The Power of Habits (and Foaming Shampoo)

How habits take shape in our brains—and how we can override them with new and (hopefully) better habits—is the subject of an exciting new book called The Power of Habits by New York Times writer Charles Duhigg.

I started reading it a couple of weeks ago and, ever the evangelist, have been talking about it to just about anyone who will listen since. You should all check it for yourselves, but here’s the opening premise:

For an act to become a habit, there must be a CUE, followed by a ROUTINE, and finishing with some sense of REWARD. When we start craving the reward before it happens, the act is transformed into a habit and imprinted so deep in our brains (literally) that even in some cases of severe brain damage, where most everything is forgotten, habits can still survive.

Example of a habit loop in action: If you’re a smoker—and FYI the lines between habits and addiction can often become blurred—talking on the phone might be a cue for you, the routine involves lighting up as you gab, and the feeling of reward could come from the nicotine itself or maybe the association between smoking and socializing.

The book posits—backed by exhaustive research—that if you want to change a habit, you must create a new one in its stead. So maybe instead of lighting a cigarette, you pick up a pencil and doodle while you’re on the phone, and when you’re off you admire your artistic skill and take pride in it. OK, pretty dumb example, but you know where I’m going with this. And if you don’t, Duhigg has created a helpful infographic on his blog (partially pictured above) to help people change their habits.

How does any of this relate to shampoo, or more importantly Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, that notoriously sketchy and stripping ingredient? For those not familiar with SLS (or its cousin SLES), it’s the stuff that makes most products foam and studies have shown that it’s often contaminated with a carcinogen. It’s also so harsh that it wreaks havoc on skin and scalps.

But part of why it was added to shampoos (and toothpastes, body washes and so many other things) is that studies by major personal care companies showed that consumers associated that foamy feeling with a reward (I’m oversimplifying here, but that’s the jist). And sure enough, if you ask anyone who’s ever  tried natural shampoos, they all miss that foaming feeling at first. I’ve even had people tell me they’re addicted to it!

Can you think of other products that use the habit loop to sell more stock? Exfoliation comes to mind—people definitely crave that feeling! And just for fun: Any habits you’re trying to break these days?

34 Responses to “The Power of Habits (and Foaming Shampoo)”
  1. Dylan says:

    I don’t think this is totally what you’re talking about, but I put on moisturizer 3 times a day now. It’s a habit, I suppose. My issue is that if I don’t, my skin gets dry and tight. That makes me think back to only two or so years ago when I could only put it on once or skip it entirely. I started wearing heavier and heavier lotions and oils because I just assumed they would be better for my skin. Now, I would love to not feel like I need to put some on a few times a day. I’ve been thinking lately about what I did when I wanted to start cutting back on washing my hair. I didn’t wash it for a whole month and it got greasy and gross as hell. Then when I did wash it after that month, I could go weeks without shampoo – my scalp had balanced out the production of its oils (I still wash my hair every few weeks because now instead of getting greasy it gets super dry and crunchy, so I put on a hair mask (coconut oil or castor oil or whatever) and wash it out and it feels clean and thick and soft). So I’m wondering if this is a habit that I can break or is it something I need to do? I know most habits feel like they are something you need to do…
    And to clarify, I don’t have any skin conditions or eczema or anything. And I’ve tried a million different products, from lotions to creams to night creams to oils to serums (I now am using only coconut oil on my face, excluding make up).

  2. DW says:

    I’m sure I will get driven out of here with pitchforks and torches, but I tried the natural shampoo thing for the better part of the year. All the nice brands you mention on here, following the advice of others, washing only every 3 days, etc. And it was horrible. It weighed down my hair, left me with horrible acne all along my scalp line and forehead, etc. When I would go into get my hair cut, they would have to wash my hair 2 times with special cleaners to get everything out. And they’d usually say, \What are you using?!\ They were amazed when I said no products, just natural shampoo and conditioner. After seeing the writing on the wall, I gave up the natural shampoos 3 months ago. My acne has completely cleared up and my hair actually moves on my head. I now use a \dirty\ shampoo, but it has no parabens, sulfates, etc. and is vegan. And I couldn’t be happier.
    So for me, it wasn’t about the lathering effect — I returned to the traditional brands because the natural ones were actually harming my hair and skin.

