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Can you use baby shampoo on dogs? A vet's guide

Can you use baby shampoo on dogs? Corgi smiling happily in the bath with shampoo on head
(Image credit: Getty Images)

“Can you use baby shampoo on dogs?” is a popular question many pet owners ask when it comes to dog grooming. Fortunately, a single, isolated bath in baby shampoo is unlikely to be harmful for any dog. 

However, baby shampoo is not as gentle for dogs as you might believe. While you might think that something developed for use on babies would be safer for your dog than a good quality dog shampoo, that is not the case. In fact, repeated use of baby shampoo and other human shampoos can actually be harmful to your dog’s skin.

Is human shampoo safe for dogs?

While the shampoo that you use to wash your own hair might seem like a gentle and appealing option for your dog, human shampoo can actually damage your dog’s coat and skin. There are several key differences between dog skin and human skin; these differences mean that the two species require different types of shampoo for optimal results. 

Human skin and canine skin differ significantly in pH (acidity). Human skin is acidic, with a pH of 4.8 to 6.0. Dogs, in contrast, have more alkaline or basic skin, with a pH of 5.5 to 8.0. Human shampoos are pH-balanced to work well on acidic skin, while canine shampoos are pH-balanced for alkaline skin. Using human shampoo on your dog could negatively impact the pH of your dog’s skin.

Dogs also have thinner skin than humans. The outer layer of human skin, the epidermis, is estimated to be approximately 15-30 cells thick. In dogs, however, the epidermis is only three to five cells thick. The relatively thin skin of dogs means many products that are well-tolerated on human skin may have more significant adverse effects on dogs.

Is baby shampoo safe for dogs?

Baby shampoos are often considered to be more gentle than other human shampoos, because they contain fewer ingredients and perfumes. However, they are still intended for human skin — they are meant to be used on thick skin with an acidic pH. Therefore, even a seemingly gentle baby shampoo can be harsher on a dog’s skin than a high-quality dog shampoo. Baby shampoo is safe for one-off use in dogs, but avoid using it repeatedly, and choose a pH-balanced dog shampoo insteads.

Safe dog shampoo alternatives

So what alternatives are there to dog shampoo? Well, in an emergency, baby shampoo is unlikely to cause immediate pain or skin trauma for your dog. If your dog rolls in something disgusting in your backyard and you don’t have any dog shampoo available, a single bath in baby shampoo is unlikely to do any damage. However, it’s best to keep dog shampoo on hand for these emergency scenarios. 

But what do you do if you don’t have dog shampoo or baby shampoo? Other human shampoos are also fine for a one-off, but try to choose one with as few chemicals as possible. You should also try to avoid strong fragrances, which are often too strong for your dog’s powerful nose. And remember, keep it to a one-off use, because repeated bathing in human shampoo can dry your dog’s skin and lead to other negative effects.

Another option for a one-off dog shampoo alternative is dish soap. The pH of dish soap is a lot higher than shampoos and soaps designed for human skin. In fact, you may have noticed how drying dish soap and similar products are for your hands. This means that dish soap is much closer to the pH of dog skin, and can make a good substitute for dog shampoo as a one-off. Don’t use it too regularly though – it’s harsh and contains no conditioners, meaning it’ll strip your dog’s skin oils. This can leave them itchy and can lead to sore skin if used repeatedly. Try to choose a dish soap with as few fragrances and added chemicals as possible – the ‘original’ version is likely to be better for your dog’s skin than the one with added foaming degreasing power or rinse aid!

Will baby shampoo kill fleas on dogs?

Can you use baby shampoo on dogs? Bulldog sitting in a small tin bath

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Any shampoo, including baby shampoo, can be used to kill live fleas on your dog. Creating a sudsy lather and allowing it to sit on your dog for several minutes can effectively drown or suffocate fleas. When you rinse your dog, these dead fleas will also wash off your pet. 

While this may seem like a good idea, it is not a very effective method for dealing with a flea problem. As soon as your dog returns to your home or your yard, fleas will again jump back onto your dog. Bathing your dog does not provide any residual benefits. Instead, talk to your veterinarian about a prescription flea preventative for your dog. These preventatives, which are often given year-round, will treat your dog’s current flea infestation while also preventing reinfestation. There are severe flea preventatives available and your veterinarian can help you choose the best preventative for your dog. 

Choosing the best shampoo for your dog

When bathing your dog, use a shampoo that has been specifically developed for dogs. If your dog has any type of skin condition, such as allergies, your veterinarian may recommend a prescription shampoo that is specifically formulated to treat or prevent skin disease. For most healthy dogs, however, any over-the-counter dog shampoo can be a good option for routine bathing. 

For further information, our guide to the best dog shampoo can point you in the right direction. 

Dog bathing tips

Small dog wet in bathtub

(Image credit: Getty Images)

1. Avoid bathing too frequently

Dog skin produces far less oil than human skin, which means that dogs only need to be bathed when they become smelly or dirty. Monthly bathing is a good starting point for most dogs, although you may find that your dog needs to be bathed more or less often, depending on their coat type and lifestyle.

Unless specifically instructed by your veterinarian, do not bathe your dog more than once every other week.

2. Make bathtime an enjoyable experience

You will be bathing your dog approximately once a month for the remainder of your dog’s life, so it’s best to make bathtime an enjoyable experience. Give your pup a few of the best dog treats during bath time to help your dog develop a positive mental association with bathtime.

If you bathe your dog in a sink or bathtub, consider smearing some peanut butter along the edges. (Avoid sugar-free peanut butter, because it may contain xylitol, which is toxic to dogs.) Many dogs love the taste of peanut butter so they’ll often gladly stand still while licking peanut butter off a smooth surface! Keep water out of your dog’s ears during baths.

3. Clean your dog's ears

Moisture in the ears can predispose dogs to developing an ear infection, especially in dogs with droopy ears. If your dog is prone to ear infections, thoroughly clean your dog’s ears (using a dog ear cleaner) after bathing, to remove residual moisture. Rinse your dog thoroughly after bathing. Even a high-quality dog shampoo can irritate the skin if it is not rinsed fully, so it’s important to thoroughly remove all shampoo residue from the skin. 

Conclusion

Although the answer to the question “can you use baby shampoo on dogs?” is technically yes, it’s best to avoid doing so. Not only does human shampoo lack a dog-appropriate pH balance, it’s often too harsh for a dog’s thin skin. Talk to your veterinarian about the best shampoo for your dog in order to keep your dog’s skin and coat as healthy as possible.

Catherine Barnette DVM

Dr. Barnette received both her Bachelor of Science degree in zoology and her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Florida. She’s an experienced writer, educator, and veterinarian, with a passion for making scientific and medical information accessible to public and professional audiences.