Mixing up my own non-toxic shampoo and conditioner

May 12, 2010 | By | 16 Replies More

The perky woman on this Grist video (“Umbra”) has convinced me to make my own shampoo and conditioner. Not only will this save me money, but it will put end my practice of covering my scalp with numerous chemicals that contain known-harmful ingredients–many shampoos and conditions are laden with harmful and potentially harmful ingredients (I found this video at Huffpo).  I should also mention that I have become extra-motivated to try this experiment based on this recent post by Brynn Jacobs. First, the fast-paced video featuring “Umbra”:

Now a short detour to the Environmental Working Group website, where you can determine all of the nasty chemicals in your shampoos, conditioners and other products. The EWG “Cosmetics” database is here.

I went to straight to my bathroom and dug out various bottles each of shampoo and conditioner. My Pantene “Full and Thick” shampoo contains all of the following (among other chemicals): METHYLCHLOROISOTHIAZOLINONE, ETHYLENE OXIDE, 1,4-DIOXANE, ETHYLENE OXIDE, 1,4-DIOXANE) NITROSAMINES) COCAMIDE MEA, METHYLISOTHIAZOLINONE, SODIUM LAURETH SULFATE. Various of these chemicals are associated with the following things: Neurotoxicity, Allergies/immunotoxicity, Organ system toxicity (non-reproductive) Organ system toxicity (non-reproductive), Irritation (skin, eyes, or lungs).

I checked out a bottle of Suave Professionals Sleek Shampoo and it contained a comparably ominous list.  The Revlon Aqua Marine Moisturizing Shampoo was even worse in that it contained four chemicals associated with cancer.

Then I looked up two bottles of hair conditioner.  The Garnier Fructis Fortifying Conditioner – Sleek & Shine has a comparably nasty list of chemicals –Umbra urges that these chemicals are totally unnecessary for washing one’s hair. I couldn’t find the Citre Shine Daily Revitalize Conditioner with Shine-Infusing Citrus Extracts on the EWG website, but I carefully read the fine print on the back label and plugged four of those chemicals into the EWG site; they all came up as bad, despite the front label’s suggestion that this product contains “healthy” ingredients.  I suppose the theory is to balance out each industrial chemical with a whiff of something healthy-sounding like “citrus extract.”

BTW, isn’t it ironic to read all of those the benign-sounding names of these products and then compare those names to the long lists of chemicals within?

What is Umbra’s solution to this apparently unhealthy situation?    She is encouraging us to make our own shampoo and conditioner (this is the same advice offered by Colin Beavan).  For shampoo, she recommends that we mix a tablespoon of baking soda with each cup of water.  Shake it each time before using it.    For conditioner, mix 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar with each cup of water.   She says that the vinegar smell goes away after you rinse.

As soon as I publish this post, I’m going to the kitchen to mix up a batch of each.  I’m appearing in court tomorrow, and my hair and scalp, for the first time ever, will not be drenched in potentially harmful chemicals.

I promise to report on the experience after I use these home-made hair products for a few days.


Tags: , , ,

Category: Consumerism, Environment, Health, hypocrisy, Quality of Life

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (16)

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  1. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Thanks for this, Erich. I've been meaning to look into this sort of thing for a while, but now it's fallen into my lap. How was day 1?

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Brynn: This home-made shampoo is really watery, not thick at all. It doesn't suds up on your head and it doesn't give the impression that it's doing anything at all. The vinegar "conditioner" smells . . . vinegary, until you rinse it out. But after my hair dried, it seems much like it does after I use commercial shampoo/conditioner. It was rather surprising and delightful, at least so far. I must admit, however, that I might not be the best judge. I suspect that there are many people out there who would be far more discerning about shampoo than me.

      I'm going to keep using the home brews for several reasons. I like the idea of avoiding all of the potentially dangerous chemicals. I like not cluttering up the landfills with empty shampoo bottles (I will re-use the same two bottles over and over). I like the really cheap price of home-made (for the price of one bottle of shampoo, I can make gallons of shampoo and conditioner, it appears). To "make" a bottle of shampoo or conditioner takes about one minute.

