Shampoo bars

Should you bin the bottle in favour of a shampoo bar?

Shampoo bar pile

With plastic choking our oceans, every day’s a bad hair day for the planet. Switching to a shampoo bar will help reduce the rubbish, but how will your tresses fare?

Our test

We gave 10 Consumer volunteers a bar of either Lush’s Honey I Washed My Hair ($17.50) or Ethique’s Pinkalicious ($22) to try for a few weeks. The reviews were overwhelmingly positive, with eight users keen to make the switch official.

Reducing waste was a key driver in their decision (shampoo bars come wrapped in paper or packaged in cardboard boxes), but most were also delighted with the condition of their hair.

“My hair felt lovely. My partner likes it too. We have very different hair so it was nice to find something that works for both of us.”

One of the unhappy trialists said her scalp had started to itch and her hair felt dry and stringy. She wasn’t giving up on shampoo bars, though, and hoped “a different formula would be better”.

Many users remarked how convenient the compact size was for travelling, but the biggest drawback was that once the packaging had been removed, the bar looked confusingly like regular soap. Also, without a container, it got wet and “mushy”.

How many washes do you get?

Some manufacturers, including Lush and Ethique, claim one bar can provide as many washes as three bottles of liquid shampoo.

By our calculations, if an average user gets 25 washes from a 250ml bottle, a bar should last at least 75. Statements like that turn heads at Consumer, so we started scrubbing – and got at least 80 washes (medium-length hair) from each bar.

That makes a pretty good argument for switching because not only could using a bar prevent three plastic bottles from ending up at the tip, it might also save you money, especially if you normally use a salon-only shampoo costing upwards of $30.

Tip: Shampoo bars are simple to use: just wet the bar, swipe it over wet hair three or four times, lather, then rinse.

Concerned about chemicals?

Another reason to hit the bar? Potentially fewer harmful chemicals.

Water (aqua) is the main ingredient in liquid shampoo, so preservatives are added to prolong shelf-life and stop water-loving microbes from spoiling the product. Solid shampoos needn’t contain much water and therefore need few, if any, preservatives.

Even if a shampoo bar is preservative-free, it could still contain allergens.

Allergic reactions and sensitisation are common issues with preservatives: a review by the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety found sensitisation to the preservative methylisothiazolinone (MI) to be an “increasing problem”. MI is present in some shampoos sold in New Zealand.

Even if a shampoo bar is preservative-free, it could still contain allergens. Some people react to common fragrances used in cosmetics – one of the reasons products must have an ingredients list.

Soap bar vs. shampoo bar

Shampoo bars look like soap – but if you’ve ever tried washing your hair with soap, or your body with shampoo, you’ll know they’re not exactly interchangeable. Soap is made with lye (sodium hydroxide) and is alkaline (often with a pH of 9 or 10), whereas shampoo is generally acidic (lower than 7), so before you shell out for a shampoo bar, check the ingredients list to make sure you’re not buying soap.

What’s in them?

The main ingredients in shampoo bars are surfactants, oils and fragrances. Surfactants help with the cleaning part, oils and fragrances make the product smell nice, and thickeners and emulsifiers bind it all together.

Lush – Honey I Washed My Hair

Sodium laurel sulfate [surfactant], honey, perfume, sweet wild orange oil, bergamot oil, water, limonene (citrus peel), linalool [fragrance], amyl cinnamal [fragrance], citronellol [fragrance], butylphenyl methylpropional [fragrance].

Ethique – Pinkalicious

Sodium cocoyl isethionate [surfactant], decyl glucoside [surfactant], sodium coco-sulfate [surfactant], Cocos nucifera (coconut) butter [emollient, thickener], stearic acid [thickener], cocoa butter, caprylic/capric triglyceride [emollient], cetyl alcohol [emollient, thickener], stearyl alcohol [emulsifier], behentrimonium methosulphate [emulsifier], pink grapefruit peel oil, vanilla oil, lactic acid [pH regulator], red mica [pigment], citral [fragrance], limonene [fragrance], linalool [fragrance].

Member comments

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Bernadette L.
12 Jun 2019
Shampoo Bar

I was given a Shampoo Bar for Christmas and I was quite impressed with how it left my hair. Unfortunately, I was not impressed with the residue left on the shower walls, from the first wash. I towel dry the shower cubicle every night after use and the undesirable content was noticeable.

