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Natural Shampoo: Only Two Ingredients

October 24, 2011

Credit: Margaret Boyles

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I spent years wondering why commercial shampoos and other hair-care products—even high-end “salon” products and those from the health-food-store—contain so many ingredients.

One day early last spring I counted the ingredients of three shampoos and two conditioners sitting on a bathroom shelf; each contained at least 20 ingredients, many of them unpronounceable and three or four of them suspected toxins. Two contained fragrances that made me sneeze.

That day, I decided to try one of the no-fuss natural methods I’d read about for years, but that had always seemed too hokey. I’ve never looked back.

Borax (or baking soda) and cider vinegar

My new strategy calls for an alkaline washing ingredient—either borax or baking soda—followed by an acidic rinse of apple cider vinegar. That’s it!

To my surprise, the two-ingredient method worked well, leaving my hair clean, shiny, and more manageable than any of the hundred products or combination of products I’ve used through the decades.

Cheap, easy, remarkably effective, and probably a lot safer. I always have these ingredients on hand for various household uses.

Like me, you probably won’t believe that the baking soda or borax methods (either works equally well for me) will actually clean your hair, so you’ll want to give it your first try on a vacation or weekend day when you have the time to repeat with your usual routine if you don’t like the results.

I’ve seen dozens of “recipes” for this natural approach to hair care. I don’t think the exact proportions matter. I just fiddled around until I found what worked well for me.

Here’s how I do it:

  • I pour a bit less than half a cup of either baking soda or borax (either or a mixture of both works equally well for me) into a small bowl and ½ cup of cider vinegar into another, then add a couple of cups of warm water to each bowl.
  • I pour the dissolved baking-soda or borax solution through my wet hair.
  • Then I rinse my hair well. Borax may leave some undissolved grit, but that rinses away quickly.
  • Finally, I pour the vinegar solution thorough. I usually don’t rinse it out, but you can. Either way, the vinegar smell disappears within minutes.

It took me a while to get used to the idea that just pouring a solution through my hair with no scrubbing or lathering could get it clean, but it really does.

I haven’t found a need for conditioning, but I haven’t tested my new shampoo through a dry New England winter yet. Advocates of this hair-care method suggest adding a few drops of olive, sesame, castor or some other oil to the washing solution for frizz or static control. I’ll give that a try if it seems necessary.

Learn more
Check the safety rating on the personal-care products you use for yourself and your family. Environmental Working Groups staff scientists compare the ingredients on personal care product labels and websites with information in nearly 60 toxicity and regulatory databases.

Safety data for borax

Safety data for baking soda (sodium bicarbonate)

Safety data for cider vinegar

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Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.


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Does it work the same for

By jessica gonzalez

Does it work the same for curly hair, and is it safe for young children,5 and up

I used this for the first

By Dandyo

I used this for the first time on color treated hair (Natural Instincts). I used 1 tbsp of baking soda to 8 oz warm water. One tbsp Apple Cider Vinegar to 8 oz water. I am 64 years old. This made my hair fuller. I have chin length hair. I love this! And I will continue using it. It is so cheap, natural & easy.

Can't wait to try this!

By Laurie Dement

Can't wait to try this! Thanks for sharing and I am looking forward to more.

Wonderful article. I've also

By Peter M

Wonderful article. I've also been using these ingredients to clean my hair for a few years, it's healthier than it's ever been, and before this I had been using organic/natural shampoos, from the health food stores, for most of my life. Tip: I replaced the ACV with fresh lemon juice; smells better and highlights the hair.

hi as a chemist i would like

By Eltouum

hi as a chemist i would like to say the bad smell of vinegar dissapears because the latter is neutralised by the soda another thing is that i used vinegar with henna an the result was fantastic shine hair now h sold a hair cream nder the name of shiny hair because of vinegar good luck

hi as a chemist i would like

By Eltouum

hi as a chemist i would like to ssaay the bad smell of vinegar dissapears because the latter is neutralised by the soda another thing is that i used vinegar with henna an the result was fantastic shine hair now h sold a hair cream nder the name of shiny hair because of vinegar good luck

This shampoo is wonderful &

By Elle James

This shampoo is wonderful & my hair looks great.

Do you think regular vinegar

By kathleen himmer

Do you think regular vinegar (not cider) would work as well?

Yes, regular white vinegar

By Cristina @ An Organic Wife

Yes, regular white vinegar works as well. Vinegar just acts as a detangler. I use white vinegar because apple cider vinegar made my hair too greasy.

Home made shampoo

By LaurieS

I was wondering if you thought it might work on color treated hair?

And this also got me to wondering "What did our ancestors wash their hair with?"

I have been using this method

By DeAnn Morgan

I have been using this method for a few years now, I was coloring my hair with natural instincts and it makes your color last longer using the baking soda vinegar rinse, kind of like tie dyeing clothes, the vinegar set the color in. Also if you find that the "vinegar" makes your hair too greasy it is not solely the vinegar it is the combination and quantity of baking soda/ borax and the vinegar rinse. So play around with the amount of baking soda or borax you dissolve in measured amount of water and then use the vinegar rinse, i.e. 1tsp to 1cp water or 2tsp to 1cup water. make sure it is dissolved well because it can crust on your head. I get my hair professionally colored now but still only use the demi color and find after all the washing and chemical processing at the salon it takes about a week or so for my own natural oils to get balanced out again.

color treated hair

By Margaret Boyles

I don't know about using borax or baking soda and vinegar to wash color-treated hair, Lorimae, though I have read that over time baking soda will lighten hair.

If you have your hair colored professionally, ask the colorist. If you color your own, you might try calling the company that produces your product. They may have a toll-free number on the box. 

As for our ancestors, soapmaking goes back at least 2800 years. Native Americans and indigenous people's from around the world may also have relied on plant materials containing saponins. Your question would make an interesting research project.



Word to the wise about color

By Stormy Stewart

Word to the wise about color treated hair. Avoid essential oils and tinctures on hair like the plague. The chemicals in the dye will not like the herbs. I one use I was bald in a one inch area where it concentrated and fried some of the rest of my hair as well. A costly mistake I hope others can avoid.

eats weeds

By Rebellis

what do you mean.. eat weeds... what weeds are you eating

eating weeds

By Margaret Boyles


I plan to blog more about this later. I eat all sorts of weeds common to my part of New Hampshire: dandelions, lamb's quarters, stinging nettles, burdock roots, chickweed, clover leaves...and more! Wild plants are generally much more nutritious and contain higher concentrations of phytonutrients than cultivated crops. But you really need to know your weeds before you begin foraging. Some poisonous wild plants are closely related to edible plants; some edible plants contain poisonous parts (even the common potato contains toxins in the leaves and sprouts.)

Stay tuned in spring!

2015 Special Edition Garden GuideCooking Fresh with The Old Farmer's AlmanacThe Almanac Monthly Digital MagazineWhat the heck is a Garden Hod?