Shampoo science

shampoo science
Shampoo science is big business, with supermarket shelves full of differently-branded variants of essentially the same boring product.

The morning is young, yet this has the makings of a bad hair day. My barnet is dry and tangled; the locks on the back of my neck are in chaos; and the Sunshine Isle’s cool sea breezes are playing merry hell with my quiff. I looked quite well-presented yesterday. Today, my mop looks like … well, a mop. I have to face facts: I’m a man with a shampoo brand crisis. I need some shampoo science.

Being a bloke, this hasn’t been an issue for me before. In my wild and carefree youth, I would simply Wash & Go. Over the last few years, though – in a gentle nod to my sensitive, feminine side that enjoys conspicuous multi-tasking, shopping for cushions and hoarding shoes – I’ve got used to simply saying ‘hello hydration’. But now other brands are competing for my headspace.

For instance, I was tempted by Pantene’s Pro-Vitamin Nature Care Shampoo and Conditioner, because I’m kind to spiders and the vitamin bit sounded vaguely healthy. However, I soon realised that a provitamin only becomes a fully-functioning vitamin once its within the body, and I have no intention of ever drinking the stuff, thank you very much. So that option was discarded immediately.


Almost no difference

Then I was tempted by L’Oréal’s Elvive Nutri-Gloss, because it was judged the best shampoo in a study earlier this year by nanotechnology scientist Colm Durkan, of CambridgeNano. Colm wasn’t messing about: he used one of the world’s most powerful microscopes to measure how well a selection of shampoos cleaned hair, so his conclusions carry some weight.

“A clean hair under the microscope looks like a smooth surface, whereas dirty hair is covered with particles of grease or dust,” he told the Sunday Times, before his comments were shamelessly lifted by the Daily Mail. “What surprised me the most was that I couldn’t see any difference between what the most expensive shampoos do compared with other cheaper ones.”

Not only was the Nutri-Gloss (£3.99, 400ml) the best at cleaning hair, but it also left the fewest residues of all the products Colm studied – in direct contrast, for instance, to the £100-a-tub Philip B Russian Amber Imperial Shampoo which, he said, left “significant residues”.

For a while, the Nutri-Gloss option sounded great. However, after much thought, I decided against it because I feared that my already-striking shock of silver hair could morph into some kind of brilliant white beacon. Standing out from the crowd is one thing. Being visible from France is another matter entirely.


Ponce up your hair

So now I feel drawn to a lower-sulphate, silicone-free TRESemmé shampoo – and not just because the bulky, industrial-design bottle it comes in could kill a hippo if thrown with any force. No, it’s because it also contains a “clarifying formula that thoroughly revitalises hair”, thanks to its vitamin C content and “extracts of grapefruit and lemon”. And get this: it’s “used by professionals”. Not amateurs! Professionals!

That’s important when you get to my age. It’s taken me years of obsessive self-absorption to cultivate my look and, to use a bit of footballing parlance here, I can’t be relying on shampoo equivalents of Blythe Spartans to deliver the consistent results needed in today’s fast-moving, image-conscious world.

They might be famous FA Cup giant-killers, but that amateur glory-hunting thing just doesn’t wash with me any more. I need a Premier League shampoo brand – perhaps even one that’s pushing for a Champions League place. Just so long as it’s not Chelsea, of course.


Ablute with fruit

The TRESemmé website lists helpful hints on achieving optimal results with their product (you might want to take some notes at this point). So here goes:

“To get squeaky clean benefits, coat wet hair with a liberal amount of shampoo.

“Gently massage the scalp and roots with fingertips to work into a lather. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to scrub and scrub to get hair dirt-free (that motion only roughs up the texture and causes breakage and tangling).

“Lightly squeeze the shampoo from roots to ends. Our salon stylists suggest to rinse thoroughly (most people don’t rinse long enough).”

Ahhhhhhh, so that’s where I’m going wrong. I scrub too much and I don’t rinse enough. This must be a hangover from all my wasted Wash & Go years…


Intense nourishment

Oh, but hang on a minute. If their salon stylists are suggesting that my hair crisis is down to my own piss-poor washing technique, aren’t they undermining the case for using their product? Would I be better served by sticking with Herbal Essences and washing my hair properly? You know, like properly-functioning adults do? And, anyway, do extracts of grapefruit and lemon – or, indeed, any fruits (citrus or otherwise) – really add any benefits to the washing process?

I’m not sure, but if Garnier is to be believed, then the answer is an unequivocal yes. Its Daily Care Shampoo extolls the company’s “fortified fruit science” which, it insists, is “proven to perform with ingredients customised to your specific hair need”.

Exactly how they’re customised to my precise hair needs is unclear, but they’ve got my attention now, so I read on. Which is good because I then discover Garnier’s Fructis Colour Last range is “specifically designed to keep your colour looking vibrant for longer”. As a further enticement, I notice the Colour Last range is also enriched with grape seed oil and açaí berry to provide “intense nourishment”. Which could be the clincher – because no one can argue with intense nourishment.

