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Conditioner – The Science

Why is conditioner used on hair?

To improve the feel, texture, and manageability of hair. Conditioner works by reducing friction between hair strands meaning you can brush your hair easily without causing damage. Other benefits are usually advertised such as repair, strengthening, or reducing split ends. These are big claims as hair cells are dead and therefore can not regenerate or technically repair themselves. 

How does conditioner work on hair?

The chemistry going on here is so interesting, that’s why I’m sharing it with you. To understand how conditioner works we must first consider the structure of hair strands. The outermost cells of the hair are like scales and are called the cuticle. These cuticle cells are composed mostly of a protein called keratin. Keratin is made up of many amino acids that have a negative charge (1) sticking out. All these negative charges repel each other (looks like the hairs on a nettle) making the hair strands tangle and prone to breakage.

Most surfactants (2) that are used to clean hair, however gentle and effective at removing dirt, are also negatively charged so may increase the “nettle” sticky-upness (real word) of the cuticle cells. 

Conditioners contain cationic surfactants (positively charged). This balances out the negative charge at the hair cuticle and helps to smooth the cells. A tiny amount of positively charged (3) conditioner stays with the hair even after rinsing out and provides that slippery feeling. The hair can now pass over another strand without getting all tangled up.

Conditioners are also slightly acidic (low pH) which helps to encourage the cuticle scales to bind together more tightly. This helps the smoothing as well. 

What types of conditioners are there? 

Solid – made of some cationic surfactant and butter or waxes to make them solid. 

Cream – Often thickened form of the liquid. Thickeners are usually Xantham gum or guar gum. 

Liquid – In a bottle and super easy to use. Contains lots of water (approx 75 % to 90%).

Types of use include treatment, leave-in, rinse-out, refresh, and cleansing.

When should a conditioner be used? 

Once the shampoo has been rinsed out of your hair use conditioner to detangle and brush hair. 

Refresh your hair if it gets frizzy and tangled. A light conditioner spritz is best for this. It is simple and easy and you haven’t had to do a shampoo which can cause unnecessary drying out. 

Treatment when your hair gets dry. Leave in for up to 20 min after using shampoo then rinse out. 

Can I just use conditioner and no shampoo on my hair? 

Yes! Cleansing conditioners are on the market if you’d like to try this. To start with you may notice your hair gets greasy quite quickly if you’re normal routine is to shampoo often. After a few weeks this should level out and you’ll have happy healthy hair. This technique is not for everyone. If your hair gets greasy regularly or if you need to cleanse your hair from other things (chlorine for the swimming pool for example) then shampoo is needed. 

What should I look for in a conditioner?

It depends. For me, I like to know that all the ingredients are included for function and not just to make the product pleasing to look at and feel. 

I prefer a scent that is natural and not synthetic. 

No sulfates because this makes my hair cuticle more sticky-up and prone to damage.

Some people like to use conditioners with silicone, it gives shine and silkiness which feels lovely and can protect hair. I prefer to avoid silicones. It feels great for the first few uses but after a while, it builds up and coats my hair preventing any oils and proteins from getting in to help hair strand health. Silicones are not easily broken down in the environment, so washing them down the drain is not so friendly to the environment.

I have tried several solid conditioners and have had a go at formulating my own as I couldn’t find one that worked well. It turns out that everything that helps make the product solid also weighs down the hair strands. Gah! 

Why I made Rich Conditioner Cream.

After failing to make a solid conditioner that worked really well I decided to make a great conditioner that just had high-quality ingredients and see what consistency it ended up with. This rich super thick cream is the result.

Water is needed because hair needs moisture to be healthy. The liquid consistency makes the product so much easier to distribute where you need the product.

Minimal water content means only a tiny amount of this conditioner is needed for each use. For my shoulder-length fine hair, I use approx half a teaspoon, that’s all. Minimal water content – enough to make it a great product but just the necessary amount. Any more water and the shipping weight would be more, the product would be bigger and I’d need to use unnecessary thickeners to make the same gorgeous consistency. 

