Shampoo Bars: Everything you need to know & how to make your own low-waste, cheap alternative!

Updated: Nov 2, 2020

In 2016, around 485 billion PET bottles were produced, most of which will never have been recycled and therefore inevitably ended up on landfill or polluted our oceans. This figure is expected to increase to 583.3 billion in 2021. PET bottles are mainly used for bottled water (my biggest pet peeve is those who have access to drinkable tap water, buying bottled water, but that's a conversation for another day) but they are also used to bottle shampoo and conditioner.

Bathrooms are one of the biggest problem areas in our homes when discussing plastic waste. Toilet paper, toothpaste tubes, loofahs, cleaning products, skincare products, makeup and of course shampoo/conditioner all come wrapped in or made of a whole lot of plastic. To combat this there are many amazing waste-free alternatives. Unfortunately, however, these alternatives tend to be on the pricey side. Meaning they are inaccessible to many people. Shampoo bars are one of mine and Ruth's favourite plastic-free swaps we've made so far. I started off using them sporadically to test out which ones I liked, mainly taking them on holidays with me because they're great to travel with and I think it's a good idea not to bring outside waste into another country.

A good shampoo bar is so much better for your hair than liquid shampoo, making them an easy swap to make. Traditional shampoo is made with a lot of harsh chemicals, that strip your hair of all its natural oils, which is why companies are also able to sell you conditioner. I'm unable to speak on behalf of everyone and all hair types, but since I started using bars for my hair I haven't needed to use conditioner to get super soft hair! This saves me from buying 2 products and keeps my hair healthy and strong, but this can come with a price tag. Of course, for many people, this extra money is worth it if it means the product they're buying is better for the environment but as we've said before, this is a privilege not afforded to everyone and the price tag can put people off in general.

Handy hint: Keep your shampoo bars dry and make them last longer by placing them on a bamboo soap dish

The difference between soap and shampoo

Before I decided to attempt making my own solid shampoo, I was under the impression that shampoo and soap were the exact same thing. I could never understand why I had to buy two sperate products for my hair and my body. After A LOT of reading about homemade solid shampoo bars, I discovered shampoo has one crucial difference from your run of the mill soap. It's all about pH! Traditional soaps are naturally alkaline (high pH) while shampoo needs to be either neutral or acidic (low pH). Our skin is naturally acidic and this includes our scalp. Now I'm obviously not a dermatologist, but from what I've read it appears that using alkali products on the skin on our bodies isn't an issue. This is because the natural sebum we produce quickly lowers the pH of skin back to its original state. However, our hair is not quite as efficient as the sebum is unable to spread across our hair quickly enough to recover from such high alkalinity. 

Transition period

Many people worry about making the switch to solid shampoo because of the transition period. When you use a shampoo bar that is not pH balanced, your hair will need time to adjust to how alkaline the soap is. Our hair and scalp are naturally acidic so when we wash with a shampoo bar that isn't pH balanced, there will be a residue leftover. From experience, I can tell you that this isn't very pleasant and gives your hair a horrible sticky texture. An example of a shampoo bar that does not have a balanced pH is the Friendly Shampoo Bar that has a pH of 8-9, making it too alkaline for most peoples hair (I do love their body soap though). It is possible to combat this by using an apple cider vinegar rinse after shampooing, but I find this to be a tedious step that leaves your hair with a weird smell. There are many pH balanced options out there that leave your hair feeling amazing and you won't have to use a vinegar rinse afterwards or go through any type of transition period, however, they tend to be on the pricey side! Thanks to lockdown and my love for a DIY, I decided to experiment with making my own shampoo bars. It can be a little intimidating at first because of all the ingredients with names that are difficult to pronounce but after a lot of research and experimenting, I think I may have cracked it! Don't let the ingredients scare you off!  

