From body soap to lotion to face wash to, yes, shampoos, we love bars around here—they’re sustainable, travel-friendly, often small-batch, many lean natural, and so chic (that last one is a me thing). But like anything good, this does not mean they’re perfect, nor that you should throw caution to the wind—especially given your hair type. Here’s my mentality about any beauty product: all good things are usually not good across the board, nor good for everyone.
So what’s the thing you need to look out for in shampoo bars? The pH.
“Once I was over in London, I found this natural shampoo bar, and I was all excited because it was natural and more sustainable,” says hair colorist and founder of natural salon Spoke & Weal Christine Thompson. “But then I flipped it over to the back and the pH was a 9, and I was shocked! Luckily they had the pH on it so I knew.”
“What is always most important with shampoos is the pH of the product,” says Thompson. And pH is certainly having a moment, thanks to balancing skin care products, alkaline diets, waters, and a host of other wellness fads. If you’ve been following any of these trends, you’ve been briefed on this little chemistry lesson, but if you haven’t: everything lands on a pH scale from 0 to 14. If something is acidic, that means its pH is low, ranging from 0 to 6.9. If something is alkaline, that means it’s from 7.1 to 14. If something is neutral, it lands right in the middle at 7. We’ve done a briefer on pH before, so here’s a breakdown, as it relates to hair:
Bar soaps and shampoos are made with saponified oils (castor, coconut, and palm are the common ones). The saponification process increases the pH of oils, making the resulting product extremely alkaline. The best bars are usually made with moisturizing and soothing additives (honey or oat for example) to help make the shampoo more gentle, but they can still be harsh for certain kinds of hair or if not used properly.
“If someone with dry or chemically treated hair used one of these, it could end up being too stripping,” says Thompson. But for someone with hair that is pretty tolerable? “It could be very cleansing for someone,” she says. Here, some guidelines:
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