Diving into Shampoo Bars

Diving into Shampoo Bars

If you’ve read our Shampoo Making Part 2: Shampoo Bars blog, you’ll know we provided some background to the shampoo bar trend and how it works: shampoo bars are basically soap bars for your hair, they cut out the chemicals found in traditional shampoo, can be made and gifted plastic/packaging free, and are great for travel and reducing the amount of different products you need to use (dual purpose shampoo and body bar). They really are a go-to if you want to reduce the amount of plastic waste and toxic chemicals put out into the environment , while still caring for your hair.

In this blog I’d like to discuss how various shampoo bars have affected my hair and scalp after several months of use, all the chemistry behind it, and how to tackle the issues, but first:

Everyone’s hair and scalp is different and there can be so many other underlying issues that affect their appearance and feel, that it is hard to pin the blame solely on a humble shampoo bar. Anything from diet, hormones, environment, stress, previous product/colouring damage, hair type or any number of other factors could influence your hair and scalp, and now that you’re using a natural shampoo bar, the issues start to present themselves.

The most common cause is that you are simply ‘detoxing’ from all the chemicals and your hair and scalp are re-establishing their oils and balance. This detox period may take up to a few weeks and during this time your hair and scalp may have extra buildup or feel a little grimy or itchy. This is normal. Our scalp and hair detox from conventional chemical-laden products when we start to switch to natural products because they need to rebalance pH levels, expel toxins that have built up, cleanse follicles, roots and scalp of chemical residue, and restore natural balance and growth patterns. It is a completely natural bodily process that occurs spontaneously after we stop using chemicals which strip our hair and scalp of their natural oils and balance. The process may take from a few weeks to a few months depending on the individual. Just keep up with the natural treatments and once the detox process is over, your hair will be healthier, stronger and will probably grow faster and thicker.

Another major issue that you may be experiencing is a reaction with ‘hard water’. The soap compounds react with the metal ions in the hard water to create insoluble, grimy compounds which can leave a buildup in your hair. The same thing happens when a soap scum ‘ring’ forms around the bath. You will want to use an acidic rinse such as lemon juice, citric acid or apple cider vinegar if you have hard water. I have hard water where I live and this is definitely a contributing factor to what I have experienced with shampoo bars. If your hair is simply not adapting well to shampoo bars, it may very well just be a hard water issue which is leaving a residue in your hair and not allowing the shampoo bar to do its job properly.

I would just like to stress that everyone’s hair and scalp is unique and how your body reacts to different products will be different to what the next person experiences. I very much believe in the ‘follow your own journey’ approach, and this is just my personal experience where my scalp and hair were at a particular stage. It’s not to say that you will experience scalp issues if you use a shampoo bar! But many people do share experiences so I write this in the hope that you can find solutions if you’ve experienced anything that I have. Here is my story and what I’ve found:

I bought my first ever shampoo bar from a local health shop almost a year ago. It had lovely 100% natural ingredients, lemongrass, colloidal silver and neem among them. It smelt great, lathered in my hair well and left it squeaky clean. But after a few weeks of use I started to notice that my scalp was itching and flaking. I’ve never had a flaky scalp before and it was horrible. I stopped using the bar, actually switched back to conventional shampoo for a bit, and then eased back onto a shampoo bar that I made (recipe shared below). My scalp seems to be fine now and all flakiness has thankfully disappeared. This just illustrates the power a new product can have! I’m not sure whether my scalp reacted to the ingredients in the bar, or if it was just me and not the shampoo bar at all. But it got me thinking about the pH of soap in shampoo bars. Soaps made with lye will have a high pH and there is research to suggest that this may be damaging to hair as our hair cannot balance pH like our skin can. This is why many recommend an acidic rinse after shampooing, such as apple cider vinegar, citric acid or lemon juice to bring down the pH again.

Here is the lovely, gentle cold process shampoo bar recipe I use which is easily customisable.

