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Can you use human shampoo on dogs?

golden Doodle

We love them through thick and thin, but there are times when our dogs just need a good bath. They wade through puddles on the street, roll happily in the dirt, drop a shoulder and rub around on something dead or stinky in the woods. They might have itchy skin or just plain smell bad. Rather than face shelves of yet more specialized dog products, you might wonder if it’s ok to just use your own shampoo on your fur friend. However, this is a case where what’s good for us is not good for our dogs. While shampoos designed for humans will certainly get your pooch clean, they are formulated for human hair and skin and can cause irritation to your dog, so it is always best to use a product made specifically for dogs. 

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Skin Differences

One of the reasons dogs need a specifically formulated shampoo is that their skin is different than ours. While dog skin overall is thicker than human skin, the outermost layer of skin, or the epidermis, in humans is 10-15 cells thick, while dogs have a much thinner epidermis of only 3-5 layers of cells. This thin skin can be easily damaged and makes dog skin much more sensitive than human skin. Dog shampoos are specifically designed to protect this sensitive outer layer.  

It is also important to maintain pH balance on the skin. This is a measure of how acidic or alkaline something is. All mammals have different pH of the skin in order to best protect it, to keep moisture in, and to keep out bacteria. Skin also has an outer layer called the acid mantle, which is a thin protective layer over the epidermis to help maintain the proper pH. It is washed away when we bathe and our soaps and shampoos contain ingredients to protect the skin until the acid mantle renews itself. The skin needs to maintain the proper balance of acidity in order to effectively form this protective layer. Dog skin is less acidic than human skin. As a result, products designed for humans are harsher on dog skin and will strip away the protective layer of the acid mantle on dog skin and leave them more vulnerable to infections and parasites. Human shampoos can also dry out dog skin, which will lead to itching and flaking and possible wounds from over scratching.  

Watch out for fragrances

The first thing most dogs do after a bath is roll around in the grass or dirt outside. Even though we think they smell great, they don’t seem to be too pleased with that new smell. A dog’s natural odor conveys a lot of information about them to other dogs and helps them to mark their territory, and they might not want it covered with other scents. By rolling around, they could be trying to rub off as much of the scent from the shampoo that is masking their natural odor. The fragrances in some human shampoos can also prove to be too potent for dogs with their highly sensitive noses. If your dog seems irritated by the fragrance in their shampoo, choose one that is unscented.  

What if it’s an emergency?

It is very likely that there will come a time, and never a convenient time, when you dog needs an immediate wash and you only have human shampoo. A once-in-a-while wash will not harm them. Using baby shampoo or one that is formulated for sensitive scalps with natural ingredients such as tea-tree oil, colloidal oatmeal, or aloe vera will be the gentlest on your dog’s skin. Dish soap is another possible emergency fill-in. Only use the smallest amount that will get the job done, and be sure to rinse thoroughly to remove any residue that might be an irritant. A good rule of thumb is to rinse thoroughly until it seems like all shampoo is gone and then rinse once more. 

What to look for in a dog shampoo

Just like hair products designed for humans, dog shampoos come in a wide range of prices with a wide range of specified uses. There are shampoos for regular cleaning, for shiny coats, for sensitive skin, for itchy skin, for dogs with fur, for dogs with hair, shampoos that fight fleas and ticks or just to make your pup smell better. Check the ingredient list to make sure that there are no harsh chemicals or dyes added that can cause allergic reactions or even lead to serious health problems like skin disease or certain cancers. Ingredients such as aloe vera, oatmeal, and essential oils along with the proper pH balance will leave your dog smelling clean with a shiny, healthy coat and soothed skin.  

The bottom line

Shampoo is a product that you should purchase specifically for your dog. Whichever one you choose, know that a dedicated dog shampoo is the best and safest way to care for your dog’s coat and skin. Start with just a small amount to make sure none of the ingredients are irritating to your pup and be sure to rinse all shampoo thoroughly. Towel drying under ears and in any skin folds after bathing will help limit bacteria or fugus-producing moisture. Most dogs don’t need to be bathed very often, but it’s good to know that when they do, you are giving them a. product that will help keep them happy and clean—at least until they find that next tempting mud puddle.