This is my hair in August 2011. Probably the longest it had been in years. There’s probably some off the shelf semi-permanent hair color in there. I can’t remember. The gray is starting to show just a touch.

When I learned to make soap, a whole world of natural DIY products opened up for me. If I can master the chemistry of making soap, what ELSE can I make? Lotion? Toothpaste? Natural Deodorant? Shower Gel? Sugar Scrubs? Lip Balm? The list was almost endless, and I’ve tried a LOT of things. Some of which I continue to make, and sell, and some of which I don’t.

One of the products I no longer make is a true soap shampoo bar. Why you may ask? Isn’t more natural always better? In this case, no.

Soap, by its very nature, is alkali. You may remember from high school chemistry that pH is the measure of hydrogen ion concentration. The range goes from 0 to 14, with 7 being completely neutral. Pure water is pH 7. And the scale is logarithmic, which means the difference between pH 7 and pH 5 or 9 isn’t two, its 100.

Now the cosmetic industry would have you believe that pH is super duper important. We’ve all heard the phrase “pH balanced” used in advertising, though they conveniently never actually tell you what that means. In reality, studies have shown that our skin has a naturally acidic pH of around 5.5, but it tends to regain its balance quite quickly when exposed to products outside of this range.

Soap – true soap – the kind us hand crafters make with sodium hydroxide and oils, the kind that I make, has a pH of about 10. Yes, 10! I’ve measured my own and others with a pH meter (paper test strips are notoriously misleading with bar soaps – and anyone who tells you their soap is below pH 8 is either lying or really doesn’t understand the chemistry, because at a pH of less than 8 the actual soap molecule comes apart and you get goop). Ten sounds super scary, right? But in reality, exposure to our lovely hand crafted soaps while bathing is only for about 30 seconds, and our skin quickly recovers to its normal acidic pH. True soap needs to be alkali in order to do its job, which is to get you clean.

It’s funny how pH 10 sounds super scary but we don’t think twice about eating cream cheese or popcorn or chocolate, or drinking beer, wine or black tea, all of which have a  pH around 4 (the same distance from neutral pH 7, but in the other direction).

All this goes to say that hand crafted soap is fabulous for your skin and perfectly safe and you don’t need a “pH balanced” synthetic beauty bar in the shower.

But hair? Hair is a different story.

HairStructureThe hair shaft is made up of three different parts. The cuticle, the cortex and the medulla (which may be missing all together in some hair types). Your cortex determines your hair strength, structure and color. The cuticle, that critical outer layer, is made up of overlapping scales. When the cuticle is happy, all of those scales lay down tight against each other, and your hair is shiny and smooth and the inner cortex is protected from damage.

As your hair grows, those cuticle scales slowly wear away. So you will have a thicker layer of cuticle at the top of a strand of hair than you will at the ends, especially if your hair is long. Older worn cuticle can become damaged over time, and the scales no longer lay flat. This causes hair to easily tangle, dry out and break, which just further accelerates the damage. A lot of what hair products on the market do is coat or smooth the cuticle.

So, knowing that, what about using cold process (CP) or hot process (HP) hand-made soap on hair? Remember that pH 10? High pH makes the scales of the cuticle stand away from the hair shaft. Hair and scalp are naturally in the pH 5 to 5.5 range. This is part of why an apple cider vinegar rinse is often recommended when using true soaps on hair. To bring the pH back down into the normal range.

Some people do really well with true soap on hair and absolutely swear by it. I am not one of those people. I made my own cold process soap shampoo bars based on a Soaping 101 recipe, and tried a local competitors bar as well. While the change was subtle, I could see and feel dryness and damage creeping in over time, even with a vinegar rinse and normal conditioning. I gave them a good 3 month run.

Have you seen the video posted by the Los Angeles Media company Attn: on how using a shampoo bar instead of bottled shampoo could replace the 552 million shampoo bottles we throw out annually?

Unfortunately I’ve been unable to link to the video directly from their website rather than their Facebook page, and am unsure if they are the originators of the video. Needless to say, the video went viral, and LUSH, whose bars were featured in the video (though not by name), had some record-breaking sales on their shampoo bars.

LUSH’s shampoo bars aren’t soap! They are synthetic detergent (syn det). They consist  almost entirely of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate – the same stuff you’ll find in most bottled shampoos.  What’s funny about that is that Sodium Lauryl Sulfate on its own has a pH of about 8. Better than true soap, but still really not all that great for hair. They are 1.9 oz, and as of this writing, sell for about $12.

I could do better!


Miles Away Farm’s Solid Shampoo Bar!

Once upon a time, there was this great blog called Swift Craft Money. The writer, Susan, was obsessed with crafting her own products, and took a deep dive into the chemistry of all those many syllabled scary looking ingredients on the backs of your favorite lotion, shampoo and shower gel, and then told you how to make your own. The information was in-depth, fantastic, and sometimes over my head. And then people started to rip off her information and use it for their own classes, without giving her any credit. So now her blog and all that information (which she started posting in 2009!) are behind a pay wall. And I don’t blame her. But it was Susan’s explanation of pH and hair that originally clued me in on why I was having issues with using soap on my hair.

She also had some great guidance on making your own solid synthetic detergent shampoo bars that were pH balanced and gentle on hair. So did several of the old online soapmaking forums, including SoapDish (which also now seems to be unavailable). But between those two sites, and a lot of research into where to buy ingredients, and how to substitute ingredients with similar functions because I couldn’t get all of the ingredients in the original recipes (Swift Craft is in Canada), I came up with my own syn det shampoo bar. The ingredients were expensive. So the bars were $10 each (though they are 3.5 oz – so a much better deal than LUSH, AND with better balanced ingredients).

And they sat. And sat. I finally stopped even taking them to market, though I was using them myself and enjoying them.

November 2017

Working on embracing the gray, 7 years later, with the help of my hair dresser. And in the words of Nora Ephron, I feel bad about my neck, lol. Getting older is HARD.

And then that video happened. And I sold out of what I had on hand, and an additional three batches (I only make them 4 at a time) in the last few markets.

Maybe their time has finally come. Interested? Come see me at the Downtown Walla Walla Farmers Market or order online here. Note: I keep playing with scents on these, so the scent may vary from what is currently on the website. I’m also taking scent requests if anyone has a suggestion.

© Miles Away Farm 2018, where we’re miles away from completely giving up our liquid shampoo, but really do like having an alternative.