320g water, boiled and cooled or distilled

118g lye

400g olive oil

70g argan oil or another oil such as pomegranate, hazelnut, grapeseed, hempseedavocado or jojoba oil

300g coconut oil

55g castor oil

2 tsp kaolin clay + 2 T water (you may need a little extra) - optional

1 ½ - 2 tsp essential oil(s) of your choice, or you can leave it fragrance free

Wearing safety gear, add the lye to the water and stir until combined. Set the lye solution aside to cool down to between 38 and 43 degrees. Melt the coconut oil and add the other oils to the melted mixture. Allow to cool to between 32 and 38 degrees. In a separate bowl, combine the essential oil, clay and 2 T of water. This will be added at trace. If you’re not using clay, just leave out this step and blend in your essential oils at the end. Combine the lye solution and the oils. Blend with a stick/immersion blender for 30 seconds then hand mix to ensure everything is well mixed. Continue to alternate mixing by blender and by hand until trace is achieved, then add the clay mixture or essential oils and mix gently but well until it is dispersed. Pour into molds and leave to set for a day or two, then unmold and cure for 6 weeks. It will probably be ready to use at 4 weeks but I prefer a long curing time as this ensures the shampoo bar is nice and gentle and all lye is completely used up.


Playing with the pH

You can neutralise the high pH of the lye in your bars to an extent using a natural acid such as citric acid. Adding this acid to your highly alkaline soap mixture at trace will help balance it and bring down the pH slightly, as well as helping with the soap scum issue resulting from hard water (the citric acid acts as a chelate). Please note however that there is no such thing as a ‘pH balanced’ natural shampoo bar, or any hard soap bar for that matter. You won’t be able to achieve a neutral or low pH one matching our hair and scalp’s pH. Soap technically cannot exist at neutral pH or acidic levels, unless there has been some tampering (meaning chemicals added). All shampoo bars will land up in the pH range of 8-10. Anything below that and it won’t be a soap anymore but a sludge of oils, fats and chemical salts. You can get a balanced bar using surfactants as the base, but that is a story for another day. This is just a nice recipe for a gentler shampoo bar that will behave better in hard water.

Citric acid shampoo bars will take a bit longer to cure (8-10 weeks), but your patience will be rewarded with a lovely gentle shampoo bar.

Extra Gentle Shampoo Bars

(Makes about 10-12 bars. Halve the recipe if you want to make a smaller batch).

240g coconut oil

240g olive oil

145g hemp seed oil

96g oil of your choice such as argan, hazelnut, more hemp, grapeseed, etc

96g castor oil

96g jojoba oil

125g lye

318g distilled water + 4 T extra

14g citric acid

8.5g D-panthenol

60g essential oils of your choice

1-2 tsp rhassoul clay or other clay (optional)

Silicone molds

Initial prep: combine the essential oils you are using and leave them to blend together while you make your soap batter. Combine 4 tablespoons of the distilled water with the citric acid and D-panthenol and set aside.

Ensure you are wearing safety gear, then carefully add the lye to the water and leave to cool to at about 50 degrees or below in a well ventilated place. While the lye solution is cooling, melt the coconut oil and blend in all the other oils. Allow the oils to cool to a similar temperature as the lye. Then add the lye to the oils and blend until a thin trace is achieved. Slowly whisk in the citric acid mixture bit by bit, with 15 second whisks in between adding more. This will accelerate trace so try to work quickly. Lastly, blend in the essential oils and clay (if using) then pour the batter into molds. Cover and leave to set for at least 24 hours, then unmold and air dry in a cool place for 8 to 10 weeks (I always find the longer the cure time the better) before using.

I am playing around with the idea of using buffers to lower the pH of the soap but this is still in the R&D phase.