  3. ALICIA says:


    I think you are right about your habit of using lotion so often that it is making your skin want it more often. People have the same thing with chapstick/lip balm. Some people who use it heavily will get chapped lips if they don’t use it, but after a few days of not using it, they won’t need it anymore. I have tested this theory with people in my family and coworkers- it just drives me batty to see people compulsively putting chapstick on all the time! I wonder how much chapstick they eat each year…

  4. Rebecca says:

    My salty toothpaste has become a habit (Miessence). I love the way my teeth and whole mouth feel after using it. The feeling of lip balm is another one for me and probably lots of people.

    I am one of those very sensitive to SLS and have a much healthier scalp, mouth, and general skin since eliminating it. I do not miss foaminess in shampoos, though occasionally I remind myself that clean does not equal crazy foamy. If anyone is looking for a natural shampoo that lathers but is super gentle, try Griffin Remedy or Green Body Green Planet.

    This isn’t a product, but, a positive habit I have is morning yoga. I cannot start my day without it. Wake up, go to the bathroom, do yoga. The reward is feeling great – energized and flexible. Actually, I think my whole morning routine is a deeply ingrained ritual/habit. I feel very upset if something messes with my routine.

    I’m trying to break my stress eating habit. I’ve had it my whole life, broke it for a long while, but have been back on it the past couple years. I’ve never read that book, but I have been trying to replace that habit – with aromatherapy for example. So far I’ve had some luck but I’m not done with the work yet.

  5. zimt-peppermint says:

    This isn’t new, weren’t there books about that already?

  6. Ann says:

    Hi people! I recommend anyone and everyone read the book Feed Your Face. This can be better than any expensive creams or treatments, for any age and skin condition.

  7. Liv says:

    not about cosmetic but i lately try to always take the stairs instead of elevator or escalator. Even at my new job i take the stairs to the 8th floor (in USA english it is even the 9th ;)) it is really just a change in your mindset and it works great :)
    Cosmetic wise i skipped night cream as Dr.hauschka recomments and after a month of getting used to it i feel great and even deliberated :) also i only shower every 3rd day and wash my hair once a week (used to every other day) all about routine and habit.
    Greetz Liv

  8. Rebecca says:

    @DW, wait a second, just grabbing my pitchfork…okay, now, I’m wondering what specifically you’ve tried. It sounds like you were reacting to some ingredients – maybe essential oils, or gluten, maybe a nut oil allergy, something. Might be worth a thought so you don’t encounter a similar reaction down the line. Clean doesn’t necessarily mean good for everyone, there are plenty of clean products I can’t use due to my many sensitivities. If the brand you are currently using doesn’t use parabens, sulfates and whatnot, maybe it’s not all that dirty. Anyway, lots of people here mention using some not-so-clean products and there’s generally support for each of our choices on the clean product journey.

  9. Rebecca says:

    @Ann, I’m not familiar with that book, but I’ve often said that I feel the food I put in my body is more important than products I put on it. It’s true for all your other organs, skin too.

  10. Alex says:

    I’ll just pop in to recommend Giovanni shampoos to anyone who’s having a hard time switching over to something more natural- they lather wonderfully, they smell great without artificial fragrance, and more importantly, my finicky, dry end + greasy roots hair thrives on it. I tried the baking soda and vinegar thing a few years back and my hair felt awful…same with some of the other more natural brands. But I love this stuff.

  11. jen says:

    My two worst are stress eating and picking at my zits! although I’m getting better at not doing the latter . . .