Shampoo bar for oily hair and itchy scalp

Ingredients you'll need to make 4 x 70g bars:

  • 200g Sodium cocoyl isethionate (SCI) noodles - a gentle surfactant derived from coconuts

  • 20ml Cocamidopropyl betaine - also derived from coconuts, acts as a foam booster and aids the melting of SCI     

  • 15g Raw unrefined cocoa butter - moisturising and naturally contains stearic acid an emulsifier that acts as a natural preservative

  • 15g Raw unrefined shea butter* - nourishing and hydrating

  • 5ml Vegetable glycerine - strengthens & moisturises hair and acts as a preservative  

  • 10g Cosmetic grade kaolin clay* - cleansing, improves the elasticity of hair and soothes the scalp, treating dandruff and encouraging hair growth

  • 10g Cetearyl alcohol - creates strong bonds between water and oil, preventing bacteria from growing, therefore acting as a preservative

  • 30 - 40 drops 100% Tea tree essential oil - antibacterial and anti-inflammatory, treats dandruff and oily scalp

  • 10- 20 drops 100% Eucalyptus essential oil* - stimulates hair growth, soothes the scalp

  • 10- 20 drops 100% Peppermint essential oil* - imparts a tingly sensation and stimulates hair growth

  • Pigment powder* - how much pigment you put in depends on your preference, I like my soaps to be pastel coloured so I only put a sprinkle in 

Shampoo bar to stimulate hair growth for fine hair

Ingredients you'll need to make 4 x 70g bars:

  • 200g Sodium cocoyl isethionate (SCI) noodles

  • 20ml Cocamidopropyl betaine

  • 15g Raw unrefined cocoa butter

  • 15g Raw unrefined shea butter

  • 5ml Vegetable glycerin

  • 10g Cosmetic grade kaolin clay - cleansing, improves the elasticity of hair and soothes the scalp, treating dandruff and encouraging hair growth

  • 10g Cetearyl alcohol

  • 1tsp Cinnamon powder or 10-20 drops of 100% Cinnamon bark oil - stimulates blood flow to the scalp, improves hair health and growth

  • 10-20 drops of 100% Eucalyptus essential oil - stimulates hair growth

  • 10-20 drops of 100% Lemon essential oil - cleanses the scalp 

  • Pigment powder*

Utensils you'll need:

  • Glass bowl x2

  • Small saucepan

  • Spatulas 

  • Soap moulds or rectangular tin (& compostable parchment paper)

  • Rolling pin or mortar & pestle 

  • Face covering 

* If you would prefer to use fewer ingredients to make the bars even cheaper, produce even less plastic or you're sensitive to fragrance, these ingredients are optional! Use just 1 'butter' or 1 essential oil, go without clay and don't use pigment, your bars will still do the job. This recipe is just what works best for me! It's also a good idea to check if you're allergic to any of the ingredients you may use, just in case!  

What to do:

  1. First set up a double boiler (glass bowl over a saucepan of water). While the water is heating grind the SCI noodles into a powder with the end of a rolling pin. This doesn't have to e perfect, I only did this for about 10 minutes so it was roughly half noodles half powder. You can grind the SCI to a complete powder if you prefer. Please wear a face covering and go outside for this step so you don't inhale SCI particles! Once you get a consistency you're happy with, add the SCI and Cocamidopropyl betaine to a glass bowl, stir well then leave to melt

  2. While this is happening prepare your other ingredients. Melt together the cocoa and shea butter in the microwave at 15-second intervals to ensure they don't burn. Once the cocoa and shea butter have melted, add in the Cetearyl alcohol and stir well then leave to the side to partly cool. It may seem long-winded to do step 1 and step 2 separately but if we attempt to melt all 4 of these ingredients in one bowl together it will take way too long

  3. Combine together the dry ingredients (kaolin clay, pigment & cinnamon powder if you're making the bar for fine hair) in a small bowl

  4. Add glycerin to the SCI and Cocamidopropyl betaine mixture

  5. Once the SCI mixture has become a soft texture that sort of resembles soft cheese you can add the second liquid mixture (cocoa butter etc). Add in the essential oils at this point also and stir well