There are only high-quality ingredients in rich conditioner cream that need to be there. Here is a list of ingredients and what they’re there;

Cetearyl Alcohol and Behentrimonium Methosulfate (BTMS) – Cationic surfactant (described above) 
Water – Described above
Cocoa butter, argan oil, and jojoba oil – are all amazing for protecting your hair and nourishing your scalp. 
Panthanol – Also known as vitamin B5. Helps to increase hair elasticity and reduce breakage as it is able to penetrate the hair and moisturise it. It also makes hair softer and shinier.
Wheat Protein – Helps to improve hair health by repairing damaged hair follicles. It is also known to attract water and moisture, adding volume and fullness to your hair.  
Isoamyl Laurate and Isoamyl Cocoate – a biodegradable replacement for silicones that do not build up in your hair. It helps disperse the other ingredients and helps to protect hair from damage.
Glycerin – Derived from rapeseed, coconut, and soybean (not palm oil). Helps to disperse ingredients. 
Parfum – A broad-spectrum preservative that makes sure the product does not go rancid and is formulated according to IFRA recommendations. 
Essential Oils – For a lovely natural scent. 
Lactic Acid – to reduce the pH to a level that your hair likes. 
Pentylene Glycol – Palm-free, PEG-free, and COSMOS approved. Moisturiser that helps to solubilise and stabilise oils. Also has antimicrobial and anti-fungal properties. 

1 – Negative Charge. The electrical property of a particle on a teeny-tiny scale. An object is negatively charged if it has an excess of electrons.

2 – Surfactant. A shortened version of a surface-active agent. Such as a detergent that works by lowering the surface tension between oils and water increasing the spreading and wetting properties. 

3 – Positive charge. The electrical property of a particle on a teeny-tiny scale. An object is positively charged if it has fewer electrons than protons. 

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Solid Shampoo Bars

What’s the deal?

I have tried so many solid shampoo bars because I was determined to ditch the unnecessary plastic bottle and eventually went about making my own Kelpie Shampoo Bars that I now make for my customers. Solid shampoo bars are more convenient, great for traveling, and plastic packaging is not required. 

These are some of the questions people ask me about solid shampoo and why shampoo bars are better than liquid. I hope this will help you make informed decisions about how you care for your hair.

How do I use a solid shampoo bar?

Rub the bar directly on your hair or you can lather it in your hands and use the lather to wash your hair. Try washing your roots first, rinse, then do another wash all over to thoroughly wash your hair. To keep the bar nice and firm make sure you leave it somewhere it can dry out. 

How long does a solid shampoo bar last?

It depends on many things but as a simple reference guide, a 50g bar as shown in the image below will last as long as two standard size (300ml) bottles of shampoo. It depends on how much hair you have and how often you wash your hair. If you make sure you dry the bar between uses it will not get so gooey. When the bar gets gooey it is very easy to use too much product for each wash.

I used a solid shampoo before but it left a build-up. Why?

This build-up is caused by using a solid shampoo that has a high pH (more information on pH coming soon). This pH level disrupts the natural state of your hair and scalp and can cause your hair to feel limp, heavy, flyaway, tangled, and even fragile. 

The guidance for people trying these bars is to just keep using them until your hair gets used to it (transition phase – coming soon) or rinse the hair with an acidic solution after washing. This acidic solution (apple cider vinegar, for example) has a low pH and balances out the high pH of the product. High pH shampoos are made by mixing natural oils with lye called a cold process method.

Another problem many people have with Solid Shampoo bars is the high content of sulfate. Why is sulfate bad for my hair? What is the transition phase? What is pH? How do I know what is in my shampoo bar? Answers all coming in the next blog post.

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Solid Shampoo Bars Sum Up

What experts do

Finally, let us consider what happens at the hairdressers. These people are the hair experts. They are washing people’s hair multiple times a day and what do they do? 

