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Does the science behind shampoo stack up?

Shampoo science

Are you bamboozled by the proliferation of shampoo claims? Can it really thicken hair fibres from within? And should you be relieved or suspicious when your shampoo tells you all the things it doesn’t contain, such as parabens, silicones and fragrances?

As children, my parents washed their hair with soap. And when I was a child, we chose our shampoo for dry, normal or greasy hair, and anti-dandruff shampoo was simply revolutionary. Now the choices are endless – you can even buy shampoo that claims to make your hair look ten years younger!

So we examined the science behind the shampoo claims using an expert panel made up of a dermatologist, trichologist (hair and scalp specialist), chemist and marketing experts.

Shampoo claims

The experts explained what shampoo ingredients do, and which ones (those containing botanicals such as the plant extract red algae, vitamins and amino acids) are more likely to give a feel-good factor, rather than deliver tangible benefits in the small amounts likely to be present.

They also clarified that free-from claims are not quite as simple as they seem. While some shampoos, such as Herbal Essences Clearly Naked shampoo, are free from ingredients such as parabens (a preservative), this is not infrequently replaced by the preservatives methylisothiazolinone and methylchloroisothiazolinone. This combination is a known skin sensitiser or allergenic.

So what we found was that while shampoos can legitimately make all the claims they do, it’s not nearly easy enough to see the manufacturers’ evidence backing up their substantial claims, with many declaring it ‘commercially sensitive’.

Clearer claims

I don’t think it wouldn’t be far-fetched to expect all companies to clearly let us know exactly what we’re paying for and how it works, as L’Oreal did. And especially so when we’re paying premium prices.

So do you think that these claims need clearing up? Or do we just accept that this is the way marketing works, take some claims with a large dose of salt (sodium chloride thickens your shampoo after all), and enjoy the choice and the feel-good factor?


All these marketing claims are wasted on me. I look at the unit price for shampoo. If the product smells unpleasant or there is some other problem I will avoid it in future. I want shampoo that I can use daily without damaging my hair or scalp, and so far I have had no problems. If I did, I would study the ingredients list carefully and compile a list of products to avoid.

Perhaps we need to make the public aware that their hair (the part that is visible) is not alive, so that vitamins etc. are going to achieve nothing.

Thanks Joanna for this Convo. Shampoos must be a contender for the most ridiculous marketing in the UK.

This, perhaps, highlights that any claims made for any product should be substantiated. If not the claims should be withdrawn. That surely is a job for the EU regulators.

As far as marketing is concerned, it has been going on for thousands of years. A supplier will tell you all the positive features of a product, but is unlikely to advertise the negative ones. If we don’t know by now to take advertising claims with a pinch of sodium chloride and use our own judgement and instincts (helped, perhaps, by exposures from Which?), we never will.

Claims that cannot be substantiated should never have been made in the first place. That’s why all new claims should be vetted before they are made in the first place.

As has been said elsewhere there are far too many companies to monitor for every claim made, unless you want to establish a huge bureaucracy (and we already have enough bureaucrats). The penalties for making unsubstantiated claims should deter people from making them in the first place. For example publishing similar adverts retracting the claim and admitting telling untruths, withdrawing all products covered by the advert from retailers . Fines can be built in as an operating cost. Penalties should be designed to stop people before they act deceitfully.

I said that every NEW claim should be substantiated. The sooner we start the better.

The vetting is a job for scientists, not bureaucrats, and the work should be funded by the companies that want to make a new claim.

If you wait until complaints are lodged with the ASA, the company will have the opportunity to make money from selling dodgy products until successful action has been taken.

There will be an awful lot of NEW claims. I’d rather qualified scientists were put to better use than vetting claims. And it is not just “scientific” claims – try financial products, travel, medicine. We need doctors, not claims checkers.

I made the point that penalties imposed should be such as to make it not worthwhile for a company to make untrue claims. i want to stop it before it happens, not waste time putting it right afterwards.

I would hazard a guess that VW will think very hard, for example, about making false claims in the future, given the huge financial and reputational damage done to their company. I am sure shareholders would agree.

But we do need to grasp the nettle. Banks are a prime example of where we have not put the kind of penalties on place to act as a real deterrent. How difficult has it been afterwards to unravel their own dodgy practices? Perhaps imprisonment for gross offences for those who perpetrate, and knowingly support, very serious breaches.

I don’t see why there should be numerous NEW claims. At present there is a limited number of claims that can be made for the health benefits of foods, for example. All manufacturers can share these claims.

I suggest that we run our country for the benefit of its citizens and not product manufacturers.

