Shampoo Bars: What They Are, How They Work And Why We Need Them

Can shampoo in a bar really get your hair clean and shiny? Industry professionals explain how the bars can help your hair and, more importantly, the planet.

If you think you’re already doing your part to reduce plastic use, take a quick peek inside your shower stall. See those plastic bottles of shampoo and conditioner? No judgment, but ahem.

The good news is there’s another, more eco-friendly way to cleanse that magnificent mane of yours. The growing category of shampoo bars is gaining in popularity with folks who want to do the right thing, but who also want their hair to look its absolute best at all times (so, pretty much everybody).

One shampoo bar = Three plastic shampoo bottles

Shampoo bars are a small but significant step in our quest to reduce plastic proliferation. The makers of these bars say their products are essentially all the good parts of shampoo (the stuff that gets your hair clean and beautiful) without a bunch of non-essential water added — and with no plastic bottle required.

“Liquid shampoo contains 80 to 90% water,” Superzero founder and co-CEO Conny Wittke told HuffPost. “The amount of plastic used in the beauty industry is significant, creating 120 billion units of plastic packaging waste every year globally. In the United States, 552 million plastic shampoo bottles are sold every year. But overall, less than 10% of the plastic we create gets recycled.”

Removing the water from shampoo formulations leaves consumers with one small bar that can contain the equivalent of up to three bottles of shampoo, enough for up to 80 washes, depending on the brand. Then there’s the issue of what it takes to get that bottle transported from a factory to your shower stall. “Because you get more product for less weight and volume with shampoo bars, there are fewer greenhouse gases generated during shipping,” Wittke said.

How significant is that impact? “One of our shampoo bars has just 8% of the carbon footprint of the equivalent liquid product,” said Brianne West, founder and CEO of Ethique. Allison Teasdale, the chief operating officer of Unwrapped Life, noted: “We’ve diverted more than 4.5 million plastic bottles from entering our oceans, and we’re committed to preventing more than 20 million plastic bottles by 2025.”

Is there a shampoo bar in your future? It seems likely. “Everyone who uses shampoo eventually will use them,” said HiBar co-founder Dion Hughes. “I foresee a time when using shampoo from plastic bottles is as uncool as lighting a cigarette in a restaurant.”

You’ve got to let go of the ‘theater of lather’

You’ll need to manage your expectations with your first few bar uses, starting with the volume of lather you’re likely to see. There’s a “theater of lather” that we’ve come to expect from our cleansing products, but the additives that provide a rich lather aren’t necessarily proof of super-deep cleaning. “Lather is not so much a cleansing effect as a reassuring effect,” Hughes said.

“You’ll notice that your shampoo bar will suds up, but it’s not like the kind of foam you see in a beer commercial, more just a creamy lather,” Shambar founder Jeffrey Qaiyum told HuffPost. “If you’re getting that much foam from a shampoo bar, frankly, you’re using a bar of soap with the word ‘shampoo’ slapped on the label.”

It might take some getting used to

How that small, hard bar will translate into a good shampoo might seem confusing at first, but after a few tries, you’ll get the hang of it. “Just swoosh the entire bar around on your head,” said Erica Vega, brand and product expert for Lush Cosmetics USA. “If your hair is prone to tangles, rub it in your hands first, then rub the lather in, the way you would do with a liquid shampoo.”

After rinsing and drying, your hair might look a little different than the way it does after a traditional shampoo, at least at first. Shampoo bars tend to be gentler than shampoo, so you’ll need to let your hair adjust to that milder cleansing, or you might eventually need to switch up the timing and frequency of your shampoos. “For some people, it takes two to three weeks to ‘break in’ and let the hair become normalized after years of having natural oils stripped away by shampoos,” said James R. Liggett, president and founder of J. R. Liggett’s.

What about conditioner?

Whether you’ll need a conditioner bar is a matter of your particular hair type. Someone with short hair might be just fine, but those with thicker, longer or curlier hair might want to use one.

“Many people with curly hair choose not to use shampoo in favor of co-washing, which is washing with conditioner,” West said. She noted that those products also have eco-benefits. “One of our conditioner bars is equivalent to five bottles of liquid conditioner,” she added.

Travel, shave and even use it as clothing wash

Because of their compact size, shampoo bars make sense for travel. They eliminate worries about Transportation Security Administration requirements because — ta-da! — you’ve ditched the liquid altogether. Whether you’re staying at a luxury hotel or at a campsite, you’ll also find that a shampoo bar is a good in-a-pinch way to care for hand-washable clothing when you’re on the road.

