From Ancient Ritual to Modern Essential: The Fascinating Evolution of Shampoo

The history of shampoo is a fascinating journey that originates from ancient times and evolves into the scientifically-formulated products we’re familiar with today. Shampoos are a relatively modern invention, despite being an integral part of daily hygiene routines worldwide today.

The word “shampoo” finds its roots in the Hindi word ‘chāmpo,’ which comes from the Sanskrit word ‘chāmpayati,’ meaning “to massage.” The word shampoo is first shown in print in “A Voyage to the East Indies” (1762), though its use to explain products for washing the hair did not develop until the 1850s. The concept of shampoo, however, far predates the etymology. The practice of using natural elements for hair cleansing and massaging can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilization, lasting from 3300 BCE to 1300 BCE, in what is now eastern Pakistan and northwestern India. Herbs like Sapindus, Indian gooseberry (amla), shikakai, and others were boiled together to create a hair cleansing solution. Sapindus, in particular, contains saponins, natural surfactants that lather and clean. This traditional blend of ingredients left hair soft, shiny, and relatively manageable.

In 1500 BCE, Egyptian cosmeticians also devised hair and skin treatments, extracting essential oils from plants like lotus flowers. These extracts were mixed with animal and vegetable oils such as olive oil, beeswax, and almond oil, along with alkaline salts to form a soap-like liquid substance.

Surprisingly, ancient Greeks were only familiar with soap for washing their hair in a limited way. Ancient Greeks often added wood-ashes to water to enhance its cleaning properties. Wood-ashes contain carbonate of potash, which acts as a detergent, but its caustic properties could harm the scalp skin of people if it was used at a high concentration level. Interestingly, there’s no evidence to suggest that carbonate of soda, known as nitrum in ancient times, was used as a cleaning agent for people, even though historical texts like those from Pliny mention its use in cleaning wool in preparation for dyeing.

Pliny, around 50 CE, first used the term ‘soap’ (sapo, σάπων), attributing its invention to the Gauls, a Celtic people who first emerged about 5 BCE, who used it to make their hair shine. According to him, the soap was a mixture of wood-ashes and tallow, and it came in two varieties, hard and soft (spissus et liquidus). Apparently, the finest kind was produced from beech ashes and goat fat and among the Germans, it was more often emploved by men than women. It was imported to Rome from Germany, mainly for young Roman dandies, and was often mixed with plant dyes to tint the hair red. Beckmann suggests that the Latin word ‘sapo’ comes from the old German word ‘sepe’.

The properties of soap largely depend on the alkali used in its creation. Using soda yields hard soap, while potash results in soft soap. As the ancients didn’t differentiate between the two alkalis and mostly used wood-ashes in soap-making, they likely produced soft soap. However, the addition of common salt during the soap-boiling process would convert soft soap into hard soap. Given that Pliny knew of both hard and soft soap, it’s reasonable to assume that such a method was used or at least imported from somewhere else.

In Aleppo, Syria, around 800 CE, there is the first clear evidence that a recognizable hard form of soap was created. Traditional Aleppo soap was made via a “hot process” where olive oil, water, and lye are boiled together in a vat over a fire for three days, forming a thick liquid soap. Laurel oil is added to the mixture, which is then poured onto a large sheet of waxed paper to cool and harden for a day. The cooling process was aided by workers who walked over the soap to achieve an even thickness. The soap was then cut into cubes, air-dried, and placed in a subterranean chamber for aging, which lasted between six months to a year. During this time, the soap underwent chemical changes due to air exposure, with the free alkaline content breaking down and the moisture content being reduced, making the soap hard and durable.

The concept of hair cleaning with soap traveled, evolved, and was adapted as it moved from one civilization to another following trade routes across the world. Contrary to popular belief soap was known about in the middle ages in Europe including England (!) where Bristol became a soap making center in the 11th Century according to the monk Richard of Devizes. However, the type of soap produced was soft soap made with oils.

By 1100 CE, European Crusaders, rather captivated by the hard Aleppo soap they found on their “travels”, began importing it from the Middle East to Europe in large quantities. Over time, Europeans began creating their own hard soaps, notably in Spain and Italy. The city of Castile in Italy became renowned for its “castile soap,” which was subsequently distributed throughout Europe. Though inevitably, this hard soap was expensive and only for the well-heeled.

