Lee Tea is an investigative journalist with a focus on essential oil consumer advocacy, and she's had dreadlocks for years.
After several years of "stay-at-homeness"—raising kids and working from home—I became a run-down mama spending most of her hectic days still in pajama pants. Tending to the kids, the house, and the business left little time for mom-care, and even less time for luxuries: manicures, make-up, even brushing my hair. 6 years of sloppy ponytails later, and a fond reminiscence of festival life B.C. (Before Children), I decided to stop trying to comb OUT the knots in my hair, and start combing them in. Long story short: 2 years later, I'm a white girl with dreadlocks.
About My Hair Type
Depending on your hair type, you may not have the same experience I had with these products as me. You also may not have as difficult of a time finding product reviews for dreadlock shampoos for your hair type as I had. Thus this article.
I have medium-thin brown straight hair, usually on the dry side. I like to wash my dreads at least once a week, and give them a good rinse down with just water once a week. What follows are my experiences and observations with five different products I've used over the past 2 years to clean my head without undoing my dreads. Maybe my information can help you find a product that works well for you, too.
Product 1: Baking Soda and Water
For the first few months after I first backcombed my hair, I was afraid to use anything but baking soda and water. Dread head websites seemed to recommend it often and natural shampoo blogs also mentioned this recipe as an alternative to regular shampoo. I saw it was a way to clean the scalp without using oils or conditioners, and stayed with it exclusively for almost 6 months.
How to use it: Fill a water bottle (mine's about a 1 liter bottle) with water and add 1-3 Tbsp of baking soda. Baking soda can be harsh on the skin, so start off with smaller amounts and increase gradually to gauge irritation. Shake well to mix, but open the container to release any pressure build up immediately and often (and away from your face!). Leave the container open during use for the same reason. Use it all and discard any you don't use when finished.
Did it clean? Yes it cleans thoroughly. It's slightly effervescent so it feels nice and has a clean, kind of bubbly tingle to it. Unlike regular shampoos you have to allow it time to clean, so massage into scalp and let sit a few minutes. Then rinse thoroughly with clean water.
Negative aspects? Baking soda is extremely drying. Using too much over time left my scalp feeling tight and itchy. It also started to dry out my dreads too much for my comfort, as they started to get brittle especially towards the ends and I started to fear I'd lose them.
Product 2: Baby Shampoo
Because of this drying, I began my search for a less harsh way to clean. I read online you could use any shampoo without parabens in it, so the next time I washed up I reached for a bottle of generic baby shampoo. Tear-free and smells like fresh baby...it was worth a try.
How to use it: Lather, rinse, repeat.
Did it clean?: No. My dreadlocks seemed to eat this shampoo - it sucked in every last drop and didn't leave any to scrub my head with. I wasn't even trying to clean my dreads, just get the shampoo to the scalp. It just didn't have enough gumption to make it to my head. Perhaps it was the result of using a generic brand, but the negative aspects below have convinced me to scrap this idea altogether.
Negative aspects: The baby shampoo did not last long enough to clean with, but lasted just long enough to leave my roots shiny and manageable. This is not a good thing - the oils and conditioners untangled all new root growth, and in some cases part way down the dread. Root rubbing (to tangle hair at the base) was not effective until I rewashed my scalp in baking soda.
Well that was disappointing, so it was back to baking soda until I felt daring enough to venture out and try something new again.
Product 3: Kirk's Castile Soap
After months of research it seemed the most popular choice was Dr. Bronner's line of castile soaps and shampoos. Too expensive for me, I started seeking out other castile soaps, and eventually found a bar of Kirk's Castile Soap. The ingredients list was simple: Coconut Soap, Water, Vegetable Glycerin, Coconut Oil and Natural Fragrance. The oils and fragrance had me concerned, but with an itchy head from baking soda and the recent baby shampoo debacle, the concern kind of fit right in the middle of my current dilemma. So it was decided Kirk's Castile would be my next experiement.
How to use it: I used the bar soap, so I just worked a lather up in my hands and used the lather to wash my scalp.
Did it clean: Yes. After six months of baking soda washes and absolutely nothing but ruin from the baby shampoo, it felt and smelled SO GOOD to have a soap cleaning! Every bit as refreshing as when I used to shampoo my regular hair. It rinsed well enough to still allow the hair and new growth to tangle at the roots.
Negative aspects: This soap was a bit drying and irritating to the skin, and too harsh to use on sensitive parts of the body. I also noticed how much residue the soap left in the tub after a bath and was concerned about that residue being left behind in the dreads. Sure enough, after about 3 washes, I began to notice an unnatural and kind of matted sheen to my dreads. It gave them a different look that wasn't terrible, but I knew there was build up on my dreads.
To rid my dreads of this residue build-up, I began to alternate baking soda washes with castile soap washes. I'd do two castile washes, then the next would be a baking soda wash. That still works well for me to this day.
Product 4: Suave Daily Clarifying Shampoo
Somewhere along the way came a day where I had done one too many castile washes for my liking, but hadn't remembered to mix up the baking soda wash before I jumped into the shower.
The rest of my family was currently using Suave's Daily Clarifying Shampoo, and the bottle was right there within my reach, not allllllll the way out of the steamy bathroom across the carpet in my wet bare feet and over the cold tiles of kitchen. Now, I know the synthetic chemicals shampoos are made of: the conditioners, the fragrances, the suds-makers, and the long list of ingredients wasn't much different from any other bottle of shampoo I've ever read (do you read shampoo bottles in the shower like I do?). But this particular shampoo was at least marketed to convince you it rids the hair of build up and offers a simple clean, so ... well, it's already here in the shower with me, let's give it a try.
How to use it: Lather, rinse. No need to repeat.