  6. Slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet and mix well for 5-10 minutes, making sure all ingredients are incorporated well (and there aren't any large lumps of Cetearyl alcohol left). You should notice a change in the consistency here, the mixture will become thicker

  7. Compact the final mixture into disinfected moulds (if you don't have soap moulds, a rectangular tin with a reusable baking sheet/parchment paper placed inside works just as well). It is important you really condense the mixture into the moulds, I like to use the bottom of a glass jar to push down on the mixture to make sure of this

  8. Leave the shampoo bars to set for 24 hours. If you used a tin to make your soap, cut soaps into your desired sizes

SCI noodles before (left) and after (right) grinding - the aim is to get smaller pieces and some powdered SCI

SCI and Cocadimopropyl betaine mixture at the correct consistency after melting (left) and shampoo bars in soap moulds after adding dry ingredients (right)

From left to right: Cinnamon bar, citrus bar and tea tree bar

Handy hint: Store your back up shampoo bars in a cool, dry place in an airtight container to keep them fresh (I reuse any packaging that the ingredients came in or stasher bags)

Brands we recommend:

If you decide making your own bars isn't for you, we still highly recommend purchasing them! Some shampoo bars can save up to 3 plastic shampoo bottles from ending up on landfill or entering the ocean. They also eradicate the need for conditioner as pH balanced bars don't strip your hair of its natural oils unlike the harsh chemicals found in liquid shampoos. Tip: Keep your eyes peeled for bars containing the ingredient Sodium cocoyl Isethionate, all the best shampoo bars I've used have had this ingredient in common, which is why I used it in my recipe!    

How to use shampoo bars:

Shampoo bars can take a little getting used to. They produce a lovely soft lather but it isn't quite the same as normal shampoo.  Follow these steps to get the most out of your shampoo bars:

  1. Wet your shampoo bar in the shower

  2. Rub the bar into wet hair and scalp making sure to get the length of your hair, including the ends 

  3. The bar will begin to lather, once its lathered well enough, massage the lather into your scalp to cleanse and rid your hair of all the oil and dirt that has built up

  4. Then rinse it all out! Make sure you do this thoroughly as you could get left with a bunch of nourishing oils in your hair. Of course, we want the butter we used to impart its moisturising benefits but we don't want hair that's oilier than before we started   

  5. You may notice a 'squeaky' feeling in your hair after you've rinsed, this will take some getting used to, but your hair will feel soft, nourished and clean once it has dried 

Despite my inability to do even basic maths, I have figured out that the bars roughly cost between £2-£3 to make! Obviously you need to take into account the other costs that aren't financial (e.g time) but if you're in a similar position to me and you want to reduce your plastic footprint and have A LOT of spare time because of COVID-19 then this is a great alternative to buying expensive shampoo bars. When buying ingredients, you can spread out the purchases as to not spend a large amount of money in one go! You may even have many of the ingredients already!

I also need to mention that of course there is still some plastic waste involved in this DIY. Although I reused everything involved in the making of the shampoos and try to buy ingredients that come in minimal packaging/packaging I can reuse, there will inevitably be some plastic involved. The number of shampoo bars I can make to the amount of plastic involved works out better than buying the equivalent in liquid shampoo, so I still consider this a low-waste DIY!

I think there needs to be a middle ground between price and sustainability. Although the ideal situation is that everyone can afford to buy the most sustainable product, this obviously isn't realistic. It is a privilege to be able to afford 'plastic-free' options. For me, DIY's are a good (but not perfect) compromise. They are low waste, not completely waste-free but they tick the 'more affordable' box. I think there's definitely a judgemental side to the plastic-free/waste-free living community that doesn't sit well with me and doesn't take into account each individual persons' position or journey. Really the most important goal is to become a more conscious consumer which will look different for everyone! 

Mimi x

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