Anyone looking more than “skin deep” into the world of shampoo soon learns that there is more than meets the eye! Not only that, but even what is factual and what is hype is easily confused. In fact, it is almost like entering a battlefield! That is because there is a tremendous amount of money in the shampoo business, and where you find money, you find competition. Let me help clear up some of the confusion.
In the most basic sense, there are two main groups of cleansers available for shampoo. The first and oldest (but not most popular) is soap, whether it be soap flakes, castile (liquid soap from olive oil) soap, or something herbal like soapwort. The second and newcomer to the field is synthetic detergents. These were developed during wartime and are superior to soap in some applications; whether that is true of the application of shampoo is still heavily debated.
One of the main problems surrounding the debate is the tremendous amount of verbiage. Chemical names are thrown around willy-nilly, with no regard for non-chemists’ understanding. Heard of the SLS/ALS debate? Cancer causing baby shampoos? There is still no real scientific agreement on these topics so this article will steer clear of the more “hot” detergents and compare only soap based shampoos to the gentler (non SLS/ALS) detergent based shampoos, since all “baby shampoos” avoid them anyways. (but here is a good article on the subject)
One last thing to correct before comparisons: both sides will talk of “natural shampoo” and claim the coveted terms “natural” or “naturally derived” for their products (see Johnson’s Natural Baby Shampoo for an example). Unless you are grabbing a bubble-making plant and rubbing it on your head, you are using something that has undergone some chemical process. It is no longer “natural” in the bare meaning of that word, although it can certainly be “naturally derived” if it comes from something like oil (castile soap) or coconut (many gentler detergents). So in regards to soap vs. detergent, “nature” doesn’t really come into it.
Now to the first contestant: soap. A commonly used soap in body care is castile soap, although some people do buy the soap flakes and make their own, or even use soapwort leaves. However, let’s look at the more common castile soap. “Castile” refers to the fat used to react with the lye to make soap; in this case it is olive oil. Probably the most popular Castile soap brand in North America is the Dr. Bronner brand, which has been around since WWII. On the Bronner Mom blog she has an article on how to use their castile Baby Mild Soap for cleaning…well, a baby! Since this is basically soap we are talking about, it can be used to cleanse the entire body. Many have turned away from soap-based shampoos, however, because of two things: an acid rinse is recommended because soap can bond to the mineral elements in hard water creating….dum dum dum…soap scum in your hair. Yuck. That is one reason why an acid rinse is necessary (I’m talking acid like vinegar or lemon juice, also hair chemically “likes” acid rinses, something too involved to get into here). I recently bought Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Castile Soap to try in various household applications (cleans walls great! and I love it at the sink!) and so I tried it (diluted) on my kids’ hair this morning at bath time (ages 1 to 6, short hair of various thicknesses). Personally, I found a good but limited sudsing action and fairly soft hair. I did not follow with the acid rinse because my kids would never sit still and I didn’t want to risk getting anything in their eyes. (side note: “tear-free” shampoos are basically pH balanced, they’re not actually better for baby’s eyes). Over time and continual usage there might be some “buildup” but that was not apparent in my trial today. So castile soaps can certainly be used as a shampoo, with the added caveat that it might be good to use an acid rinse.
The real big-hitter in the shampoo market is detergent. Now, nobody wants to put the same thing in their hair that they put in their dishwasher which is why manufacturers assiduously avoid the term “detergent.” However, that is what it is chemically, even though it is a different chemical than the dishwasher detergent. Wise Geek has a good brief introduction into the various names and purposes of shampoo ingredients. For babies, the ALS/SLS debate is really moot since most (all?) baby shampoos leave them out completely, as they are harsher detergents. Baby shampoos rely on milder, gentler detergents (aka surfactants) alone or in combination to clean hair. Shampoo science has come a long way since the ’50s. Here is a recipe for homemade DIY shampoo for babies (or adults) that I wrote a while back. I experimented in my kitchen for about a year with various products (talk about mad scientist mommy!) because several of my four children had problems with eczema and unusually sensitive skin. In my experience, the gentler detergents like cocoamidopropyl betaine (very common) work very well, lather up nicely, and don’t irritate sensitive skin…but (and this is a big BUT), homemade DIY shampoo does not feel like “storeboughten” because shampoo manufacturers add, even to baby shampoos, ingredients that thicken and clarify the shampoo. There’s nothing wrong with that, it just means that someone striving for a simple DIY shampoo that’s gentle enough for baby will either end up copying the manufacturers ingredient list or just buying a decent brand of shampoo! And that is where I landed after more kids meant less time playing mad scientist in the kitchen. ;) Commonly, a shampoo that is listed as “clarifying” or something similar will have very few ingredients and be the closest most people can get to homemade without all the hard work or unnecessary ingredients. (underlying assumption: less ingredients == better, you may disagree with me on this).
So which is the safest, most gentle choice for baby’s shampoo: soap or detergent? Both soap based shampoos and detergent based shampoos have their pluses and minuses. For someone looking into this for themselves or their baby I would say consider the following:
– Do you have hard or soft water? Detergents work better in hard water, in soft water it doesn’t make a difference.
– Do you have long hair? Detergents usually lather up better for longer hair.
– Can you use an acid rinse? Soaps almost need one, and if you can (or want to) use a rinse, a soap-based shampoo might be the one for you.
– Do you care more about the ingredient list or the look/feel/smell of your shampoo? If it’s the ingredients, stick to a simple soap shampoo or a clarifying kind of detergent shampoo; if the other aspects are more important, just buy whatever you prefer! There is no right or wrong in choosing soap or detergent based shampoo (caveat: as far as I know at this time, if science does come out with some solid conclusions in the future regarding shampoo safety go by that!).
I hope that this article has helped clear the air of shampoo confusion and helped you decide what would be best for your hair. Happy rinsing!