The Efficacy of Shampoo Bars



Hair Liberty's Nicole Harmon, our Resident Curl Chemist, is answering your most urgent hair questions. Got one for her? Email me at [email protected] using "Hair Liberty" in the subject line and she may answer your question right here on the blog.

Q: I want to try shampoo bars, but I’ve seen mixed reviews. Will they work for my hair?

A: To answer this question, we need to examine the labels of two popular shampoo bars:

Oyin Handmade Grand Poo Bar

Ingredients- purified water, glycerin, sodium stearate and sodium oleate, sorbitol, stearic acid, lauric acid, African black soap, cocoa butter, cetyl alcohol, coconut oil, lavender, tea tree and citrus essential oils

Karen's Body Beautiful Bodacious Beauty Bar (Shampoo Bar), Juicy
Ingredients- purified water, saponified olive, coconut and safflower oils, jojoba oil, shikakai & amla herbs, apple cider vinegar and panthenol

These shampoo bars are made with slightly different recipes, but they are both made of soap. Soap is made by mixing water, fat from a vegetable oil or butter, and sodium hydroxide (lye).
For all intents and purposes, the “sodium stearate and sodium oleate” in the Oyin Poo Bar are the same as the “saponified olive, coconut and safflower oils” in the KBB Shampoo Bar. Oyin used the scientific names for soap in their ingredients list, while Karen’s Body Beautiful used more laymen terms. In the “sodium oleate” listed in the Grand Poo bar, the “sodium” comes from sodium hydroxide and the “oleate” means the fat used was from olive oil.
Soap has been made using sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide for centuries, but it’s always had two major problems:

1) It’s impossible to make pH balanced soap. As we know, sodium hydroxide has a high pH and the resulting soap usually has a pH around 10. An expert soap maker can make a soap bar as low as pH 8. Attempting to lower the pH below 8 will make the soap resemble mud (not a solid bar anymore). Some hair types aren’t affected by high pH, but curly-kinky hair is pH sensitive because of its naturally raised cuticles. It’s always best to use shampoo with a pH between 4.5 and 6.5.

2) Soap causes soap scum in hard water. If you use a shampoo bar in tap water that contains a lot of calcium, the calcium will attach to the saponified olive oil/sodium oleate and form scum that settles on your hair (and leaves stains in the tub). Those mineral deposits will make your hair more prone to tangles and knots. Hard tap water is common in Southern California, the Mid West, and Texas. If you have hard water, your hair and skin will feel and look better if you avoid soap.

*The Karen’s Body Beautiful Beauty Bar contains Apple Cider Vinegar, but it’s not in a high enough amount to counteract hard water.

There’s a learning curve to going natural and it takes time to learn what works best for your hair. If you are just starting out on your healthy hair journey, I recommend avoiding shampoo bars. You will find a good regimen for your hair more quickly if you use products that are scientifically proven to work well for your hair type.

Instead of paying around $10 for a shampoo bar, it would be better to spend the same amount to get a large bottle of Nature’s Gate or Avalon Organics shampoo. Those products are made with gentle cleansers, they’re pH balanced and they include ingredients to counteract hard water. If you’re still curious about shampoo bars after you find your holy grail regimen, feel free to experiment. You’ll get a better sense of whether you like them or not after you’ve had some experience with a well-formulated shampoo.

If you choose to wash your hair with a shampoo bar or any other soap, always rinse the soap scum off of your hair at the end of your shower using 1 cup ACV mixed with 1 cup warm distilled water.

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25 Weigh in!:
Curly Film Chick said...

This was a really good article. I've been curious about shampoo bars as to whether I should use them or not.

Anonymous said...

ugh...sort of having an issue with the hair chemist guiding people towards certain lines. I happen to like Oyin and it works for me. Perhaps if hair chemist could provide the pros and cons of each and let people decide.
Just think if Oyin is one of your readers how their company must be feeling right now.
Can we think of positive ways to make a point?
As I'm writing this I see ads for Miss Jessies. Now I'm sure hair chemist could or could not have an issue with their products.right?
Just appears this post in isolation is knocking Oyin. Doesn't feel righ to me.

Chenay said...

Great article.

I used to feel the same exact way until I tried Bobeam Shampoo Bars. I've tried them all and my favorite is the Cheris Hibiscus. It cleans my hair completely, does not strip my hair at all, does not leave soap scum on my hair, and it leaves my hair moisturized...extremely moisturized for a shampoo. I've been natural for over two years, experimented with too many products too name, and nothing works better with my hair than those shampoo bars.

To each her own, but I am on team shampoo bars for life.

Anonymous said...

What about African black soap? How is it able to lather and clean with only shear butter, cocoa pods, plantain, and coconut oil as the ingredients?

@missmonica0608(Twitter) or Monica Purdy Poodle Leftwich(Facebook) said...

I make shampoo bars myself and I agree with the author, I do not like the idea of lye (sodium hydroxide) in the slightest sense. I do purchase vegetable glycerin (the safe by-product of lye) but I do not saponify nothing (and I do mean NOTHING!) in my homemade shampoo bar. Honestly, I am too scared to work with it!!! One mess up and it can be hazardous!! but then again, I am not here to knock a product either. If it works for ya, who am I to say its bad?! Do you! :) Great Article!

Monica
www.love-jasmine.com

Auset Abena said...

To Anon 1:20pm, shampoo is most often made using sodium hydroxide, but when the saponifying process is over, all traces of lye are supposed to be gone. I say supposed, because it may not always be the case. Therefore, soap manufactureres do not have to list lye as an ingredient, especially since no traces should be left or else it would burn the skin/scalp. Chagrin Valley, great shampoo bars, uses lye for the saponifying process, but does not list it as an ingredient since all traces are gone once the soap has cured for an extended period of time.

