Numlock Sunday: Julie Kendrick on the all killer, no filler future of shampoo

By Walt Hickey

Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.

This week, I spoke to Julie Kendrick, who wrote “Shampoo Bars: What they are, how they work, and why we need them” for HuffPost. Here's what I wrote about it:

The beauty industry produces 120 billion units of plastic packaging waste per year around the world. In the United States alone, every year 552 million plastic shampoo bottles are sold, and less than 10 percent of the plastic is recycled. In addition, the transportation of shampoo really amounts to the transportation of large amounts of water, with some stuff mixed into that water. That’s inefficient, and so, one solution is to just sell the shampoo in condensed bar form, rather than selling water and shampoo in a plastic bottle. This has benefits — one brand, Unwrapped Life, touts 8 percent of the carbon footprint of a liquid equivalent — and also is growing in popularity owing to the fact that the raw shampoo stuff is more cost-effective than the bottled liquid kind.

I loved this because Julie writes about what we eat and consume and I always find her work really fascinating, and this piece was no different. It raises really interesting questions about how we consume what we do, and made me question all sorts of deliberate inefficiencies baked into consumer goods.

We spoke about why shampoo is mostly water, the plastic impact of all that waste, and how bottled shampoo may one day be seen as similar to smoking in restaurants.

Kendrick can be found at her website and her Twitter.

This interview has been condensed and edited. Header photo by Jordi Calvera on Scopio.

You wrote a really wonderful story about shampoo in HuffPost. What drew you to this story?

I'm always interested in the beauty and healthcare space to find a story that's a little bit different, and this is a product that's been around for a long time, but in about the past five years has started gaining some traction. I have a younger daughter, and I've noticed she and a lot of her friends are trying to transition as much as they can to live a life without a lot of packaging. So, when I started seeing shampoo bars in my own shower, I started wondering what was going on and asked some questions and then got to the story.

Let's back up a little bit, but dry shampoo is a way to subverts some of the plastic bottle stuff. Can you tell me a little bit about what this product is and where it came from? You mentioned it's rather old, I didn't know that.

This isn't dry shampoo, dry shampoo, just to get all your beauty products straight — and trust me, I've got cabinets full of them at my house — is a spray that takes the oil out of your hair really temporarily when you don't have time to shampoo. This is a shampoo bar, it's just a super concentrated product. What it does is take out all the water that's in shampoo and just gives you the cleaning part of it. Liquid shampoo, when you buy it on the shelf, it's probably 80 to 90 percent water. That's why it's in those big plastic bottles.

One of the makers I talked with said that the reason that's done is so that the makers can have a lot of space on retail shelves, which I hadn't even thought about before. You think about going to a Target, and walking down the isles, there are so many giant bottles of shampoo. If all the water were taken out of all those bottles, it would be a very small little section of the Target store.

What one of the makers told me was that essentially they're selling bottled water. Mostly, their product is bottled water. The issue is a big one because the beauty industry around the globe creates about 120 billion units of plastic packaging waste every single year. In the US, we sell almost eight billion units of what they call rigid plastic, just for beauty and personal care products. When you translate that down into shampoo, it's over half a million plastic shampoo bottles. And you think, "Oh, that's okay. I recycle," but less than 10 percent of that plastic actually ends up being recycled. They call that wish-cycling, when you throw something in the recycling bin and you're sure it's going to turn into a park bench someday, but it doesn't necessarily do that.

These makers are really adamant, a lot of them are focused just on shampoo bars, that's their thing. They went into business to do shampoo bars. A guy who's here in Minneapolis, where I live, founded one them called HiBAR. He said, he foresees a time when using shampoo from a plastic bottle will be as uncool as lighting a cigarette in a restaurant.


