Why are pH balancing shampoos important for your hair and scalp?

A big thanks to Emily Beyda at Vegamour for quoting me on the importance of using a pH balanced shampoo: “pH makes a big difference when it comes to closing the hair cuticle. Heat from a warm water shampoo is going to open the cuticle, but you need it closed to minimize frizz and keep the hair moisturized.” She quoted me as part of my work with The Right Hairstyles.

What non-pH balanced shampoo can do to hair cuticles

There are a few other reasons why pH is important when it comes to shampoo formulas and hair products in general, so I wanted to elaborate on that and show more ways shampoo pH can affect the hair. Research published in the International Journal of Trichology talks about how alkaline shampoos increase friction between hair fibers and how these electrostatic charges could lead to cuticle damage, tangling and hair breakage. Frizz is only the immediate concern that shows up when using high-alkaline shampoos for cleansing. But what high pH shampoo can lead to is actually something more serious: damaged hair.

The study goes on to say that less than 40% of shampoos in the consumer market are considered pH-balanced shampoos. That’s downright frightening. Of the shampoos you might find in a hair salon, 70% fall into the ideal range of ph level for hair, between 4.5 and 5.5.

Hair conditioner and harsh shampoos

Using hair conditioner after shampooing with an alkaline solution can decrease some of the electrical charge on the hair fiber surface. A leave-in conditioner works even better in this scenario because presumably it has more time to do its job. But who wants to sort out a matted mane after the hair washing routine in the conditioner phase? Many of us have come to expect a great deal of hard tangles after shampooing, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

An active ingredient that can make alkaline shampoos less irritating

Cationic ingredients added to the shampoo can also help make the alkaline solution less damaging, the Journal says. This is why many shampoos that are made for curly hair contain cationic agents like behentrimonium methosulfate, behentrimonium chloride and cetrimonium chloride. Curly and afro hair have twists and turns, so their tangles are not the same as straight hair tangles. Cationic actives ease the friction from the electrostatic charges between the hair strands that’s caused by the alkalinity of the shampoo. This way the hair detangles easier and isn’t as matted by the time you reach for a conditioner.

Alkaline shampoos and scalp disorders

Photo by Cottonbro via Pexels

pH balancing can help protect the scalp from fungal infections like seborrheic dermatitis, more commonly called dandruff. Shampoo that has a pH above 5.5 can cause scalp irritations and an imbalancing of the scalp. This is part of the reason why so many women with straight hair also have excessively oily hair. Maybe it’s also the reason why those with curly, afro hair have dry scalps. Who knows. 

Alkaline chemical treatments and pH levels

Extremely alkaline products, apart from shampoo, also play a role here. It probably won’t matter much if your shampoo has a pH of 6 if your hair pH level (thehairroutine.com) looks like this:

  • bleached hair (pH 10-11)
  • color-treated hair (pH 7-10.5) relaxed hair (pH 11-13)
  • permed hair (pH 8-9)
  • hair to which you’ve applied baking soda (pH 8)  

A shampoo with a low pH of 4 might help chemically-processed hair, though… a little.

Examples of pH-balancing shampoos

pH balancing shampoos hydrate hair strands by trapping moisture inside the hair shaft. They therefore encourage healthy hair growth by discouraging breakage due to brittleness. Most product labels do not reveal the pH, but the company is required to list it on their material safety data sheets. Camelia Smith at Salon Worthy Hair did an extensive amount of research into what shampoos have pH balancing. Here are some of the popular brand shampoos that feature themselves on her list by virtue of caring about hair health and pH levels in their formulas.

  • AG
  • Acure
  • Alterna
  • Davines
  • Fekkai
  • Joico
  • Olaplex
  • Paul Mitchell
  • GK Hair pH+

Naturally, the list isn’t exhaustive because there are thousands of shampoo brands. Every product produced by these companies isn’t ph-balanced or low pH, only most. Olaplex, in particular is used to help prevent damage from chemical processing like bleaching, so it isn’t surprising that the brand is pH balanced.

How a volumizing shampoo works on the hair shaft

There are times when a high pH or alkaline solution works well as a hair-volumizing shampoo. That’s for those whose tresses are fine and limp. For them, alkaline shampoos cause the hair cuticle to lift so they can have more volume. Still it’s a less than ideal situation for the hair cuticle to be opened by alkaline ingredients. For all hair types, alkaline shampoos can result in poor results with continued use. 

Should you trash your non pH-balanced shampoo?

There are a few things you can try if you want to use the last of an alkaline shampoo and not waste money. If you must use alkaline products, don’t try detangling immediately after using one. Instead, apply hair conditioner and let it sit before detangling with the product in your hair. This will help, but if your hair already has stiff tangles, there will probably still be breakage.

An acidic solution can neutralize the effect of an alkaline shampoo

Probably the best way to neutralize the alkaline level of your shampoo is with an acid like apple cider vinegar. An apple cider vinegar rinse, when used in a solution of 1:3, is an excellent detangler and can also help keep the scalp healthy. It’s cleansing and clarifying, removes excess sebum and can be used as a natural shampoo substitute. Pour it through your tresses and leave it in for a few minutes before rinsing thoroughly. Then use conditioner and detangle with the product still in your hair.

Lemon juice is very drying, so unless you have oily hair, it isn’t ideal to use after shampooing. Coffee has an acidic pH level and the caffeine in it is great for hair growth, but it’s better when restricted to scalp use because coffee residue can also cause friction between the hair fibers, even though it’s an acidic solution.

Basically, ditch the alkaline shampoo as soon as you can and find a low pH or pH-balanced shampoo. Pass this article along, if you can, because the more people that understand ph levels in shampoo, the more the haircare industry is likely to cater to our needs.