      I'll report back periodically, but I must say that I'm pleasantly surprised so far.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    From Wikipedia:

    Shampoo has only been used with fervor since the 1970s. Before then, either regular soap was used a few times a month or, just after the early 20th century, shampoo was used only a few times a year. It was in the 1970s that shampoo use became prevalent. Ads featuring Farrah Fawcett and Christie Brinkley asserted that it was unhealthy not to shampoo several times a week. This mindset is reinforced by the greasy feeling of the scalp after a day or two of not shampooing. Using shampoo every day removes sebum, the oil produced by the scalp. This causes the sebum glands to produce oil at a higher rate, to compensate for what is lost during shampooing. According to some dermatologists, a gradual reduction in shampoo use will cause the sebum glands to produce at a slower rate, resulting in less grease in the scalp.

    Many dermatologists and hair stylists recommend reducing shampoo use to once a month. Baking soda is a recommended substitute for shampoo, as it will remove any odor that might be present. Water is also a good solvent for any grime in the hair, and when followed by conditioner can leave the hair without an unpleasant odor.


  3. Erika Price says:

    I'm really curious about this. Shampoo and conditioner use have always struck me as a little absurd. With one product, we strip our hair of oils in the name of rendering it 'clean'; we need a second product to return this necessary moisture. And it seems that hair washing begets more frequent future hair washing, to boot. I know many people with dry, coarse or kinky hair who have learned they need shampoo seldom, but the greasy-fine-haired among us need a lot more product. If there is a cheap, more healthful way to beat this racket I should be all over it. You should persuade your wife and daughters try out these alternatives and review them as well, Erich, for a better idea of how these homemade shampoos work on a variety of hair textures and lengths.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Erika: I'm about five days into the program. The first day I used baking soda and apple vinegar, my scalp itched; I think that this occurred because I didn't rinse out of my hair well enough. Since then I've rinsed better and I haven't had any noticeable problem with itchiness.

      As far as how it makes my hair look, I think my hair looks about the same as it did with commercial shampoos and conditioners. The hair feels about the same too. I'll report back in another week or two with more reactions.

      You have offered good advice about bringing the rest of my family into the program, to the extent I can control that! My wife has thick wavy hair and two daughters with dark straight hair. My brown hair is cut short and it's thin. Therefore, getting the entire family involved would give a much more meaningful sampling.

      I know that many people are using this formula already, based upon many websites. Christi Colvin has some suggestions for "trouble-shooting" the no-poo method (Google "no poo" for many more). You'll find more comments from real life users here http://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-Go-No-Poo/ . There's more advice and encouragement here. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/30337386

      Bottom line, I'm by no means a pioneer in this "no poo" movement. The method I wrote about here is being used by many happy people, and it's so cheap that it's virtually free (and free of many of the chemicals I used to put on my scalp). As I suggested, I'll write more as the experiment continues.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    My shampoo experiment has been a success. I didn't know what to think for the first couple days of the experiment, because my scalp was a bit itchy and my hair didn't seem quite as soft as with commercial products.

    But I stuck with it and then I learned to make sure to rinse out the home-made shampoo and conditioner better and there is no problem at all. It has now been one month since I began using only home-made hair products. My hair looks and feels as good as it did with commercial products. I highly recommend this experiment to everyone. I'm still on my first home-mixed bottles.

  5. Dan says:

    All you crazies are worried about nothing, you'll complain about all the "hazards" companies are selling you but none of you are giving up your cars, televisions, Ipods, cellphones, video games, refridgerators, or any of the other stuff modern society affords you. Your home is full of these same chemicals in the plastics, paints, rugs, hardwood floors and furniture…are you getting rid of these. Your cable tv, phone and internet are all brought to you using these same chemicals at some point in the manufacturing of the hardware that brings these things into your home. Get a life.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    The path to sustainability requires making 1,000 small changes. This is but one. What is your solution? Or do you even see a problem with the toxic stew in which we currently live?

