Washing Hair with Baking Soda is a Damaging Trend
If you’ve been on either Pinterest or checked out a clean living blog in the last couple years, you’ve likely heard of washing hair with baking soda as a natural alternative to shampoo and conditioner. What you often see are a bunch of posts talking about how “I tried this and it’s *so* amazing!”, but long-term success stories are much harder to come by because baking soda washes are inherently damaging to the hair, and destroy the acid mantle of the scalp, making it susceptible to fungus. I suspect many of these star-struck bloggers quietly went back to a mild shampoo without a follow-up post.
BUT IT’S NATURAL!
I say this as the creator of natural products: strychnine is natural. Chlorine is natural. Natural does not mean that baking soda cannot damage your hair. It’s perfectly understandable that after learning about many of the suspect ingredients in mainstream beauty products that people seek out alternative methods, full of ingredients they are familiar with and can identify the source of. It was this, after all, that made me start developing my own products. In the case of baking soda no-poo washes, however, I have many customers that come to me suffering from dry, brittle hair and itchy, flaking scalps and the common denominator between many of them is that they are washing hair with baking soda or other alkaline methods of washing.
Washing Hair with Baking Soda Dissolves the Acid Mantle
Shampoos are often advertised as pH balanced because this is highly important. Your scalp and hair are covered by a thin, fluid layer comprised of sebum (the natural oil your scalp produces), salt and water, which has a pH that ranges from between 4.5 and 5.5 making them mildly acidic. This natural barrier is called the acid mantle, and it protects the scalp from fungi and bacteria and keeps the cuticle closed and healthy. Water has a neutral pH of 7 (meaning is is neither acidic nor alkaline). Baking soda, by contrast, has a pH of 9.5. To put this in perspective, the ammonia solution that many people look to avoid in hair dyes because it’s too damaging has a pH of around 10.5.
Washing Hair with Baking Soda Damages the Structure of the Hair Itself
Washing hair with baking soda not only dissolve the acid mantle, but they also attack the structure of the hair. Initial results from baking soda washes seem to make hair clean, soft, and feel more managable. The softness and managibility is actually a result of breaking down the chemical bonds that give strength to hair.
DISULPHIDE BOND WEAKENING
The structure and shape of your hair is made up of disulphide bonds. While the curliness (or straightness) of your hair depends on the shape of the follicle, it’s the disulphide bonds that keep the hair in the shape it was formed, and they can only be altered by perming or relaxing.
Disulphide bonds also give your hair its elasticity and strength. Hydrogen bonds, on the other hand, are easily broken by the application of water and can be temporarily reset with heat until they become wet again (either from washing or humidity).
Hair relaxers use hydroxide to break disulphide bonds permanently, and over time baking soda, or other alkaline washing methods, can do the same. You cannot destroy the disulphide bonds in your hair without incurring damage as they are, quite literally, what gives your hair shape and structure.A good identifier of damage is a white dot along the hair shaft called trichorrhexis nodosa. When the hair eventually breaks at this point, it will turn into a split end.
One of the main reasons people search for a no-poo method to start is that chemicals like Sodium Lauryl Sulphate and Sodium Laureth Sulphate are deemed too stripping and harsh. Baking soda is not only very cleansing (as the inside of your kitchen sink can attest to), it is also abrasive (as your kitchen sink will also attest to). This mild abrasive action removes the oils that occur naturally on your hair. This oil has an important purpose: it keeps moisture inside the hair. While the occasional mildly abrasive treatment is fine, such as hennaing once a month or so, it can be damaging when used several times a week as a primary washing method.
The outside of each hair has something called the cuticle, which is a bunch of overlapping scales, kind of like the tail of a dragon. When hair shines, it is because the cuticle is flat and tight, giving a smooth surface for light to reflect off of. Damaged hair is easily identified by a rough, lifted cuticle, and the way it shimmers rather than shines.
Baking soda first lifts the cuticle, and the mildly abrasive solution then chips away at the edges of those scales.
BUT I DILUTE AND FOLLOW UP WITH AN ACV RINSE!
