Walk into any store — whether it’s a drugstore, grocery store, or beauty-supply store — and you’ll see a dozen types of shampoo lining the hair-care aisle. (If your shopping technique involves grabbing the one nearest you then running far, far away, read on.) But only about a century ago, if you wanted to wash your hair, your best option was your own pantry: People used vegetable starch and apple cider vinegar to sop up oil and cleanse the scalp.
So as a belated thank you for making the world a fresher, cleaner, less-smelly place over the last 100 years, we decided to dedicate our first hair-themed episode of The Science of Beauty, to shampoo. (And after trying some old-school cleansing methods “just for fun,” our hosts Michelle Lee, editor in chief, and Jenny Bailly, executive beauty director, extend their gratitude in particular.) Take a read — and a listen — and prepare to never look at shampoo the same way again.
The History of Shampoo
It wasn’t until 1814 that the Indian practice of champi (AKA shampooing) really took off in the Western world. Sake Dean Mahomed, an Indian writer and entrepreneur, is credited with popularizing the practice in England. It was during this time that he opened a spa with a commercial "shampooing" location, which made hair cleansing a more normalized service.
In 1930, John Breck introduced the first liquid shampoo in the United States. (It contained 14 ingredients, compared to the 24 in most shampoos today.) Breck shampoo exploded in popularity in the following decades, due in large part to its popular advertisements that featured up-and-coming celebrities like Christie Brinkley, Brooke Shields, and Cybill Shepherd. The main message of these campaigns was that for healthy hair, you must shampoo multiple times a week. Other brands decided they wanted a piece of this new pie, and the shampoo category exploded.
What is shampoo, and how does it work?
Today, shampoo usually takes the form of a viscous liquid. Your typical formula contains surfactants — like sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate — which emulsify oil and dirt on the hair and scalp. The loosened debris is then swept away when the hair is rinsed. Most formulas contain some form of preservative to inhibit microbial growth, and some have a fragrance to provide that fresh-from-the-salon smell. Depending on the type of formula, shampoos also include other ingredients to give the hair a particular look or feel, like silicones to smooth or coconut oil to hydrate.