What's up with those shampoo bars?

I’ve been formulating shampoo bars for family and friends for several years, but just recently introduced them to the Watery Mountain Essentials line of products as part of our effort to reduce plastic waste.  You love the idea of shampoo bars, but you have questions, so I’ll share what I know.

If you’re just wondering which line of Watery Mountain Essentials shampoo bars is right for your hair, you’ll find more information at the end of this post.

Why shampoo bars?

Shampoo bars are fantastically convenient and make it easy to take your preferred shampoo with you when you travel or go to the gym.  You don’t have to worry about a bottle accidentally opening and spilling.  A small shampoo bar lasts at least as long as a regular bottle of shampoo, weighs less and takes up less room.  If you travel by air, they don’t need to be placed in a liquids bag. 

Another important benefit is environmental.  As many of us try to reduce our reliance on one-time-use plastic bottles, shampoo bars are a great alternative.  Another advantage is that shampoo bars don’t contain water.  You already have water in your shower, right?  By adding the water yourself at the point of use you’re reducing your carbon footprint, since water isn’t being unnecessarily moved around the planet.

So, convenient for us and good for the environment!  What else do you need to know to select a shampoo bar that’s right for you?

Just a little chemistry

Almost everyone has heard of pH and anyone who has a swimming pool or an aquarium knows that the pH level is important.  A neutral pH is represented by the number 7.  Anything below 7 is acidic and an example is cider vinegar with a pH of about 2.5.  Anything above 7 is alkaline and an example is baking soda with a pH of about 9.

Formulating haircare products can be a little tricky because these products have to work for both your hair and scalp, which have slightly different pH levels.  Skin has an average pH of about 4.7, which is slightly acidic.  Hair that hasn’t been chemically treated has a pH of about 3.7, a bit more acidic than skin.    

That’s it for the science-y stuff, but keep it in mind.

How do you choose a shampoo bar?

If your answer to this is “I choose Watery Mountain Essentials shampoo bars because I trust that Doris is a careful formulator who does her research and chooses only the best, safest and most effective ingredients” you may skip the rest of this article.  Seriously, please read on, especially if you have had a not-so-great shampoo bar experience or have heard negative things about them from friends.

If you read my previous post about surfactants you already know that what we generically call cleansing bars can be made in two ways.  One way involves mixing fats from animals or plants with an alkaline substance such as lye.  This results in a chemical process called saponification and the outcome is soap.  Another way to make a cleansing bar is with synthetic surfactants.  While the word synthetic might sound scary, most of these surfactants are derived from coconut and other plant oils that are processed to be more effective cleansers than soap.

Like cleansing bars, shampoo bars can also be found in both forms, as regular soap bars made with oils and lye or as synthetic surfactant bars.  Both usually have added ingredients that are known to be good for hair.  So, the question remains, how do you choose?

This is where I get bossy

There is an ongoing debate among people who make shampoo bars about which type is best.  Allow me to diplomatically summarize …  Oh, the heck with diplomacy!


People will say it’s a matter of opinion.  It’s not.  It’s science.  Do you remember how soap is made by combining fats with an alkaline substance like lye?  Do you also recall that the pH of your hair is acidic – even more acidic than your skin?  The combination of alkaline soap and acidic hair results in damage to the cuticle, or outer covering of the hair that protects the hair shaft.  Hair is made up of dead cells, so once damaged the cuticle cannot be repaired.  Soap is alkaline by nature and the pH can not be changed to make it more acidic.

Some synthetic surfactants naturally have a more neutral pH which can be further modified with the addition of a mild acid like citric acid.  A carefully formulated shampoo bar will have a pH that is slightly acidic and more like the pH of your hair, so no damage to the cuticle occurs.

As an aside, soap is fine for your skin.  It does change the pH temporarily, but the effect is short-lived.  It might also aid in the removal of dead skin cells, which is a good thing.  You don’t grow your skin like you grow your hair!

Why do some people use soap on their hair?

I have heard the opinion expressed that soap is more natural and free of “chemicals,” but in fact soap is the result of a chemical reaction, as mentioned above.  There are no chemical-free products - even water is a chemical and goes by the chemical name H2O.   

The focus should be on ingredients that are safe for both people and the environment, and there are synthetic surfactants that meet those criteria.  I formulate Watery Mountain Essentials shampoo bars using Ecocert and COSMOS approved ingredients that meet the international natural and organic standard for use and environmentally-friendly manufacturing.  These are real standards with real meaning, not marketing terms or scare tactics.

What else do people do to their hair?

Have you heard about the apple cider vinegar rinse?  As a “natural” shampoo, people all over the internet are suggesting that you wash your hair with castile soap and follow up with an apple cider vinegar rinse.  Know why?  The alkaline soap chemically damages and roughens the cuticle and makes our hair feel rough, frizzy and awful.  The answer?  Make it more acidic by pouring acid over your head in the form of vinegar (any vinegar will do, as would lemon juice or citric acid mixed in water).  This will get the cuticle to temporarily lie flat, but won’t repair the damage.

