Why a pH-Balancing Shampoo Is Important for Natural Hair

Rearview studio shot of a woman lifting her natural hair off of her neck

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No-poo, LOC method, pre-poo… you've heard a lot of different methods for cleansing natural hair, and we're pretty sure you're well-versed on your labels, specifically in regards to nixing sulfates, parabens, and artificial fragrance. But how often do you consider the pH of your haircare products? Believe it or not, the acidity level of your go-to poos and conditioners largely affects the state of your strands and scalp. So to get some guidance, we tapped a few hair gurus.

Meet the Expert

  • Miko Branch is a pioneer of the natural hair care movement. She and her sister Titi revolutionized the hair care market by being the first to develop Miss Jessie's original hair products.
  • Sadi Evans has been a hairdresser for almost a decade. She is currently a L'Orèal Professional Artist and Educator at Paul Milina Salon in San Francisco.
  • Takisha Sturdivant-Drew is a celebrity hairstylist and a Matrix Brand Ambassador.

Ahead, check out the benefits of using pH-balanced shampoos on natural hair.

What Is the Natural pH of Hair?

Woman pulling a few strands of her natural hair up

Grace Cary / Getty Images

Before we jump into this session, we need to cover a few basics. How do we discover our hair's natural pH, and what clues will our scalp and hair give us to let us know when it's "off?" "The pH of hair naturally lives between 4.5-5, which is in the acidic family," says Evans. As far as clues that let us know when our hair and scalp pH is out of sync, you'll be able to feel the difference. "You can tell if your pH is off if you notice itchiness, flakiness, or dryness. These can be the result of your hair being too alkaline, meaning the cuticle has been opened, and the response is a dry, itchy, or flaky scalp."

For the natural hair community, we can thank the oils in our hair for making the natural pH of our hair and scalp more acidic. "The natural pH for us is more acidic because the oil that the scalp produces is actually helpful at fighting off bacteria and the growth of fungus," explains Evans. "So when we use a product such as a shampoo that has a pH of 7 or higher, that high alkalinity can cause irritation to the scalp."

The Benefits of pH-Balancing Shampoo on Natural Hair

  • Reduce frizz and prevent breakage: Natural hair is prone to frizz, breakage, and even excessive dryness, but the right shampoo can help manage those issues. "pH-balancing shampoos can benefit natural hair by reducing frizz and dryness and preventing breakage and tangling while keeping the cuticle sealed. Shampoos that are pH-balanced are ideal because they don't strip the hair and scalp of its natural oil," Branch says.
  • Manage itchy scalp: If you have a dry, itchy, and/or irritated scalp, a pH balance shampoo can help to soothe and heal your scalp, notes Sturdivant-Drew. Evans adds, "If you suffer from hormonal imbalances or your hair produces more oil than you prefer, that can be managed with the correct pH-balanced shampoo. For example, if you were suffering from dandruff and an itchy scalp, I would recommend a shampoo or product that was pH-balanced between 6-7, no higher—this applies to color-treated hair as well." 
  • Keep your hair color alive: For those of us who color our hair, maintaining our hair's hue is likely the main focus. Still, keeping the hair pH-balanced is also critical to not just preventing our beauty investment from fading but also for keeping our coils from breaking. Evans explains, "During the coloring process, the hair's cuticle has been opened with a dominant alkaline product, so closing the cuticle and keeping it contracted is best for color longevity and preventing the hair from dryness." If you've bleached your hair, add a moisture-rich purple shampoo to your routine to keep your color bright and your hair feeling its best. 
  • Seal the hair cuticle: Balance seems to be the ongoing theme of this story, but that's why we're here—to understand the science and importance of maintaining our hair's natural balance. If you have ever wondered why your hair feels less dry and seemingly retains moisture when it's silk-pressed or relaxed, here's why: "Curly hair is naturally more dry than straight hair," says Evans. "Curly hair has a higher pH level than straight hair does. That being said, finding a product to contract the cuticle—to partially close it—would be beneficial. A product or shampoo that is more acidic-dominant would help to neutralize or balance the existing alkalinity in the hair."

How Often to Use pH-Balancing Shampoos

If you're wondering how frequently you should go between washes, first consider your hair type. Generally speaking, the coarser your hair, the less you need to wash it. According to Sturdivant-Drew, you should be washing natural hair at least once a week with a pH-balancing shampoo. Meanwhile, Branch recommends following a bi-weekly cleansing routine. "Bi-weekly pH-balanced shampoos will be excellent for keeping frizz down and helping to maintain the hair's natural shine," she says.

Evans adds, "A pH-balanced shampoo can help to keep your hair looking cleaner for a longer period of time. An improperly balanced shampoo will strip away too much of your hair's natural oils. Your scalp will then overproduce oil to compensate, making your hair oily and possibly dirtier quicker." In the meantime, she recommends co-washing, "because the conditioner is used to close and seal the cuticle. Most conditioners have acidity regulators in them to maintain a balanced acidity level. Although we are unable to penetrate the hair at level C (the cortex) and drive moisture into it from a co-wash, we are able to reseal the cuticle just in case it has been opened from alkaline-high styling products." Evans adds, "This will help with detangling curly hair." Of course, everyone is different so customize your hair care routine to best fit your needs. For instance, you may opt not to cleanse your hair too frequently with anything other than a co-wash because you find that it keeps your hair from drying out. But in the event your scalp is itchy, you may decide to focus on cleansing only on that problem area.

Our Top pH-Balancing Shampoo Picks

Ultrashine Moisture Shampoo
Evolvh Ultrashine Moisture Shampoo $26.00

This low-pH-shampoo (4.5-5.5) is a gamechanger for natural hair (or any hair type for that matter). Formulated with a blend of antioxidant-rich plant oils and extracts, it will leave hair soft, glossy, and clean.

Dry & Itchy Scalp Anti-Dandruff Moisturizing Shampoo
Keracare Dry & Itchy Scalp Anti-Dandruff Moisturizing Shampoo $13.00

If you find yourself with an irritated, itchy scalp even after wash day, a shampoo like KeraCare's Dry & Itchy Scalp Anti-Dandruff Moisturizing Shampoo sits at a pH of 6, which, based on our pros' tips, is ideal for natural hair types. 

Kenra Moisturizing Shampoo
Kenra Professional Moisturizing Shampoo $34.00

"I like Kenra Moisturizing shampoo because it’s good for dry brittle hair that needs to heal," Sturdivant-Drew says. "I also love to follow it up with a treatment for an extra boost of care, Matrix Instacure Porosity Spray ($24), because it’s infused with liquid proteins and b5, which strengthens the hair. So it will help with dry hair and breakage," she adds.

Obia Naturals Coconut Shea Shampoo Bar
Obia Naturals Coconut Shea Shampoo Bar $10.00

Black-owned brand Obia Naturals is committed to creating pH balanced, vegan, and herbal-based natural hair care products—this 4.5-5.5 pH shampoo bar being one of them. Counting shea butter, coconut oil, and rosemary oil among its ingredients, it is super nourishing for natural hair and promotes a healthy scalp.

The Final Takeaway

As it turns out, pH plays an important role in keeping your hair and scalp healthy. The products you use in your hair care routine and the pH level of those products can affect the state of your hair and scalp. By cleansing with a shampoo that has a lower pH, or one that's slightly more acidic, you are helping to maintain your hair's natural pH level. The result? A happy, healthy, and hair commercial-worthy mane.

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