Well, not many use solid shampoo yet. But they DO NOT use “shampoo” that requires an acid rinse or a transition phase. 

Salon owners should know the ingredients of the products they are buying and using. You will not find any high pH cold process soaps/shampoo with ingredients like Sodium Olivate, Sodium Cocoate, Sodium Palmate, Sodium Castorate.

Hairdressers also wash hair twice. Why do they wash your hair twice? Because your hair will stay cleaner for longer. Washing your hair less frequently is very good for improving the condition of your hair. Wash the first time getting right into the scalp and giving it a good massage to lift the dirt, then rinse. Then they wash the second time with less product to make sure all the dirt is gone and you leave the hairdressers with fresh, bouncy hair. 

Please, go forth and try a variety of solid shampoo bars. You may wish to try the ones I make, if so, read on.

What is so good about Kelpie shampoo bars?

My main motivation for making my kelpie solid shampoo bars was because I wanted a product that was gentle and nourishing for my fine wavy hair. I also wanted the shampoo to have some essence of the sea. I went about formulating four variants that all contain kelp and are great for different types of hair.

1)  Unscented for all hair types is a great all-rounder and does not contain any allergens because no essential oils are added. If you suffer from psoriasis, dandruff, eczema this could be worth a try.

cylindrical bar of shampoo wrapped in branded paper with blue sticker. Bar is light green.

2)  All hair types with lavender and orange are such great all-rounder bars. It contains conditioning jojoba and argan oils as well as panthenol which help condition and de-tangle hair.

cylindrical bar wrapped in branded paper with green sticker. Bar is green also.

3)  Fine hair with lemongrass smells so uplifting and fresh. It cleans hair and conditions with light oils like jojoba which do not weigh your hair down.

4)  Curly hair with cypress, bergamot, neem oils and wheat protein. This is a nourishing shampoo bar that will help moisturise all the way down curly hair shafts to promote bouncy clean curls without the frizz. 

cylindrical bar wrapped in branded paper with yellow logo sticker

All Kelpie Shampoo bars are sulphate, palm oil and paraben-free. They also have a pH of 5.5.

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Solid Shampoo Bar Problems

My solid shampoo is not working. Why?

If your solid shampoo is leaving with build-up it is likely your bar has a high pH (more information on pH below). More information about this was in my previous blog post.

pH – What is it and why does it matter in shampoos?

PH Is the measure of how acidic or alkali something is. It is a scale that indicates the concentration of hydrogen ions in a solution. Hydrogen ions are atoms with a charge – this will become important later. 

Neutral is pH7 and your happy scalp is pH5.5 (slightly acidic). Shampoo should be the same pH as your scalp, if it isn’t then the shaft of your hair may become static due to the unbalanced charge (hydrogen ions) and you will notice build-up and frizziness.

Materials that attract or repel other materials are said to be charged. If one strand of hair is covered in positive charge ions and so is another, these strands will try to repel each other. The strands will happily slide over each other if the charge is balanced. A more extreme example of this is static electricity as shown in the pic below.

Transition Phase

The transition phase is the time it takes for your hair to get used to the high pH of cold process soap. You may have hair and scalp that does get used to this pH. In which case – go for it. It’s a cheaper option and will most certainly lift dirt and leave your hair super shiny.

Many people I have spoken to have tried a shampoo bar and had a similar experience to me then wrote off shampoo bars thinking they were all the same and that they didn’t get on with them at all. However, there is a VAST range on the market now and bottled shampoo is not necessary. A bar is more convenient, there is no plastic packaging and I am confident you will find one that works for you.

Why do people go on about sulphate free shampoo?

Sulphates may irritate your scalp. Sulphate is most commonly found in SLS (Sodium Lauryl Sulphate). SLS is a surfactant that lifts dirt/oils and lathers up. 

