Why You Should Never Use Human Shampoo on Dogs

by K Marie Alto February 23, 2022 10 min read

Why You Should Never Use Human Shampoo on Dogs

Have you ever dragged your water-averse 🐶 pup to the bathroom 🛁, only to find you're completely out of dog shampoo? Yeah, I know the feeling.

Has your fur baby ever rolled in something gross so an unplanned bath was added to your already busy day? Or perhaps it's just that time of the month where regular grooming rules say it’s time to give your pup a bath but you are out of dog shampoo? 

While it's evidently clear to every pet parent that dog shampoo is a regular necessity, for some inexplicable reason it's very easy to forget to add it to the shopping 🛒 list. The question then becomes, what can you do when it’s bath time, but you’re all out of shampoo?

Well, there are options, but one thing you should never, ever do is grab your own shampoo put a squirt on their back and start lathering up. Most human shampoo, is going to be bad for your fur baby. Let’s talk about why.

In this post, I discuss in detail the reasons why you should NEVER use your shampoo on your dog. From artificial fragrances used in human shampoo to the differences in pH levels to a few safe and gentle alternatives to dog shampoo. 

If you are interested in learning 🤓 more about dog fur care, my blog is packed with 📚 resources. Feel free to scroll all the way down to the read further section. I have written extensively about this topic.

Artificial Fragrances Can Make a Dog Sick

For starters, human shampoos are often packed full of a wide range of ingredients designed solely to provide the shampoo – and your hair – with a particular scent. In fact, the main difference between shampoo brands, and different products within a brand, is the scent combination. Whether it's eucalyptus mint, pomegranate orange, or sage and thyme, you can rest assured that all of these scents are made using synthetic ingredients 99% of the time.

Here's the thing about these chemicals, they are extensively tested and measured by the FDA to meet approval for use on the human head,  but not on your pup's. They're usually GRAS – Generally Recognized As Safe – so you can use them and not worry about your scalp drying out, your hair cracking, or your skin developing a rash.

The trouble is dogs aren't humans. As much as we call them fur babies and treat them like our children, they're a different species with different genetics and different biology.

Artificial Fragrance Sickness Image by Toe Beans

More importantly, organizations like the FDA only test for human compatibility. They don't test these products or chemicals on dogs to see if they're safe. That means you have no way of knowing whether or not your human shampoo is safe for your pup.

Many of the fragrance compounds in human shampoo are chemicals that dogs are sensitive to. They can absorb through the skin, but more often, they will linger on the fur. Your pup, when they lick and groom themselves, will consume those trace amounts of chemicals. What happens then if that chemical is toxic? Your poor fur baby can end up with an upset stomach or even poisoning.

The pH Balance of Shampoo is Important

Remember chemistry class all the way back in high school? If you don't, here's an extremely brief, super-simplified crash course.

The pH scale (which by the way stands for Potential of Hydrogen) is a measurement of hydrogen ions in a chemical or solution. The presence or absence of hydrogen ions determines the ability to strip away or erode other materials. In other words, it's a measurement of how acidic or alkaline the product or chemical is.

The pH scale goes from 0 to 14. Though chemicals can be outside the scale on either extreme, you'll never find those outside of huge warning label-covered bottles or industrial settings.

Here's a little chart we created with some everyday items to use as a reference point:

The pH Scale Image by Toe Beans

To put things into context:

  • Battery acid is a 0 on the scale, so it’s extremely acidic.
  • Coffee has a pH of about a 5.
  • Water is a 7, the most neutral part of the scale.
  • Those chalky indigestion tablets are a 10.
  • Bleach is a 13 on the scale, so very alkaline.

The human body and human biochemistry put us around 5.2 to 6.2 on the scale, making us only slightly acidic, around the same level as coffee or milk. Dog skin on the other hand is less acidic, ranging from about a 5.5 to a 7.5.  

Human shampoos are engineered to be around the same pH level as our skin, so it feels neutral. But, neutral to us is going to be on the acidic side for dogs. So, using human shampoo on a dog can feel like rubbing a mild acid on their skin.

