We spend a lot of time talking about the ingredients in our hair bars, so today, I want to share the whole back story about how our bars came to be and why we chose some of our key ingredients.
To start, I guess I should tell you that I’ve always been a bit particular about my hair, and hair in general. I love, love, love the look of luscious locks… Thick, long, voluminous hair…You know the hair I’m talking about… Hair that is reminiscent of Victoria’s Secret angel’s hair. Throw in some big loose curls and I’m smitten. Yes, I’m a sucker for that style of hair, even though some may consider it to be cliche or, well, a bit basic (ok, really basic).
Maybe it’s because I’m tall and have a long neck, but I’ve always felt very self conscious when I’ve had shorter lengths of hair. I recall after I got married in 2014, I lopped a good 6 inches off my long hair so that it fell just below my collar bones and all I could think about was how naked I felt when my hair was down. I felt like a part of me was missing.
I have dabbled with many styles over the years (including an actual bob with bangs in grade 9), but my favourite is the way I wear my hair now. It’s almost to my belly button but it’s actually pretty low maintenance given I can put it up in a top knot 99.9999% of the time. I do get highlights maybe once a year and I cut it less than once a year.
The thing is, I have lots of hair, but it’s very fine and can get weighed down and look stringy quite easily. I’m also a mom with two kids under 3, so I ain’t got time to deal with greasy hair or hair that isn’t looking it’s finest due to the products I’m using.
Unwrapped Life’s co-founder (and my bff, sister-from-another-mister), Arden, has completely different hair than me. Hers is super thick, wavey, and very processed (she gets it coloured every 2 months or so).
Between the two of us, when we look at formulating our bars, we have two ends of the spectrum and everything in between in mind. Cause, of course, we want (and need) the bars to work for us, our family, our friends, and all of you!
The no-suds back story
As I’ve mentioned before, when I was on maternity leave with my daughter in 2015-2016, I suffered from a severe case of postpartum anxiety that manifested as eco-anxiety. I found myself lost in a state of despair about how we are ruining our oceans and land, how sea levels are rising, and what ocean acidification will do to the beautiful world as we know it. When my mind had a chance to wander, it was plagued by the fear and guilt that comes with thinking my children will grow up in a world that is less beautiful and abundant and safe than one I have been able to enjoy for the past 30-some years.
To help stifle my anxiety, I started trying to make small changes and looked for more eco-friendly and sustainable options in my day-to-day life. I seriously curbed my clothes shopping habit and started rethinking my need to acquire stuff!!
One day in the shower, as I was staring down the plastic bottles that lined my shelf and beating myself up over how they likely wouldn’t end up getting recycled, even if I threw them in the blue bin, I happened to notice they all had one common ingredient near the top: water. It dawned on me then that solid shampoo must be a thing (because there’s no way I was the first person to think of getting rid of the water to create a concentrated bar of shampoo).
I got to Googling that evening and found that yes, indeed, there were such things as shampoo bars! I was actually so excited thinking of how great it would be to get my hands on some bars and eliminate plastic in my shower!
Fast forward a few weeks from that point… I was in Palm Springs visiting my parents when I tried my first shampoo bar. This particular bar was made with saponified oils and was about as natural as it gets. In the shower, as I was washing my hair, I could tell it wasn’t going to turn out well. After rinsing, my hair felt tacky and I dreaded the idea of brushing it out. Sure enough, my hair was badly matted, took a good 45 minutes to detangle (no kidding, it was awful!) and after drying it, it was a gummy messy with no shine and a dull residue. My family and I went out for lunch that day, and I recall trying to put my filmy hair into a pony tail to help with the scorching heat. Both my hair and body felt sticky and I was pretty miserable. Ugh.
Feeling frustration creeping in, I rewashed my hair and did an apple cider vinegar rinse the next day, which helped slightly, but not enough (not to mention the ACV I purchased for the shower was in a plastic bottle, but I digress).
After trying a few more bars to no avail, I went down the path of researching ingredients in shampoo.... As much as I loved the idea of an all natural, saponified oil shampoo bar, I discovered that both California (where I first tried these types of bars), and Alberta (where I live), have hard water. With hard water, natural soap and shampoo won’t lather very well and hair is likely to accumulate soap residue, leaving it looking filmy and dirty, which is what I experienced first-hand while in California. While a vinegar rinse solves this problem for some, it did not for me. Sadly, the only way I was able to get rid of the residue was to revert to using conventional shampoo. I learned that saponified oils, or soap-based products that don’t use ingredients such as sodium coco sulphate, or its alternatives, feel different in use and don’t perform in the same way as a regular shampoo or shower gel, and can also sometimes feel drying on the skin, as they are alkaline rather than acidic like the skin and hair’s own oils. It’s worth noting that I also tried baking soda, but that was even harsher and resulted in hours spent (yet again!) trying to detangle my fine, long hair.
After returning home from our trip south, I dove deeper into researching shampoo formulations while simultaneously talking about the idea for a plastic-free company with Arden. We ran with the idea and were determined to figure out a shampoo bar formulation that would work for us personally so we could make the switch, and hopefully convince others to as well!
