If you explore hair care products online, chances are you’ve come across multiple brands offering Shampoo As A Bar (nope, it’s not called SAAB just yet 😅). And while bars are still far and few among the massive range of liquid shampoos, they are slowly making a mark. So what’s the deal?
You are probably already thinking – there’s no deal. Shikakai was a very popular shampoo bar in India till the 90s, and most households would have someone who remembers using it. There were also a host of shampoo powders including Raaga, that created a thick paste when mixed with water. Smelled incredible and left hair feeling amazing. So these products have been around for a while – what’s there to write home about?
The ‘full circle’
It is the proportion. A fundamental change took place in the Indian consumer products industry post liberalization, and that shifted the proportion in favor of formats earlier restricted to the west. This spanned categories like liquid laundry detergents, dishwashing liquids and even bathing gels. But in our current context, this meant that shampoo bars and powders occupied smaller retail shelf spaces as liquid shampoo bottles became more popular. And 30 years later, we’re seeing somewhat of a ‘full circle’, with powders and bars gaining ground again.
As it turns out, there’s a very interesting story here. In its earliest form, ‘shampoo’ or ‘champu’ dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization (3300 BC to 1300 BC) and has been recorded as a common household product till the 1800s (AD). It predominantly comprised extracts of soapnuts (reetha) and Shikakai, and is was introduced to Europe by colonial travelers in 1814.
At this time, running water was not common in British households, so the use of shampoo was limited to salons. But by the 1900s, people had started using bars of soap to wash their hair. So yes, originally, soap and shampoo were very similar products – both containing a naturally derived surfactant. However, this coated hair strands with a dull, unhealthy-looking film which eventually became a concern. Scalps are different from the rest of our body’s skin, and a different product was required.
The modern version
In 1903, German chemist Hans Schwarzkopf invented a violet-scented powder called ‘schampon’, that became available in German drugstores. And 25 years later, he introduced the first liquid shampoo bottle to Europe. Post war Europe also witnessed soldiers bringing back hygiene habits from the war fronts, making them common to civilian life. By the 1950s, shampoos were heavily marketed as an absolute essential for hair health. Advertising campaigns hailed it unhealthy to not shampoo your hair multiple times a week, and liquid shampoos were projected as extremely convenient, hygienic and aspirational. A brand new industry was born.
Today, an average person uses approximately 800 shampoo bottles in a lifetime.
And a big problem that creates is waste. Most of these empty bottles are plastic, and most of them end up in landfills. In the United States alone, 550 million shampoo bottles are thrown every year.
As the world grapples with a growing waste crisis, it has become clear that indiscriminate consumption over the past three decades has had a serious role to play in it. In the garb of convenience, many wasteful solutions were pushed to consumers across the world. And as this understanding improves, a small but fast growing move to sustainable practices is underway.
It is also not just the packaging. As products got more complex over the years, a host of unnecessary chemicals got added to their ingredient lists. These were mainly stabilizers and preservatives, but also for some desirable attributes like shine and bounce in the hair. An example of this is silicones, which coat the hair with a shiny layer post wash, making it feel extremely luxurious. Unfortunately, they also create significant build up on the scalp, making you want to wash your hair more often. As that happens, more and more natural oils are stripped off – spoiling hair health in the long run.
The realization has been slow but is now quite clear – when it comes to personal care, less is more.
So, shampoo bars: fad or not?
Shampoo bars have made a comeback predominantly as part of this movement. Generally formulated with a mild, sulphate-free surfactant, they also contain oils and butters to restore hair moisture post wash. A key advantage of this over chemical-laden shampoos is the restoration of balance in the scalp.
As mentioned above, frequent washing and heavy chemicals strips off the natural oils present in hair. To compensate for the dryness, the body over-produces sebum to keep the roots nourished. This ‘oiliness’ is what makes us want to wash our hair again, and we end up in somewhat of a vicious cycle.
Because shampoo bars are gentler, they don’t starve the scalp so much to begin with. And since your hair wouldn’t feel ‘dirty’ so quickly, you would almost immediately notice a reduction in the number of washes per week. With time, balance gets restored and the body is able to nourish the hair naturally. Trust us, this small changes does wonders!
To conclude, shampoo bars have some very clear benefits:
> Since they are no water and all shampoo, they last REALLY long. Most 100g variants in the market would last atleast three months for medium length hair. Compare that to a 200ml bottle that would last only about 15 washes or about a month and a half.
> Since there’s no water, no chemical preservatives or stabilizers are needed. Typically, a little citric acid goes a long way in preserving a shampoo bar over its use period.
> They are plastic-free! Most brands offer shampoo bars in just paper boxes, and even if moisture barrier is needed for operational handling, only a fraction of plastic would do – relative to bottles.
Don’t they seem like a great choice – both for you and the planet? Not just a fad, right?