Many of us look towards commercial products that promise to detangle, condition and soften, to avoid breakage. Nature also has a bountiful supply of ingredients to coddle your curls. This article is devoted to homemade shampoos. Many featured ingredients are found in the garden, health food store or even the seashore. Some quick and easy recipes are also offered for those of you with less time to spare.

Curly hair is beautiful; it is also very complex. Sometimes we treat it forcefully, especially in an attempt to detangle—ultimately this is the wrong approach. Curly hair has a complicated hair shaft, pull out a strand and examine it for yourself. I'm sure you will find variation in the width of the strand—at points it is quite thick, while in other areas it is thinner. The irregularity in the hair shaft especially at the thin points makes it more likely to break if stressed than straight hair.


Shampoo was not always formulated by chemists or in the factory, this is a very new approach that came into vogue during the late 19th and early 20th century. Saponins are nature's sudsing agents and they are found in herbs. Saponin-rich herbs come from specific fruit trees, roots, flowers and mineral packed weeds.

Cleansing herbs

Most herbs do not produce frothy lather and who needs it anyway. The idea, particularly with curly hair is to cleanse gently without stripping hair of sebum (natural oils). Listed below are some of nature's better cleansers.

* Lamb's Quarter (Chenopodium album)—a common North American and European weed, probably already lurking about in your garden, ready for harvest, lends mild cleansing action.

* Papaya Leaf (Carica papaya) from the PawPaw tree releases gentle cleansers when infused in hot water.

* Soap bark tree (Quillaja saponaria) — The bark, as it sounds, contains enough saponin to provide a good soap, useful as a shampoo. Barks need to be decocted, rather than infused.

* Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis) This weed has been used for cleansing hair, the body and fine textiles for centuries. Some museum preparators, continue to use soapwort to cleanse ancient textiles. This attests to soapwort's mild, nurturing nature.

* Yucca (Y glauca; Y. baccata, Y. angustifolia) also called 'soap root' and amole. Used in traditional rituals and rite of passage ceremonies in Mexico, by the Hopi and a few other Southwest Indians, yucca is also used to deter dandruff, baldness and thinning hair. Yucca needs to be pulverized and soaked before using.


* Infusion: An infusion is basically a tea or tisane. Delicate parts of the herbs, including the flowers and leaves, are never boiled. To make a shampoo using lamb's quarter, papaya leaf or soapwort, boil 20 ounces of water. Remove from heat. Add two tablespoons dried herb (1/3 cup if using fresh). Cover and steep for 30 minutes. Strain well. Cool. Scent (see below).

* Decoction: A decoction is a manner of pulling medicinal extracts from tough herbs like dried berries, bark and roots. To make a shampoo using soap bark, pour a quart of water in a pot, add two tablespoons of dried herb, and bring to boil. Cover. Reduce heat to medium and simmer twenty minutes. Strain. Cool. Add scent or nutrient ingredients. Use as normal shampoo.

* Pulverizing: Yucca and sometimes its relatives from the Agave Spp, such as Agave lechuguilla, are used to make shampoo, soap and clothing detergent. To prepare, peel a young root so that only the white inside remains. Pound this in a large mortar and pestle, with a mallet or hammer.

* Mashed root. Put bruised root inside a piece of muslin. Tie shut with rubber band or a piece of natural cotton string. Place in hot water. Work the root between your hands until the soapy substance is released into the water.

Why Bother?

Of course you and I know that it is easy to run out to the local shops and choose from a wide array of shampoos, so why bother?

* Connection

Many people enjoy direct engagment with herbs, feeling that they benefit spirituality from contact with nature.

* Avoiding chemicals

Other people do not trust the plethora of chemicals used in shampoo formulas—these do-it-yourself types prefer to make their own from scratch.

* Ecology and sustainability

Some people want to participate in the natural ecology around them in a positive way. They would never use weed-killer, for example, to kill lambs quarter or soapwort; instead they use the prolific weeds for their nutrients in hair-care formulas and in other holistic ways. Abundant leaves from the papaya tree can be used rather than simply disposed of, when the leaves fall from the tree. Making shampoo also offers opportunities to reuse and recycle old squeeze-top bottles rather than discarding them. Homemade herbal brews bring satisfaction from growing, harvesting and then using your own organic ingredients.

* Ancient Traditions

Yucca has been used as an important element in beauty and rite of passage rituals and ceremonies by Mexicans and Southwest Indians, notably, the Hopi, during prenuptial rites. Some people feel that they can benefit from ceremonial shampoos. Yucca is ideal for the rich brown and black wavy, thick hair prevelent in Middle Eastern, North African, Southern European, Native American and Latino culture. Soapwort and soap bark have been used historically. The two 'soap' herbs along with lamb's quarter and papaya leaf, are mild, effective cleansers, well-suited to the delicate curly, kinky or nappy hair that people from various ethnic groups have.

Essential oils

Essential oils are organic ingredients that accentuate the effects of prepared shampoos. These precious substances are the condensed essences of plants, prepared as an oil. Essential oils are regaining the popularity they enjoyed historically in ancient Persia, Egypt, Greece, Rome and other early civilizations. They are well-respected for their ability to address a variety of issues such as dull, dry and thinning hair, as well as itchy, irritated scalp — these are aromatherapeutic benefits. The scents of essential oils provides a therapy of their own, sometimes refered to as aromacology because they effect our psychological make up and mood. Since essential oils are highly concentrated, only a few drops are necessary to achieve great results. This table is inspired by the extensive research in "The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy," by esteemed aromatherapist Dr. Valerie Ann Worwood, (New World Library, 1991). The table illustrates suitability of essential oils for various types of hair.

More information

Further reading

"The Natural Beauty and Bath Book" by Casey Kellar

"Naturally Healthy Hair" by Mary Beth Johnson

"Infusions of Healing: a Treasury of Mexican American Herbal Remedies" by Joie Davidow

"Ceremonial Shampoos," Stephanie Rose Bird, Herb Companion, Spring 2001


* Sunfeather Natural Soap Company:

shampoo bases, herbs, nutrients, oils, recipe books

* Auroma: shampoo base, essential oils

* castille soap, shampoo gel base, conditioner base, books, recipes, articles

* Whole Foods and Wild Oats, as well as local healthfood stores carry a variety of essential oils, castille soap, glycerin, bulk herbs, aloe vera and vegetable oils.

* Mexican-American and neighborhood grocers for yucca root.

* Local nurseries or Richter's Herbs in Canada for herbs and seeds.

Get into it!

Curly top Donna Maria Coles Johnson, Esq. has a wonderful website and member organization, Handmade Beauty Network, featuring recipes, suppliers, books, articles, networking opportunities and excellent links.

Check in with Jeanne Rose Aromatic Plant Project for information on hydrosols and trips to study aromatherapy abroad.

Have fun!.