The worst idea I’ve ever heard is another “natural” solution that involves replacing shampoo with baking soda.  That’s right, scrubbing your hair and scalp with abrasive, alkaline baking soda.  The proponents of this method also recommend a vinegar rinse, but all the vinegar in the world can’t repair the chemical and mechanical damage done by baking soda.

If someone tells you to use a vinegar rinse after using their shampoo bar, you will know for certain that they’re selling an alkaline soap bar disguised as shampoo.

So, what’s the good news?

Many companies, large and small, are making well-formulated, pH balanced shampoo bars that are good for your hair.  That includes Watery Mountain Essentials.  All WME shampoo bars are vegan friendly and made with sustainable ingredients.  We have three lines of shampoo bars currently available or in the final stages of testing:

Sustainable Packaging Shampoo Bars

Our first shampoo bars were introduced as part of our sustainable packaging line of products and are available in three scents: Herbal Lemon for oily hair with kokum butter and lemon powder, Warm Cedar for normal hair with sal butter and spinach powder and Amber Honey for dry hair with cupuacu butter and tomato powder.  These shampoo bars are made with Ecocert-approved ingredients.

Kokum butter is made from the seeds of a tree that grows wild in Western India.  While moisturizing to hair and skin, kokum is one of the drier butters and doesn’t have an oily feel.  Sal butter is also made from the seeds of a tree indigenous to India and the wild harvesting of the fruits is a main source of income for people in the regions in which it grows.  High in fatty acids, it increases hairs elasticity and prevents breakage.  Cucupacu butter is made from the seeds of a tree that grows wild in the Amazon basin.  It acts as a humectant, drawing and absorbing water, making it an excellent ingredient for dry hair.

WME sustainable packaging shampoo bars include limited ingredients and work best for those who don’t want a lot of conditioning ingredients in their shampoo, for example individuals with very fine hair and those who want to follow up with a separate conditioner bar.

Celestial Shampoo Bars

Available soon in Solar, Stellar and Lunar scents, the Celestial line of shampoo bars are very similar to the Sustainable Packaging line, but include a different surfactant and conditioning agent that seem to be preferred by individuals with thicker and more coarse hair.  

Celestial shampoo bars include murumuru butter, which comes from a palm that grows wild in Brazil.  One of the most plentiful trees in the region, it has a long tradition of use by the native peoples for food, fiber and as a cosmetic.  In haircare products murumuru butter is valued for its ability to form a protective film on the hair, leaving it soft and shiny.  Unlike some synthetic ingredients, like silicone, this natural product doesn’t cause build-up.

WME Celestial shampoo bars work well for anyone who wants a bit more conditioning than what is available in the Sustainable Packaging line without a lot of additional ingredients.  These bars, along with a conditioner bar, work well for those with wavy or curly hair.

Signature Shampoo Bars

The newest set of shampoo bars are part of the Watery Mountain Essentials Signature line of products and will be available in Mountain Moss, Mountain Peace, Mountain Rain and Mountain Twilight scents.

These bars will leave hair feeling conditioned and looking glossy.  I have always needed to use a conditioner after shampooing my fine, wavy hair that is prone to frizz, but for me this shampoo bar does it all!

Tucuma butter is closely related to cupuacu butter and made from the seeds of another South American palm.  It matches cupuacu butter in leaving hair soft and shiny, with the additional benefit of providing the slip and combability associated with silicones.  Enhancing this is the addition of EcoSil, an Ecocert-approved ingredient made from olives that has a sensory profile very similar to silicones.  Protein from the African baobab tree replaces animal-sourced keratin and provides amino acids that promote healthy hair and skin.

Shampoo bars from the WME Signature line are extremely conditioning and will work well for individuals who want to reduce frizz and increase the smoothness of their hair.  While a conditioner bar can be used after shampooing, you might find it isn’t necessary.

Conditioner Bars

Watery Mountain Essentials conditioner bars are unscented and can be paired with any of our shampoo bars for extra conditioning and improved combability.

Wow, this is long and probably more than you wanted to know about shampoo bars, but if you made it all the way through you not only have a better idea of which WME shampoo bar to try, you can make a more informed decision about any shampoo bar (or soap lookalike) you come across.

Still have questions?  Just ask!   

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  • Doris on

    I’m so happy to hear you’re loving the Solar bar! More choices will be ready when you run out. Or, you can be like me and have an assortment of soap, shampoo and conditioner bars scattered all around the shower :-)

  • Joshua Nichols on

    Hi Doris! Have been loving the Solar shampoo bar you and your lovely mom sold me last weekend! Had been using Lush shampoo bars but an inner voice told me to look for something better. And then I found you! The suds are perfect, the citrus scent is stimulating and even in this tropical weather, my hair stays fresh-feeling! Wish it didn’t last so long so I could try your other bars! Thank you!!

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