As Kanelstrand so beautifully demonstrates in her blog post How Baking Soda Washes Destroyed My Hair and Why You should Never Use It, even diluting 1 tsp of baking soda into 20 cups of water still gave it a pH of 9.5. She compares washing hair with baking soda to putting her hair through the chemical process of dying twice a week. The theory behind baking soda no-poo washes is that it is okay that it opens the cuticle of the hair a little, because following it with an Apple Cider VinegarThe mildly acidic nature of this helps balance pH of hair and skin and also helps to remove buildup. ACV encourages the cuticle of the hair to lay closed, making hair shine and tangle less. More (ACV) rinse closes the cuticle and restores pH.
In practice, this theory doesn’t work. The process of opening the cuticle with a pH of 9.5 and then forcing it back down using ACV at a pH of 4.5-5.0 is like saying that you can indefinitely stretch and contract a rubber band and it will never lose elasticity or break.
ACV RINSES DO NOT RESTORE THE ACID MANTLE after washing hair with baking soda
Even pretending that ACV rinses did undo the damage done by baking soda washes doesn’t address the serious issues at the scalp: an ACV rinse does not restore the acid mantle. The acid mantle is produced by your body and needs time to restore itself (usually a week or two). Many people wash more frequently than once every week or two, meaning that the acid mantle never recovers, leaving the scalp perpetually open to fungus and bacteria.
Past the Point of Denial about Washing Hair with Baking Soda
It’s often at the point of scalp woes that people reach out to me. They’ve maybe read other stories about baking soda not working for people, but wrote it off as them doing it wrong, not diluting enough, not following up with an ACV rinse, not oiling afterwards, etc. Those short hairs by the crown aren’t broken, they’re new growth, really! But when their scalps become itchy, scaly, sore and raw, it’s harder to deny. These customers came to me because they still want a natural solution, and so here are my recommendations for washing, for healing the scalp, and then rehabilitating the hair as much as possible after washing hair with baking soda.
Rehabilitating Damaged Hair Naturally
There is no way to truly “heal” damaged hair because it is a non-rejuvenating part of our bodies and the only way we get damage-free hair is to grow it and maintain it. That said, there are many ways we can rehabilitate damaged hair so that the damage is less apparent, and shored up to the point where the hair is less structurally vulnerable. Because damaged hair is so dry, you may want to read up on the NightBlooming LOC (Liquid, Oil, Cream) Method as a way to get, and keep moisture in your hair.
Rehabilitating Damaged Hair Naturally is the book I wrote after I destroyed my own hair when chemical dyes, which put my hair in a state not far off of those suffering from no-poo baking soda damage.
More than 70 pages of text, pictures, charts, diagrams, and recipes, Rehabilitating Damaged Hair Naturally will help you understand what healthy hair is, how to grow it, and how to mitigate and prevent damage. With simple at-home diagnostic tests and treatments, Rehabilitating Damaged Hair Naturally will teach you what your hair needs most and empower you with the confidence to customize your own haircare routine.
Other Natural Washing Methods
The very first thing to do is to stop using baking soda as a washing method. Full-stop, cold turkey. The second is to find an acceptable alternative that will be pH balanced to your body and allow the acid mantle to restore itself.
This is far too broad of a topic to address inside this post, but there are many good, mild, natural shampoos available. One of my favorites is Max Green Alchemy’s Scalp Rescue Shampoo. It is pH balanced, petrochemical free, sulfate free, paraben free, lanolin free, cruelty free, vegan, and gluten-free. For the DIY types, you may also want to look into soapnuts, or Indian herb cleansing.
Lassëa Solid Shampoo & Conditioner Bars
Lassëa Solid Shampoo & Conditioner Bars are a planet-friendly, hair nourishing way to clean your hair. Full of natural, organic ingredients, these bars are handmade and hand-poured in small batches, then lovingly sent to you in Zero-Waste packaging. Their name comes from the Tolkien Quenya Elvish word lassëa meaning “with leaves, leafy.”
