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Can You Use Human Shampoo on Dogs? A Complete Guide

Nicole Cosgrove

It never fails: You see your dog standing outside the door, covered from tip to tail in mud (at least, you hope that’s mud), but when you look in your supply closet, you discover that you’re fresh out of dog shampoo.

You know that you have plenty of your shampoo in your bathroom, but is it safe to use that stuff on your dog? After all, the last thing that you want is to irritate your dog’s skin or worse, give them much more shine and bounce than you’ve ever had.

As it turns out, you’re better off avoiding using your shampoo on your dog. It won’t kill them, but it’s certainly not good for them either.

We walk you through whether it’s okay to substitute your Head & Shoulders for their specialty shampoo and what you can do if you absolutely must bathe your dog without any of their soap handy.

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Is Human Shampoo Safe for Dogs?

The biggest reason that you should never use your shampoo on your dog has to do with our different pH balances. The pH balance is the level of acids and bases at which your body functions best.

Skin — both ours and our dogs’ — is covered by something called the acid mantle. This thin layer protects our skin from pathogens that would otherwise penetrate it and keeps our bodies hydrated by preventing moisture from evaporating.

When we bathe, we strip off much of that acid mantle. Most shampoos have ingredients in them that help regenerate the mantle, keeping your skin safe until the mantle can regrow fully. To do that, though, it must restore your pH balance to its regular state.

Dog taking a bubble bath in grooming salon
Image Credit: Masarik, Shutterstock

Here’s where things get hairy: Dogs and humans have dramatically different pH balances. Ours is quite acidic by nature, usually in the 5.5 range, whereas a dog’s is much more neutral (often between 6.2 and 7.4). That means a human shampoo will strip away much of a dog’s acid mantle and do little to replace it.

While your dog is waiting for their acid mantle to regenerate, their skin will be much more vulnerable to bacteria, viral infections, and parasites. The skin will likely dry out significantly, which may be uncomfortable for your dog. This leads to scratching, which leads to cuts, which leads to more pathogens. It’s a vicious cycle that usually ends poorly for your dog.

What Should I Do If I’m Out of Dog Shampoo?

If your dog desperately needs a bath but you don’t have any suitable shampoo in the house, don’t panic. There are several things that you can do in a pinch.

The first thing that you can do is search your house for a suitable alternative to dog shampoo. This could be baby shampoo, corn starch, baking soda, or a few other things. There’s a good chance that you’ll have some sort of alternative handy, so that’s a good place to start.

Baking Soda
Image Credit: evita-ochel, Pixabay

Of course, if the problem is just dirt or mud, you’ll likely be able to get away with simply rinsing your dog off and drying them thoroughly. If, however, the problem is odor, you’ll need something more powerful. Try mixing hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, and dishwashing soap, and then bathing your dog with that. Just don’t leave it on too long, or it might bleach their fur.

You can also use baking soda and vinegar in a pinch. The mixture is great for neutralizing odors, but the resulting aroma may not be much better.

One other thing that you can do is simply find a way to deal with the problem until a pet store opens the next morning. This may mean keeping your dog outside or in the utility room or just wiping them down with a towel as best you can. It’s not perfect but it won’t hurt your pooch either.

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I Already Used My Shampoo on My Dog. How Bad Did I Mess Up?

If you’ve already used your shampoo on your dog, don’t panic. Using your shampoo on them once isn’t likely to have much of an adverse effect, unless you really scrub them hard.

It’s repeated use that can cause issues. The more you use it, the drier your dog’s skin will become and the more susceptible it’ll be to infection.

dog laying on surgery table
Image Credit: Jaromir Chalabala, Shutterstock

Your dog’s breed matters too. Some pups, like Pit Bulls, are more prone to skin issues than others. If you have a dog with sensitive skin, using your shampoo on them will likely cause more damage than on a breed with a more resilient epidermis. However, a single instance is still unlikely to make much of a difference.

Just remember that the worst thing you can do is leave your shampoo on your dog’s skin longer than absolutely necessary, as it will continue to break down the acid mantle. This means that rinsing them off is more important than sudsing them up, and it should take at least twice as long.

If your dog is already showing signs of an adverse reaction, you should try to find dog shampoos designed for sensitive skin. These will likely have oatmeal or some other sort of calming agent in them, and they can help soothe angry skin.

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So, What’s the Verdict? Is Human Shampoo Safe for Dogs?

You shouldn’t use your shampoo on your dog unless you have no other option. It will strip away their skin’s natural oils, leaving it dry, flaky, and susceptible to disease.

However, it’s not the end of the world if it happens once or twice. It’s only continued use that will cause serious problems.

That doesn’t give you a free pass to use it, though. It’s a good idea to keep plenty of dog-friendly shampoo on hand, so you’re always ready for whatever kind of mess your dog tracks into your living room.

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Featured Image Credit: Igor Ovsyannykov, Pixabay

Nicole Cosgrove

Nicole is the proud mom of Baby, a Burmese cat and Rosa, a New Zealand Huntaway. A Canadian expat, Nicole now lives on a lush forest property with her Kiwi husband in New Zealand. She has a strong love for all animals of all shapes and sizes (and particularly loves a good interspecies friendship) and wants to share her animal knowledge and other experts' knowledge with pet lovers across the globe.