluster together. They form spheres called micelles as the hydrophobic tails, desperate to get away from the water molecules, turn inwards. Meanwhile the water-loving heads form the outer barrier of the sphere with the dirt and oil particles, still attached to the tails, trapped inside.
However, surfactants are indiscriminate. They treat your scalp’s natural protective layer of sebum exactly as they would an oil particle, grabbing and trapping the molecules so they too are rinsed away. This sebum barrier is important for a healthy scalp and hair - it keeps our scalp and hair hydrated and protects it from allergens, the sun, environmental pollutants and stops it drying out. If you colour your hair, surfactants will also grab colour pigments and remove them.
After using a traditional shampoo, your hair feels really clean, right? It is. But it’s actually overclean. That “squeaky clean” feeling means you have successfully washed away your hair’s natural barrier. The squeaking you hear is the friction of your hair between your fingers. If your natural barrier was still intact, your fingers would glide over your hair instead.
Stripping the scalp and hair in this way leaves it dry and irritated and can lead to a flaky scalp. Dry and damaged hair is also more likely to become tangled, which is why we then follow up with a conditioner which imitates your natural sebum barrier using silicone. It seems madness to wash away something naturally perfect at doing its job and replace it with a bottled substitute.
What’s even worse is that every time we shampoo our hair and the natural oil layer is removed, our bodies recognise this as an attack and go into overdrive to replenish it. The result? Oily hair. We then wash our hair again to get rid of the oil and the vicious cycle continues.
Surfactants are not just harmful to our hair. Once they are loose in our waterways, they cause serious environmental pollution with a toxic effect on living organisms and aquatic life. In particular, surfactant micelles are toxic to fish. They enter the gills and impair the fish’s ability to absorb oxygen from the water.
So , what’s the answer?
Why not try a shampoo bar?
A shampoo bar is a great eco-friendly alternative to a traditional shampoo. All the shampoo bars we stock at Vera-Bee are completely detergent-free. They gently cleanse to remove dirt and excess oil while leaving your hair and scalp’s natural protective barrier in place. And because they don’t strip away “good” oils, your hair will stay moisturised meaning you will probably find you dont need a conditioner.
The old style shampoo bars could leave your hair feeling a bit tacky and not completely clean. You had to go through the dreaded “transition phase” before your hair began feeling normal again. But shampoo bars have come a long way since then. The shampoo bars which we stock are all non-transitional, meaning you’ll have gorgeous, happy hair from the very first wash. And, we promise, that by continuing to use one of our shampoo bars in place of a traditional shampoo, you’ll have the healthiest hair of your life.
We also can’t forget the fact that the vast majority of shampoos come packed in plastic, often made of mixed materials which can’t be recycled. These bottles will end up in landfill or in our ocean, gradually breaking down over the next 500 years or so and polluting our soil, water and food chain with microplastics. By switching to a shampoo bar, you’re helping to fight plastic pollution one hair wash at a time. With UK households throwing away up to 520 million shampoo bottles per year, this is a great way to help reduce plastic waste in your bathroom.
Furthermore, upwards of 80% of liquid shampoo is actually water. Our shampoo bars contain no water, are lighter and take up less space than bottled shampoo. Which all equates to around a 94% reduction in transport carbon emissions.
To get the best out of your shampoo bar, it’s important that you use it in the right way. So, here are some of our top tips.
How to use a shampoo bar
🧼 Give your hair a brush before getting into the shower.
🧼 Once in the shower, wet your shampoo bar and lather slightly in your hands before rubbing it directly on your scalp.
🧼 Rub all over your scalp and roots creating lots of lovely foam. It’s really important to really lather up when using a shampoo bar and work it into your scalp and roots to wash away dirt and excess oils.
🧼 Massage the lather into your roots and through the lengths of your hair.
🧼 Rinse thoroughly.
🧼 If you want to apply some conditioner to your ends, go ahead. But, you’ll probably find you won’t need it.
🧼 And you’re done! Say hello to your new, improved, beautiful hair!
Find the best shampoo bar for you
Best for oily hair:
Shampoo & Conditioner 2 in 1 Fine/Oily Hair - Shower Blocks
Botanical Shampoo Bar with Thyme & Cedar – Bain & Savon
Best for dry hair:
Clarifying Peppermint Shampoo Bar - Bean and Bee
Shampoo & Conditioner 2 in 1 Dry/Frizzy Hair - Shower Blocks
Best for normal hair:
Shampoo & Conditioner 2 in 1 All Hair Types - Shower Blocks
Botanical Shampoo Bar with Orange & Bergamot - Bain & Savon
Best for curly hair:
Extra Gentle Baobab Shampoo Bar for Curly Hair - Bean and Bee
Botanical Shampoo Bar with Lime & Coconut - Bain & Savon
Best for blonde hair:
OH SO Silver Purple Shampoo Bar for Blonde Hair - Soul & Soap
Botanical Shampoo Bar with Calendula Oil for Blonde Hair - Bain & Savon
Best for dandruff or flaky scalp:
Shampoo & Conditioner 2 in 1 Itchy Scalp - Shower Blocks
Botanical Shampoo Bar Monoi de Tahiti Dry & Dandruff - Bain & Savon
Best for coloured hair:
All of our shampoo bars are safe for coloured hair as they are surfactant-free - they won't strip out colour pigments like regular shampoo. However, we really love:
Lemon & Ginger Solid Shampoo Bar - Soul & Soap