Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Shampoo Bars: Are They Any Good?

What's in them and are they worth the switch?

Shampoo bars: are they any good?
Hi Melissa!
Please tell us what you know about shampoo bars! I got one as a gift but I don't know much about them. I've heard some good things and some alarming things about them. 
My long-ish rather curly hair tends to split if I look at it funny, so I feel a bit nervous about trying something that seems radically different from the liquid shampoo/conditioner I've been happily using. But if they're great, I don't want to miss out!

Dear Joyce,

Thanks for your great question. There are two parts we need to look at:

1. What is a shampoo bar and how do they compare to traditional shampoos?
2. Are there hair types, like curly hair, that should stay away from this type of product?

What is a shampoo bar?

Formulation nerd that I am, I did a very superficial survey of a handful of bars to see how they were made.

They fall into two clear camps:

  • Superfatted soap (er, so like soap)
  • Solid Sodium Laurel Sulfate (um, like shampoo)

How you tell the difference is in the first ingredient listed on the package.

Soaps are either a saponified oil, generally one of or a combination of palm, coconut or olive oil. These form a nice hard bar and make a soap that is found to be the most pleasing to use when lathered up in the hands.

A soap that is "superfatted" means extra fat was added above what was needed for saponification, the chemical process of turning fat into soap, and remains as fat blended into the soap mixture.

This provides a certain level of moisturising, most usually to your skin, during use.

Shampoos generally use primarily Sodium Laurel Sulfate. This detergent works very well in hair in particular because it is very water soluble, so rinses out easily and also distributes through the hair nicely in the typical shower-hair wash scenario.

From my brief survey of the few bars I could find, anything that comes after the main "working" ingredient, tends to be either added oils, scents, or preservatives of some type.

Benefits of Shampoo Bars

Theoretically, I love shampoo bars.

From an ecological perspective, everyone ought to use them as liquid shampoos are 60-80% water.

And to have so many containerloads of overpriced, branded water (with a bit of added scent and detergent) being shipped around the world unnecessarily wastes labour, fuel and money.

I've written in the past about how much better it would be if Health & Safety allowed us to buy concentrated shampoo and conditioners.

It would at least halve the amount of packaging and transport involved in the worldwide annual consumption of 14.5 billion bottles of product.

Considering the world population is approaching 7 billion, I find that number rather shocking, personally.

If we all switched to shampoo bars, and remembered to store them between washes to allow them to dry completely so as to minimise waste, there would be a profoundly positive impact on the environment worldwide.

However, I am a stickler for performance.

Why buy something (aside from moral principles, which is a great reason to do anything and if you are this type of person I wish more power to you) if it doesn't do the job?

Limitations of Shampoo Bars

So let's look at where the bars can fall short.

Most bars I've found are soap based. Soap is no good for hair, if you have any of any length.

Soap lather binds with minerals in the water, forming soap scum. This, if you've ever had to clean it off your bath, is profoundly insoluable and likes to stick to everything.

Including your hair.

Not only does it dull your hair, it dries it out and certainly makes it more unmanageable.

If you're a man with a typical "man" short-all-over hair style, soap on your hair is not a big deal.

But, to put it briefly, you do not want to use soap on your hair unless it is a total emergency like you just fell over in an oilslick and you have to give the keynote speech to a room full of important dignitaries in an hour.

One soapy hair wash in dire circumstances is not going to hurt you one bit.

I have found an SLS (traditional shampoo-detergent) based bar from a company which I found surprisingly difficult to prise any information out of their PR department, so I will hold back from openly recommending their product.

This product is fundamentally SLS and a bunch of scent oils.

The reason for this is probably to ensure the bar stays nice and hard and dries satisfactorily between washes.

The downside of this formula is that it will have no real conditioning benefit, which if you have fine, curly or hair with any potential damage (coloured, permed or relaxed) this product might contribute towards a degradation of the health of the cuticle during washing.

It also lacks chelating ingredients which allows minerals present in the rinse water to wash cleanly away from your hair.

So using this product regularly could contribute to drier and more brittle hair compared to using a normal main-brand shampoo.

How I Recommend You Use A Shampoo Bar

All the above being said, shampoo bars are a great solution for travelling.

You avoid the "liquids limitation" for your aeroplane carry-on bag, and you could cut just a little chip off the bar to last for your trip, taking up less space.

Genius, really.

So, if you want to give bars a go for the convenience or for their eco benefits, it is a very worthy experiment.

I don't have a lot of direct experience with shampoo bars, but if you're a regular reader of my blog, you'll know shampoo is strictly rationed in my household. And my hair is the healthiest it's ever been.

Given the lack of advice from the Personal Care Company I contacted a few times to no avail last month, this is my personal advice on how to use a shampoo bar to make sure you don't "overdose" yourself unnecessarily.

1. Make sure your hair is really wet. I mean really wet. When you think your hair is completely wet through, stand under the shower for an additional 20 seconds for good measure.

2. Get your hands really wet.

3. Wet your shampoo bar and turn it in your hands for 3 complete rotations.

4. Rub your hands together to build a lather.

5. Wash one hand off.

6. Use the now-reduced lather only where you feel your hair needs it most.

7. Rinse. DO NOT repeat.

8. Condition well.

Use this method and your shampoo bar should last for a jolly long time.

Want to learn more about caring for your hair to keep it healthy? I've written a 5-article series which starts on the topic of shampoo.

Click here to read the first article ...

Having fun? Here are some more posts you might like:

I Know It's Snowing, But Spring's Come Early (pretty hair clips!)

Breaking The Mould (interview)

Curly Hair Styling Tip 1: Easy Damage Prevention Technique (video tutorial)


Visit Stone Bridge Hair Accessories UK


  1. Anonymous4/10/2013

    "Most bars I've found are soap based. Soap is no good for hair, if you have any of any length.

    Soap lather binds with minerals in the water, forming soap scum. This, if you've ever had to clean it off your bath, is profoundly insoluable and likes to stick to everything.

    Including your hair.

    Not only does it dull your hair, it dries it out and certainly makes it more unmanageable."

    Melissa, I usually enjoy your blog, but I really have to take issue with all of the above. The effects you describe will occur if, and only if, you neglect to add a dash of vinegar or lemon juice to your final rinse to restore the acid balance of your hair. But I've been using soap bars exclusively for nine months and counting, and my tailbone-length hair has never been softer, shinier, or more manageable -- and I don't even need to use conditioner! (And that's nothing special in terms of hair length or duration of use; if you read the online longhair boards you'll quickly come across ladies with hair up to knee length who have been using soap-based shampoo bars exclusively for years.)

    Also, I have never experienced scum sticking to my hair from using soap. This may occur when using soap bars with hard water, but if you don't have hard water the soap rinses out just fine, and an acid rinse can sort out the hard water issues too.

    Bottom line: used correctly, soap-based shampoo bars give great results and are much less harsh on the hair than detergent-based shampoos, so I do think it's unfortunate that you're dismissing them as "no good" on the basis of woefully inaccurate information.


    1. Hiya! Thanks for your comment and for sharing your personal experience, which I know others will find valuable. This complements the personal stories I've heard from others with a different experience to yourself, saying they found their hair felt very dry using bars. However, it is fair to say the health of your hair probably has a lot to do with how a product performs for you at the end of the day. The majority of British women, if you look at the population as a whole, have had at least one chemical treatment (usually a permanent colour, which is "refreshed" every 6 weeks). This of course compromises the cuticle and makes it quite sensitive. The vast majority of participants on the long-hair forums value their natural colour and texture, so usually have much stronger, healthier hair and spend more time caring for their hair appropriately.

      Thanks again for commenting!