There are far more products involved than that, coming to us from worldwide. I would prefer to see trained and skilled people used productively, to help the “citizens” and the economy, not in another layer of bureacracy. Tackle campylobacter in the food industry, help the NHS, design and create manufactured products, teach out young people properly, is far more important. Deterrent penalties would prevent such a huge waste of resources.

Let’s agree to differ and focus on the topic.

Might there be a clue to the veracity and value of some of these claims within the first four letters of the word “sham… poo!” 😉 ??

The fancy marketing claims of competing brands are wasted on me too. I have been using the same product for longer than I can remember and use it every day. My hair is fairly fine but vigorous and on the normal side of greasy, I keep it medium length, and I don’t put anything else on it. I find that a 250 ml bottle of shampoo lasts around a year so I am using less than one millilitre a day [a portion smaller than a small pea] in a medium-hard water area. The shampoo contains a little conditioner and a thickening agent which it says fortifies the hair and leaves it full of body. My hair performs well over a 24-hour period, is easy to manage and control, and is completely trouble free, so perhaps the shampoo is worth it at <1p a day.

I have sometimes wondered whether to wash my hair with the shower gel that claims to be a hair and body wash but I have never made that brave step into the unknown.

The words "essential oils" always worry me in terms of toiletries marketing. It's a gift to the advertising industry. All it means is oil derived from essences – there is nothing absolutely necessary about it. I am sure millions of people think they must use products containing "essential oils" and pay the price accordingly.

On numerous occasions I have used shower gel as shampoo rather than get out of the shower to get a new bottle. Likewise, I have used shower gel as shampoo. Perhaps there is a case for a single product for both purposes.

I’m impressed by your frugal use of shampoo, John. It will help avoid damage to your scalp and contribute less to the amount of detergent and other chemicals that go into waste water. I’m not sure about a millilitre being the size of a small pea.

A lot of shower gels nowadays are labelled as being an all-in-one product for body and hair but I think they are likely to be a compromise on both fronts – too much lather for the hair leading to dryness and not enough oomph for the body.

I reckoned that if a 250 ml bottle of shampoo lasted me over a year then I must be using less that 1ml per day. When I squeeze a drop onto my hand it looks like a small pea: perhaps that’s the effect of the thickening agent! Maybe a bead would be a better comparison.

I used various commercial shampoos for years with no problems at all until about 3/4 years ago when I suddenly developed an allergic reaction. After resorting to various other recommended medicated shampoo (and spending a small fortune) to no avail, I searched the Internet for an alternative and came across a recipe using liquid Castile (made from pure olive oil) and Teatree Oil soap mixed with equal parts water. preferably distilled and approximately 20 drops of lemon grass essential oil and I pour it into an empty liquid hand soap dispenser.

It took 3/4 washes for it to work but the difference has been amazing. One bottle lasts for ages and has proven to be far less expensive than buying commercial brands. It can be used on a daily basis as it replaces the natural oils lost during shampooing without leaving the hair too greasy. It can also be used in the shower if you run out of gel. The downside is it is only available online but because one bottle lasts a long time I don’t find that too much of a problem.

What you are doing is making a soap from vegetable oils, Beryl. I presume that you are using sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) or potassium hydroxide (caustic potash), either can be referred to as ‘lye’. These chemicals have to be treated with great care particularly when hot because they can blind. Soaps are likely to be more gentle on the skin than the detergents in shampoos but please use face and hand protection.

Wavechange if I was in any danger from using Castile soap I would know about it by now.

Sodium hydroxide is listed in the Cosmetics Directive of the European Union (Annex11) and may be used at specific concentrations. It is a common ingredient used in soaps, bath products, shampoos and shaving products and some toothpaste and is used as a neutraliser for excess acid. It is also used during the processing of some foods. For example, it is used to oxidise and give olives their characteristic black colour and also used in glazes for some breads which gives them their crispy finish. The olives used to produce the oil in some soaps are soaked in alkaline lye solution without fermentation. It is also used in a very high concentration to clean engines and drains, hence the need for durable rubber gloves and face protection.

The key seems to be in the correct level of concentration used, which I have no doubt you are well aware of, and is strictly regulated by EU Directives as to its efficacy and safety.

I was not suggesting that there was any danger in using Castile soap but one of the ingredients – sodium or potassium hydroxide – is nasty and has to be handled with care. I know you can buy it online and wanted to warn of the dangers. If the soap is made properly, there should be very little of the chemical remaining.

