Shampoo bars tried and tested (and updated)

I have always liked the idea of shampoo bars for portability as well as saving plastic bottles and truck miles, so I have kept an eye out for that perfect camino bar. I don’t have many strict criteria but I really like an invigorating blast of uplifting citrus, fruity or floral smell to mark the end of a sweaty day, and I like my lather instant, plentiful and rich. Preferably the bar should be sustainable, easily available and reasonably priced, and last at least a full Francés even doing double duty as body wash. Should be a doddle. … right?

Here are some of the products I have tried and tested, and I will update this post as and when I try more or change my mind. Please note I am not including ‘natural’ shampoo bars – they are basically soaps, so you have to go through a transition period where your hair looks greasy, and you’ll need a vinegar rinse after each wash … That’s just too much trouble on the camino (and at home too for that matter). They may be great and work well for you but they are not for me. Instead I will focus on the ‘syndet’ bars, synthetic detergent cleansers that are basically bottle shampoo in bar form. If they are gentle enough to be used as a body wash as well, even better! I tested each bar excitedly as I got them, first of all by washing my hands with them for a while in shower temperature water. If my hands felt dry or waxy after, and/or they failed to lather properly, there is little to no hope that I will be enjoying washing my hair with them. Unless specifically mentioned I have tried all the shampoos listed on my hair, but these are my opinions and what doesn’t work for me, could very well work for you.

Full disclosure: I have long, thick, wavy (not curly) red hair that is prone to dryness. I can’t be bothered carrying conditioner around, I don’t like vanilla-y scents and I have paid for every item myself.

So, this is my bar-to-bar journey so far:

Tigi – The Rockaholic shampoo bar was the first I can remember hearing about that were making shampoo bars that weren’t basically soap. With Tigi being a salon brand I thought it must be good, so I got two. Sadly though they didn’t lather up particularly well, so they ended up as body soap rather than trying to get it through my thick long hair. When I did try, it dried my hair out. But I did like the idea, I just needed to find some better ones.

Lush – Lush was the next natural place to go. For my first camino I did my research, I thought, but I suspect I just went by what smell I would like to have in the shower, so I ended up with a Seanik bar with seaweed, lemon and sea salt which of course dried my hair out. I also got the round tin, where it promptly got stuck (top tip, leave a couple of matches, a layer of bubble wrap or a piece of neoprene or plastic down the bottom to avoid stickage) and then gradually turned to goo – this is not a Lush specific problem. I think I got as far as Carrión with it before I got a mini bottle of branded shampoo instead. The old Lush bars could be drying, depending on your hair and the bar, but they have since been reformulated with gentler ingredients and new bars introduced. My favourite camino bar was the Montalbano, with lemon and olive oil. Unfortunately it is made for greasy hair, so though it smells amazing it can be drying when using every day over time. I used to know them all; I don’t anymore, so it’s very possible that they have a new one that would work for my hair. They are £9 for a 55g bar now though so I figured it was time to try other things.

Garnier – Several of the big shampoo brands have come out with bars lately – Pantene, John Frieda, Herbal Essences and even Head and Shoulders, but I think Garnier were one of the first. In preparation for one of my walks I got three of their now five in an offer which included a teardrop or leaf shaped metal storage tin with airing holes, which is great, but the first two I tried, aloe vera and oat, both seemed very drying on my hands. The third one, with argan oil, lathers well, is easy to work into the hair and rinses easily. My hair feels nice and nourished when dried, so that goes on the list of contenders. £7.99 for a 60g bar, widely available cheaper than that. (I didn’t take it on the walk in the end; it seemed to go very gooey very quickly. Works a treat at home though.) My camiga Nicole bought one and loved it for her looong hair, so don’t just take my word for it.

Grüum – Suggested by a friend who had tried the award winning coconut bar, and I immediately fell in love! It lathers beautifully, leaves my hair nice and soft and frizz free and seems to last for ages. Also it is pretty much unscented though there is a faint but pleasant smell of kindness and coconut. I brought it on my last camino and it worked well-ish, it just seemed to dry out my hair with daily washing, and also it doesn’t have that zingy energising factor I am looking for. Still – it is that good I am keeping it in the shower at home and have ordered a gentle(r) version with only three ingredients to try as well. They are £8 for 50g bars but there is a cheaper subscription option.

Edited: I have also tried the My Little Eco Shop bars but they seem to have been reformulated since I bought mine and don’t lather up like before. I contacted the company and they said it could be because of hard water, which we have. They recommended putting the bar in warm – not hot – water for a few minutes to ‘reactivate’ which seems too much hassle on the road and I gave the bars away.

In addition to the big brand products there are also plenty of small businesses making soaps and shampoos on Etsy – just beware the difference between the soap type shampoo, which requires a transition period and vinegar rinse, and a cleansing bar which is basically just bottle shampoo without the water. I found a Sweet Berry one that smells amazing, lathers well and left my hair happy, but I keep not using it – I honestly think I am ignoring it so I won’t love it too much in case the seller stops making them.

Nuddy – Once you start googling solid shampoo bars, others pop up in adverts and sponsored results, which is how I came across Nuddy. I know, awful name, but they make up for it by giving their shampoos (and soaps) exceedingly elaborate and whimsical names like Practice What You Peach, an acai berry and obviously peach smelling volumising bar, and Time For A Fresh Start, which is a lime and grapefruit shine enhancing shampoo. I was convinced by the reviews and got those two on an offer, normal price £8.95 for 100g. The bars are round, twice the size/weight of Lush, Grüum and the others, and they both smell amazing! Just what I want to pick me up after a dusty walk – the only problem (for me) was that they didn’t seem to lather very well, at least not easily or enough to get through my hair in one go. Stroking the bar along the hair, like a Lush bar, didn’t work, but rubbing it in my hands and applying the foam like normal shampoo worked better, in fact the wash-twice works wonders as the second go needs very little product to get lots of lather. As they are bigger, it would need a different tin, or in my case, I could just keep it in my brilliant soap bag!

