Many years ago, I stopped putting weird liquid soap in my hair every time I showered. The decision point happened amidst a profound and literal “shower thought.” I picked up a bottle of shampoo, looked at it, and thought, “Why am I doing this, again?”
And then I stopped doing it. That was a long time ago and I’ve never looked back.
Now, I do shower regularly. If I didn’t, I’d start to stink pretty fast. I like a good shower and I always use bar soap. I don’t put that habit in the same category as shampooing every day, which I deem entirely unnecessary. I also do occasionally shampoo my hair with actual shampoo, bar soap, or body wash if it’s handy and I think my hair needs it.
But honestly, what makes everyone think hair should be washed with soap every day? And when that shampoo dries out your scalp and hair, what do we do? We put this weird lubricant “conditioner” in it. We’re replacing the natural oil we washed out of our hair with fake manufactured stuff. The instructions tell us to swap our natural hair oils for fake hair oils every day.
Why? Well, that answer is obvious. These shampoo companies need to grow! They use every social selling trick in the book:
- Urgency: Do this every day, even twice a day, for best results.
- Social proof: Everyone else is doing it. Don’t be the weirdo who doesn’t shampoo (me!)
- Escalation of commitment: Start with our shampoo, graduate to our conditioner. Start with once a day, expand to twice per day.
- Benefits: Fuller, silkier, shinier hair. (Same as it would be if you just thoroughly rinsed with water.)
I’ve decided to do some research and look into what exactly is shampoo. And while I’m at it, what the heck is soap?
What is soap?
I remembered learning about phospholipids in high school chemistry. It stuck with me because it was a real-world application of science. These molecules are polar: one end is hyprophilic (attracted to water molecules) and the other is hydrophobic (not so much). This is important because the polar ends of the soap molecule allow it to dissolve water into oils, breaking them up the globs of oil and “cleaning” them out.
If you’ve ever made brownies (I’m quite a pro) you may remember some recipes that call for a fraction of a cup of both water and oil. You mix them into a bowl (often with an egg) and you can immediately see that the oil and water don’t mix. They just gel around each other. This happens because oil is nonpolar while water has a charge on both ends (remember how H20 is positive on one side and negative on the other — it’s ionic!) So since water has nothing to grab a hold of, it doesn’t mix into the oil. Soap fixes this by being neutral on one end and polar on the other, acting as a bridge between the oil and the water.
And that’s how soap cleans.
What is shampoo?
Shampoo is essentially a soap with some other stuff mixed in, including water. I read that shampoo is actually 60-70% water and the soap component comes in a few different varieties, but the most common form are “sodium laurel ether sulphates.” This term describes the chemical structure but the important thing for us to know is they are biodegradable and create a foaming effect when mixing into your hair. Other chemicals are added to thicken the shampoo and prevent bacteria growth (yummy!) and make it all smell like a summer rose garden.
What are the downsides of shampooing?
The main one is indeed the gripe that I described earlier. Shampoo strips hair of its sebum, which is a natural, slightly yellow oily substance that glands in our skin secrete to keep our skin and hair moisturized. In the context of your head, sebum protects your hair shaft from getting brittle, dry, and breaking off. When shampoo strips that sebum away, hair can get in bad shape.
That’s why the shampoo industry invented conditioners, which replaces the natural sebum that shampoo removed with fake, manufactured sebum, that you get to buy at Walgreens.
So the chemical industry-inspired cycle we’re supposed to follow goes something like this:
- Dirt and sweat get in our hair through the process of being alive.
- Rather than washing it out with water or a bit of soap, we’re supposed to lather our whole head, twice even, and stripe our hair of dirt, sweat, and everything good that our body produces to keep our hair healthy.
- Replace the good natural hair oils (sebum) with inferior chemical ones.
I, for one, am not buying it, and neither should you. However, I understand it can be a bit jarring to make the change. Instead, I encourage you to try it out. Skip shampooing for a day, then two. Wash thoroughly with water instead. It may take a few days, but eventually, you won’t notice a difference.
You’ll save money and let your body do what it’s supposed to do: keep you healthy.