For most people of the middle ages, their hair was washed with water, possibly mixed with ashes from the fire to produce a slightly soapy formula. Near the coast, European people sometimes burned seaweed to produce soda that could be mixed into the water and help with hair cleansing.  For the better-off, a mixture of ashes and egg whites was used, along with herbs and flowers for a nice smell. It’s difficult to determine how often people washed their hair in the middle ages, but it was probably not a regular habit. For some, cleanliness was seen as a sign of weakness or impurity and frequent washing of the hair and body was equated to a sign of sexual proclivity. For instance, in the 15th Century, Queen Isabella of Castile proudly claimed that she bathed only twice in her lifetime – once on her birth day, and the second time on her wedding night.

People in the 16th – 18th Centuries viewed cleanliness little better, particularly the first American settlers. At the time, many Europeans, irrespective of their social standing, had renounced routine bathing due to the prevailing belief that water was a carrier of disease. For those of a strongly religious view, the immoral nature of washing was also still prevalent. While soap was made, it was mainly used for household cleaning, washing clothes, and for dyeing wool. It took until the 1800s, before a cleanliness “revolution” developed and the idea of regular hair washing took hold. In America, the Civil War marked a turning point. Reformers advocated regular cleansing with water and soap as a health measure to support the Union’s war endeavors. In Europe, the change was driven in part by immigrants from Asia where there was much less superstition around washing.

In 1814 Sake Dean Mahomed, a Bengali entrepreneur, introduced the practice of regular washing to Britain. Mahomed opened a commercial “shampooing” vapour bath in Brighton, a precursor to modern-day spas. He also wrote a book on the benefits of regular shampooing, though at this time the focus was still more on massage and hair washing was only a small part of the process. The baths were very popular with many of the local people of Brighton and later, with visitors from London. People in the 19th Century weren’t oblivious to the benefits of regular bathing and hair washing, but the process was quite laborious. They had to heat the water, carry it to the bath, and deal with the rapidly cooling temperature, and then they needed to discard the water afterwards. Public baths significantly simplified the process, albeit for a price.

The 19th Century also saw a change in the meaning of the word “shampoo”. The focus gradually moved from indicating a massaging and bathing process towards a product name. In 1804 a debate in the Houses of Parliament briefly mentions a “dry shampoo” (probably meaning no water was added) used in a hairdressing salon. The discussion explains it was also called a “petrole” (oil based) and was highly flammable. By the 1840s, cosmetic formula books were listing the ingredients of a French “shampoo liquor” for use as a dandruff treatment. The key ingredients seem to be bay rum and cantharides.

A real breakthrough came in the early 20th century when commercially made shampoos started becoming available. In 1903, Hans Schwarzkopf, a Berlin chemist, invented a violet-scented powder that women could use at home without having to mix up their own shampoo or pruchase something made by the local pharmacist. It marked the first time that a ready-made shampoo product was sold in drugstores. Hair conditioner first came into existence as “brilliantine” in the 1860s, and was usually nicely scented glycerine with its original purpose being to soften beards and moustaches. The first commerical conditioner was invented by a Frenchman named Edouard Pinaud. His company unveiled this innovation at the 1900 World Fair.

In 1927, Schwarzkopf further revolutionized the hair care industry by introducing the first liquid shampoo, widely sold in Berlin drugstores and beyond. Just one year later, Schwarzkopf was granted a patent for a conditiner specifically for scalp hair called Schwarzkopf Haarglanz (hair gloss). However, these shampoos were still essentially soap made from organic ingredients. Soap in general leaves a dulling film on the hair and can cause significant eye irritation. There was an obvious need for a superior treatment for effective washing of hair, with less irritating side effects.

Shortages of fats and oils for soap during World Wars I and II also motivated the research and discovery of synthetic detergents. Proctor & Gamble developed the first detergent-based shampoo in 1934. These synthetic cleaning agents did a better job of cleaning hair and they were less likely to react with minerals and salts in the water supply compared to soap-based shampoos. It took until the 1950s for detergent-based shampoos to become more widely available in the US, even longer in Europe where recovery from WWII meant access to new products and innovations was limited. It took another 10-20 years for detergent based shampoos to finally dominate the market in the 1960s.

Since the 60s, perhaps the most significant shift in shampoo’s form factor came in 1987 when Proctor & Gamble released the first “2-in-1” shampoo, a product that both cleanses and conditions. While liquid detergent shampoo has become the norm over the last 80 years or so, a resurgence in organic, soap-based shampoos is evident today, as an increasing number of consumers turn towards natural products. This return to old style shampoos seems to be driven by wanting to avoid chemical detergents and a desire for plant based cosmetics.

From a humble beginning of herbal mixtures and soap-like substances to scientifically engineered surfactants and 2-in-1 formulas, the history of shampoo mirrors the evolution of human ingenuity and the continuous pursuit of enhancing personal hygiene and beauty.


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