The Surfactant Story: Sodium Coco Sulfate
When I looked at my favourite bottled shampoos, most of them contained some form of surfactant that helped them suds and leave my hair feeling clean and manageable. These products allowed me to achieve the look I long for: light, fluffy (but not frizzy) hair with soft movement.
As I was researching the various options, I found that a lot of common surfactants used in shampoo and cleaning products in general were getting a bad rap, and I started questioning “why”? From my perspective, it seemed like a lot of companies pushing negatives about certain ingredients are also trying to sell a product that didn’t include these ingredients, which to me, is a bit of a conflict of interest! I took a moment to consider why certain sources of information were claiming that a specific ingredient, in this case, surfactants like sodium coco sulfate, is undesirable.
I was a bit stumped at this point because I had tried the all natural route and it didn’t work for me AT ALL. What was I supposed to do? I kept researching and gathering information, looking at all sides of the argument.
In my quest to learn more about surfactants, I came across this post from Method which helped me see things a bit more clearly and I’d highly recommend you read if you’re interested in the chemistry behind sulfates. It’s a great summary!
To quote from their post:
“There are a few small but important differences between S_S surfactants. But let’s start with what’s the same.
All of the S_S surfactants start from what are called fatty acids. These fatty acids can come from a bunch of different sources, including petroleum or coconut oil. At the point of manufacture, fatty acids derived from petroleum are identical to fatty acids derived from coconut… [We, like Method, use coconut-derived fatty acids, because it’s a renewable source]. The surfactants are named after the fatty acid they’re made from. So when you see sodium lauryl sulfate you know it was produced from lauric acid, and when you see sodium stearyl sulfate you know it was produced from stearyl acid.
However… in the case of sodium coco sulfate the ‘coco’ refers to a blend of fatty acids. In fact it comes from lauric, myristic, palmitic and stearic acids.”
All S_S surfactants are made in the same way, by treating fatty acids with sulphuric acid and then neutralizing with an alkali, but SCS is made using whole coconut oil, whereas others are made using only one type of fatty acid (not a blend). The result of using these different starting materials is that SLS is a relatively simple molecule and has a small molecular mass, enabling it to penetrate the outer layers of the skin and cause irritation to underlying living skin cells. On the other hand, SCS has a more complex molecular structure (as it’s made from a blend of fatty acids) which has a much greater molecular mass, thus preventing it from penetrating the epidermis. Overall, SCS is less likely to irritate, as it cannot reach the living cells under the skin surface.
This difference is recognized by international authorities. These two molecules have different CAS Numbers (Chemical Abstracts Service which identifies all chemical compounds in an internationally approved database). The CAS Number for SLS is 151-21-3, but for SCS it is 97375-27-4. This can be confirmed by checking the official EU Cosmetic Ingredient Name (CosIng) website.
Concern around some surfactants: ethoxylation
One of the key differences in the S_S surfactants is that some use a process called ethoxylation, which is used to make the ingredient gentler, but can also produce a contaminant and potential carcinogen called 1,4-dioxane.
You won’t find 1,4-dioxane on ingredient labels because 1,4-dioxane is a contaminant created when common ingredients react to form the compound when mixed together.
Here is a good read if you’d like to learn more about this chemical and concerns around it.
Our sodium coco sulfate does not go through the process of ethoxylation and so is not contaminated with 1,4-dioxane.
Why we use sodium coco sulfate
Our main mission is waste reduction and the fact of the matter is our hair bars work and are high-performing! For us, every person we convert to using solid shampoo and conditioner, that’s one, if not two, plastic bottles diverted from landfill or our waterways.
Tangent here and the subject of another blog post in the future… If you think chemicals in all surfactants are a problem, have you considered the chemicals involved in creating plastic in the first place (petroleum-derived) and chemical leaching from those bottles, which is a well documented issue with plastics?
The estrogen activity of some ethoxylated surfactants, which I discussed above, have been linked to breast cancer due to the phenol that is added during the manufacturing process. This same phenol is used in the manufacturing process of the carcinogenic and estrogenic chemical bisphenol A (BPA), used to harden plastic bottles. Can you really be sure that your products, whether they are natural or organic or not, contained in plastic bottles aren’t contaminated with BPA or other chemicals? And what about when those bottles don’t get recycled and start leaching chemicals (BPA included) into waterways? Anyhow, I digress… this is a subject for another day!
Yes, there’s a whole host of information on the internet about the chemistry behind surfactants and the positives and negatives around SCS, but given the Environmental Working Group Skin Deep Database has it rated as a “1” for overall hazard risk, which is very low, and it is derived from a renewable resource and doesn’t undergo ethoxylation, we feel confident using it. Sodium coco sulfate produces a gentle lather and makes our bars long-lasting.
In Summary: Suds it up
I hope this post has given you some insight into the main cleansing ingredient in our hair bars and why we chose to use what we did.
While we currently use SCS as our main surfactant as it’s gentle and performs beautifully, we are continually looking at other ingredients and testing formulations, many of which are sulfate-free. Stay tuned over the next few months for some exciting news in this area!
If you have any questions, as always, let us know and we’re happy to chat!