The Bicarb No-Poo Hair-Washing Controversy

The Bicarb No-Poo Hair-Washing Controversy

I never even knew that there was a baking soda hair washing controversy. I’ve been washing my hair with bicarb and vinegar since last June, and I’ve had no problems. My hair looks and feels better, and I’m in love with the simplicity of it. So when I got this email from a reader, I was quite surprised!

“I was looking at the bicarb/vinegar hair cleaning idea and saw a couple of links like the one below about the pH levels etc. Just wondering if you’d come across this kind of feedback before and if so, whether you found it valid or not? I’m sure like anything there’s people for and against, just curious about the science behind this lady’s thoughts.”

The link she was referring to was an article called Baking Soda Destroyed My Hair. Punchy title, no? I hadn’t seen the article before, so I read it, and then a few more.

Here are my thoughts.

The Science Behind Bicarb and Vinegar Hair Washing

The pH scale measures whether a substance is acidic or alkaline, and runs from 0 to 14. 0 is the most acidic, 14 is the most alkaline and 7 is neutral (pure water has a pH of 7). The skin has a layer on the surface known as the acid mantle, which is a mixture of sebum (oil that the skin produces) and sweat. This acid mantle has a slightly acidic pH (around 5.5).

Most cleansers and shampoos are alkaline because these clean better than acidic products. Alkaline products will also open up the hair cuticle, as will hot water and hair brushing. However alkaline products can leave the skin and hair feeling dry, and if hair cuticles are left open the hair is more susceptible to damage. That is why conditioner is used after shampooing – to smooth the cuticles and protect the hair shaft.

Bicarb soda is a base with a pH of about 9. Vinegar is an acid with a pH of almost 2. Bicarb is used as a cleaner to remove dirt and grime from the hair; it is also an excellent exfoliant. The vinegar rinse (the vinegar should be diluted so it is not too acidic – I use a 1:4 ratio vinegar:water) restores the pH of the skin to an acidic level, and closes the hair cuticles.

Thoughts on Whether Bicarb and Vinegar Cause Hair Damage

I’ve never read that you should dilute the bicarb to make it less basic – to me that just doesn’t make sense! I use bicarb knowing that it is a base, and only mix with a tbsp water. If hair is wet and you’re in the shower, there’s gonna be some dilution going on, but bicarb is still alkaline.

I disagree that using bicarb and vinegar is like dyeing your hair twice a week. Hair dyes, which are also alkaline, are left on the hair and scalp for for ages, hours even. The bicarb goes straight on, wait a minute and then off. Not quite the same!

Most bar soaps are alkaline and can have pH as high as 10. Many facial cleaners also have an alkaline pH – that’s how they clean.  Alkaline products are definitely drying on the skin, which is why it’s important to moisturise or use facial oils. It’s also important that these finishing products more closely match the skin’s pH as these products will be left of the skin, whereas cleansers are washed off fairly quickly.

The principle is the same with hair. Using an alkaline product will help clean the hair but it risks drying out the scalp and hair if the alkalinity is not countered, wither with a vinegar rinse or other moisturizing treatment.

Remember too that plenty of other environmental factors play a role in the condition of our hair. Diet, medication, hair dyeing, pollution, sunshine, ocean water, chlorine from swimming pools and aging all have an impact of the condition of our hair.

It is clear that the lady who wrote the article has suffered hair damage. What works for some people doesn’t neccessarily work for everyone. In the same way that some people live using bar soap whilst others find it too drying, bicarb clearly does not work for everyone. I know several people who have used bicarb and vinegar for decades and swear by it; the internet will tell many other stories of people who didn’t get on with it.

My conclusion would be that it’s not dangerous, but its also not for everyone. If you can’t get on with it, it’s probably best to try something else.

Don’t Want Bicarb Drying Out Your Hair? Try These Alternatives

If you’re worried about bicarb drying out your hair, there are plenty of alternatives.

  • If you’re happy to stick to bicarb, you can use oils or other treatments (such as avocado, egg or honey) to moisturize your hair after washing.
  • Try using oil to restore moisture to you hair after washing. Try treating your hair with olive oil: After cleaning your hair, squeeze out excess moisture, rub a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in your hands, and then rub evenly through into your hair. You can leave the oil on for as long as you like – even overnight (but you’ll need to wear a shower cap!) – the more dry or damaged your hair is, the more beneficial leaving it for longer will be. Wash the oil out after you’re done.
  • Another alternative is moisturising your hair with coconut oil before washing, to help protect the cuticles from damage.
  • After using vinegar ,you could always opt to use regular conditioner (choose one with natural ingredients and preferably some oils) to moisturise your hair.

