Sunday, September 4, 2011

Experiment #5: Shampoo and Conditioner

The no-'poo family. Look at those luscious locks!
**March 2014 Update!**
As I have noted in a more recent post, I have discontinued use of this particular recipe. After the birth of my third child, it made my scalp and hair WAY too dry, itchy and uncomfortable. I have done some very preliminary research and have come across a plethora of posts (although I have yet to verify the info, it seems to make a lot of sense and fits well with what happened to me) that discuss the damage that rapidly and repeatedly dramatically changing the pH of your hair follicles can do. So I am on the hunt for a "pH balanced" (a.k.a. one that is a similar pH to my scalp) DIY shampoo, because even the commercial shampoos are drying me out (stupid hormones!). That doesn't mean that this won't work for your hair. I know that it works for many. It has just stopped working for me.  I have "heard" that combining aloe and coconut milk works well, so that's first on the docket. I will update in a few months. In the meantime, if anyone has found something that works well, feel free to drop me a message in the box on the right or leave a comment. Thanks!

It has been 47 days since I have used shampoo or conditioner. And yet, my hair looks and feels better. And, most importantly, I have not scared my friends away! (Just wait till the post on deodorant...)

As you may remember from my list post, making my own shampoo was number 35.

My interest in making shampoo started innocently enough. A couple days after I had decided to create this blog, I was taking a shower and noticed we were getting low on shampoo. I hate when that happens because it inevitably means a $50 trip to Target. It’s ridiculous, but I just can’t make it out of Target without spending at least $50. I’m not sure if it’s the welcoming atmosphere of the store, the barrage of items I see en route to the shampoo aisle that I realize we are out of at home (although we’ve somehow survived for months without them), or my total lack of self-control, but it happens without fail.

So I usually avoid Target like I avoid touching fish (ugh).

How hard could it really be to make my own shampoo? I thought as I scanned the list of unpronounceable contents of our shampoo. Hydrolyzed silk? What the what?

So I added shampoo to my DIY list, confident in my ability to procure even hydrolyzed silk.

Then 2 days later, I got an email from my friend, Sara, with a link on How to Clean Your Hair Without Shampoo. The author proposed that hair could be effectively (and more healthily) cleansed simply by using baking soda and apple cider vinegar.

If it worked, brilliant! But honestly, I was skeptical. Especially with my hair, the mother of all greasiness. Skipping even one day of hair washing resulted in hair that can stand upright without the help of product.

But, if it could save us money and even be healthier for our hair, then it was worth a try.

Time to Completion: 2 minutes

Nora loves helping out with measuring, dumping and mixing.

Cost Comparison:
  • Homemade shampoo: So I bought our baking soda in bulk at our Amish grocery store for $0.62/lb. I use roughly 1 ounce ($0.04) of baking soda each week for our entire family. That’s $2.08 per year. As the kids get older, I expect that amount to double…less than $5.00 per year.
  • Homemade conditioner: Here’s where it gets more expensive. We use lemons. One lemon ($0.66) lasts us about 3 weeks. If we were to use RealLemon, we’d use about 2 ounces every 3 weeks. I found some for $0.15/oz on Amazon. That’s anywhere from $2.60 to just under $12.00 per year.

Our repurposed "shampoo and conditioner" containers
Baking soda
Measuring spoons
Lemon juice (or apple cider vinegar or honey)
Two 8 – 16 ounce (or bigger) squeeze bottles to store your concoctions (old shampoo containers work great)

This may take some experimentation at first to get the right amount of baking soda and acid clarifier ( for your hair type. You may have folks with different hair types in your family, so you may need to mix up different ratios for each person. The ratio may change over time as well. Honestly, I'm not sure if this will work for all different hair types...I'm curious to hear what other people experience.

**NOTE: Most people go through a “transition period” where your skin continues to compensate for the oil traditionally stripped by shampoo by overproducing oil for awhile and your hair might be a little more “moldable” (greasy) than usual. Nick did NOT go through this phase, neither did either of the girls. I went through a brief period that started on day 14, hit its peak on day 18 and ended abruptly on day 19. I noticed a slight “oily” smell to my hair at first (no one else noticed) that continued for a few days. Day 18, my hair felt super greasy and nasty, although looking at pictures, I can’t tell. Day 19, my hair was awesomely clean and has been the same way since.

Start with 1 tbsp (about ½ ounce) of baking soda to 8 ounces of water. If after showering and using your ‘conditioner,’ your hair feels like straw, add less baking soda. If it still feels greasy, add more. Put the baking soda in first, then add the water. Shake it up and you’re good go. We use this amount and it works great. 2 tbsp in 16 ounces of water lasts us almost exactly a week.

Use the same ratio for the acid clarifier to start. We’ve tried apple cider vinegar, lemon juice and honey. Lemon juice works the absolute best for us and is magic at detangling Nora’s hair. You can also adjust the ratio for this if you have greasy or straw-y hair. Use less acid if your hair feels too greasy. Half a lemon (about an ounce) in 8 ounces of water lasts us 1.5 – 2 weeks.

