Shampoo bars tried and tested

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.

Here are some of the products I have tried and tested. 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. And I will edit this post if I change my mind as I keep trying new things.

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.)

Ethique – These get rave reviews and are widely available even in Boots and Holland & Barrett. I went on their website and found lots of interesting minis to try, as the full size is not cheap – £12.95 for a 110g bar! – though per gram it’s not bad. I got a mix of mini products, they all had interesting ingredients too. When they arrived, though, they all seemed to smell mostly of the cardboard box they were packaged in, and the body bars didn’t lather very well at all (maybe because we have hard water; but that should only affect soap products and this isn’t soap). I tried one of their bestselling shampoos, Pinkalicious, but found it hard to get a decent lather or work it through the hair on the first attempt at least. Next the Heali Kiwi, which is supposed to be kind to scalps. It lathered a lot better – though not brilliantly – was easier to get through the hair and rinsed out well, but I maintain that it smelt of wet cardboard. It might be very good for the hair but it won’t perk me up on the camino. I even went into Holland & Barrett in town to sniff their full size bars like a loon and found the same thing – no noticeable scent through the cardboard packaging. Great if you want an unscented bar but I was in search of a fresh pick-me-up. As for the solid conditioners – I can’t see me ever packing one to carry with me and having that extra item in the shower with probably no shelf to put anything on. The lack of scent and lather was a no-no for me, sadly.

Alberto Balsam – I found these in a raspberry and a fresh apple scent in Asda (there is also a coconut one). Both with argan oil and very cheap compared to some of the brands above, at £2.50 for a 75g bar, so of course I got one of each. Oddly when I started looking for reviews it looked like they are already discontinued? That would be a shame as they do lather and smell rather nice, and are so much cheaper than some of the smaller brands.

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 and lathers well, just remains to test it on my hair. (I honestly think I am putting it off in case I am disappointed, or worse – in case I love it and 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, but eventually I cracked it: You don’t get lather by stroking the bar along the hair, but by rubbing it in your hands and applying the foam like normal shampoo (doh). As they are bigger, it would need a different tin, or in my case, I could just keep it in my brilliant soap bag!

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 to have worked on one of the new bars but I haven’t tried it on my hair yet and that’s not really likely to happen.

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.

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. The Kinkind apple shampoo lathers well, smells delicious and leaves my hair nice and soft, and sailed right up as a close second to 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. They have recently come out with a new geranium scented bar for damaged, frizzy and curly hair which sounds like it would be great for a camino, and they also do conditioner, bodywash and moisturiser bars. They cost £6.50 per 50g shampoo bar but there is a subscription option.

I notice that I have used and sometimes 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 and it dries my hair, but that might not be 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. 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 mini solid conditioner (not going to happen) or a tiny bottle of conditioner (doubt it) or hair oil (highly likely and I am 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 much difference between the syndet normal-shampoo-in-a-bar bars, so get one you like the smell/price/feel/eco credentials of. 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 (Lush) or create lather in your hands (Nuddy). Think about how you will store it in your pack and in the shower to let it dry between uses. 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 Kinkind apple bar. I know will lather like a champ no matter what and will keep using it to see how long it will last. I also still like the Grüum one at home, but I won’t bring it for another walk. My second travel choice is the Nuddy peach one, but if I still need more uplift, I could always go back to a Lush Montalbano bar which always lathers brilliantly and smells refreshingly and deliciously of lemons. And just bring the hair oil.

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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