Feeling less trusting of bicarb after reading this?

  • One popular alternative I found is using rye flour to clean your hair. You use it in the same way as bicarb, making a paste with a small amount of water and rubbing into your hair, before rinsing out and proceeding as normal. Rye flour has a pH of 5.5 so is slightly acidic. I haven’t tried this but I would expect it to be worse at cleaning, but I like that it is plant-based rather than mined. Rye flour has less gluten than other flours so should make less mess in your bathroom.
  • Another option might be to combine bicarb with rye flour so the mix is less alkaline. Again, I haven’t tried this or measured the pH – if you do this please leave a comment and let me know the results.
  • A third option is washing your hair with clay. (Yes, clay!) Meg from Mrs M’s Curiosity Cabinet uses Rhassoul clay and loves it!

I love the way bicarb and vinegar cleans my hair: I also love the simplicity and minimalism of it (no extra bottles cluttering up my bathroom!). I’m keen to try flour and even clay, but for now I’m sticking to what works for me.

How about you – have you tried bicarb and vinegar hairwashing? Did it work for you or did you never quite get on with it? When did you start using it and have you noticed any drying or damage? Do you have any other green alternatives to suggest? I’d love to hear your thoughts so please leave a comment below!

54 Responses to The Bicarb No-Poo Hair-Washing Controversy

  1. We use a bar of homemade olive oil soap to wash and rinse with vinegar. Works well on both our heads! Haven’t tried bicarb as it comes packaged in too much plastic here.

  2. Super post, Lindsay! I think this highlights our selective snow blindness when it comes to bought products versus alternative natural ingredients-based products. All soaps are alkaline: that’s the nature of soap… (which is one of the reasons companies manage to sell shampoo & conditioner). As there are many time-honoured ways for rehydrating, I’ve never seen a ‘no poo alternatives as a problem – and I have super dry skin.

    ps – I love how like me you are curious about the underlying materials in our daily life ;-)
    pps – thanks for mentioning my clay solution.

    • Thanks Meg! Yes, alkalinity is the nature of soap…! I have dry skin too, and my hair would probably err on the side of dry rather than oily (I think most curly hair is like this), and I’ve definitely not noticed any detrimental effects. I used to get quite an itchy scalp and the bicarb / vinegar stopped that almost immediately.

      Have you ever tested the pH of your clay?

      ps – yes, I think too much about lots of things! It’s nice to find others who are curious too!

      pps – my pleasure : )

  3. Hi Lindsay, I’m a week into washing my hair with bicarb and vinegar . . . I got my advice/techniques off a few blogs, yours among them so I was interested to see this one today! Its a bit too early for me to tell but I’m pleased with the results so far, definitely part of that is the simplicity! I also feel like my hair is healthier and doubt bicarb could be doing more damage than shampoos/conditioners/products/dyes. I have curly hair, I think it may be quite similar to yours and it has been a more frizzy than when I was using shampoo/conditioner/product but it has also been going in tighter curls which I love! Just wondering what (if anything) you put on your hair to hold that lovely curl and prevent the frizz . . . I think you mentioned in another post using clove oil to get rid of the smell of vinegar and I wondered if that had the double effect of reducing frizz? Or are you using the olive oil or coconut oil as mentioned above?

    • Oooh, that’s great Sarah! The simpleness of it is definitely the best part! I love that if I run out, I just go to the kitchen! Plus commercial shampoos/conditioners always seem to be on 3 for 2, so you end up with bottles all over the place.

      I don’t put anything on it, actually. I was washing with really cold water at the end because I read that it made it more shiny, but then I stopped to save myself a step. My hair just does its own thing regardless of what I do! I haven’t used any essential oils for a couple of months either, as I ran out and need to make a trip to the lady who refills the bottles (don’t want new bottles – it’s wasteful!). Essential oils come in carrier oil, so maybe that makes a bit of difference. Or maybe it’s to do with the water here.. I think it’s quite soft, so that might help.

      I’ve never used olive oil or coconut oil (too lazy) but I’m thinking it might be good for my hair to treat it once a month or so. I do have a bottle of (natural, locally made) conditioner that is left over from when I made the switch, and after writing this I got scared and used it (!), but actually I find the smell overpowering! I guess I might use it now and then until it’s all gone.. after that, not sure. I’m happy with just bicarb and vinegar!

  4. My husband and I use a shampoo bar from Aquarian Bath, and it works well for both of us. Once and a while, I will do a rinse with diluted apple cider vinegar. I’ve never actually tried baking soda, because the shampoo bar works so well.