  12. Jo says:

    The thing is this: I know that a shampoo can clean your hair and scalp effectively WITHOUT lathering much at all, but seriously, I NEED lather. Not really bevause it gives me a good feeling or anything, but because without any lather I cannot for the life of me wash my hair properly! I don’t know, maybe it’s the really hard water where I live, but if I don’t get sufficient lather with a shampoo I simply can’t, well, move it around my scalp properly. This in turn leaves me no choice but to use about half the bottle of shampoo, and still end up with greasy spots on the back of my head. I know, gross. This has been my experience with ALL the shampoos by John Masters Organics, for example, and even Max Green Alchemy and several other equally great natural and organic companies.

    Thankfully I’ve now been using all of the shampoos by Acure for quite some time, which have been amazing! I mean they lather quite a bit, but with MUCH better ingredients than those in conventional shampoos.

    What I wanted to point out was basically that sometimes a bit of lather IS actually needed, and not because we all crave the satisfaction factor of it (although I do obviously feel very satisfied with having properly washed hair), but simply because not everyone has the right hair type for a shampoo with little or no lather.

    Oh, and I do want to point out that I still respect e.g. John Masters Organics as a brand. What I’m saying is that this just goes to show that every great product sadly isn’t great for everyone who tries it. :)

    –Sorry for a lengthy post! —

  13. Liz says:

    DW, what do you use? After three years of natural hair productsb(anything I could my hands on) and many routines, plus hundreds of dollars I cannot get nice hair with all natural products.

  14. Lynn says:

    Lol..this is so true!Even for a dry hair me,I’m addicted to that foam when it comes to shampoo!:D In general,most people associated clean=tight feeling after washing hair/face. Some natural shampoos are good,other just got me dandruff..

  15. Emma says:

    Manicures and pedicures! And lip balm!

  16. Katie says:

    Jo, I agree with you. I have tried several different natural shampoos without much luck.
    I have fine hair so It gets oily quickly and I am thinking I might have hard water also because sometimes when i would wash my hair with a natural shampoo it would feel oilier then before I washed it, especially the nape of my neck and back of head areas. Maybe like you said because there was not much foam i couldn’t get everything clean.
    But I have had best luck with Acure Shampoo too, it lathers better then most and has gotten my hair the cleanest.

  17. DW says:

    Thanks for not driving me out, everyone.
    @Liz: welcome to the club. I now use L’oreal Evercreme Nourishing Shampoo and Conditioner. Like I said, it’s free of a lot of the bad stuff and incorporates natural ingredients. It works for me — maybe it won’t for you, who knows? I’ve found that some natural products work for me(love my natural make-ups and skin care), but other don’t (shampoos and deodorant). I feel that at least if I’m using as many natural things as I can, I’m ahead of the game from where I was a few years ago!

  18. Jan says:

    I like two clean brands for hair care: Giovanni and Just Say Yes. I love the Giovanni Balance shampoo (it has some lather, which I like) and the conditioner is wonderful.

    I have also tried Just Say Yes to Carrots shampoo and I like it pretty well also. It has some lather and works fine on my hair. I was delighted to find these brands of clean shampoos and I have liked their results very much (I have been using them a year). I also like the fact that some Giovanni and Just Say Yes products are available at Target and some drugstores, so I don’t have to make the long trip to a health food store.

  19. Marie says:

    @Jo: I was about ready to give up on SLS-free clean shampoo altogether for the same reason. Before I finished the bottle, I took a trip to visit my parents, and washed my hair at their house with my shampoo, and was stunned by how much better my hair felt and how much easier it was to wash my hair. It still didn’t lather very much, but the shampoo, like, spread around easier. I asked my mom about it, and she pointed out that they have a water filter on the shower head, and suggested that perhaps my water at home was just too hard and needed to be filtered. I’ve also always noticed how much happier my skin is when I’m there (I figured it was the weather?), and how my face never feels gross and tight after a shower there. When I forked over and bought a shower-head water filter for my house, I realized it was the water all along – BEST purchase I’ve ever made! My skin and hair are so much happier, and I use so much less soap & shampoo than I used to.