Yeah, so they're very adamant. I mentioned before, this stuff has been around for a while, I talked to somebody at Lush — you know the big, fancy place you'd smell in the mall before you even see it — and the woman at Lush told me, "Oh, well, we've got a patent for it." I said, "Really? Because I just talked to a guy who's been making this stuff since the '70s." She was a little surprised. I talked to this great guy, he's so fun, he's just the OG shampoo bar guy. His name is Jim Liggett, and he lives in Cornish, New Hampshire. He grew up in Nebraska. He said he had an aunt who was one of the last people who came to Nebraska in a wagon train. She had wood for her heat, she had to cook everything over a stove and she used to make soap every year, and this guy started making soap with her.

He found this recipe from the turn of the century for something called hair soap. It was in one of those little recipe booklets, this old booklet. He started making what was called hair soap, which was a shampoo bar. He said, "People have been doing this forever." At that time — and I would've loved to have lived this guy's life because he was in New York City in the 1970s as an art director for Ogilvy & Mather and I am sure that was quite the life — he's making these little shampoo bars on the weekends and he's giving them away for gifts. People are really excited about this and his wife says to him, "You should quit and you should just make shampoo bars."

This is the '70s, so he goes to the New York City phonebook. He looks up all the health food stores. He writes them a letter on his typewriter and mails them a sample of the shampoo bar and a letter about his product. He sent out a hundred letters and he got back 75 responses saying we want to carry this product. So, this is JR Liggett and you can look them up on the web, they have tons of products, but he's the original guy that started doing this.

That's incredible. I think that's just so cool because it seems like it's taking a step back, finding just a huge inefficiency that was added arbitrarily into a consumer good, and it's really stripping it down.

And just for the purpose of taking up space on a shelf too, which I thought was really interesting.

You mentioned someone said it'll be perceived as smoking a cigarette in restaurant was in the '70s. As you look at the developing plastic and climate crisis, it just becomes weird to think shampoo is really just moving water around. If the only way that we sold coffee in American grocery stores was pre-made in bottles, obviously, it would take up the whole aisle, but instead, we have the fortune of selling it in a fairly efficient format. How are we undermining the climate through the current strategy of distributing shampoo to Americans?

Well, there's a lot of ways that we're doing it and, yeah, you're right, it's not just in those plastic bottles, but it's in the hauling of those very heavy plastic bottles from point A to point B, that has a lot to do with it. It's not just reducing your plastic usage, which is of course important, but really being cognizant of what's the carbon footprint of what you're doing and how did that product get to you when you got to the store?

Did you find anything particularly shocking or surprising when reporting it out?

This might just be a female thing, but we've just been sold such a bill of goods on beauty. We are so willing to buy one cream for our neck, one cream for our left eyeball, one cream for our right eyeball and one cream for our hands. We just don't understand that products can be much more multipurpose. So, I think we're willing to get a little too specialized.

One of the things I heard about shampoo bars was, "Well, of course you can wash your body with it, and of course you can use it as a shaving cream, and you can use it on your pets if you want to shampoo your dog." So, there's all kinds of ways to use a product if you just are a little more innovative and willing to try.

The other thing that I did learn that I thought was interesting was there's going to be a period of breaking in yourself to get used to using this product. I had a lot of people say to me when I was just telling friends, "Oh, I'm working on this story now." They would say, "How do you even use that?" They would be really confused. So, it's pretty simple. You pick up the bar, you can either just take the bar and rub it on your head, or you can make a little lather in your hands and rub it in your head that way.

But the thing is, is that you're not going to see a lot of lather. One of the makers that I talked to said, "If it looks like a beer commercial in your shower, that's wrong, you've got too many surfactants going on. There's too many chemicals happening. It's going to strip your hair." What a lot of these makers told me was that basic bottled shampoo strips all the natural oils out of your hair and then you have to go get conditioner and put that back on to try to put it back in.

What their product does is because it's so much gentler, is it just takes off the major oil that's in your hair and isn't harsh. But what Liggett told me was that for some people you’ve got to give your hair two or three weeks to break it in. Let your hair get used to not being chemically stripped, and then having more products put on top of it. So, give yourself a little while to use it and don't be worried. I had a maker call it the theater of lather because everybody wants the commercials where you see people taking a shower and they're just covered with bubbles, and that should not be what's happening at all.