Hard Water is a Problem

Another issue I’m having since switching to shampoo bars is a type of soap scum film over my hair as well as increased tangliness. I can’t see the film or even feel it too much but when I brush my hair I notice a residue coming off on the bristles. I am now certain this is to do with the hard water at my home. Hard water is water rich in dissolved minerals and is common in many areas across South Africa. It’s not necessarily bad for you but is a nuisance when mineral deposits build up in kettles, pipes and fixtures and it affects the performance of soap. Dissolved minerals decrease soap’s lathering capacity because the soap reacts with the excess minerals to form calcium and magnesium salts which cling to your hair. You generally will require much more soap to clean in hard water than in normal or soft water and you may need additional rinses to clear the buildup. Additionally, hard water makes your hair’s shaft scales (remember those shampoo adverts on TV which zoomed in on the hair shafts so you could see the scales - if they were rough it meant hair was damaged, if they were smooth it meant hair was healthy) stand up which makes your hair feel rough, tangly and unmanageable, and makes it even more difficult to clean. The dissolved minerals in the hard water can also deposit themselves on your hair, making it look dull and lifeless (even if you are using conventional shampoo). Hard water and shampoo bars are not friends, but there are simple solutions. Do an acidic rinse after washing, which can help break down the insoluble compounds that result when hard water reacts with soap. Use lemon juice, apple cider vinegar or a citric acid solution. Massage it well into your hair and scalp, leave in for a few minutes then rinse out. The acid helps break down the insoluble compounds, but because it is diluted in water it is gentle enough for hair. Alternatively if you have a rain water tank, use rain water to wash and rinse your hair with, or distilled/filtered water. Otherwise there are shower head filters which you can attach to the shower head to filter out the excess minerals.

If you’re wondering why conventional shampoos don’t have a reaction with hard water, it’s because they are made with synthetic surfactants, lather boosters and detergents which lather, clean and rinse off in any water type. Unfortunately they are also very harsh and strip your hair and scalp of all natural oils, leaving behind clean but damaged hair. Conditioners then attempt to replace your natural oils with artificial softeners to restore softness.

Try these natural hair rinses to combat hard water and high alkalinity:

Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV) Rinse

1.5 L water

2 - 4 T ACV (ACV has excellent benefits for skin and hair, so has a double action of caring for hair while fighting the hard water and soap scum buildup)

Handful fresh rosemary or 5 drops rosemary essential oil (optional)

It may be easiest to use a 2 L bottle for mixing rinses. Make a rosemary infusion by soaking the fresh rosemary in boiled water and leaving it to cool. Alternatively, simply add 5 drops of rosemary oil to the water. Add the apple cider vinegar to the water or rosemary infusion, if using. Shake up, then pour over wet, washed hair little by little, massaging it into your hair and scalp well. Try to leave the rinse in your hair for a few minutes before rinsing out with fresh water. Don’t worry about the smell of the ACV, it should disappear as your hair dries, but if you find it a bit overpowering try a citric acid rinse instead.

Citric Acid Conditioning Rinse

41/2 tsp anhydrous citric acid (powder form)

½ tsp horsetail powder (adds shine)

½ tsp marshmallow root powder (a great de-tangler)

¼ tsp hydrolyzed wheat protein (optional)

Mix together all ingredients and store in a small jar. To use, mix ¼ teaspoon of the citric acid mixture with ½ cup warm water and rinse your hair with it after shampooing.

Or try this easy citric acid rinse:

¼ to ½ tsp anhydrous citric acid

1.5 L water

Shake together to dissolve the citric acid then use it to rinse your hair after shampooing.


Lemon Juice Rinse

1 T lemon juice

2 cups water

Stir together then use the mixture to rinse your hair after shampooing. It will add shine and lustre to dull hair.


How to Use a Shampoo Bar

First time users often find it easier to lather the bar up in your hands and then spread the soapy lather over your hair to wash it. You may need to do this a few times to completely wash your hair. Your hair may go through a phase of ‘detoxing’ if you are coming off conventional shampoos, where your hair and scalp feel a bit gross or there is excess oiliness or buildup. Just power through, it is usually all over in a few weeks.

Once you are accustomed to shampoo bars you can wet the bar and rub over wet hair to wash it. Lather and rinse well.

If your hair still feels waxy after washing, rinse with an acidic solution such as lemon juice, apple cider vinegar or citric acid.


I hope this read has helped you to understand where issues with using shampoo bars can arise, and to combat them if you do experience them. You can also read the guidelines in 3 Steps to a Healthy Scalp and use hair rinses for the healthiest, natural scalp and hair.

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