For a human, a mild acid could be exfoliating. For a dog, it can be downright irritating. It can dry out and damage their skin, which opens up the possibility of itchiness and irritation or even a skin infection.

Human Shampoos Strip Oils Aggressively

Human shampoos are fairly aggressive in how they break down and strip oils from your hair, including the natural sebum that your scalp produces. The shampoos are also packed full of moisturizers and other chemicals that are designed to build a barrier and restore that sebum layer with a cleaner one. There's some debate as to whether or not we actually need to be doing all that to human hair, but it's not a debate that's going to be settled any time soon.

More importantly, we can pull it off because our hair can survive and thrive during that process. Dogs, however, have a much harder time with it.

Stripping Dog Fur Oils Image by Toe Beans

Dogs don't have the same kind of pores in their skin that we do. It's part of the reason why they don't sweat like us. Their skin is laced with follicles and glands that produce sebum, natural oil to help coat and protect both their skin and their fur.  

When you use a human shampoo on a dog, it strips all of those protective oils away and can leave their fur damaged and their skin exposed. This opens up the opportunity for infection, but it can also damage the hair and cause excess shedding as well.

It Can Aggravate Dog Allergies

Unlike the previous concerns, this one is more dog specific. Dogs with sensitive skin and/or allergies could have an allergic reaction to some chemical or compound in your shampoo, it can be a painful and irritating time for you both. Since human shampoo is extremely effective at cutting away the oil barrier between skin and the environment, all of those allergens get right in.

Aggravated Dog Allergies Image by Toe Beans

If you've ever had a rash, you know how hard it can be to not scratch at it and make it worse. Imagine the same thing, over your entire body. Imagine your pup who doesn’t understand that scratching is bad and isn’t going to relieve the itching, but instead make it worse. Would you ever want to see your fur baby in a cone while they suffer from full-body itching? Of course not.

I'm Out of Dog Shampoo, Can't I Use Mine Just This Once?

No! Absolutely not. You might think that using human shampoo might be bad, but perhaps you can get away with it once as long as you go buy some more dog shampoo for the next bath.

Using Shampoo on Dog Image by Toe Beans

Unfortunately, with the possibility of skin infections, irritation, allergic reactions, and ingredient toxicity, it’s a lotof risk to assume for your fur baby. We recommend avoiding human shampoos all together.

The best thing to do is put your poor smelly pup in their crate, leave them supervised in the yard, or otherwise get them taken care of long enough to swing by the store and grab a fresh bottle of canine shampoo.

If it's just time for their regular grooming, you could always push the bath off for a day and go pick up some shampoo next time you're at the store.  But what if your pup rolled in something really gross and you need a solution like right now?

What Can I Use Instead of Human Shampoo?

First, double check, maybe there is just a little doggy shampoo left, in which case you can add a little water to the bottle to help stretch it for one last bath.  But, if you’re completely, 100% out of dog shampoo, and you’re not able to go out to get more, there are a few dog shampoo alternatives.

And let's be honest here; we've all been there. It's a holiday, so all the stores are closed, you're out of shampoo, and your dog just rolled in something absolutely foul at the dog park. What is there to do?

Talk to pet-parent neighbors and borrow a cup of shampoo.

Have you considered asking around? Many of your neighbors probably have pets of their own, and if you know of any fellow dog parents, why not go introduce yourself, say hi, and ask to borrow a bit of shampoo? Who knows, maybe you and your pooch will make some new friends.

Using Borrowed Shampoo Image by Toe Beans

Try out a little baby shampoo.

Baby shampoo is human shampoo, yes, but it's chemistry has been adjusted to be safe for babies. Babies have slightly different biochemistry compared to adults, so baby shampoos are generally much more pH neutral, have very few chemicals and additives, and are very, very light on the skin. This makes baby shampoo fine to use (sparingly) when you're out of dog shampoo.

Using Baby Shampoo Image by Toe Beans

Of course, if you're not a new parent, you probably don't have baby shampoo lying around either.  

Try out diluted dish soap.