Beryl, Holland and Barrett sell a range of liquid castille soaps. I have recently started using this as shamoo as I have become very sensitive to perfumes in products and theirs, as far as I can see, are only perfumed with essential oils. I buy the unscented baby version and diltute it 5:1 with water that I have boiled and cooled.

I don’t know if this is the same product that you have been using but it might save you from having to buy it online. It’s not cheap but it lasts a long time.

Sharon I have a similar problem with perfumes and buy pure-Castile soap with Tea Tree extract also from Holland & Barrett. All of their stores I have visited didn’t stock it but they will deliver online via their website. As you say it lasts a long time and so is very economical In the long run. Its recommended that you apply a citric rinse such as cider vinigar after shampooing or alternatively add a few drops of lemon grass to the mixture.

I believe all soap contains sodium hydroxide when made but there should only be a trace (if any) left in the finished product.

I hope you have as much success with it as I have.

” I want shampoo that I can use daily without damaging my hair or scalp”

Daily?! is this part of an advertising strategy to make people feel guilty about washing hair weekly or more? It is fair to say though that some people do need to wash their hair daily but that is a small proportion of the population and is for specific reasons.

“Go with your gut and preference, with one caveat. “Regardless of how your hair feels, though, don’t go longer than 14 days, ever,” Lamb says, who doesn’t buy in to the total ‘no poo’ movement. From a medical perspective, Goh says some of her patients only wash their hair once a week. She says as long as they don’t have scalp problems that seems OK. She doesn’t advise them to wash more often.” WeBMD

I also wonder if the continual stripping off the oils from the scalp is counter-productive. Is it possible that evolution has produced a body that is generally self-regulating and that this apparent need to wash hair frequently is the result of advertising, access easily to hot water, and gullibility?

it is interesting to consider that Indian women often have glorious hair – and actually add oils. Is it just possible that the West has been “sold a pup” on what is good for hair.

Remember Brylcreem and Brilliantine that you smeared on your hair to make it shine and glue it into a style? Did men in those days wash it out and replace it everyday. I don’t remember that happening. Not do I remember us using shampoo when I was little – soap (Pears quite often) did the job and I remember a flannel being used when soap got in my eyes.

We are persuaded to use shampoo, deodorants, conditioner, shaving gel (whatever happened to sticks of shaving soap and badgers’ hair brushes?), shower gel (something wrong with soap?), and all manner of expensive grooming products that help keep Unilever and others, plus the supermarket shelves and chemists, with their turnover and profits. Perhaps the same clever advertising could be used to get us to change our energy tariffs or save for a pension, but we seem much more responsive to ways to spend our money than to save it.

I’ve washed my hair daily for at least 50 years and not had any problems. It’s a quick exercise rather than thorough cleaning and I am careful to rinse it thoroughly after shampooing. It looks more presentable after washing, so it’s a matter of personal preference.

Malcolm – Soap is not very good if you live in a hard water area.

I came across a 1954 advert for Brylcreem in a book I was reading the other day and was wondering whether it had gone the way of so many well-known products, into oblivion. But no, it is still manufactured and available in a classy, retro-style packaging. According to the promotional material : “The look is back . . . Timeless yet cutting edge . . . Since 1928 Brylcreem has helped men look their best. It leaves hair soft, healthy, manageable and shiny without the stickiness of gels and sprays or the greasiness of pomade. Brylcreem is alcohol-free, so it won’t dry your hair. ” Haven’t ever tried it myself but it was extremely popular in the fifties and sixties. Men also used a number of different hair tonics in those days; a particularly pungent one was Bay Rum & Cantharides. The use of such products created the need for antimacassars, squares of cloth put over the upper backs of armchairs and settees, or the square piece on the back of a sailor’s uniform, to keep macassar oil off the upholstery or garment. Perhaps they will also make a comeback.

Young gentlemen of today have a tantalising array of hair gels and moulding creams available to enhance their hairstyle and appeal to their enamoured one.

Badgers’ hair shaving brushes, shaving sticks, lather bowls, and the other traditional accoutrements associated with the daily ritual are all available in certain department stores as well as the extremely astringent styptic pencils for staunching any blood occasioned by the use of the old fashioned ‘safety’ razor. The final buffing and polishing of the hair was traditionally achieved through the use of a pair of military hairbrushes which also are still available.

My hair feels awful if I don’t wash it every day, but as reported previously, only a minute quantity of shampoo is used. This helps to keep pillows, collars and upholstered furniture clean and in better condition.

Many lifts have mirrors on the side walls – they usually also have large grease patches.

“Soap gets in your eyes…” Isn’t there a song in there, somewhere?

That’s right – I think it’s called “I’m forever blowing bubbles”!!