Prinie said...

I use an organic bar of olive oil soap to wash my hair and I haven't had any problems. I stopped using shampoo after my detangling shampoo made my hair so hard that I couldn't get my fingers past the front of my hair. But the soap bar I use doesn't make my hair feel dry or tangled. Just clean.

But that's my personal experience...

K. said...

This post was very informative! I was not thinking about switching to a soap (using a bar to wash my hair seems like it would be annoying) but I learned some good info.

Talisa said...

I'm a shampoo bar lover for only one bar so far... Anita Grant Babassu Amla. I used diluted ACV with it and my hair responds very well! I really enjoyed this article although most liquid shampoos don't make my hair happy anymore for some reason. The point on ph balancing shampoo bars really piqued my interest because Anita Grant soaps state that they are PH balanced. I might ask her and check it out

Anonymous said...

Also SheaTerraOrganics.com has an excellent Argan & Glasool Shampoo & Spa Bar for $8.00 and it made my hair feel soft and detangled and I was very skeptical because I've NEVER used a bar of soap on my hair before. I got a sample (still using) from a purchase of their Morroccan Clay Mud. They have the best samples!!

Anonymous said...

I thought this article was very one sided and I agree with Anon 1:03PM. I have used either of these brands of shampoo bars but I have two other kind of all natural soap bars on my hair and I absolutely love them. I have never had any problem with them leave soap scum and my hair has always felt soft and clean afterwards. When I came to school after the summer I left my shampoo bar at home and my hair was just not agreeing with me for a while. I bought my new soap [Nubian Heritage, you can get it at Vitamin Shoppe for about $4!!!] and my hair snapped right back into shape. I will never go back to traditional shampoo.
Also Auset Abena said some great and important things. The sodium hydroxide is no longer in the soap after it have cured in quality soaps.

Anonymous said...

This article is full of misinformation.

Anonymous said...

I have 4c hair and I've washed my hair with many bars and liquid shampoos. I love Karen's Body Beautiful moisturizing shampoos(the best liquid shampoo I've ever used) and my hair hates their shampoo bar(that could have turned me of bars). However the best cleanser I've used for my hair is Chagrin Valley's Herb garden shampoo bar. I have no idea what the pH is, but it leaves my hair soft, de-tangled moisturized and absolutely lush. I don't rinse with apple cider vinegar and most times I don't even need to condition. That in my opinion is a big achievement for 4c hair. So if you want to try a shampoo bar, please go ahead and try various ones. Some of them are really good. (I do detangle before washing my hair ) In my opinion the only liquid shampoo that comes close to that bar is KBB's shampoo. That CV shampoo bar is better than any other liquid shampoo I've tried (and I've tried many; used to wash my hair everyday at some point). Oh BTW if you try bars, try sampling many, I love many of the CV bars but not all of them work for my hair.

Imena said...

Chagrin Valley Ayurvedic shampoo bar is amazing I also do a prepoo with Vatika oil which could be the reason why my hair looks and feels amazing! I know it works for me and its cheap and you have it basically forever! I havent found a good liquid shampoo and theres either too many chemicals or the "natural" stuff makes my hair squeaky and dry...When I had weave I used mizani shampoo for curly type hair it was okay on my natural hair..but as for right now its either CV or a cowash

Nicole - Hair Liberty said...

Hi ladies!
I didn't expect this topic to be so controversial! Just want to re-iterate that soap scum will not be a problem for you if you live in an area with *soft* water. One of the reasons there are so many mixed opinions on shampoo bars is because everybody has different water quality.

More references on soap and hair:
http://chagrinvalleysoapandcraft.com/hardwater.htm
http://drbronner.com/faqs_main.html#faq9
http://thebeautybrains.com/2008/11/17/what-is-the-difference-between-soap-surfactants/
http://ausetute.com.au/soaps.html

April said...

I haven't read any of the other comments but I would like to ask a question. How can one find out how acidic a liquid shampoo is?

Is it based on a certain ingredient found in liquid shampoos, or the quantity in which it occurs in that shampoo?

I use Shea Moisture's Yucca and Baobab line of products, including the shampoo. And I'd also like to try the Carol's Daughter Monoi shampoo and conditioner.

Is it generally known or proven that liquid shampoos have an acidity level lower than 8?

Carla said...

@April - You can buy pH testing strips at most health food stores or online. You can use those to test the pH of hair care products.

April said...

Thank you so much Carla!

Jami said...

Hi Nicole: How about using olive oil liquid soap made with potassium lye? Is the pH lower??

Thanks! peace.

Auset Abena said...

Just wanted to reiterate what Nicole - Hair Liberty said about the shampoo bars behaving differently in soft or hard water. When I bought my CV bars, I used them in Atlanta and Alabama and they worked great! Especially in Alabama, where the water is soft and good quality. When I started an internship in the TN mountains, using well water which is very hard, my hair rebelled and started to tangle more, had less curl definition, etc. This was with all my products, but I noticed it most with the shampoo bar. As someone who is currently travelling more and never knows just how good the water will be for every place I go, I have returned back to using Shea Moisture liquid shampoos. Liquid shampoo has the advantage of being more predictable no matter the water quality. But if I had a steady supply of soft water, I would complete shampoo bar and never look back.

Ms. Sassy said...

Wow this was very helpful! I have heard that the word saponified was not a good word, so now I have the scientific explanation. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I don't use any of the products named in the post, but I agree with the commenters who've said it wasn't necessary to call out particular brands in order to make the point about the ingredients of shampoo bars. The same information/opinions could have been put across without reference to any brand names at all, honestly.

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