What You Need to Know About Shampoo Bars

*Indie+Design has not received any sponsorship for this article nor free goods. …mores the pity. We would be totally open to free stuff!

One of the BIG ecological issue we here at Indie+Design want to tackle is our dependence on single-use plastics. Shampoo bars are a way to swap another plastic bottle out of your life, your rubbish and the ocean. Bars are also more concentrated so use less water in their manufacture. There is also a lesser cost to transport as they stack. I know, sounds silly but these small actions do equate to positive changes to the environment.

Free from…?

Another big ecological concern is with reducing SLSs (Sodium Lauryl Sulfates) which are emulsifiers and foaming agents. Synthetic foam/lather are pollutants that are difficult to remove from water.

Beyond ecology, many makers of shampoo bars are claiming massive health benefits from using them as apposed to liquid shampoo. Being paraben and cruelty-free is not the same as chemical-free. Nor does it mean all ingredients are “natural” or organic. Just like most advertising, a lot of the claims are hokum and promote a false narrative. For example, some soaps proudly proclaim that they are “paraben-free”, a potentially harmful preservative that can breach the skin/cell barrier. The use of parabens has been restricted in cosmetics and soaps since 2014. Yep, 6 years ago and fearmongering like it was this morning.

What a soap claims to be “free-from” is the difference between normal shampoos that contain a lot of man-made chemicals and “natural” or biodegradable ingredients. This separates shampoo bars into two categories. The first are the bars that are just concentrated regular shampoos in bar form and these will contain all the artificial emulsifiers, antistatic and foaming agents, and preservatives. The other is the bars that don’t use those or have found biodegradable alternatives. This means they will give an entirely different experience and long term feel to your hair than the first type of bar.

So how to tell them apart? Learn to read the labels. Also, an honest bar will have the full ingredient list in their online product descriptions as well.

Chemicals commonly found in regular shampoo

Behentrimonium chloride – anti-static agent, pollutant

Benzyl salicylate – perfume fixative

Butylphenyl Methylpropional – fragrance

Parabens – preservative

Phenoxyethanol – preservative, and stabilizer

Steareth-2  – synthetic emulsifier.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) foaming agent,  pollutant

NOTE: This list is by no means comprehensive.

Organic substitutes

Sodium Cocoate (Coconut Oil)
Sodium Castorate (Castor Oil)
Sodium Sunflowerate (Sunflower Oil)
Sodium Jojobaerate (Jojoba oil)
Sodium Cocoate (Cocoa seed butter)

Sodium Cocoyl Isethioniate – emulsifier

Panthenol – softening anti-irritant

D Pantolactone – moisturizer, detangler

Hydrolysed Soy Protein, Hydrolysed Corn Protein, Hydrolysed Wheat Protein – conditioners/water retention for damaged hair

Ethylhexylglycerin – preservative, and stabilizer (Paraben alternative)

The MYTH of the “transition period.” or, Why do I have to rinse my hair in vinegar (and consequently smell like a chip shop)?

The transition period… This only applies to those shampoo bars that are NOT concentrated normal shampoos. Normal shampoos have chemicals that are really just rinse-aides. They help the soap to rinse from your hair so that it squeaky clean. For ALL OF THE OTHER shampoo bars, this is really about whether you live in a HARD or SOFT water area. Those conditioning and emulsifying ingredients are waxes and essential oils.

Limestone binds to emulsifiers ONLY in a  HARD WATER area and ONLY if you are using the “natural” kind of shampoo bar. This leaves a white waxy and gritty substance in your hair. There are a couple of ways to remove this residue. You could use a 30%/70% cider vinegar/water rinse after washing your hair. Use a bicarbonate soda rinse before and after to make the hair more slippery. Both of these methods are used to clean kettles because vinegar and bi-carb dissolve limescale. That’s what makes these methods work.