    • Shampoo bars are so popular, you guys must all be on to something! My main love of the bicarb is that it’s one less thing to buy… but I dislike that it’s mined – doesn’t feel so “natural”. Maybe I should try the bar soap I use on my hair, then vinegar to rinse. You’ve inspired me to try it!

  5. Such a timely post, thank you! I was just evaluating my baking soda-vinegar method…

    About two years ago, I read a book about chemicals in cosmetics. Ever since, I have been experimenting with different kind of shampoo. I have tried different shampoo bars, but none of them worked for me. My hair was greasy right after washing. I also tried washing with eggs and honey for a couple of weeks. It smelled and my hair becomes greasy right away. I even tried not washing it at all for six weeks or so. Did not work either. In the end I sticked with baking soda and vinegar.

    I am sufficiently happy with the result, but not quite satisfied with the frequency I need to wash my hair. Once a week would be ideal, but my hair thinks that is not often enough. Perhaps this is because I work out 4-5 times a week.

    Perhaps I will try again to wash with olive oil soap. But I am pretty sure that I must use vinegar afterwards otherwise my hair will be greasy. I also consider trying the clay. I just really want to find something that I can easily transport in my suitcase when traveling. Vinegar is inconvenient to carry along. Especially since I need a bottle or something to dilute it in before I pour it over my hair. Maybe I don’t need vinegar if using clay… :)

    Thanks for helping me brainstorm!

    • I’m impressed you tried washing your hair with eggs – that’s dedication! I’m not up for going that far…

      The working out is probably not helping if you want to stick to once a week!

      I found when I went back to the UK that carrying vinegar around was fine. I used a small glass jar. Wherever we stayed there were glasses in the bathroom for teeth brushing so I used that. If there hadn’t been, I’d have used my KeepCup. At least because you dilute it you don’t actually need to take a lot.

      My pleasure!

  6. Lindsay, I saw this post you are referencing a while back. I didn’t comment because I couldn’t find the right words and didn’t want to offend the author, or worse set fear in her. My first career was as a hairdresser so I have a background in what causes hair loss. First, our hair is dead once it grows out of the hair follicle. So being dead we do need to take care of it with proper cleansing and moisturizing. Most damage to hair comes from how we treat it,heat from drying and curling or straightening, snapping the ends when combing and so on. But when hair falls out which is what the author of the post in question says happened to her, it’s not from how we wash our hair. Outside of a genetic component that causes baldness, hair falling out is normally a sign of your health. Our hair follicles are fed by our blood. Anything that restricts blood flow to the scalp will cause hair to fall out. stress is one, heart issues and heart medications are very common conditions that result in hair loss. To have healthy hair, start by looking at your medications, talk to your doctor, and finally give yourself a scalp massage. This is very simple, just run your fingers under your hair and move the scalp back and forth. If you suffer from stress you will find that you are holding tension in your body and that includes your scalp causing it to tighten and cut off blood supply to the hair follicles. The scalp massage will relieve the tension and feed the hair follicles. I used to give scalp massages to my clients after any chemical treatment with good results.

    Btw, I have been washing my hair with baking soda and rinsing with vinegar for a couple of years with no problems.

    • I know exactly what you mean, Lois – I tried to word this very carefully. Everyone has different opinions, and that is why people are so interesting!

      I have a background in chemistry and genetics, so I’m interested in dispelling myths and understanding and explaining how things work! With your hairdressing experience we’re a formidable team : ) Thanks for sharing your insights. Lots of things I didn’t know!

      You’re such a fount of knowledge : )

      • I had no idea your background was in Chemistry that must be interesting. Genetics I understand as I became interested in the field once I was diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy.

        • I have a degree in Biochemistry. Aside from the fact I find lab work fairly dull, I realised that most of the money in this field comes from companies like Monsanto, and I wasn’t willing to compromise my morals… So I finished my degree but never worked in this area.

  7. Your hair is beautiful, and anyone can see that it is healthy. Thanks for your wonderful emails. I love them. I am barely getting started on you way of life.

  8. I have never tried the bicarb and vinegar no poo, I am however currently washing my hair with rye flour and I love it!! My hair is shiny and soft and very manageable and not fluffy or frizzy, I would definitely recommend it! I think it is just about giving things a go and seeing how you personally get on with it, if it doesn’t work for you then so be it, move on to the next one! I must admit that I read the article you’re referring to and it did put me off bicarb no-poo, but there are many people who’ve been using this method for years with no problems so there we go!

