The Evolution of Shampoo From 1927 to Today

The Evolution of Shampoo From 1927 to Today featured image
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This article first appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of New Beauty. Click here to subscribe

The evolution of shampoo as we know it, and what the future of hair-washing holds.

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A chemist and pharmacist named Hans Schwarzkopf created a violet-scented powder hair wash after hearing about it from a client of his who had seen it in England. Prior to this, and as early as 3000 B.C., women washed their hair with the same soap they bathed with, made from animal fat, vegetable oil and alkaline salt. “As the folklore goes, women during this time would grow their hair really long and just pile it up on their head. They’d wash it with soap when it got really greasy and dirty, but it did not smell good,” says James Jordan, brand manager of care and styling for Schwarzkopf Professional. “The powder smelled nicer, and you’d mix it with water and then wash your hair in a less-messy way. Hans began selling it in his small drugstore in Berlin, and then all over Europe and Russia.”

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Schwarzkopf launched the first-ever liquid shampoo in Germany, which made the hair-washing process easier because it combined the water and powder in one step (though most people only shampooed every one to two weeks). Then in 1933, he debuted an improved version, the first non-alkaline liquid shampoo called Onakali. “Earlier formulas stripped the hair of all dirt and oil, but over time people complained that it was making their hair matted, so they made a gentler version without the soap,” says Jordan.

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Procter & Gamble introduced its soap-free liquid iteration in the U.S. called Drene, which was made with synthetic surfactants and is closest to the modern formulas used today. According to celebrity hairstylist Giannandrea Marongiu, shampoo is the most essential item invented in modern history hair care, and this invention was the turning point.

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Though many powders were used over the years to absorb excess oil in the hair, the first commercially available powder “dry shampoo” was Minipoo, which was made with fuller’s earth, a clay-like ingredient.

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Head & Shoulders hit the market as the first anti-dandruff shampoo with zinc pyrithione, which took scientists 10 years to create and is now the leading ingredient used in shampoo made to fight flakes.

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In 1971, Klorane introduced its spray-form Dry Shampoo with Nettle in France, which was intended for new moms to use in the hospital, but has since became a global hair essential. In 1975, Batiste launched spray dry shampoo in the UK, and American hairstylists would fill their suitcases with it before leaving London. (It’s now the best-selling mass dry shampoo in the U.S.) “Before Batiste, I was using baby powder to solve oily hair disasters during fashion shoots,” says Marongiu. In 1980, Klorane made its way stateside and debuted new formulas, including its fan-favorite Dry Shampoo with Oat Milk ($20), which Marongiu says is “by far the most superior one I know from at least the past 10 years. It never leaves my kit.”

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Two-in-one technology was invented, taking the shampoo world by storm. “Before this, shampoos were just for cleansing, and you couldn’t add conditioning ingredients into them for extra care benefits without a total disaster,” says Jeni Thomas, principal scientist for P&G Hair. “P&G finally figured it out with Pert Plus ($19), and the technology led to a huge shift in the industry. It provided so much more flexibility in how one could formulate shampoo, and brands could now tailor the level of cleansing—low to high—as well as the level of conditioning.”

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Chaz Dean began creating what would become his WEN Cleansing Conditioners ($32) that cleanse and condition the hair without the use of sodium laurel sulfate (SLS), which was found in nearly all traditional shampoos at the time. This meant the cream wouldn’t lather (a radical concept back then), but the sulfate-free trend quickly took off and paved the way for others to follow. “Like most beauty products, the ingredients in shampoo have evolved for the better and become less harsh,” says New York trichologist Shab Reslan. “‘Bad’ sulfates could irritate the scalp, strip hair color and essential oils, and even potentially cause hormonal disruption, so many brands have worked to reformulate shampoos without them.”

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Until now, shampoos were designed and marketed for hair type: dry, oily or normal. “However, in the ‘90s, Pantene discovered that people could better find a match for their hair when shampoos were designed for benefits, like smoothing, volumizing and moisturizing, which was made possible due to two-in-one technology,” Thomas explains. “Up until 2000, Pantene worked to redirect the category to be led by benefit rather than hair type.”

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In addition to an increased focus on dry shampoo, shampoos with scalp-care benefits, and alternative ingredients for traditional sulfates and silicones, Thomas and Jordan agree that environmental concerns are driving innovation for solid formats like shampoo bars. “There are some really nice starting points out there, but there is still a lot of work to be done to match the experience we have with traditional liquid forms.” Jordan remembers when shampoo bars first came out: “They were messy, they didn’t really blend well and it was hard to use them in the shower, but some brands are doing them really well now—it’s actually a pleasant experience.” Pictured: LUSH Seanick Shampoo Bar ($13)

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