Natural remedies for our hair and skin are trending these days, thanks to YouTubers, threads on natural hair forums, and the demand for non-toxic product options. And when it comes to a natural remedy to combat dryness, gently remove buildup, and grow hair, there's one ingredient that pops up over and over on curly girl hair threads: baking soda. Redditors and curly girl communities alike swear by using baking soda (followed by apple cider vinegar) to help reset your scalp's pH—which purportedly promotes hair growth, removes product buildup, and even softens hair strands.
To separate fact from fiction, we tapped scientist and trichologist Dr. Dominic Burg, who breaks down the science behind baking soda, the effects it has on your hair, and the ingredients you should be looking for when it comes to hair and scalp health.
Meet the Expert
Dr. Dominic Burg is the chief scientist, hair biologist, microbiologist, and trichologist for évolis Professional. He has expertise in hair and scalp biology, more specifically in hair cycle signaling.
Type of ingredient: Exfoliator.
Main benefits: Resets your scalp's pH, decreases dandruff and scalp irritation, helps with scalp dryness.
Who should use it: People with fine, limp hair.
How often can you use it: Weekly/monthly.
Works well with: Essential oils.
Don't use with: Apple cider vinegar can be used after applying baking soda, but they should not be mixed.
What Are the Benefits?
Using a baking soda- and vinegar-based hair regimen is rumored to help reset your scalp to its natural pH, which could be made more acidic or more basic depending on the products you use. According to Burg, your natural pH tends to be slightly more on the acidic side, but a pH that's too high (i.e., more basic than normal) causes brittleness, while a pH that's too low (more acidic than normal) damages color. Subsequently, resetting your hair and scalp's pH balance back to its normal baseline can help remedy a number of issues, including dandruff, scalp irritation, dryness, and more.
How to Tell if Your Scalp's pH Is Off-Balance
"Your scalp and hair pH are slightly acidic, with the pH of the scalp being 5.5 and the hair shaft sitting at about 3.7, and adding an excess of acid or alkali can push these too far beyond their capacity to rebalance themselves," says Burg. Poor pH means poor hair quality, with higher pH opening cuticles and causing brittleness, and too low pH damaging color. He also notes that "On the scalp, imbalances of pH can disrupt the balance of good and bad bacteria, which can lead to other problems, such as scalp irritation and dandruff."
However, there are ways to keep your hair and scalp pH in check. "The main thing we should be thinking about is the follicles: the small organs that grow your hair," explains Burg. "The follicles live in the scalp and are quite sensitive to changes in their environment, so maintaining a healthy scalp is important for hair health. The follicles produce hair in a special pattern known as the hair cycle, with specific times of growth, rest, fall, and regrowth that repeat many times in your life. This cycle can be disrupted quite easily and get out of balance, generally resulting in a short growth period and too much shedding"—which adding a homemade remedy could do.
With the right ratios, a DIY baking soda shampoo could work, but based on Burg's expertise, you'd need to get the measurements just right. If you've got an at-home baking soda remedy that is working for you, there's nothing wrong with continuing to use it. But if you find your scalp or hair not feeling like itself, Burg's tips will come in handy.
"Baking soda and vinegar (regardless of its source) are essentially two reactive chemicals: sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3)—which is a weak base, so is alkaline—and acetic acid (CH3COOH), which is a weak acid. When you mix these together in equal proportions, you get left with water (H2O), carbon dioxide gas (CO2), and sodium acetate (CH3COONa)," says Burg. "This is a simple reaction that can be effective in simple household cleaning jobs, as the fizzing can help lift dirt. The acid in vinegar or the alkaline soda can also be effective cleaners on their own."
But Is It Effective (and Safe) for Hair?
"While you may see some short-term cleaning effects, there will be a negative impact on your hair and scalp over time. Unless you are mixing the products together in the exact right proportions, you will end up with one or the other in excess," Burg explains. "Having an excess of high pH alkaline material or low pH acidic material on hair will actually be damaging to the hair fibers, lead to brittleness, and may alter and reduce the life of your color." He adds that "on the scalp, adding acid or base will be damaging to the pH balance and can have a drying effect. Excess vinegar can also cause irritation. Adding alkaline substances to your hair such as baking soda will actually open up your cuticles, resulting in reduced shine, increased frizz and flyaways, and cause damage over time."
As a general rule of thumb, Burg heeds caution that just because an ingredient is natural that doesn't mean that it's not harmful. "Some common essential oils, for example, contain allergens that can make some people react. Acids, regardless of whether they were fermented or synthesized, can still cause chemical burns," he says. "All-natural remedies are still chemical in their composition and can do damage if used incorrectly."
Baking Soda and Vinegar Alternatives
According to Burg, you should look for products with ingredients like green tea, rosemary, mangosteen, and lavender to soothe and promote overall scalp health.
For hair health, Burg lists flaxseed oil, vitamin E, ylang-ylang oil, and baobab oil as power ingredients. Try conditioning with this formula from OGX that's loaded with vitamin E.