  20. Manue says:

    All of my ‘natural shampoos’ lather. I’m thinking I should probably revisit the ingredients…
    Finding affordable, clean shampoo in health stores in my area is not so easy. While I’m quite comfortable with ordering nice make-up and skincare online, I use a lot of shampoo (long, thick hair, washed about 4 times a weeks when I work out), so I cannot bring myself to face the price tag of ordering Living Nature or Rahua shampoos.
    I like using Burt’s Bee Baby Bee Shampoo & Wash (fragrance free), especially as an all-in-one for my gym bag.

    @Alex I remember seeing Giovanni in health stores; I’ll give it a try!

  21. Amy says:

    @DW – I’ve had similar problems and thought I was alone! Luckily I haven’t broken out from natural shampoos, but I honestly don’t like my hair as much. I have fine hair but a TON of it, and with dirty shampoos my hair was always light, fluffy, voluminous and soft even without conditioning. My hair tends to get oily at the roots easily so I wash it every day and usually blow dry it, occasionally straighten it (it has just a bit of wave to it).

    After I started using natural shampoos my hair began to feel really heavy, less fluff and volume, and sometimes the ends get really dry. I started out using Aubrey’s, and have also tried Hugo, Giovanni, Andalou, and Acure. I know everyone on here loves Acure, but it was actually one of the worst for me – my hair gets completely flat and dull with it. Each shampoo I tried seemed to work well at first but after a few weeks of using it it does the same thing – gets weighed down and kind of wiry, like it doesn’t move naturally. It’s hard to explain… but I’ve basically been alternating about 3 bottles of natural shampoo in the shower trying to decide what to do with my hair… I definitely don’t want to go back to putting chemicals in it, but I’m not really satisfied with the current state of things. Occasionally if it feels really coated I’ll wash with baking soda which temporarily helps. I condition the end about once a week with Andalou conditioner, and sometimes put pure Aloe on the ends before drying. But it’s completely unpredictable how it will act and it’s driving me nuts.

    Anyone have suggestions? I miss how awesome my hair used to be and would love to find a balance…

  22. Kelly says:

    I think the thing about clean shampoos is that you really do have to go through quite a lot of trial and error. I finally found something I like for my (fine) hair, Acure volumizing shampoo, which I’m sure a lot of people have tried because the brand itself makes really great products. I honestly do notice that sometimes it doesn’t feel like it rinses clean, but it could also be in part because of the hard city water I use. It is a great shampoo though because I don’t have to use the conditioner everyday it is so moisturizing and when I do I just use it on my ends as my scalp/hair tends to get pretty oily easily. Every once in a while if I feel like I have some buildup I use One Love Organics easy does it cleanser which you can really use for everything-face, body, and hair- if you want. This stuff FOAMS (although the foaming thing has never mattered to me one way or another except with toothpaste for some reason). I’m not sure what they use, I know it is not SLS or SLES, but it is pretty fantastic and even though it foams so much it definitely has never felt like it’s “stripping” anything away from my skin or hair.

    On a side note, I am trying to break my soda drinking habit because I know it is about one of the worst things I could be doing. I’ve tried several times to stop but I always get the craving and have to have one-has anyone broken this habit and if so how? Thanks!

  23. chloe says:

    @Amy–have you tried John Masters? I really love his hair products, they are light and smell delicious.

    Funny to read a post about foaming shampoos. I’ve been using clean products for years now, so for me, foaming means toxic. I do remember when I first started using green products, I missed the foaming and wondered if it really cleaned my hair. It just takes some getting used to, but now I will never go back. I think there are so many good green hair companies out there (I switch between John Masters, Giovanni, Aubrey and Acure), there is no need to use the baking soda.

  24. Amy says:

    @chloe – no, that was next on my list actually. maybe I just need to find the right one! I’ll keep trying. Thanks!

  25. Rebecca says:

    @Marie you make an excellent point about the water filter. I’ve always felt like filtered water is better for my skin and hair. I’ve had a filter in my shower longer than I’ve had clean hair products. It’s been surprising for me to see people saying they can’t get their hair clean with clean shampoos – I had the opposite problem on my search for a good match for my hair (way too squeaky clean). Maybe that’s at least partly because I have a filter.