A surfactant, also called surface-active agent, is a substance such as a detergent that, when added to a liquid, reduces its surface tension. This means things like dirt, oils, microbes and bacteria are lifted and more easily washed away with the surfactant. There are harsh ones like in dish soap or gentle ones like in shampoo. 

Sulphate molecules are teeny tiny, so tiny in fact that they can irritate the skin, follicles and cuticles. It irritates these cells because it is just the right size and shape to get in there and be annoying. If you’re a gook like me – the shape is below.

Annoying SLS

Healthy hair requires happy, healthy hair follicles and cuticles. There are other surfactants that do just as great a job of lathering up and lifting dirt. SLSa (Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate), for example, foams up well and has a larger Sulph-molecule and is less likely to irritate your scalp. The name may be similar but is a much nicer molecule to have at your shampoo party. The geeky shape is shown below.

Happy SLSA

How do I know what is in a solid shampoo bar I am buying?

Check the ingredients label. All ingredients should be labelled clearly on any product that goes on your skin in the UK. 

High pH cold process soaps/shampoo will contain ingredients like Sodium Olivate, Sodium Cocoate, Sodium Palmate, Sodium Castorate.

A pH-balanced product will contain SCI/SLSA/SLS/Glucoside along with other scents, binders and conditioning additives.

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Who, how and why

Diving for ingredients to make natural soap

Who I am

I LOVE sea swimming with friends and spearfishing with my fiancé. This summer we were at sea with our boy’s lots and started foraging seaweed. I have been using this in my cooking and skincare formulations. I am also interested in fitness and coaching. My other passion is to help motivate people and give them the confidence to enjoy fitness.

Hi. I’m Sophia. I am a mother, maker, fitness coach and chemist. I am creative and find a lot of enjoyment in learning new skills to create functional, beautiful and environmentally friendly items. From knitted jumpers and sourdough to natural soap. I studied chemistry and was awarded my PhD in 2008. I decided academia was not for me and went to work in a laboratory. This was also not for me. I learnt early on that I am a much happier person when I play at work (rather than work at play) and from then on my goal has always been to make money doing the things I enjoy.

I am local to Exeter in Devon. I grew up in the region and dragged my French fiancée to live here. I have travelled a lot but always knew that Devon is home. The sea and moors nearby influence me the most because of the beautiful colours, calmness and wildness. I love the variety! 

Me diving in the sea to look for ingredients for my natural soap

How I make soap

Soap making is something I have been thinking of doing for years but have never managed to find the time to do it. Enter 2020 lockdowns and voila, let’s do this! I now have a range of Salty Soaps inspired by the sea and a range of nourishing shea butter soaps too.

I make my natural soap in St Thomas, Exeter. I have a small separate area next to my kitchen and safe storage for my ingredients. My soaps are made using cold or hot process methods. This is the traditional way of mixing Lye (aka caustic soda or sodium hydroxide) with oils. When these ingredients react it is called saponification! The mixture emulsifies and reaches trace (thick enough to draw a line in) and then you pour it into a mould to set. Once the loaf is set I de-mould it and slice it into bars. These bars are not quite ready to use yet. Depending on the recipe they take 2 to 6 weeks to fully cure and be ready to use. Lye needs to be handled with a lot of care, I recommend going on a course if you’d like to try this out. Did you know that soap making has been around for ages? Babylonians were making soap from fats boiled with ashes (essentially lye) 2800 B.C!

Some hand made natural soap containing carbon

I am a member of The Guild of Craft Soap and Toiletry Makers. This means that you can be assured that my soaps are compliant with all the standards that are required. I pH test my soaps before releasing them and have friends test them out and provide feedback.

Why I started Tappermade

My natural soap business is completely independent, 100% mine and therefore like me, totally unique. Tappermade is authentic and represents my chemistry studies and being an environmentally conscious maker. The products I produce evoke the calmness I find while being at sea. I’m excited to be working on some new products and will be broadening my range soon.