Finally, for those who might still be wavering, Garnier throws in its patent Colorfix™ technology which, it says, creates a “protective network to help retain colour in the heart of the hair fibre”.


Marketing ploy? Surely not

To be fair, my hair’s silver glare has been vibrant enough for the last 20 years without Garnier’s help. Even so, the Colorfix™ technology/açaí berry combo was winning me over … until my internal cynic started gnawing away at my new-found certainties with those recurring, penetrating questions. You see, I still don’t understand why fruit extract is good for your hair.

I have a horrible feeling it’s just a marketing ploy to add fragrant appeal to an otherwise humdrum washing product. I mean, why don’t they extoll the virtues of other nutritional staples, such as root vegetables, for instance? They must have their reasons, I suppose. Perhaps beetroot extract is the haircare equivalent of getting a dose of the clap.

But then I remember that the best shampoo I’ve ever used – the deep-brown, medicated Polytar Liquid – looks and smells like something you’d pour around your drains to kill a rat infestation, yet it works brilliantly without any reference to fruit or sun-kissed islands at all. If fruit really is the food of hair, I could just as well pour the contents of my kitchen composter over my head each day and save myself the money.


Pure and gentle

Okay, so I’ve now come to accept that fruit extracts do little to aid the washing process, other than adding a bit of colour and a pleasant scent. But no worries, those clever shampoo scientists use a whole load of other natural ingredients to gently remove the gunk from your head.

And that list goes on and on. Check out the ingredients in any modern-day shampoo, and you’re likely to find at least some of the following:

Preservatives, such as the bacteria-killing agent methylisothiazolinone, or Quaternium-15, which is thought to be linked with the release of formaldehyde. Preservatives are necessary to stop a shampoo’s mix of organic compounds reacting to create a science experiment in a bottle. As Cosmetech Laboratories chemist Ni’Kita Wilson told the Daily Beast: “Unless you want your shampoo to grow legs and walk away, you need preservatives.” She’s right, of course, but it would certainly add to the experience if you had to chase it round the bathroom during a shower.

Anionic detergents and surfactants (‘surface-active agents’), such as sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate. These do most of the cleaning thanks to their molecular structure – they’re long chains of atoms in which one end is hydrophilic – attracted to water – and the other hydrophobic – repelled by water but attracted to oily substances.

As explained by chemistry professor Dr Joe Schwarcz in the Washington Post, the hydrophobic end secures itself in the sebum produced by sebaceous glands on the scalp, while the hydrophilic end remains anchored in water. The surfactant molecules form aggregates called micelles – spherical groupings of 40 to 100 molecules in which all the hydrophobic ends point toward the centre and all the hydrophilic ends stick out in the surrounding water.

As the oil droplets are released from the hair, they are attracted to the micelle’s centre, preventing them from coalescing and redepositing themselves before they are rinsed away. This process is enhanced by the way surfactants affect the surface tension of water droplets: water molecules have ‘polar’ regions of positive and negative charge, though they are not at opposite ends.

“The two hydrogen atoms are not symmetrically distributed around the oxygen atom but are on the same side, like the ears on Mickey Mouse’s head,” says Dr Schwarcz. “As a result, the negative area of one molecule is attracted to the positive region in an adjacent one.” So here we have the basic science behind the cleaning action.

Foaming and wetting agents, like cocamide or cocamidopropyl betaine; known carcinogens like propylene and butylene glycol; or the highly-flammable irritant isopropyl alcohol. Counter-intuitively, a satisfying lather doesn’t actually aid the washing process, but these agents are included anyway because non-lathering shampoos tend not to sell well.

Phenols, fatty alcohols and oils, such as coal tar, which is a complex and variable mixture of phenols, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heterocyclic compounds.

Conditioners, which are designed to keep the cuticle smooth and slippery. These include silicone oils, such as dimethicone and cyclomethicone, which are designed to leave a polymer coating on each strand of hair, to provide shine and smoothness.

Polyquaternium, a “thickening quat conditioner of the polymeric quaternary ammonium salt of hydroyethly-cellulose”. Did you get that? Well, not only does this thicken shampoo to prevent the entire contents from pouring out of the bottle in one go, but it also deposits a clear, glossy film on the hair to reduce static, increase its manageability and make it easier to style.

An acidity regulator, like sodium citrate or citric acid, to maintain the shampoo’s pH level. According to the Daily Beast, this “interacts with the hair’s slightly negative charge to help the cuticle, the outer layer of the hair, maintain a smooth, flat surface”.

Water. Yes, water makes up 80 to 90% of the shampoo in your bottle.

So, as you can see, with your average shampoo packed to the rafters with a wide range of pure and natural ingredients, you can rest assured that they’re completely safe to use on a regular basis. As put it: “Human studies aren’t conclusive; most doctors and health agencies view these as generally safe. But animal studies suggest that, if you absorb enough, they ultimately might destroy your skin or other organs in some uncertain cancerous, cell-membrane-eating, DNA-unraveling kind of way, despite leaving you with luscious hair.”



