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Hair, Soap and Hair Soap

I’ve had really long hair pretty much all my life. I’m a huge fan of long hair in general, and I think it just looks wonderful when people have really healthy, shiny, long hair – regardless of gender. I’m all for crushing gender stereotypes and destigmatizing long hair in men, but that’s a whole other topic.

But let’s get back to my hair; I’ve also had really unhealthy hair pretty much all my life. Split ends have been a part of my hair ever since I started growing it when I was nine years old1. But to be honest, I’ve never really given my hair the attention and care it probably should have gotten until this year. About every 1-2 years I trimmed the ends of my hair, and that’s about it.

About two years ago, I switched to natural, ecologically friendly shampoo. I did that mostly for environmental reasons, because once you really go through the list of ingredients in some shampoos, you’ll wonder how some of that stuff is legal and why anyone would put that on their head. Anyway, those eco-shampoos didn’t really work as I had hoped – they kind made my hair go greasy faster, and sometimes it looked as if it never really dried. I now know that that’s probably because the shampoos were too much for my hair and I should have diluted them. A positive side though was that the eco-friendly shampoos eliminated my need for conditioner, because my hair was much softer and shinier than when washing with regular shampoo.

But since I still wasn’t happy with the eco-shampoo, I started doing research into hair care. I remembered that last year a friend mentioned that soap is a much healthier alternative to shampoo, but the hair needs some time to get used to it. Apparently my brain needed a year to process that information2, but this summer I finally got around to actually looking into the topic of hair soap, also sometimes referred to as shampoo bars.

And well, the internet taught me all about it, and I’ve now switched to washing my hair with soap! On top of that, I’ve reduced my washing frequency to twice a week, because as a result of using soap, my hair doesn’t get greasy as fast as it used it. I now wash my hair (usually) on Wednesdays and Sundays, and for most of the week it still looks pretty normal. It does get greasy on Saturdays, but with some creative hairstyles it doesn’t look as bad. Sometimes it gets a bit itchy as well, which I usually counter by rubbing oil on my scalp and into my hair, which has lots of extra benefits for hair care.

Doesn’t the hair felt and tangle when washing with soap? How do you comb it afterwards? These are common questions I get. So far, my hair has been softer and shinier than ever – and this is because there’s a lot more to hair care than just washing. The most important rule about washing your hair, is to NOT brush or comb it when it’s wet. Wet hair is very vunerable, and this is where split ends and breakage can occur most easily. After I wash my hair, I let it air dry (because heat is also pretty damaging to hair), and once it’s dry, I comb it with a very wide-toothed comb. I used to have a bristle brush, but those are apparently often a cause of split ends as well.

So how do you actually wash hair with soap? It took me a while to figure out a good technique. What I do now, is take the soap bar into my dominant hand and just gently rub it down my head in the direction my hair falls, and I take the other hand to gently massage past where I just rubbed the soap. This encourages the built-up of foam, which is the most important part of hair soap. If there’s no foam, it won’t work and will leave the hair looking weird and wet-ish once it’s dry. I repeat this rubbing process many times until my entire hair is full of foam. It’s important to do it thouroughly, especially at the back of the head and at the neck, because there you can easily miss a spot. I also massage the soap thoroughly into the lengths and ends of my hair. Everything needs to be super-foamy, that is the most important thing about hair soap and cannot be repeated often enough. Once I’m happy with the amount of foam, I massage my scalp and the lengths of my hair a little bit more, and then I wash it out. Washing out also needs to be done very thoroughly, because if there’s residue, it’ll make the hair look weird.

