A Peek into the Long History of Shampoo

It is fascinating to think that words have just as much history bound to them as countries and societies do. They change with time and are molded into different interpretations, all based on the whims of the masses. Take the word shampoo for instance. The currently accepted definition of the word shampoo is any hair care product that is used to clean the hair and scalp. However, if we travel back just 300 years or so, the word would not have even entered the public lexicon.

India: The Land that Birthed the Shampoo

As it turns out, shampoos and the act of cleaning one’s hair was a common habit in the Indian sub-continent from as early as the 1500s. Our ancestors used to make concoctions from the pulp of soapberries and amla (plus a few other herbs). This served as a primitive version of shampoos and was used extensively. It was only after the British colonized India did shampoos make their way to the Western World. Ayurvedic additions like Amla, Shikakai and Ritha were quite common as well. They provided the concoctions with the ability to prevent hair fall, reduce dandruff and promote hair growth. The term shampoo is derived from the Hindi word champo which was in turn derived from the Sanskrit word chapati which translates to “to press or knead”.

Back in the 1700s, when the concept was introduced to the British from the then colonized Indian sub-continent, shampooing simply meant massaging one’s head. The concept was brought to Britain by the Bengali entrepreneur/ surgeon, Sake Dean Mohammed. Indian cooking and shampooing massage baths were the Bengali surgeon’s two most successful ventures in Great Britain. The notion of baths that provided an Indian take on a classic Turkish idea became quite prevalent among the people. The shampooing baths were the first in the tale of the hair product in the Western World. The baths proved to be quite popular. Popular enough for several kings to take a great liking to them. They ultimately appointed Dean Mohammed as their “Shampooing Surgeon”. Given his background as an Indian, gaining such reputation and prestige in the Western World was no mean feat!

Journey to the Western World

A particularly interesting series of etymological events took place around this time. In the 1870s the word shampooing was used pretty ambiguously. When the French were introduced to the same concept, they adopted the word as is. ‘Shampooing’ became the noun form and the act of shampooing (verb form) was ‘shampooiner’. (A quite fascinating episode that highlights the inconsistencies of languages)

It was only in the 1900s that the meaning of the word shampoo changed to match its modern interpretation. The year 1914 marked the first known commercial appearance of Canthrox Shampoo. Advertisements declared that the hair wash left the hair fluffier, silkier and brighter than before. The makers of the product also claimed that it cured dandruff, prevented hair loss and graying of hair. The next milestone year in the history of shampoos is 1927. Hans Schwarzkopf, the German chemist/inventor, developed and marketed the first-ever liquid shampoo. Prior to this, chemists sold shampoos in powdered forms. Customers would have to manually dissolve the powder in water for use. Schwarzkopf was also responsible for the creation of a powdered shampoo formulation in the year 1904. This ultimately led to the establishment of the Schwarzkopf Company and the widespread use of Shampoos in various European countries.

Transition to a Commercialized and Synthetic Shampoo

However, it was in 1930 that shampoos took the biggest step in their evolution. Up till this point, soaps and shampoos were almost inseparable from each other. Both used extracts from the same sources and were only distinguishable based on small manufacturing differences. Procter & Gamble was the first to make use of synthetic agents in shampoo manufacturing. In 1930, they introduced Drene, the first-ever shampoo created using synthetic surfactants. The key marketing feature of the product was the “glorious amounts of lather it produces” which was equivalent to five soap washes or so. Historians attribute another critical point in the history of shampoo to Dr. John Breck. Breck was responsible for popularizing liquid shampoos in the US with the introduction of the Breck shampoo in the 1930s.

By the ’70s shampoo had become a product that permeated to most parts of the world. Several ads claimed that shampoos were extremely useful and caused no harm even if it was used on a daily basis. And this was exactly what most companies preached back then, obviously as a marketing strategy to increase sales revenue. We all know what excessive shampooing can result in, but that is a tangent for another day.

The Tale of Shampoo before the Modern World

While shampoos only came into existence in the late 19th century, the practice of cleansing one’s hair using naturally available substances is thousands of years old. It was a common practice among the inhabitants of the Andes Mountains to save the water that was used to wash quinoa. Since the water contains saponins from the quinoa, the water was quite foamy and could be used to clean hair. Ancient Chinese communities preferred using the Cedrela plant to wash their hair, while ancient Greeks and Romans used vinegar to rinse and cleanse their hair.

The most extreme (and quite possibly the funniest) hair care regimen belonged to the ancient Egyptians. Their solution to greasy, foul-smelling hair was to get rid of it completely! In order to avoid hair-related issues like lice, they would shave their heads and instead use wigs (which in itself was routinely cleaned with lemon juice).
The trend of using naturally obtained supplements to wash one’s hair continued well into the 1900s, after which synthetic shampoo became all the rage. Over time, multiple renditions of the same concept resulted in the shampoo that we see and use regularly. We at Amrutam understand the need for hair care products that aren’t detrimental in the long run and have worked hard to create products that are continually beneficial. Our Kuntal Care Series has various Ayurvedically inspired hair care regimens and formulations that provide the best possible treatment for hair fall, dandruff and other issues. We also provide a diverse range of churnas, like the Bhringraj and Triphala Churna, which are great for remedying multiple hair-related problems.


As varied and interesting as the history of shampoo is, the Indian take on it (especially the art of Champi) is probably much more gripping! This is exactly what we will be covering in the next installment of this mini-series, so stay tuned!

Reference 1: Wikipedia – Shampoo

Reference 2: Watch: The history of shampoo