Unlike “shampoo bars” that are actually just soap (i.e. alkaline and damaging), Lassëa Solid Shampoo Bars are pH balanced for optimum scalp and hair health.
The reviews speak for themselves: after switching to Lassëa Solid Shampoo Bars, people love what it’s done for their hair and scalp.
Moondust Herbal Dry Shampoo
NightBlooming’s own Moondust Dry Shampoo blends the amazing properties of our Triple Moon Hair Anointing Oil and our Færie Dust Herbal Hair Conditioner to give you smooth, silky, clean hair without the need for water.
A bed of Organic Orris RootOrris root is a member of the iris family with beautiful, large, purple flowers and sword-like leaves. Dried orris root smells like violets. It is used primarily as a fixative in perfumes to enhance other aromas. Powdered orris root lends a pleasant scent to freshly laundered linens and to potpourri. It also can be used as a stabilizer in cosmetics. More is enhanced with a bouquet of herbal powders and essential oils to clean hair and leave a fresh, herbal scent behind. For those of you familiar with our Triple Moon Anointing Oil, the smell is very similar. The scent straight from the jar may seem very strong, but once used and brushed free of the hair, the sent is faint, sweet, and lingering. It allows you to stretch washes, preserves color and treatments, and doesn’t require water.
Healing the Scalp from Washing Hair with Baking Soda
The most important thing to realize during the restoration process is that it took time to damage the scalp and hair and so it will take time to heal them. The restoration of the acid mantle will take a week or two, but you can help it by using a pH balanced cleansing method, and using other products that foster a healthy scalp environment.
Tenderhead Tranquility Scalp Oil
Tenderhead Tranquility Scalp Oil is a blend of natural oils and essential oils made for scalps that need some extra love an attention. Circulation-stimulating, anti-fungal, anti-microbial, soothing, and tingling all at once, this oil is not only great for tight, sore scalps, but works wonders on headaches.
Aroma: Tingling and soothing peppermint and eucalyptus with relaxing herbal undertones. This oil received rave reviews from natural blogger PsycheVibes!
Alluvial Chelating Crystal Rinse
Alluvial Chelating Crystal Rinse removes mineral buildup from your hair and scalp, and gently provides a restorative pH environment in which the acid mantle can heal itself.
Unlike ACV rinses, which both cannot undo the damage done by baking soda washes and makes your hair smell like sour apples, Alluvial can be scented with your choice of essential oils, leaving your hair refreshed, tangle-free, and smelling fantastic,
The End of Washing Hair with Baking Soda and the Beginning of Your New Hair
Washing hair with baking soda seems so alluring, it’s easy to be taken in by the promises of a thousand glowing blog posts, but the chemical reality is that for the vast majority of people, the long-term results will be damaged hair and an unhappy scalp.
NightBlooming products can help put your hair and scalp on the mend, and I’m always happy to answer any questions you might have!
4 thoughts on “Washing Hair with Baking Soda is a Damaging Trend”
Washed my hair baking soda once three years ago and completely destroyed my hair. My hair at that moment became insanely thin dry damaged unmanageable and has never returned. A trichologist seems to think the baking soda destroyed the hair papilla yet my dermatologist says baking soda could never so this? What are your thoughts?
Mike, while the damaged length, dryness and unmanageablity are certainly a result of the baking soda washes, the hair papilla ( a tiny indentation at the base of the bulb of the hair where the blood vessels nourish the hair) rests under the skin where I wouldn’t think the baking soda could reach. Keeping in mind that I am neither a trichologist, nor a dermatologist I suspect that the destruction of the acid mantle might have allowed something else to grow on your scalp, or created a secondary scalp issues of some sort that is affecting new growth. You could try something like Hinoki Hair Growth scalp oil to tamp down any fungus or bacteria, and also focus on restoring the acid mantle as your next step.
How can you restore the acid mantle, if its been 3 years I assume it would have been restored.
After three years I also assume it would have been restored 🙂 Generally, so long as you’re not using harsh cleansers like sodium laurel sulfate and are using pH balanced products, the acid mantle should return to the scalp in 2-4 weeks.