    • Ooooh, a rye flour supporter – welcome! Glad to hear your feedback. Do you use vinegar afterwards, or just the flour?

      I agree – giving things a go is the most important bit! Did you read Lois’ comment above about her thoughts on bicarb and hair loss? Really interesting. It’s always worrying when you read that someone has had a bad experience, but I guess it also goes without saying.

      I plan to stock up on rye flour next time I go to the bulk bin store and give it a go! I’ll report back and let you know!

      • I just use the flour! I used to use vinegar when I used commercial shampoos sometimes, but no matter how much I rinse I do find that the smell lingers in my hair a bit- maybe I wasn’t diluting it enough! Also I’m lazy and all about 1-step processes these days ha!

        It was interesting to read about the hair loss aspect – yet another reason I didn’t try bicarb, especially as I was experiencing some hair loss with ‘regular’ shampoos, but I think this having to massage my scalp more with the rye flour is probably what helped this (as opposed to the flour itself) (also just occuring to me that if I was using bicarb I would be massaging the scalp well also, hmm)

        Do report back there isn’t as much out there on rye flour so will be interesting to read others’ experiences, just make sure to sift it enough first! Enjoy!

  9. I used to wash my hair with bicarb and apple cider vinegar, I can’t remember if I had any adverse effects, so there probably wasn’t. Though I also didn’t like the mining thing. Then I read about the PH thing a ( here, and switched over coconut milk and aloe vera, as recommended in the link. At least no mining!
    Then, some month ago I had a shower but didn’t wash my hair and to my surprise the hair was cleaner than it was before. Since then I just use water and scrub the scalp a bit. Hair seems to get clean. Probably not as clean as with a product, but oh well.

    Would this have happened if I would’ve kept going with bicarb, who knows. Maybe I just hadn’t detoxed enough.
    Anyway, my two cents.

    • And careful with the coconut milk, it can leave hair a bit greasy.

      When I washed my hair with bicarb, I did the coconut/olive oil treatment (can’t remember which one it was now) but found it really hard to get rid of the greasiness with just bicarb and vinegar.

      Eggwash has left my hair nice and soft but only rinse with cold water.

    • Coconut milk and aloe vera?! I have not heard of either of those two options! The water option sounds great, but I assume you have to wash your hair fairly often? I tried it once- we went away for the night and I left my bicarb and vinegar at home – and right after I washed it, it looked great, but the next morning it looked like I’d dipped my head in an oil slick! But interesting to hear it works for you…

  10. This is an interesting read. I tried bicarb and vinegar. It left my hair looking great but my scalp dry and sore. I should have realised that this was not a method i should tried bicarb as a deodorant and it left me with a rash. Instead i just use shampoo i buy at the bulk store but rye flour sounds interesting. I will pick some up next time i visit the bulk store. Thanks for the tip.

    • Glen has the same problem – he hasn’t tried bicarb as shampoo but the bicarb as deodorant leaves him with a terrible rash. Maybe he will get on with the rye flour. I’ll let you know how I go – tell me how you get on too! : )

  11. Hi there! I’ve tried bicarb and vinegar a while back, but suspected it to cause hair breakage. I suddenly started seeing stray strands of hairs sticking up everywhere… I’m not entirely sure what was to blame. I was also using egg yolk which I read is high on protein.

    I’ve read about this ‘science’ though and found it fairly convincing to be honest. 10 is simply really alkaline and abrasive. It’s also 10Γ—10Γ—10. So BS is 1000x more alkaline than water at ph of 7? And you first rub it in and then rinse? I decided not to try again without having ph-measuring sticks on hand. I’ve tried Rye flour btw at beginning of the no poo adventure, but didn’t work for me. Made my hair very heavy.

    I’ve been looking at the ph of various foods. Determined to make it work this year. :-) also, I have the same concern about mining for BS than you. It does not look very good!

    Good luck on your experiments!

    Marlies (Plastic-Free Tuesday)

    • The official pH of sodium bicarbonate is 8.4, so not 1000x more alkaline, no. Less than 50. There are plenty of soaps and shampoos that have a pH higher than this! I’m becoming more and more curious about this – feel I need to get some pH paper and do a lab test of everything in my bathroom…

      Another rye flour experimenter! How long did you try it for? I really want to come up with a plant-based solution! What are you using at the moment?

      Thanks, and thanks for your comment!

  12. I use bicarb to wash my hair and homemade scrap vinegar to rinse. It works well for me. My daughter made some lovely hand lotion out of beeswax, almond oil and lavender essential oil (and maybe one other oil, I forget). When my hair is a little frizzy, I just work a little of that onto it to smooth it down. I always have rye flour on hand (for my sourdough) and will have to try that or a rye-bicarb combo. Thanks for all of these tips.