There is NO TRANSITIONAL PERIOD. None. Persevering is rubbish. Trust me, you are never going to get used to goopy hair.

water filtershoer headIf you live in a soft water area – then you are lucky and don’t have to read this section. But for the rest of us, we need to filter our hard water. Being what the future and the interwebs are for… There are cheap and easy solutions!!! They make simple to install (hey, I could do it without having to ask my daughter!) shower filters. I tested two. The first is a 15 stage filter which, amongst other things, removes chlorine and limescale (pictured on the left). You place it between you pipe above a rain shower or on the outlet of an electric shower. Doesn’t really work on a bath mixer tap. OR you can get one of these ultra-cheap shower heads (on the right).  I found both on Amazon. The shower head was £9.99 and the bigger filter was £25.99 and came with two filter refills. The bigger filter is more expensive to get refills for at £14.99 and each filter should last a couple of months for a 4 adult household. The showerhead though is by far my favourite! If you have poor water pressure, this is amazing! And the refill balls average £6.99 for 9 packs!

An extra ecological benefit to using a water filter in your shower is that they use less water. Also, as I said earlier they boost water pressure at the same time. I am hooked!

When using shampoo bars, the result of using a water filter has been the difference between chalk (literally) and cheese (no, just clean, smooth hair.) No more stinky vinegar, or bi-carb.

The Reviews

A bit about me. I have medium length hair. I frequently use henna to dye it auburn, so my ends are a bit dead. My scalp is very sensitive and I can have allergic reactions to chemical scents and preservatives. Testing conditions were with a water softening filter. What I want out of shampoo? I’d like a good deep clean all the way to my scalp without drying and good moisturization of my hair. I shouldn’t have to struggle too much to get a comb through it after and the product should not build up on my skin. So, I have tested a variety of popular non-concentrated shampoo bars.

The Clovelly Soap Co. Eucalyptus, Lemon & Mint Shampoo Bar.Clovelly Soap Co  £5.50

This was by far my favourite bar. The paper wrapping on the bar was immaculate and preeeeetty. Opening the wrapper the bar smelled lovely but was not overpowering which was welcome. The essential oil blend of eucalyptus, lemon, and mint was light and refreshing. The bar was a good size, what you would expect a handmade bar would be. The lather was a nice creamy texture with very little foaming. Just enough to do the job. My hair felt clean after the first wash. While my hair didn’t quite squeak after washing, it didn’t feel like it was swamped in wax residue like some of the other bars. Once my hair dried, it was soft and silky.

5 out of 5

Alphie & BecsAlphie & Becs Conditioning Shampoo Bar COCONUT & LEMON VERBENA  £3.90(from Amazon Prime)

Well, that was awful. The bar came in a waxed paper wrapper, so ecologically good. I could smell real coconut and lemon verbena, which was very pleasant. The bar was slightly smaller than a regular hand-cut bar, but it was cheap. Picking up the naked bar it warmed very quickly and became putty-like and oily in seconds. A few passes over my hair and a LOT of soap came off – which means fewer washes. Loads of lather. But when rinsing out my hair it left so much residue it was like cotton candy tangled and waxy beyond comfort. So, I tried hotter water. Nope, and then in desperation a vinegar/water 30/70 rinse but, ultimately made it not worse, and not a lot better. I could not bear the thought of having to comb through the mass of gunk so I immediately washed it out with a regular shampoo (it took two goes). Not only that I won’t ever use it again, but I also won’t let anyone else in the house use it either. You get what you pay for.

 0 out of 5 star off star off star off star off star off

Oxford Soap Co.Oxford Soap Co. Jasmine Shampoo Bar 50g.  £7.99 (from Amazon Prime. Not currently available)

At first look, it’s small, half the size of the other bars. Not what I would expect for the price. It comes wrapped in waxed paper so that’s a point in the right direction. On opening the package, the scent is really strong but smells nothing like Jasmine. On reading the contents list on the back of the bar, it does not list Jasmine as an ingredient, only “Parfum” which could mean anything. The lather is creamy and just about the right amount. I had to wash my hair twice to feel it had cleaned completely. The shampoo bar did a good job of tangling my hair and left a light waxy residue. Later that evening, my scalp itched. I would not purchase or use this again. But others might like the scent.