  7. Brynn Jacobs says:


    Thought I'd let you know I'm a convert to your "no poo" lifestyle. My wife is harder to convince, but she's a little more demanding with her hair care than I am. 🙂 At least the homemade stuff made it into her rotation.

    Saw this today too, if you're looking to branch out: "What kind of weirdo makes his own toothpaste?"

  8. Jim Razinha says:

    Tertiary relationship to this thread, we've started making our own cat food out of raw meat (mostly chicken) because even though we've fed them the more expensive dry foods that are supposedly healthier, it's not what they would eat naturally and there are a lot of extras that don't need to be in there anyway. Our 18.5 year old cat goes for the corn and not the meat when we're not looking, so that was a big indicator. We've had our two younger cats about a year and know now they'll live healthier lives that we've made this switch. Of course, they wouldn't have the bones and all custom ground for them "naturally", but at least we went in the right direction. Organic, hormone free ingredients. More expensive and a pain to make every couple of weeks, but better. (We've switched to only grass fed beef ourselves – too much omega-6 in the grain-fed alternative.)

    We've also switched to vinegar and water for our sole surface cleaning agent – big difference (still need a scourer for the unpleasant sanitary waste disposal, though). I guess I'll volunteer in our house to try the baking soda alternative shampoo.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      One reader commented that this is a tiny thing; shouldn't we be focusing on big issues? My reaction is that my life is filled with "tiny" things. What if we can get into good habits regarding many of these? It could make a big difference in the aggregate.

      I told my family that I need a reminder and an incentive to take used plastic bags or to bring cloth bags to the grocery store so that I don't take any more of those cursed plastic bags- -http://www.poconorecord.com/_flash/soundslides/20080505plasticbags/soundslider.swf . They convinced me that I should give $1 to our charity jar for each plastic bag I bring home from a store. This will make a game out of it and it will those help me modify my behavior. Even a deposit of a nickel makes a huge difference regarding plastic bags. http://dangerousintersection.org/2010/03/29/the-p

  9. Jim Razinha says:

    Reusable bags – we got in the habit in Korea because they charge for every plastic bag. Even after four years, we still get looks when we tell the checker "no bags", even with a huge cartload…until they realize they don't have to load!

    I'm mulling posting a bit on plastic I saw on TED to follow Brynn's sustainability piece because I heard on NPR today that the Republican House reversed a Dem greening initiative in their cafeteria and now people are happy that they can have plastic and styrofoam cups again.

  10. Brynn Jacobs says:


    Funny story: I saw a book on making your own cat food "recipes" at Petco while picking up fresh litter. I couldn't resist, thinking the cats would love it. I spent a half hour or so whipping up a gourmet feline dish (some kind of southwestern skillet-type of meal), which the cats smelled curiously for a few minutes before looking at me like I was crazy and wandering off to take a nap. KISS principle applies here too, they like plain chicken, fish, and vegetables.

    My wife and I switched a few years ago to solely grass-fed beef, after reading Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma. I've got to say, even coming from the middle of corn country as I am, that I prefer the taste and texture of pastured beef to its grain-fed counterpart.

  11. amalia says:

    A Simple Herbal Shampoo

    This is very simple and easy way to produce a wonderfully rich homemade shampoo that’s designed to give your hair a complete herbal treatment, tailored to your very own hair type.

    You’ll get all this at a fraction of the cost of named brands especially if you use some of the left over decoction as a final rinse.

    (Use within 2 months)


    * 5 fl oz (150ml) baby shampoo (store brand is perfect)

    * 1 teaspoon dried or 3 tablespoons fresh chopped herbs (chosen from chart bellow)

    * 10fl oz (300ml) water


    1. Place the herbs and water into a saucepan and bring to the boil, place the lid on the pan and gently simmer for about 10 minutes.

    2. Remove from the heat and allow the decoction to cool.

    3. Pour the baby shampoo into sterile bottle or jar.

    4. Strain the decoction, then pour 3fl oz (100ml) in with the baby shampoo and Shake well.

    5. Don’t throw the remaining decoction away; this can be poured into a fresh bottle and used as a herbal rinse for an extra boost.

    Natural Homemade Cosmetics

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