Product focus: shampoo bars

Updated: Sep 24, 2019

Shampoo bars are a best seller among new zero-wasters. Everyone is curious about making the change, but not everyone is prepared for what the change entails.

The name 'shampoo bar' or 'solid shampoo' is really a misnomer, in my opinion. We should refer to them as 'hair soap' because that is what they are, and they behave quite differently to liquid shampoo. The same goes for conditioner bars. If you want to make the switch to shampoo and conditioner bars, that's great. You will reduce plastic and save money, but don't throw away your empty shampoo bottles quite yet!

Using Shampoo and Conditioner Bars

I am often asked how one uses a shampoo bar. There are a couple of options.. One is to rub the bar on wet hair in a few places to transfer some of the soap to the hair, then lather. Another is to lather the bar in your hands and then work the suds into your hair. In both cases, rinse well.

Different makes of shampoo bar will lather to different degrees. The Lush bars lather a lot, because they contain Soldium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS). SLS is a surfactant found in your 'traditional' liquid shampoo - it creates that nice lather, but it also strips your hair of its natural oils (and SLS is derived from palm oil). The formulation of your shampoo bar - which will largely depend on the ethical and environmental goals of its maker - may mean it lathers very little by comparison. You may not like the first shampoo bar you try, the same way you prefer some brands of liquid shampoo to others. If the first one doesn't work out, try another one before giving up. However, some people decide they just don't get on with shampoo bars. Prepare yourself for a bit of experimentation.

SLS, and its drying effects, are a prime driver for the creation of conditioner to re-moisturise your hair. Many people who switch to shampoo bars find they no longer need conditioner. However, be warned: whilst there are shampoo bars that lather nicely and seem to behave like liquid shampoo, in my experience conditioner bars are nothing like liquid conditioner, and a good one is harder to find.

What I have observed about the conditioner bars I have tried is that they are quite hard in texture, and getting it into your hair isn't always easy. Depending on the one you try, you may have to put the temperature of the water up to get it to melt and soften enough to transfer some to your hair (apply it to the ends, not from root to tip), or you might have to rub it hard between your hands. Once it is in your hair, it will not change the texture of your hair to be soft, silky, and easy to comb like your liquid conditioner does. If I'm being completely honest, I don't see what the point of conditioner bars is, or what they are actually meant to do for your hair. However, everyone is different and I have heard from some customers that they do work for them. I must be one of the exceptions!

Adjusting to shampoo bars

There is typically an adjustment period when you switch to a shampoo bar - both for your hair, and for your expectations! Some people adjust with no issues. Others have more of a tricky time, and may give up too soon or not know about some of the things you can do to help with the transition period. This can last for a few weeks for some people - everyone is different and some people just don't get on with shampoo bars at all - you just don't know until you try.

As I already mentioned, most 'traditional' liquid shampoos contain chemical surfactants (fancy word for detergents) that strip your hair of its natural oils. When I used liquid shampoo I felt that I had to wash my hair every day, because if I didn't it started to look a bit greasy and gross. Now I know that's because my shampoo was stripping all my natural oils and my scalp was in overdrive trying to compensate.

The first few times I used a shampoo bar, my hair squeaked when I rinsed it. I probably didn't rinse it enough - when you make the switch, you should take care to do some extra rinsing. After a few days the squeaking stopped and it felt like my hair texture began to change. It felt a bit heavier, and when it dried it felt like it had more body - perhaps it was a little bit more wiry feeling. I'm not that precious about my hair and I'm very busy at the moment going to markets so I didn't take much notice.

About a week in, my hair started feeling sticky. We walked our dog across the dam wall at Carsington Water and I realised that despite not having my hair tied back, it wasn't moving. It was quite windy. That's not normal.

Conditioning with vinegar

I did some research and learned that soap bars have a higher pH than liquid soap. A shampoo bar (a.k.a. hair soap) will raise your hair's pH nearer to 8 - but your hair wants to be more like a 5. The solution: rinse it with something acidic to lower the pH, like apple cider vinegar. To do this, dilute a couple tablespoons of vinegar in a jug of warm water, and pour it over your hair at the start of your shower, working it to the roots. Leave it while you do all the rest of your bits, and rinse it out at the end. This will make a big difference to the texture and feel of your hair.

I found that I didn't need to put shampoo in my hair every day. I could shampoo on day one, condition with vinegar on day two, and rinse only for another day or two, then repeat the cycle. Again, whether you need to condition with vinegar will be individual to you, and may also depend on what's in your shampoo bar and the resulting pH balance of your hair after you use it.

Finding a shampoo bar for your hair type

Some shampoo bar makers market their bars for specific hair types. I'm not sure I believe this is anything more than marketing, but I try to keep an open mind. Again, at its base this is a soap that's made with different essential oils, and the result will vary based on what those oils are "good" for. For example, argan oil and castor oil are very moisturising and will coat the hair follicle so should make your hair shiny.

Some makers do bars that they claim are for coloured hair, but they are rare. In general, a shampoo bar shouldn't harm coloured hair but most won't prevent your colour from fading. I don't yet know of a refillable liquid shampoo that is formulated to prevent fading, either. I do hope that people will put the good of the planet above all else for a while until we get a colour-safe refillable shampoo, though, don't you?

Making your shampoo bar last

The good thing about shampoo and conditioner bars is they should last longer than bottled shampoo (though this depends on the size of bottle you were using before the switch!). But remember they are a soap and will dissolve into a pile of mush if you leave them in water.

Some people will cut their bars in half, which may be a good idea but please be careful. Soaps can be quite hard and you could end up cutting yourself. The key is to store the bars in a way that keeps them as dry as possible in between uses. If you have a soap tin, stand the bars on end to keep the surface area that may sit near water to a minimum. Another option is to use a soap dish that has drainage holes, and keep the bars at the far end of your shower to keep it away from the spray.

Other Options

Shampoo and conditioner bars may work well for a lot of people, but they aren't for everyone. Don't feel bad if you don't get on with them. You can reduce plastics in other ways, such as by finding a zero-waste shop nearby that refills bottles with shampoo from brands like Suma or Faith In Nature. If you don't have a refill option nearby, try to buy the largest bottle you can find - buying fewer smaller bottles throughout the year will reduce the overall amount of plastic you consume.

You could also experiment with stopping using shampoo altogether, or using bicarbonate of soda. Or, you could write to your favourite shampoo makers and ask them to provide a refill option - if they start hearing this from thousands of customers, they will hopefully listen!