Read here how to actually use the stuff on your hair (since I forgot it in the original post).

Check out Simple Mom’s blog for more hints.

Some observations
  • My hair is so much more manageable. And I only need to wash it every other day (sometimes every 3 days!) before it looks and feels greasy. And when I blow dry it, no need to straight iron.
  • Nora’s hair is curlier and the lemon juice is the most amazing detangler I’ve ever encountered.
  • Nick’s hair used to be the kind that looked good the day after shampooing. Shampoo just made it too big and poofy. Now it looks awesome all the time!
  • Madeline's hair is just fuzzy and soft. 
  • We only have to use this once or twice a week for the girls since they produce so little oil.
  • Baking soda does NOT get charcoal ash out of hair. You can ask Nora about that.
  • The shampoo and conditioner are “cold” when you dump them over your kids' heads as is. So we fill up the bath and put the bottles in the tub to warm up while the girls play for 5 minutes. Then the mixtures are the perfect temperature for little heads.
  • We’ve never had burning eye complaints – it’s a pretty dilute mixture (although it can be a bit gritty if it doesn’t all dissolve)! Baking soda does taste kinda salty if you get it in your mouth.

Why Ditch the ‘Poo?
There are lots of reasons people give out there. Some are probably hype. Some are probably true. For me, there are two reasons:

  1. Cost. Good quality shampoo is expensive. And there’s that “Target Tax” of $50 minimum I always manage to pay when getting shampoo.
  2. Why use something unnecessary? Nick and I had an interesting conversation after realizing how well this hair care routine works. We wondered how much of what we use, eat and do is completely unnecessary and may even be less healthy. If shampoo, something I never even thought to question, is unnecessary, how much else is simply a byproduct of our consumer driven society?

How does it work?
Disclaimer: This is my hypothesis. While it has some basis in scientific fact, I could be completely, 100% incorrect. I got lots of information from the Simple Mom blog, so check it out for more info. 

Today I dug out and dusted off my Human Anatomy and Physiology: Fifth Edition book by Elaine N. Marieb. Yes, I kept my college Anat & Phys book. And yes, I have actually used it, at least once a year, since graduation (almost a decade ago…).

I turned to the section on skin and hair (starting on page 148 for those interested). Lots of stuff comes out of your skin into your hair. Mostly sweat and a very complex oil called sebum. Much of that stuff is acidic (pH of around 4-6) and is designed to kill bacteria and to keep your hair and skin soft and supple.

From what I understand, shampoo is a detergent and indiscriminately strips this oil, “grease” and sweat off your hair (like those dish soap commercials). Your body says, “ACK! No oil to protect!” and responds by overproducing. You have to shampoo more often, and your body continues to produce more oil. Conditioners add in artificial stuff to smooth down the hair follicles and make your hair not feel dry.

Baking soda is basic and although it reacts with both acids and bases, it is 20 times more effective at reacting with and neutralizing acids (it turns them to salt) (Wolke, p. 369).

So where shampoo strips the oil in your hair, my theory is that the baking soda reacts with and neutralizes the acidic excess oil and sweat in your hair until either all the oil is gone or all the baking soda has reacted. When you put an appropriate amount of baking soda in your hair, it will only neutralize the excess oil and will leave a healthy amount in and on your hair to serve and protect. The acid clarifier is a stronger acid (like pH 2) and restores the hair to the appropriate pH level, seals the hair follicles, allowing them to detangle.

So the key is finding the right amount of baking soda for your hair to take out just enough oil to keep your hair as it should be.

There are lots of other resources out there and lots of other things to try. Let me know if you find something else that works!

Completely unrelated side-note. We are halfway through our bottle of Owen's honey and are completely and totally in love! It is AMAZING. Read more about it here, or check out their website to get your own!


  1. $50 Target runs? That's good! I usually can't get out of there w/o spending more than that!

    Things We Have in Common
    *I avoid touching fish, too. Icky.
    *I am a grease-monster, too.

  2. Since baking soda is slightly basic (ph of 9) and lemon is very acidic (ph of 2), don't they react with each other and bring the homemade shampoo closer to a ph of 7 (water), or something similar?

    1. Kevin - So sorry that this is now over a year later. You are correct that the two ingredients would, indeed, react (like a homemade volcano science experiment) all over your head and neutralize each other. IF, that is, you were to use them at the same time. However, the key to the homemade shampoo/conditioner is to use the basic element first, then rinse it out (leaving your hair basic, but not as basic as it would have been) and THEN adding the acid clarifier (stronger pH than your normal hair), which will react with any remaining basic substance and add some additional acid to the hair to, ideally, restore it to the 4-6 range pH. Everyone's is slightly different and, due to the texture of the hair, the natural oil production, etc, this exact mix of how much acid to how much base will vary among people and even over time. For me, for example, I have had to take a hiatus from this experiment after the birth of my third baby - the changing hormones changed my hair and oil production so much that this "shampoo" was making it so dry that I had horrendous dandruff. I am working on getting back on the horse by fiddling with some other ideas. Hopefully an update will come soon!

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