You might have seen pictures of wildlife recovery after oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, with miserable-looking birds covered in crude oil, being carefully washed and rinsed by rescuers and vets.

The secret weapon they use is actually a common household item: Dawn dish soap. Dawn, specifically, is a very neutral, very light formula that works extremely well at cutting out oil and dirt without harming sensitive skin or feathers (or fur) beneath.

All of the same properties that make it useful on wildlife make it acceptable to use sparingly on your fur baby too.

Using Diluted Dish Soap Image by Toe Beans

Just make sure you're using plain dish soap, not extra strength, grease-cutting, extra concentrated, or harsh soaps. Look for the blue bottle and steer away from any fragranced versions. 

Did you know that Dawn soap also makes for an effective flea bath? It’s often used on young puppies and kittens that haven’t reached a safe age for medicated flea dips. 

To use Dawn the key is to dilute it before using it. Use two cups of water, a quarter cup of Dawn, and half a cup of vinegar to make a perfectly safe, perfectly effective cleaning solution for your canine pal.

Word of caution, Dawn soap will have a drying effect on your pup’s skin, so it should only be used when you’re in a pinch and have no other choice.

Give dry shampoo a try.

Another option is to temporarily stave off odors and dirt by using a dry shampoo. Obviously, this option won’t work for when your pup rolls on nasty stuff but they can work just fine as a quick cleaner to cut down on odors or suppress some dirt before you can pick up more traditional shampoo. I wrote a full post about dry shampoo for dogs, so check it out!

Dry Shampoo Image by Toe Beans

You can also make your own makeshift dry shampoo using corn starch and baking soda. There are tons of recipes online, but it really all comes down to those two main ingredients.

They both absorb oil, and the baking soda helps cut odors.  Sprinkle it along your pup’s spine, rub it in and then give him/her a good brush to remove dirt.

Give a dog friendly spritz a try.

Dry shampoo can be a little messy, so it’s best applied outdoors, but what if it’s the dead of winter or pouring rain?  Our final recommendation is to pick up a dog friendly coat spray. Again, this option will not work to remove any nastiness stuck on your dog’s fur. For those instances, you're better off using the dawn option or the baby shampoo option.

A coat spray is great to keep on hand to help freshen up your pup every now and then.  Consider it like a doggy-safe perfume.  Most of these sprays aren’t going to do anything to solve the underlying smell, but they will help mask it.

These sprays are a great option when your pup comes in from the rain and you just want to save your nose from the wet dog smell.  It’s also a nice option when you need to push bath time off for another day because something else came up.  Just remember to not uses these coat sprays too frequently as they can have a drying effect on the skin.

Also, be aware that unless you get a USDA certified organic spritz, most  spritzes readily available online are made with low quality and questionable ingredients, and so it's reasonable to expect that they be loaded with synthetic fragrances, parabens, etc.

I wrote a blog post on 5 types of toxic ingredients present in dog grooming products that may be slowly poisoning your dog. So make sure to read the entire list of ingredients in these products before you buy. Prolonged use of these substances on your dog’s skin may end up irreversibly harming your pup’s internal organs.

To eliminate the risk of dermal absorption of such toxic substances, look for USDA certified organic spritzes. Never take products labels such as made with 100% “natural ingredients” as a proxy for safety. 

Dog Shampoo Product Claims to Question by Toe Beans

So, there you have it, human shampoo – a no no for dogs.  It’s just not safe.  We all know the saying: don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today. This old adage holds true in the vast majority of cases, but when it comes to your pup’s safety, it’s best to wait another day, or until the weekend to pick up doggy safe supplies.

If you absolutely, positively need to give your pup a bath, now you know some shampoo alternatives that will work just fine.

Have you ever given any of these alternative methods to dog shampoo a try before? If so, what were your thoughts? If not, would you be interested in giving one of them a go now? Which one catches your eye the most? Be sure to leave all your thoughts, comments, and stories down below! I'd absolutely love to hear them!

Read Further

K Marie Alto
K Marie Alto

K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 22K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-).


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