There was a parody version written to the original Ella Fitzgerald version Smoke Gets In Your Eyes titled Soap Gets In Your Eyes you can find at: amiright.com
However the song recorded by The Platters was a big hit in 1958 – minus the soap and bubbles 🙂

Thank you Beryl. I knew SGIYE was written by Jerome Kern in the early 1930’s but had not realised Ella Fitzgerald performed it. I think quite a lot of big names have had a go at it in my lifetime but I can only clearly recall the Eartha Kitt and The Platters versions from the 1950’s as they were staples of the Family Favourites [or Two-Way Family Favourites] record request shows on the BBC Light Programme at lunchtime on Sundays.

I have been using thickening shampoo for some months and think that it does help, if anything – but (a) I use MUCH more than one cc at a time – at least eight, I should think – and (b) although myself female I use men’s, which is a much larger bottle for the same price. (It is in Asda, anyway…)
The idea that men and women might require different kinds of shampoo from each other – or soap, or any kind of cleansing agent – seems, to me, biologically absurd.

You’re right Meg. The presentation of toiletries in masculine and feminine forms [with premium prices for the women’s versions] is absurd, and, in fact, a con. Most people can cope with judging a quantity or dilution rate at a level that suits their skin or hair. I think the marketing people tell the manufacturers that men won’t like their grooming products in pink curvaceous bottles and women don’t want black and angular packaging. All shampoos will cope with ‘dry’, ‘normal’ and ‘greasy’ hair, and soaps will also perform satisfactorily on ‘normal’ and ‘sensitive’ skin; in both cases it’s just a case of how much you use and how frequently you use it. Apparently, people like being led to believe that they have ‘sensitive’ skin or hair and choosing particular products labelled for such conditions; it makes them feel special. It also inhibits any frugal tendencies and generates additional profit.

Hmmm. I must be buying unisex shampoo because I can’t remember using any pink or black bottles. I look for shampoo for ‘normal’ hair, maybe because that is what I would like. I try and avoid products that make claims because I assume that they are false and feel that buying them would support dodgy marketing. I can’t recall having seen shampoo that claims to thicken hair but that’s one that I would avoid.

In the Which? article, and I applaud the efforts to demystify and debunk the “science” claims, you use the word conditioning without explaining what it means. Can you help?

“1. Makes hair healthier Hair is dead, and no shampoo can bring it back to life. If you see a shampoo that promises smoothness, shine, moisturisation, hydration, nourishment or – as above – giving healthy-looking hair, it’s marketing talk for conditioning. 2. Reverses damage It’s not possible to reverse hair damage by using a shampoo – it can only prevent further damage and make hair look healthier through conditioning.

Read more: http://www.which.co.uk/news/2016/04/eight-shampoo-claims-that-dont-quite-stack-up-440055/ – Which?

Joanna, I’ve always avoided using the conditioner that lives next to the shampoo – but seeing your explanation means I’ll now give it a try.

Thank you for the information.

I have never met a bloke who uses conditioner so it seems it is perhaps primarily a female product. And how you dry your hair and where you work may all be contributory factors to flyaway effects.

I use conditioner… as Joanna says it removes the negative charge from your hair, which means my hairs don’t get attracted to one another, making it easier to comb. Correct me if I’m wrong Joanna 🙂

If the hairs are all negatively charged, surely they will repel each other? A metal comb should prevent generation of static electricity. Hairdressers often spray hair with a little water before combing, presumably to avoid the problem.

I’ll see whether my hair looks as nice as yours if I use conditioner Patrick.

My hair is pretty magnificent @malcolm-r 💁

@wavechange I’m probably getting muddled, perhaps they repel each other. As @jpearl says, it “neutralises any negative charge on the hair (preventing flyaway) “

According to Mens Health, Wiki and the Institute of Trichologists Shampoo And Conditioner Manufacturers (ITSACONMAN 🙂 ) Each hair is covered in tiny cells which look a bit like fish scales. Damage causes these to stand out which makes the hair look dull, rough and out of condition. Conditioners work by smoothing down these scales so your hair looks smooth and shiny again. They’re also great at reducing static .
Conditioners are frequently acidic, as low pH protonates the keratin’s amino acids. The hydrogen ions gives the hair a positive charge and creates more hydrogen bonds among the keratin scales, giving the hair a more compact structure. Organic acids such as citric acid are usually used to maintain acidity.

Worth a go.

*Wash and go?

I can confirm this is true. I used to sit next to him but had to move as his hair is so magnificently distracting

So his hair is definitely not repellent as might have been misinterpreted from his earlier comment?