Just because we use something doesn’t mean we always understand it. It’s natural and perfectly acceptable to take most things at face value. A car engine works as long as you fill it with a sufficient amount of oil and gas; a furnace heats a home as long as you turn on the pilot light; a bottle of shampoo removes grease after lather it up. Unless you want to save money by doing car and furnace repairs yourself, there aren’t many reasons beyond curiosity to learn how, exactly, they operate. It’s also fine to use soaps and shampoos without knowing how they really clean—unless you’re looking for more natural and organic alternatives. If you want to find something that cleans as effectively but doesn’t contain all of the gross additives, you need to understand the mechanics behind soaps and shampoos.
From a chemical standpoint, soaps and shampoos have a difficult, almost impossible task: to remove both dirt and oil from skin and hair. Water is a fine combatant of grime, but it’s powerless against oil, which is often what holds dirt and dust to the skin. Soap and shampoo, however, have natural properties that work to remove both without leaving extra oil in the process.
The molecules in both products bind together in long strings—similar to oil. The difference, though, is that strings of soap molecules are like snakes with a head at each end. One side loves water, the other oil. Because they’re attracted to both, soap and shampoo can lure dirty oil away from the skin with one side while following water with the other. This bipolar property allows them to pull off all the dirt and grime from hair and skin, and then run off with the water in a tub or shower. Manufactured compounds can accomplish this, but many natural products work similarly. Most of them contain fatty acid salts, so if you’re looking for an organic alternative, be sure the active ingredient has this property.