A lot of people are getting into this business. I talked to a Black-owned business maker who's working on a shampoo bar that's specifically for natural hair, which can have its own set of issues in terms of how moisturizing it needs to be. I talked to another maker who said that some people with natural hair will do what's called co-washing, which is they will only wash with conditioner. So, that's a whole other way to take care of yourself. I talked to a really fun brown-owned business, Jeffrey Qaiyum, who's in Lincoln Park in Chicago and his family owns the Merz Apothecary. It's 150-year-old apothecary. It's just this old-timey, groovy looking store. It's also a pharmacy and his dad, who's from India, bought it quite a while ago with his mom, who's from Germany. So, his mom brings in all these really cool European and German products and they sell all this great stuff, but it's also a drugstore. They kept looking at shampoo bars and were not happy with what they were seeing, so they created their own product, which I thought was an interesting way to go after it. He said, "We're so used to selling other people's stuff, but we decided to go into it for ourself." And they have a thing called Shambar, and it's an interesting business to support.

You referred to the growth of this kind of thing, the beauty industry is absolutely one of constant imitation. Over in the laundry aisle you can see increasingly folks like Tide are trying to either convert to more concentrated solutions to cut down on that kind of transportation waste, or in some cases change from plastic to not plastic. Are there signs of imitation coming from more of the popular consumer package good conglomerates?

Well, I hope so. They pay a lot of attention to what's going on in these spaces and then they usually end up buying these products along the way. I write a lot about food too, and I see that happening in food all the time. I'm hoping it's going to happen. I think it's going to be a matter of consumers making those kind of choices, and then I think the big conglomerates will follow. It's up to us to lead them.

If you have one more minute or so, I did want to ask you about another article real quick — you wrote one of my favorite exposes over the past summer about store-bought guacamole. I had no idea how that was physically possible. Yet, you went and found that, basically, there's these fascinating high pressure systems that manage to keep things green when I can't even keep guac green for an afternoon.

Sometimes I wonder, well, I'm just walking along and I look at something during the day and think, "Huh, I wonder why that is." Then the next thing I know I'm pitching it and sometimes I sell it. The editor for this, Kristen Aiken at HuffPost, was terrific. She has a real predilection against that packaged guacamole and in her mind, it was, “why would anyone ever want to buy that stuff? That's so awful.” That's really the space she's in. When I pitched her on how do those people keep it green? What's going on? She was really excited.

I think what she thought I was going to find, and really what I thought I was going to find, is that everyone I would interview would say, "That's just trash. I only make mine fresh. Who would buy it?" Well, I discovered that it's a big industry. A lot of people buy that stuff, and you buy it when you're in a hurry, or you buy it when your avocados are still rock hard and they won't ripen in time for the party. There's a million reasons people buy that stuff. Hormel owns Wholly Guacamole, which is the leader, so you can trace it back to these major corporations, as always.

I found it was a more nuanced story than I thought going in because I think a lot of people are on the guacamole spectrum. They would love to be sitting in their quiet kitchen with three perfectly ripe avocados in front of them and have time to make it. That is not always the case in their lives, and so they're very willing to pick up one of these products. I found the technology fascinating in that I think I went into it assuming that there were a whole bunch of chemicals involved, that it had to be, and there would be all sorts of non-natural things happening, but it really just is this super high pressure that helps it to stay green and fresh.

It was exciting to find out that it wasn't like chemistry, it was more physics.

Yeah, there you are, it's physics. Blaise Pascal is the guy that we have to say thanks to for it.

Well, thank you Blaise. Where can people find you and where can people find your work?

I write a lot for HuffPost, but I write for other sites too. I write for The Takeout. I just wrote a story about National Mac and Cheese Day for The Cheese Professor. So, really a story that needed to be told. I'm on Twitter @KendrickWorks.

If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.

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