Science Strikes Again!

I really should have done my homework on this one, y’all…

As I mentioned, I recently switched to sulfate-free, organic-ish shampoo. I’m trying to cut petroleum products, like sulfates, out of my body care routines because of their environmental impacts.

Simple, right?

Not quite…

In another post on organic-ish toothpaste, I followed up on my shampoo purchase after a few washes because I was deeply dissatisfied. My hair felt disgusting, it was matted and heavy, with a crunchy, greasy texture that still managed to feel wet a few days later.

I was half afraid that I was going to mould!

I texted a friend in NYC who is deeper in the “natural beauty” world than I, and she gave me some advice and product recommendations. Unfortunately, those products were not available in France, and I’m trying to avoid tons of shipping if I can help it.

Google (it’s still free!) came to the rescue in an unexpected way. I had decided to give up on my shampoo woes for now and look at household cleaning recipes using Dr. Bronner’s Castile soap. I had brought back a litre of the rose scented soap from my holiday visit, and I was eager to put it to use around the house.

I stopped by the Dr. Bronner’s blog for some of their recommended recipes, and caught a line about experiencing issues while using soaps with hard water… Paris has some incredibly hard water, and I was definitely experiencing some of the problems mentioned on the blog… but why?

The Royal Chemistry Society came to the rescue with a very detailed explanation of what happens when soaps meet hard water.

The chemical difference between sulfate-free shampoos or Castile soap, and the products that use sulfate as a detergent, is a different ending on their respective carbon and hydrogen chains. This difference isn’t a huge deal when you’re washing in soft, well-filtered water, but when you’re washing with hard water, chemistry strikes!

Soap’s molecular tail reacts to the calcium and magnesium ions in the hard water, and forms scum. Sulfates/detergents, on the other hand, have a tail that doesn’t react to those ions, so they do not form scum when mixed with hard water.

Scum, as it turns out, does not dissolve in water, and will simply coat your skin, clothes, pipes, and… hair. I was so bummed to reach back and touch my head, and realise that it wasn’t grease, but scum, that was coating my hair.

Isn’t natural beauty great? Are we having fun yet?

Despite the scummy side effects for those of us with hard water, there are plenty of reasons to skip on sulfates.

Anyone with dry or sensitive skin has probably felt a weird, itchy feeling around their shoulders or chest after washing with a sulfate shampoo. That’s one of the obvious drawbacks from using sulfates:  they are such harsh detergents, they can strip your skin of its natural oils along with your hair.

Sulfates are also created by distilling crude oil, i.e. a petroleum product, which means that they take a long time to break down in the environment. Soap, on the other hand, will break down quite quickly as it is made from a chemical reaction between a fat and an alkali.

The solutions to the soap scum problem are not easy to come by in our apartment. Our building’s water is collective, and unless we wanted to filter each source of water in the house (and I just might…) we’d have to filter the entire building.

Neither option is in our budget at the moment, so I tried starting with a smaller fix.

I took a picture of our shower head and walked over to the hardware store to ask about shower head filters. Maybe this solution was as simple as a new shower head?


As it turns out, the shower head we already have is sold as a “decalcifying” shower head, which just means that it has tiny little openings for the water instead of large ones… Not exactly a filtering effect, considering it doesn’t use anything close to a carbon filter or reverse osmosis. As you may imagine, a shower head with a true filter was not available in store.

So, I had no shower head solutions, but I did have a job interview coming up. I couldn’t go with scummy hair, so I went to a “bio” cosmetics shop and bought another “organic-ish” shampoo, but this time, with sulfates.

I’m hoping this shampoo fares better against our hard water, but I’m still looking for a solution to the my sulfate consumption. This time, I’ve got chemistry knowledge on my side. Wish me luck!



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