Peter G.
09 Jun 2019
Lots of woo-woo, few active ingredients

One annoying thing about shampoo bars is that, being a boutique product, the current range is long on "natural" stuff that has no effect on hair apart from perhaps perfuming it a bit, and very few if any actual active ingredients that make shampoo shampoo. For example the Lush bar has one single active ingredient, the surfactant sodium lauryl sulfate, which is towards the harsher end of the scale of hair-care surfactants compared to things like the laureth sulfates. Others available in NZ have no identifiable active ingredients in them at all. The Ethique one at least has proven active ingredients, various surfactants, emulsifiers, lathering and chelating agents, and so on.
A disclaimer, I have nothing do with Ethique and had never even heard of them until I read the latest Consumer magazine, just surprised at some of the stuff that's being peddled under the label "shampoo" when it should be called "saponified fruit extract".

Chris I.
09 Jun 2019
Great product

We (2 people household) have been using hair soap for some months now and we have only finished the first bar a couple of weeks back. It certainly is economical and I find it washes well and I don't need to wash my hair as often. Dirty Hippy also do a hair soap and we have just started on that and seems just as good. We did get a container when we got the first bar of Ethique and that keeps it dry as the base is a drainer with a cover over the top. I believe we have saved lots in changing and certainly will not be going back to liquid shampoo.

M & A M.
08 Jun 2019
Global soap in Nelson

Been using them for 10 years or so, great product and lasts for ages. They featured Global soap on Country Calendar a year or two back.
https://globalsoapnz.co.nz/product-category/shampoo-bar/

R A & M F S.
08 Jun 2019
Moisturising body bar

I have made a beeswax and shea butter moisturising body bar. The beeswax reduces dry skin on my hands associated with frequent hand washing/alcohol based hand gel at work. I melted 3 tablespoons beeswax, 3 tablespoons Shea butter, 3 teaspoons cornflour and 3 tablespoons baby oil in a clean tomato can sitting in a pot of hot water. I stirred the mixture with a disposable chopstick. Once combined and lump free, the mixture was poured into a silicone muffin tray. It is difficult to completely remove the waxy residue from the cooking utensils, hence the tin can and chopstick! Maura

Bryden S.
08 Jun 2019
Hair washing

I remember my grandmother and my Mum saying they used Pears soap to wash their hair when they were young. I use Health Basics Cream Body Wash and have done so for years - my hair is soft and smooth and I do not need a conditioner. It does come in a plastic container unfortunately. Can remember when I was a teenager (60 years ago) using beer as a styling liquid - great unless you got caught out in the rain when you smelled like a brewery.

John L.
08 Jun 2019
Sodium Lauryl Sulphate

This chemical received a bad press in a UK tv medical programme a few months ago. Since then I've avoided any shampoo containing it. As I have fine hair I've resorted to baby shampoo. Check out:
https://www.chemicals.news/2017-11-14-sodium-lauryl-sulphate-toxicity-side-effects-diseases-and-environmental-impacts.html

Cathy B.
08 Jun 2019
Anti-dandruff

Are any of these shampoo bars an anti-dandruff type. I'm currently using head & shoulders

Consumer staff
10 Jun 2019
Re: Anti-dandruff

Hi Cathy,

There are a few brands that make anti-dandruff shampoo bars. The best thing would be to do a web search.

Kind regards,

Natalie - Consumer NZ staff

Marloes A.
10 Jun 2019
Pure peony

Pure peony has shampoo bars for sensitive skin

Vivienne W.
08 Jun 2019
Soap/Shampoo container

To stop either soap or shampoo bars from becoming mushy put in a mesh draw string bag like supplied with gifts or soaps this allows it still to be used but doesn’t go mushy.

Barbara H.
08 Jun 2019
A shampoo bar to suit

Ethique now have a significant range of shampoo bars to choose from, so I am, over time, trying the ones that look right for my hair. So a bit of trial and error required, I reckon!

Barbara H.
08 Jun 2019
To stop bars becoming mushy

I think I've cracked it! I found a largish piece of oval shaped pumice on the beach and rasped down two sides to make flat surfaces for the bars, divided by the untouched pumice. This sits nicely in my shower tray. The bars don't seem to slip and slide overly on the pumice, which I rinse down before starting a new bar. And I can vouch for longevity. I wash my hair about every 3rd day and so far the bars have lasted a full year.

