“Lather, rinse, repeat.” Who has not heard or seen that phrase on shampoo bottles? I know I have, and it has been ingrained into my psyche for years as a necessary component of cleaning my hair and my body. It is the only way to clean your hair, right? A shampoo bottle would not even be a shampoo bottle if those words were not written on them under the directions. For years we have seen commercials, movies, and even TV shows with women washing their hair full of foamy, sudsy lather.
We know shampoos are cleansers formulated with detergents that act like surfactants, which cling to the very elements we want out of our hair. The dirt, sweat, and product buildup are removed with effective shampoos but what is lather? I asked scientific consultant Yolanda Anderson, M.Ed., for a little understanding of lather: “Shampoos are made of the chemical sodium laureth sulfate (SLS) and cocamidopropyl betaine (SLES). SLS is in there for cleansing and the betaine is there for lathering. Betaine is actually what produces the bubbles or what we call lather.”
We have been conditioned to accept and expect lather in our cleansers. Women with textured hair have a love/hate relationship with shampoos because they can create tangles and dryness. Curlies and coilies are stepping away standard products that were not created with our tresses in mind. One of the first things on the chopping block was the use of shampoo.
As many began stepping away from SLS shampoos, there was always the nagging pull to return because many of the new SLS-free shampoos or even cleansing conditioners lacked the bubbles. They had neither suds nor main ingredients that were associated with the word shampoo. Like many, when I think of shampoo, I think of lather although they are not one in the same. We know the harsh detergents like SLS can be too callous to our tresses but what about the betaine?
“If you made a shampoo with just SLS it would clean the hair regardless,” Anderson states. “But consumers believe if it’s lathering, it’s cleaning. The best example I can give of a cleaning agent without lathering is when Egyptians used to cleanse their skin with olive oil…sliding dirt off their skin.”
That is an interesting tidbit and from personal experience I am well aware of the cleaning effectiveness of oils, as I have been using the oil cleansing method to wash my face for over a year now. I also use cleansing co-washes, which were an adjustment to get use to the absence of lather, but is it necessary to do so? I decided to see what were the benefits and drawbacks.
Pros of Lather in Cleansers
- Cocamidopropyl betaine is obtained from coconut oil.
- A little more than half of the chemical contains water.
- It is a mild antiseptic and has mild germicidal effects.
Cons of Lather in Cleansers
- Cocamidopropyl betaine is obtained from coconut oil but it has been chemically processed via dimethylaminopropylamine and there are byproducts of salt and some impurities.
- It can irritate the skin or you can be allergic to betaine.
So technically, lather is not necessary to cleanse the hair. I have recently become leery of using any cleanser with too much lather, as I worry it may be drying to my tresses. I always stick to sulfate-free cleansers when I need to clarify, but to each his own as we have learned that lather is not a necessity in cleaning your tresses.