Did it clean? Oh yes, as well as any shampoo usually does. On that front it has the baby shampoo beat. I suds up a good, big lather and washed both the dreads and my head. It took the build up and sheen off my dreads left over from the castile soap and cleaned the scalp refreshingly.
Negative aspects: Though it cleaned well and did removed build-up, the clarifying shampoo also prevented the hair from being able to tangle at the roots, though not as much as the baby shampoo. I enjoyed using it once to remove the soap build up, but to keep anymore of the dreads from unraveling I would not use it twice in a row. After using it a few times intermittently with the castile soap and baking soda, I really haven't wanted to use it since. But I would use it in a pinch.
So there I was, two years of experience on an agreeable rotation of baking soda and castile soap, pretty happy with my routine and not really having and reason to change it. Occasionally I'd try an unscented bar of commercial soap, but it offered no improvement to my current routine. I had no reason to try anything new, until another alternative casually drifted my way.
Product 5: "Plain Jane" by SOapBIZARRE
About a month ago, a fellow crafter contacted me about trading some of my hand-blended herbal teas for some of her cold-pressed soaps. I'm a big fan of trade, so I entertained the idea, browsing her product line of loofa-laden bars and distinguished scents. But when I saw her unscented bar, I got downright excited.
SOapBIZARRE's ingredients are the simplest of the 5 products reviewed here, and without added fragrance (or added loofa), their bar of Plain Jane is as easy as they come: love, lard, lye, and water.
How to use it: This is a bar soap as well, so again I just work up a good lather in my hands and use the lather to wash my scalp. Every other wash or so I'll squeeze the suds and work the lather through my dreads to clean them as well. I do need to lather up several times to wash my whole head clean.
Does it clean? It cleans well and leaves enough lather to work into the scalp, so it's easier to use than baking soda or baby shampoo. It doesn't leave a significant amount of residue on my dreads, and the hair still easily knots at the base with a little root rubbing. After a few washes my dreads even feel softer, much less brittle and with less breakage. This soap is gentle enough to wash with from head to toe without irritation, and it also seems to remove or neutralize odors in the dreadlocks which is a wonderful benefit. This is the first product I've used that I can use exclusively, without needing to alternate it on a regular basis with other washing methods.
Negative aspects: Since it cleans well it does leave some loose hair and flyaways, which I do a baking soda wash for once every month or two to knot them and work them neatly back into mature dreads.
I haven't used any other products or washes since discovering Plain Jane. If I were to run out, I would use Kirk's Castile until my Plain Jane was back in supply. The baking soda wash is good for monthly or every other month maintenance when you need to remove build up or knot loose hairs to join with other dreads. With an adequate clean, odor removing properties, no oils to leave behind and very minimal residue, Plain Jane is now my regular once-a-week wash.
Update: Vinegar Rinse Now Recommended!
Since publishing this article I have added an apple cider vinegar rinse to the end of my baking soda washes. 2-3 tablespoons of acv into about a liter of water dumped over the dreads after the baking soda wash provides instant crunch relief! I try to avoid the scalp, but if I happen to douse my head in the rinse it's not a disaster. Vinegar balances out the hair's pH after cleaning it with the baking soda and leaves behind nice, soft dreads - I rarely do a baking soda wash without it!
So I Found My Groove
Today, I stay away from all commercial shampoos. There's no need to spend $8 a bottle for pricier castiles, and now that my kids are older I'll probably never touch a bottle of baby shampoo ever again. Plain Jane is my first choice for washing my dreadlocks without overdrying. I'm still happy to use Kirk's Castile if Plain Jane isn't available, and a monthly baking soda wash helps dry the new growth out enough to tangle and add to existing dreads to keep overall appearance tidy and clean.
So if you're like me, a dread-headed hippie who likes to keep clean, maintain relatively tidy dreads, and smell nice...
wait...is anyone still reading this article?!
Where to Find These Products
- Baking soda's cheap, and the generic is the same as the name brand. Stock up at the supermarket.
- Baby shampoo and Suave Daily Clarifying shampoo can be found in most stores and are cheapest at Walmart, though I wouldn't recommend washing dreadlocks with baby shampoo.
- I was able to find Kirk's Castile at my local Wal Mart until recently. You can find information on their products on their website at kirksnatural.com.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Lee Tea (author) from Erie, PA on May 09, 2014:
Hi Jackie! Before I had them I thought they'd be the easy way to go, too. I mean, they were already forming, might as well help them along and let that be that. Turns out they're as much a pain in the butt as any other hairstyle lol - they pull on each other and stick out funny and need at least weekly clean up to look presentable. I love braids though - I braid the loose hairs and love putting them into my daughters' hair. Thanks for stopping by!
Lee Tea (author) from Erie, PA on May 09, 2014:
Hi Famhauz! A stylist huh? I always wondered what a salon could do to help me clean up my hair when I don't feel like doing it myself. Never tried, and with my dreads being my own on-going process, I probably never will. I will flaunt them though - you rock on too! Thanks for your nice comment - be well.
Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on May 09, 2014:
I never really thought about dreadlocks; I guess those would make life easier but still need cleaned. I went with a french braid for several years making life easier but it never lasted more than two days. Putting it up wet after a shampoo made it easy though and I had many compliments. May go back to that this summer if my hair gets long enough. Hair is something beautiful but such a hassle. Interesting read. Thanks for sharing. ^+
Peter Mwai from Kenya on May 09, 2014:
Lee, reading your article and I just realized I've never paid much attention to my hair! Yes, I have dreads, a year now. But apparently I seem to have entrusted my stylist with the washing: use bar soap and shampoo (not sure which) which is why I think your hub is an eye-opener. Flaunt them!