Natural Shampoo & Rinse – Updated

by Catherine Haug (originally published on 7/9/2009; updated and republished Jan 29, 2010)

When we find empty shelves at the grocer and chain stores (due to unavailability or high expense of fuel), what will we do?

As ESP pursues healthful and local sources for essentials, we wonder about shampoo and rinse for cleaning hair.  Most shampoos available in the American marketplace are synthetic cleansers, technically termed ‘detergents,’ and cannot be made in your kitchen.

Even Organic brands, such as Avalon, are synthetic, albeit synthesized from natural organic substances (like coconut oil), and cannot be made in your kitchen. (For more on this, refer to the Coming Clean Info Sheet by the Organic Consumers Association).

So what’s an essentials-minded person to do?

The answer is soap and vinegar, both of which can be made in your kitchen!  How cool is that?

A Brief history of Soap & Detergent Shampoos

For millenia, humans have used natural soaps for cleaning chores, including shampoos. These were made from available fats & oils, water, and alkalai, pluss the addition of natural fragrances and tinctures.

But for people with hard water (high mineral content), soaps often left a soapy scum on the scalp, sink and tub, that was hard to remove.

When industrial chemists discovered detergent shampoos, these were pushed upon the marketplace as better than soap shampoos, mainly because of the hard water issue.  Also, detergent shampoos tend to suds-up more than soap shampoos, which was perceived as “better.” Remember Prell (“I only used this much…”)?

But people began to complain that their hair became dull and lifeless, mainly because these detergents were so good at removing dirt, that they also removed the natural oils in the scalp, that normally keep the hair shiny.  So science discovered that they could balance the pH of detergent shampoos to restore the shiny quality to hair (remember Redken?)

But still, people complained.  So moisturizers were introduced, to “restore” the oily mantle to the hair shafts.  And with time, science came up with moisturizers that resembled the oils from sebaceous glands (scalp oil glands).

Meanwhile, however, waste water was being contaminated with the detergents and other stuff used in these products.  And people discovered new allergy symptoms on their scalps (such as dandruff, eczema, etc.), perhaps because of the use of detergent shampoos.

Soap vs Detergent


Soaps have been around forever.  They form when oils or fats react with alkalai such as lye.  This is a simple reaction that can be done in your kitchen.  In fact, your grandmother or great-grandmother probably did just that! And now, of course, we have cottage industries in the valley making real soap and selling it at Farmers’ Markets.

The most gentle of soaps is known as castile.  It is an all-vegetable soap, traditionally made from coconut or palm oil, or a combination of the two. The predominant fats in coconut oil are lauric acid (12 carbons) and myristic acid (14 carbons), which are also found in human skin oils.  When these substances react with alkalai, they become sodium (or potassium) laurate and myristate, which are true soaps, and both cleansing and nourishing to the skin, scalp and hair.

Soaps can also be made with part or all animal fats, but these cannot be called castile.


Detergents, on the other hand, are a relatively new concoction.  One of the problems with soap is that it tends to leave a “soap ring” when used with hard, mineral-rich water.  So science went to work to discover soap-like cleansers that would not do this.

One of the most common detergents is known as SLS, and is an industrial cleaner (carpet cleaner, etc) made from petroleum products.  And it is also the predominant ingredient in most shampoos.

What does SLS stand for?  Sodium lauryl sulfate.

Sounds similar to sodium laurate, a soap, but it is NOT the same.  In fact, the insertion of sulfate into the name (and into the molecule) makes it a different animal indeed.  It is harsh and drying to the skin, scalp and hair.

While it can be made from coconut oil, it is far more cheaply manufactured from petroleum.  Chemically, SLS is the same, no matter what the source, so don’t be fooled into thinking that all-vegetable SLS is better.

Some shampoo manufacturers know that SLS is not good for the hair, so they use a different detergent called sodium lauryl betaine (or similar).  Again, this is a detergent, not a soap, and is harsh and drying to the skin. Another related detergent is sodium laureth sulfate.

Naming of soaps and detergents

In general, if the ingredient name includes more than 2 words, or contains an abbreviation it is not a soap. For simpler names, if the ingredient has:

  • ‘ate’ (laurate, etc.) at the end of the second word, it is a soap;
  • ‘yl’ or ‘eth’, or ‘amide’ at the end of the second (middle) word (lauryl, laureth, lauramide, etc.), it is a detergent;
  • if it has acronyms like TEA, DEA, etc., in the name it may be a detergent or something else, but not a soap.

See my post, Ingredients of Soap vs Detergents for more detail.

A return to soap shampoo

Have you tried a castile (soap) shampoo?  Have you noticed that your scalp itches afterwards, and your hair is fly-away?

This is because the soap/shampoo is slightly alkaline, which causes the itchy scalp, and affects the outer part of the hair shaft, leaving tiny barbs that can catch on the barbs of other shafts, creating that flay-away effect.

If you follow your shampoo with an acidic rinse, these problems go away.  This is similar to the pH balancing of detergent shampoos, but far better for your hair. When rinsed with a dilute acidic solution, the barbs on the hair shaft lie down, leaving a smooth, silky shaft that doesn’t catch on other shafts to fly away.  And the acid also neutralizes the alkaline residue on the scalp so that it can be rinsed away, thus erasing the itch.

Vinegar or lemon/lime juice rinse

The best rinse to use following a soap shampoo, is made by adding a small amount of apple cider vinegar or lemon/lime juice to water. For my rinse, I use:

  • about 1 – 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar (it doesn’t have to be raw vinegar) in
  • 1 quart of warm water

After shampooing, rinse with water.  Then pour half of the quart over all parts of your scalp and hair, work through the hair, then rinse with plain water. Follow with the other half of the rinse mixture, which can then be left on the hair, or rinsed off with plain water.

If you are blond, or want to add blond summer hilites to your hair, try using lemon juice instead of vinegar.  Leave the final rinse on the hair, then spend some time in the midday sun.  The action of the sun on the lemon juice bleaches the hair shafts. You can leave this on, or rinse it off after your time in the sun.

You can also try making herb teas to add to your vinegar concoction.  For example, chamomile tea is great for blonds, strawberry blonds, and grey hair.

Other uses for vinegar rinse

Rinsing and moisturizing the skin: Rinse your skin with diluted vinegar or citrus juice after cleansing, instead of using an oily moisturizer.  If your skin is especially dry, you can then apply some olive or almond oil, or shea butter to the skin.

Relieve vaginal or ‘jock’ itch:  saturate a cotton ball or rag with the vinegar rinse, and apply to the itchy areas.  Then pat dry.  These itches are caused by candida yeast, which thrives on slightly alkaline, moist skin.  The acidity of the vinegar rinse kills the yeast, thus soothing the skin.  But you may have to do this morning and night, for more than one day.

Aftershave:  if you use real soap when shaving, follow with a vinegar rinse to sooth your skin. Make up a small batch of the rinse (a cup or less), and put it in a spritzer bottle, then spritz your skin and smooth over with your hands.

Comments are closed.