People can use the bars on their entire bodies, or as a replacement for shaving cream. No matter what you’re doing with your own particular bar, “They’re absolutely gentle enough to use every day,” Qaiyum said.

Shampoo bars to try

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Green tea on the go
This refreshing daily shampoo bar is made with Boseong green tea, camellia oil and tea tree oil. Boseong is a region in Korea known for its green tea fields, and the high altitude and wide daily temperature range create green teas that are concentrated with catechins and vitamins. Formulated for normal to oily hair, it’s also a good choice for those with dandruff.
Smooth out those cuticles
“We consider ourselves to be the world’s most sustainable beauty brand,” West said. “We don’t use palm oil or its derivatives, which very few cosmetics brands have managed to achieve.” Bars are pH balanced to ensure the hair cuticle lies flat and the strands lie parallel to one another, preventing snarls. The Heali Kiwi bar contains oatmeal, coconut oil, neem oil and karanja oil, which is good for touchy scalps and those who struggle with itchiness.
Give your moisture-prone locks a shiny finish
Ethique’s St. Clements shampoo — intended for moisture-prone hair — is formulated with castor oil, which actually works to dissolve oil and sebum lodged in the scalp. Citrus-y essential oils like lime and orange zest will give your shower a refreshing scent, and the added glycerine promises to impart a shiny, non-greasy finish.
A curl-friendly bar with shea butter and betaine
This curl-friendly formula from Ethique is a pH-balanced soap blended with hydrating ingredients like shea butter, cocoa butter and betaine (a sugar beet extract). The addition of coconut and lemongrass makes for a scent that sounds pretty sublime.
A sampler set to test out
With a shape inspired by river rocks on the North Shore of Lake Superior, HiBar has a type of shampoo for just about every hair type. The shampoo and conditioner sampler set is a great way to find what works best for you.
J.R. Liggett
An OG travel set
Liggett, who has been making and selling J.R. Liggett’s shampoo bars for more than 30 years, said his product is “earth-friendly, people-friendly and pet-friendly.” The travel set from this OG shampoo bar maker comes with a pouch that allows the bar to dry completely, which also reduces waste.
Castor oil to the rescue
This shampoo bar is specially formulated to help breakage-prone hair, with castor oil added to increase hair follicle health and decrease the chance of breakage.
Lush Seanik
Say it with seaweed
“This volumizing bar is my personal favorite,” Vega said. In addition to ingredients like seaweed that nourish and protect, sea salt adds a beachy texture.
Unwrapped Life
Find the right formula
“Finding the right formula is just as important for bars as it is for bottles, and it’s not a one-size-fits-all scenario,” Teasdale said. “For example, The Hydrator is great for dry and curly hair types, but can add too much weight to fine hair, so The Stimulator would be your go-to if that’s your hair type. We encourage mixing and matching bars to find the perfect combo for you.”
Black-owned and sulfate free
“Sulfates tend to strip away too much moisture, leaving hair dry and unhealthy,” Yetunde Alabi, founder of Majenye and maker of the Starburst Solid Shampoo Bar, told HuffPost. “Our alternative is sodium cocoyl isethionate, a coconut-derived ingredient that lathers and cleans hair without stripping it.” The bars from this Black-owned business are good on natural, color-treated and damaged, dry hair.
Eliminate "shampoo recovery time"
This brown-owned business is an enterprise of the family that owns Chicago’s Merz Apothecary, the second-oldest apothecary in the United States. “With this bar, you won’t need to ‘time’ your shampoo to give your hair a couple days to recover. You can use it and your hair will look good that day," Qaiyum said.
Bar None
Best for dry hair
A trio of heavy-hitting hydrators — coconut, shea and cocoa butter — makes this a good choice for dry, damaged hair. There’s no greasy film left behind.
Apple Valley
Made in small batches
“Our shampoo bars are naturally hand-crafted in small batches, using the cold process method,” Apple Valley Natural Soap president Marianne Buck told HuffPost. Good for normal to oily hair, this pink bar features rose kaolin clay, which promotes hydration, detoxification, circulation, new cell growth and the reduction of inflammation and irritation.
Help for frizzy hair
The name Superzero stands for super performance with zero harm. If you have dry, colored or frizzy hair, this bar can help by gently cleansing while nourishing hair shafts, locking in moisture and protecting color for optimum softness and shine.

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