  13. Thanks for the article and the even more interesting discussion. I’ve basically foregone shampoos for several years now and simply go with a hot water scrub and rinse (one of the other commentators noted a similar practice). I often use a small amount of coconut oil or natural leave-in conditioner to tame frizz. When I did use vinegar and bicarb/baking soda, my hair felt a little too brittle and overexposed. I know that hair and skin types differ, so it’s nice to see a range of possible approaches.

    • Thanks for your comment – you’re right, it’s great hearing from all these different people with different approaches : ) It seems to me that the people who have the best experience with bicarb / vinegar have curly hair.

      I’m quite intrigued to try out all these other approaches too : )

  14. I washed my hair with bicarb and vinegar for about two years – and it turned my (already dry) hair to straw, to be honest.

    I think the problem was the bicarb, not the vinegar, as you say.

    These days, I use Johnsons’ baby shampoo and conditioner combo (the orange stuff), and a tresemme conditioner, both of which I can buy in big 1 litre bottles, to cut down on cost and packaging. It’s not ideal, but they keep my hair in good condition, and don’t irritate my very sensitive skin, whereas most products do.

    After reading your post, I might go back to the ACV as a rinse, and see how that works out in combo with the baby shampoo.

        • Hi ladies, i have recently cut all my hair off due to product damage and babies pulling it out lol but i hate my hair so short so i started googled solutions to grow hair fast with natural products, i also have frizzy hair so this is what i have been doing…
          Inverted method- applying olive oil to dry hair and flipping my head upside down and massaging scalp for 4mins, i then wrap my hair up in a towel and go about my motherly duties for 2 hours i then wash it off with my kids babys shampoo as its less harsh then normal shampoo, (i will try the bicarb next wash and see if it washes the oil out) and thats all i do my hair has grown a couple of inches in a 2weeks!!! Iv done this for 3weeks every 4-5days, i also do ACV rinse in occasionally and also take a few mouthfuls of it everymorning in the shower because its so good for you and i don’t mind the taste or the smell but i dont want other people to wonder where that vinegar smell is coming from lol so i only rinse with it when im not going out. So end result my hair feels great but i still get a bit of frizz for 2 days after washing so i use argon oil or lip balm to smooth but i can now put my hair up in a ponytail and i couldnt do that 2weeks ago so im sticking with it for now! If only i could rid my grey hair lol

          • Thanks for all the tips! It’s fantastic to see so many people getting great results simply by using natural safe ingredients rather than buying more plastic-packaged, chemical-laden, microbead filled, overmarketed hair products : )

  15. Hi guys! everyone for whom bicarb method didn’t work for some reason TRY washing your hair with egg yolks. Boy that’s worth it. Just yolks (1 for short fine hair, 2 if your hair is longer and or thicker) and may be a splash of water. No transition period. You hair looks awesome right away. No chemicals, no plastic, no trash. Lecetin is natural cleaner and protein is good for your hair. Separate from the white, break the yolk to make it more homogenious, massage into your wet hair as if you were shampooing it and rinse as you’d normally do.
    If you are not cooking retarded as I am, freeze the whites to bake whatever you need them for. If you are a kitchen idiot (I know I’m not the only twin) just fry them with some cheese.
    Lindsay, thank you so much for giving me a kick to look for a no-poo options!

    • Thanks for your comment Gayla! I’ve seen things written about using egg yolks but must confess, I’ve never tried using them. How often do you wash your hair with them (by which I probably mean, how quickly do you go through a box of eggs)?!

  16. I have sensitive skin so commercial shampoos leave me with a flakey scalp. I used bicarb for about a year. At first it left my hair really dry but that sorted out after a few weeks (maybe I used too much). But eventually I had a super dry and flakey scalp, plus having a new born baby meant I just didn’t have time. Then I tried water only washing. I stuck with it for months but I have fine hair and it always looked greasy. I read that this method doesn’t work as well on fine straight hair. I currently use a relatively natural shampoo and try to only shampoo twice a week. Soap generally irritates my skin so I’m not sure a bar shampoo would work for me. But now I’m going to try rye flour. Wish me luck!

    • Oooh good luck Mel – I love your persistence! It’s hard finding a method that suits our individual hair type, I think. Bicarb definitely seems to suit us curly types! rye flour makes my hair really soft – just sieve first to remove lumps and towel dry after to remove any excess flour. Let me know how it goes!

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