Louisa B.
08 Jun 2019
Try Frankie Apothecary for shampoo & conditioning bars

Can highly recommend Frankie Apothecary for the Kawakawa + Kūmarahou shampoo bar, and the vanilla and Kawakawa conditioning bars - all natural, no nasties, less commercial, local business, smells great and does what it says. Tried and tested by the whole family. 5 out of 5 from us.

Simon P.
08 Jun 2019
Sodium laurel sulphate

Sensitivity or allergy to Sodium Laurel Sulphate is more common than people realise. It can produce symptoms from constant itchyness to flaking (no, not dandruff) to very sore lumps on your scalp that block the pores and cause painful build up in glands in the neck.
It’s a real shame that a shampoo bar would use this stuff when there are safe alternatives.

Ross M.
08 Jun 2019
Rosco

66 year old male with a reasonable amount of remaining fibres switched to bicarbonate of soda three years ago. Figure I could get a lifetime of clean and shiny hair for the cost of one of those bars.

Patricia B.
08 Jun 2019
Coconut in shampoos etc.

I have a sensitivity to coconut in products including shampoo, laundry detergent and dishwash liquid. I have been importing shampoo from Australia as I couldn't find one in New Zealand without coconut. Interesting to see that the Lush bar doesn't contain coconut but the Ethique one does. I must try the Lush bar.

Linda C.
08 Jun 2019
Sunlight soap works too...

I have sensitive skin so years ago, before the mainstream switch to hypoallergenic products, I spent $$$ finding suitable shampoo. Someone told me "Sunlight" soap was quite gentle & effective on hair & skin, so tried it & haven't used shampoo for decades. My recollection is it took 2 or 3 weeks for my hair to 'adjust' to no chemicals, and even then no problems with being clean. Also great for hand washing clothes (different bar of soap for different purposes), plus cleans showers, sinks etc. I store in the open @ home to stop from going soft, & keep travel container open as much as possible when not on the move, plus cut into smaller blocks helps with drying out. I don't seem to have to wash hair as often, which is a bonus!

Sean B.
08 Jun 2019
Au natural

Great stuff, no chemicals, use on body and hair. Bar lasts a long time.

https://www.mynaturalhealth.co.nz/products/view/sabun-olive-oil-soap

Scott B.
08 Jun 2019
Get a sampler to find the best

Ethique does samplers so you can find the best type for your hair, it’s worthwhile to try a few, the first I tried I wasn’t happy with. Lush products are very highly fragranced and can be overpowering.

Llyvonne B.
18 Jun 2019
Keeping bars hard

For those concerned about keeping the bar hard, I usually keep my bars in the hot water cupboard. Let the moisture in the bar reduce and then the bar lasts longer. Also ensure that it does not sit in water after using it.

Sue B.
08 Jun 2019
perfume

Are there any unperfumed ones? I was given a peony shampoo bar which has given me scalp eczema.
I love the idea of a shampoo bar but am loathe to pay a lot for one I will be too sensitive to.

Winsome Brown
08 Jun 2019
try the Ethique sampler pack

Have a look at their website as there are different sampler combinations available - overall more cost effective than buying a whole bar of something that doesn't suit. Give what's left of the non-suitable samplers to family and friends to try.

Consumer staff
10 Jun 2019
Re: perfume

Hi Sue,

We had a look online and found a few unscented shampoo bars made with lye. Some manufacturers have trial sizes, but even if they don’t, there’s no harm in asking if they’ll send you a sample.

Kind regards,

Natalie - Consumer NZ staff

Marloes A.
10 Jun 2019
Pure peony

Try pure peony shampoo bars, my partner has sensitive skin and he hasn't reacted to it.

Jacqui T.
31 May 2019
Won't go back

Been using Ethique products for well over a year. I only have to shampoo twice a week. Get yourself some of their containers to keep bars dry, made from compost able material. Love this stuff and the company is helpful and dedicated to lowering the plastic on our planet.

David C.
31 May 2019
Not convinced

I tried Dr. Bronner's shampoo bars, and while they seemed to work well enough they turned to goo in the plastic box I had to put them in. May work if you can keep them dry between uses.

Helen C.
31 May 2019
Just try them

Been using ethique for a couple of years now. There's no going back..hair is softer and rarely needs conditioning ( and I usually use the conditioning bar) When you make the changeover it takes 2-3 washes to get the accumulated chemicals out of your hair.