Dead attractive

The haircare industry’s claims that their products can revitalise, energise, add lustre, and nourish and/or rejuvenate your hair are ironic given that the hair you can see is not only dead but probably the toughest protein (keratin) in the human body. Made up of 20 amino acids, each of the 150,000 or so strands on the average head get their strength from a cortex which sits inside a cuticle. Only the length of hair within the follicle is alive, with each strand renewed around every four weeks.

Trichological Society co-founder Derek Dane describes it thus: “The cuticle is structured like the tiles on a roof, viewed upside down [so they overlap towards the tip]. Those ‘tiles’ are lifted by ultraviolet, oxygen and anything you put on your hair. When they are lifted, the atmosphere gets in, damaging the core.”

In other words, moisture escapes from the core when the tiles are lifted, leaving it brittle and looking lifeless and matted. If this describes your problem, then you could look for a shampoo that contains nutri-ceramides, or even plain and simple ceramides, which L’Oréal described as “the hair’s natural strengthener”.

However, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority ticked off L’Oréal for making this claim in 1999, though it went on to reject a similar complaint over the company’s assertion that a shampoo containing ceramide-R could strengthen hair, even though test results submitted by the company used ten times the concentration of the chemical found in the product.


Get ready for radiance

Of course, none of this is of any help to me. If anything, my problem is that my hair has far too much life. It might be dead, but its spirit lives on to haunt me.

So, after much contemplation, I’ve decided to run with the lower-sulphate, silicone-free TRESemmé shampoo in the hope that it’ll liberate my hair from the cruel yoke of tangling and divergence. Because, if nothing else, at least I’ll be prepared for the hippo threat in Broadstairs High Street.

And, to match my new approach to hair control, I’m also considering a bit of skincare: namely L’Oréal’s Dermo-Expertise HappyDerm Skin Exhilarating Moisturiser facial treatment which “combines phyto-dorphins with a powerful hydrating agent and a fragrance that is scientifically proven to have an exhilarating effect, in one innovative texture”.


Re-exhilarate your derma bollocks

Suppressing the obvious fear that these are made-up terms for things which don’t exist, I discover that HappyDerm is “ideal for anyone wanting clean, soft, happy skin”. The range includes a Skin Exhilarating Cleansing Mousse and an Ultra Hydrating Skin Exhilarating Moisturiser.

According to the blurb, these products “gently pamper” your skin to boost its “micro-circulation”, giving it an “exhilarating sense of wellbeing your skin will love you for”. As the first and only moisturiser which contains phyto-dorphins, known by your skin as ‘pleasure molecules’, get ready for radiance! Both the cleanser and moisturiser combine a sumptuous texture with a sparkling fragrance, leaving skin with an all-day glow.”

Goodness! By now, I’m all dizzy with excitement. But next comes a challenge: just try to resist HappyDerm’s “lightly whipped cream and fresh fluid texture”. Blimey, this sounds to me like sex appeal AND dairy products all in one go. Now we’re really talking!



Peter a journalist with 30 years experience of freelance writing, UK national newspaper and magazine production roles, and business development. In 2007, he developed and launched a mainstream-style green consumer magazine in the UK, called GreenerLiving, as a means of promoting sustainable change ‘within the system’. GreenerLiving closed during the post-crash recession, but Peter went on to become managing editor of the international ethical business title, Ethical Performance. However, Peter felt that the CSR sector has not succeeded in changing corporate priorities anywhere near fast enough, and so I decided to leave the treadmill of corporate employment and debt accumulation to focus on my own projects. Now poorer but a billion million times happier, he writes on political, economic and social issues – usually seriously, but sometimes as satire. He's currently writing Psychopath Economics, a book about the logic of social and economic power, belief systems, and the rise and fall of societies. Peter is convinced that ordinary people must educate themselves and exercise their economic leverage if we are to avoid social and environmental destruction.

peterbatt has 165 posts and counting.See all posts by peterbatt

6 thoughts on “Shampoo science

  • 31/07/2013 at 11:08 am

    On behalf of all men of a certain age, be they ‘with hair’ or not, I can only complement this detailed and scientific research. But was there a conclusion? I’m not sure.

    From an environmental perspective the abundance of hundreds of differing name brands all basically doing the same thing bugs me everytime I think about it.

    I would also throw into the mix my personal ambition to use products that have not relied on vivisection. The blinding of helpless animals simply to re-hydrate my hair must be a consideration.

    • 31/07/2013 at 11:31 am

      Hi. There wasn’t a conclusion as such, except I suppose the thought that though we have loads of brands, they all do exactly the same thing and the only ‘difference’ is the marketing. The vivisection bit I intend to cover in another piece I have brewing on how branding works – and my own thought on how anti-cruelty, environmental and other campaigners can raise awareness and make a difference.

  • 01/08/2013 at 11:09 am

    Hilarious – made me laugh out loud – and excellent research. But I’ll never be able to sing in the shower again. Niema

  • 04/08/2013 at 4:23 pm

    Well, at least your neighbours will be happy, Niema.

    • 04/08/2013 at 7:22 pm

      My Neighbours don’t get into the shower with me. They aren’t those kind of neighbours and there is no shampoo sharing, especially after your frightening revelations. Niema

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