That’s not all though – once I have washed all the foam out of my hair, I rinse it with a homemade sour rinse. Due to the ph value of soap, and because soap opens the hair follicles, a sour rinse helps removing any residue and closes the hair follicles up. Especially if you have hard water, a rinse is very helpful because otherwise the soap residue might bond with the chalk in the hard water and leave your hair looking weird. Making a rinse is super easy though – I take two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar on a liter of filtered water (I use a Brita filter) in a pitcher. I also always have a second pitcher with just a liter of simple filtered water. So once I’ve washed out the soap, I dip my hair into the vinegar rinse and leave it in there for 10 seconds. Then I pour the entire pitcher slowly over my head. I usually wait another 20 seconds, and then I pour the clear filtered water over my head. Theoretically that’s probably not necessary, but I think my scalp isn’t too happy if I leave vinegar on it for too long. I’ve tried a few variations of how to rinse (including not pouring it over my scalp), and so far this seems to work best for me. And no, my hair does not smell like vinegar as the smell disappears quickly. Usually I smell the soap rather than the vinegar 🙂

So can you use any old soap to wash your hair? Probably yes, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It helps to do some research on how soap is made here – a good soap should consist of nothing but oils, which are saponized in a chemical process by adding lye. The lye turns the oils into what we know as soap. And this kind of soap is the best kind of soap for hair – one that does NOT contain added glycerin or any other ingredients but oils3.

The second important thing to know about soap is superfatting. Superfatting means that there is more oil added than the lye can transform into soap, and this is what actually nurses the hair. Hair doesn’t need quite as much oil as skin though, so typical skin or hand soaps usually have a superfatting percentage that is too high for hair. For hair, a good superfatting percentage is between 4-6%, but it really depends on your hair. Very thin, fine hair will need a lower superfatting percentage, and very dry, coarse hair might need a much higher percentage – maybe even as high as 10-15%. The only way to find out is to try it out.

Finally, the third really important thing to know about hair soap is knowing what oils your hair likes, because if there’s an oil in the soap that your hair hates, the results will be bad. Using oil as an addition to hair care beyond soap is a good idea anyway, and a good way to try different oils. My hair, for example, seems to hate coconut oil, because it gets kind of squeaky and feels dry and when I use it. Olive oil and argan oil seem to work fine though. So for me, soaps based on olive oil have worked pretty well so far. Soaps usually contain a variety of oils, and it helps to go through the list and see what’s in there. Generally, some oils aren’t generally very good for hair, like for example palm oil. I try to avoid palm oil in hair soap as much as possible. It helps to keep some notes on the different soaps you try in order to figure out what oils your hair likes.

Where do you get hair soap? Well, the drug stores sure don’t have them yet, but the internet does. There are a tons of good online shops that have really good soaps. In Germany, there are Steffi’s Hexenküche, Alles schöne Dinge, Pflegeseifen or Savion. In the US / Canada there is Chagrin Valley (hard to find soap without palm oil there though), Wylde Rose or Kingston Soap Company4. In the UK, there is Funky Soap. There are also tons of soaps and manufacturers to be found on etsy or dawanda.

If you now checked some of those sites, you’ll probably have some concerns about the affordability. I have to admit that a really good soap is a little bit more expensive than a bottle of mass-produced shampoo. Also, a bar of hair soap doesn’t last anywhere near as long as a bar of regular hand soap. I need about 5-8g of soap per wash. However, since I only wash twice a week, a bar of soap lasts about a month or two. I think it’s definitely worth it though. Eventually I want to try and make my own soap, but there’s a lot of equipment I’d need to buy for that for which I currently don’t have the money or space.

Hair soap has a bit of a learning curve, because there’s a lot you need to consider. If you’re interested in switching to soap, here are a few questions you should try to figure out; Which oil is best for my hair? How hard is the water where I live? How much nutrition does my hair need? Can I wait for my hair to air dry? Can I not comb my hair after washing it? YouTube will also provide a lot of information about hair care and hair soap, once you find the right channels.

I will definitely stick to soap for now, and I can’t even imagine going back to shampoo. I’ve learned so much about hair care and I really hope that with the proper care and attention, I might eventually get rid of my split ends that keep coming back and have really healthy, shiny hair.

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