  26. nicolem says:

    When I went through cleaning up my products, I tried LOTS of expensive natural shampoos and in the end have settled down (very happily) with the Tea Tree Shampoo and Conditioner from Trader Joe’s. As far as I can tell, it’s actually clean (although it does foam), and the conditioner leaves my hair feeling nice and sleek–which doesn’t happen with a lot of conditioners, clean or not. I just pray that they don’t change the formula, because it’s so nice to have something clean that works and that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg…..

  27. Caroline says:

    I’ve tried a bunch of pretty green shampoos and most of them I dislike. I have a ton of hair that’s long, thick and wavy. I wash my hair every other day or every third day generally. With a lot of the green shampoos I couldn’t even get them into the center of my scalp (Hugo, I talking to you!)– I have the same problem as Jo does. So I would have this patch of hair in the center of my scalp where it was always crazy greasy because I just couldn’t get to it. And, yes, I would put shampoo directly there but it wouldn’t move under my hair. It just didn’t work.

    I recently tried Acure which I know everyone loves but I’m not a big fan. It does make my hair super soft but I have to use a *ridiculous* amount of conditioner to even remotely be able to get a comb or brush through it. And even then it takes me 10 minutes to brush my hair and I feel like I’m really damaging it when I brush it it’s so knotted up. So, I’m not too happy with it. I’ll finish the bottle but I probably won’t buy it again. Many green shampoos I’ve just chucked without finishing them.

    The two I am happy with are the Giovanni Deep Moisture and the John Masters Bare. I think Giovanni is only so-so green on the spectrum and I find it super lathery but I just feel like my hair is clean and not a pain in the a$$ to deal with when I use it.

    I love the smell of Acure and I’m super bummed that it doesn’t work very well for me. Anyone else have my problem? Brushing is just a freaking disaster with it.

  28. Kat says:

    This is a shampoo that I recieved as a gift from a friend and it turns out they deliver within the US:

    It’s the first time I actually found a clean shampoo that I liked. I used to have all the problems a lot of the posters here have. With other brands I’ve tried, my scalp would get oily really easily but, paradoxically, the ends of my hair would always end up dry and crunchy with awful split-ends after trying them out for a month. I got this one and it was great. It has a nice amount of foam, gets my scalp clean, and my hair is always soft without my natural waves being weighed down. The conditioner that came with the gift basket seemed junky (mostly cetrimonium chloride, an anti-static agent) so I never used it. I don’t like conditioners anyway. This shampoo works best if I work a couple of drops of argan oil into my hair the night before. When I shampoo in the morning my hair is always really soft and full of body.

    The rest of the products from this company that I got in my gift basket didn’t seem all that great. They seem to throw the term “organic” around pretty liberally without any third party certification. But the shampoo was awesome and the ingredients list looks good. And it’s cheap!

  29. Moksha says:

    Shampoo aide, this information on habits is one that can really be taken to heart. If you want to approach it from an esoteric perspective, the teacher George Gurdjieff (1877-1949) said that every human is born with a body of habits. Humans are designed, from an evolutionary need, to have habits. The issue is that they are primarily unconscious habits. We can not drive out our unconscious habits, but can replace them with conscious habits. It was start using this, we can evolve considerably. I am trying to do it currently with negative thoughts toward myself and others whereby anytime I catch myself having them I force myself to mentally list positive attributes that I observe in myself and others. It is interesting how it is developing.

  30. Liz says:


    Try drinking low sodium soda water. The bubbles will help your mouth think you’re drinking a sugary soda.
    You can start by adding lemon or lime to it, or any kind of juice to give it a bit of color. Even a bit of stevia to make it sweeter. Then cut out the juices and stevia when you are ready, and you’re just drinking water :)

  31. Dawn says:

    I’m always convinced that I’m suffering from some new, rare, fatal illness…so I’m trying to overcome that.

    The book sounds like it’d be right up my alley!

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