(Cover your ears; incoming screech of tyres as we stop press: The Nuddy shampoo bars are now discontinued and will be replaced by new and supposedly improved shampoo and body bars in a Nuddy 2.0 relaunch. Typical!)

Kinkind – They have few bars, but cover most needs and have won several awards – they have even posted a video of the bar in use so I could see it lathering up! I got a (faintly) apple scented one and a lemon 2-in-1 shampoo and body wash. They also do conditioner, bodywash and moisturiser bars. Shampoo bars cost £6.50 for 50g but there is a cheaper subscription option. The Kinkind apple shampoo lathers well, smells faintly of something not very appley and leaves my hair nice and soft, and sailed right up as a close second favourite after the Grüum coconut one. I am a little bit worried about how long it will last though, it seems a bit softer than the others but maybe that’s a good thing. The citrus combo one won’t last long and was too drying. I took their new geranium scented bar for damaged, frizzy and curly hair on a camino, even though I wasn’t too keen on the smell, and unfortunately with daily showers it ended up stripping my hair to the extent that it was hard to comb through, so I left it in Sarria. Back to square one … *sigh*.

Ethique – These get rave reviews and are widely available even in Boots and Holland & Barrett. Originally a NZ brand, Ethique has been going fiercely plastic and nasties free for ten years now. At the beginning of my shampoo bar quest I went on their website and found lots of interesting minis to try, as the full size is not cheap – £12 for a 110g bar! – though per gram it’s not bad. I got a mix of mini products with lots of different and interesting ingredients. When they arrived, though, they all seemed to smell mostly of the cardboard box they were packaged in. I tried to love the minis but it wasn’t happening, I didn’t seem to get much lather or scent out of any of them. Which was annoying, because I was so prepared to love them! (Stand by for a heavy, but happy edit:)

But then, after yet another camino shampoo bar fail … I found a half-price offer on Holland and Barrett and went for one of Ethique’s bestselling shampoos, Frizz Wrangler, in the full – large! – size. And what a difference! It looked and felt much fresher compared to the little minis, easy to cut down to a manageable size, with a (faint but) noticeable scent! – and I got plenty of rich, coconutty lather all through the hair on the first attempt. So I went back to the Ethique website and got a nice price Pinkalicious shampoo and Guardian conditioner combo, which worked even better! No idea why the minis behaved so differently – too old? too dry? too fiddly? – but I am glad I went back and tried the actual full size bars. They still don’t smell of much (unless you go for the Mintasy peppermint punch one) but I can always get a fresh pick-me-up shower soap or gel. As for the solid conditioners, I can actually see myself packing a piece of one even if it means an extra item in the shower with probably no shelf to put anything on. They also have a limited edition Sorbet bar and an extra moisturising curl care bar, Professor Curl, which are both sulfate free and sort of harder, creating denser lather, lasting better on the road and smelling rather delicious. I took 1/3 of a Sorbet bar to Norway for a week and kept it in a soap bag that let it dry out and it didn’t turn to mush. Could this be the one? Watch this space!

So, summing up:

I notice that I have used and deleted the word ‘drying’ a lot when writing about shampoo bars – I don’t remember having the same problem with my normal bottle shampoos at home. I have taken the Grüum bar twice now (slow learner/few alternatives) and it strips my hair, but that might not be entirely the bar’s fault, considering I was out and about walking in sun and wind and rain for weeks and washing my hair every day. More likely that any shampoo that gives you that squeaky-clean feeling at home just strips the hair too much when walking.

I’d still say the practical and weight benefits of bringing one bar of shampoo, rather than two or more bottled products, outweighs the drying issue to an extent. I have had a word with myself about options: I could take a piece of solid conditioner (remains to be seen) or a tiny bottle of conditioner (doubt it) or hair oil (fair enough, happy to do that). I could also cut my hair drastically, but I’m not there yet. It’s easy enough to decant some oil into an old tiny hotel shampoo bottle, a few drops is enough after the shower and I won’t need to do it every day. Problem solved!

I think I have arrived at the conclusion that there isn’t that much difference between the syndet normal-shampoo-in-a-bar bars, so get one you like the smell/price/feel/eco credentials of, but avoid squeaky-clean-feel ones if you have dryish hair. You might want an unscented one so you don’t bother others with your choice of smell, or a pick-me-up-scented one, or a smaller or bigger one or one with specific qualities or just the cheapest. Try it a good few times before you go, so you know that it will work for you – if it doesn’t lather very well on the first attempt, try changing your approach: stroke it on your wet hair or create lather in your hands, do a double wash and watch the lather spring up on the second go! Think about how you will store it in your pack and in the shower to let it dry between uses and not turn to mush. And if all the washing dries your hair out a bit, well, just take it like a pilgrim and shrug it off, or bring some conditioner, or argan oil, or keep your hair in a buff/hat/bandana/ponytail for the duration. Or let it all hang out as it is. Or cut it.

After all that, the bar currently in pride of place in my new shampoo bar bag and my soap dish at home is the Ethique Sorbet and Professor Curl bars. I know they will lather and last well and will keep using them to see which one will work best. I also still like the Grüum one for a deep clean at home, but I won’t bring it for another walk (sorry). My second travel choice would be the Nuddy peach scented one, as I secured a small stack of them before they went. And I guess I’ll bring the hair oil just in case.

I now have a sizeable stash of shampoo bars and I am pretty certain I will never buy another plastic bottle of shampoo again. Still listening if you have a different favourite though …?

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