1 out of 5 star off star off star off star off

Bain & SavonBain & Savon Fizzy Orange Shampoo Bar  £11(£6+£5 p&p)

The amazing smell of fresh oranges is my first impression on opening the box to the pale orange cube. I love that they are a local Cumbria business. Their commitment to 100% biodegradable is amazing (Did I say that already?) They are vegan and cruelty-free. The packaging from the envelope to the bare cube is exquisite. Maybe a few too many layers, but you can recycle them all. The cube is very dense and needs only a few swipes to create a good lather. Rinsing does leave a slightly waxy feel, but when hair is dried it is silky smooth, even more so with a hairdryer. I find with most bars of these types, your hair is amazing on the second day. The first day your hair has amazing volume, but on the second day, or the next morning, you have a silky sheen of a barnet. I looooved this cube/bar. There wasn’t any irritation after using the product.

4 out of 5 star off

Primal Suds Mop TopPrimal Suds Mop Top (Normal, if there is such a thing) £11.00 (£6.00 + p&p £5.00)

The smell of this bar put my spine out of wack! (Thank you Bowie!) The mix of juniper and sweet marjoram just zings! The bar itself was the largest of all I have tested. Its also incredibly dense so this will last a long time. The rugged prehistoric look is also great for those who aren’t impressed by really feminine designed or smelling bars. Packed with loads of lush ingredients to nourish your hair it also uses Kaolin to absorb grease and dirt. Kaolin also adds volume to your locks. One of Primal Suds team has psoriasis and the shampoos were created from a need for reasonably priced non-synthetic products. I really wanted to love this product as it seemed made for me, but I found this bar a bit drying on my scalp. Everything else about this shampoo was utterly amazing. This really makes me want to try its moisturising shampoo bar Fenugeek.

3 out of 5 star off star off

friendly shampoo barFriendly Lavender and Geranium Shampoo bar £4.40

Nicely floral scented bar. Average in size. Like many others the claims are long; paraben-free, vegan, no palm oil, no SLS, cruelty-free… Standing solely on those and not what the product does is not very helpful in choosing between brands. Using the bar made loads of lather, a lot of suds. Thoroughly rinsing with filter shower head left an only minimal wax residue. Just enough to really tangle my hair. With this bar, you are going to need a conditioner. I use a few drops of neat argan oil light rubbed between wet hands then touched to my ends and problem areas. This is the closest feel to using commercial liquid shampoo. The lavender and geranium really linger for hours post washing. I don’t mind that I have to condition after as my hair is really light and smooth after. A good cleaning bar, but not an all in one solution.

2 out of 5 star off star off star off

Christophe Robin HYDRATING SHAMPOO BAR WITH ALOE VERA 110MLChristophe Robin  £16 (£21.58 from Amazon Prime. £5 p&p from the website.)

By far the most expensive bar in this round of reviews. It would be as it is scented with the leaves and twigs of the bitter orange tree. This gives a woodsy neroli scent, romantic and great on all genders. Be seduced! Other than that, this bar was utterly average, except for the size of the bar, which was under. A nice dense bar and needed very little to make a good cleansing foam. Hair feels lightly coated with conditioning oils once rinsed and combs through easily. By using the leaves and twigs rather than the flowers from the neroli tree, the scent is stronger and lasts longer in your hair. This a perfect summer festival, picnic, beach shampoo bar. It’s a treat.

3 out of 5 star off star off

I did review a few more bars, but by the time this is going live, they have disappeared off the face of the earth! Small companies make small batches and move on. So… Oh well.

Don’t forget!*

To get the best out of shampoo bars you really must use a water filter! Otherwise, it could be a gooey gritty mess.



Abigail Tyrrell

With degrees in Psychology, Silversmithing, and an accredited Holistic Therapist (FHT), Ms Tyrrell is an enigma wrapped in chocolate. After 18 years as a professional web developer (LAMP and .NET) and designer, she left to focus on making pants for a living. At some point during the last 12 months, she also thought creating this was a good idea...

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