Well, that’s a bit of a fib. I’ve washed my hair with shampoo maybe handful of times since 2007, usually after coloring it with henna or at the hands of stylists who refused to cut it without washing it. Aside from that, I haven’t washed my hair with anything other than baking soda, honey, or apple cider vinegar for the past several years, and I am pretty stoked about it.
This is commonly referred to as “No Poo”—a name I’m not crazy about, but I guess you can’t argue with 3,470,000 Google hits. I tend to refer to it as “shampoo-free haircare,” or simply “not washing my hair.” The underlying premise is as follows:
Sebaceous glands (which produce sebum—the oil on your face, scalp, and the rest of your body) function similarly to mammary glands (the ones that make milk) in that they work according to supply and demand. Just like cluster feeding in newborns serves to establish a strong milk supply early on (high demand = high supply), using harsh surfactants (like those found in conventional shampoos) to strip the oils from your scalp (and face!) every day signals to our sebaceous glands that they should be making more oil. Sebum, after all, is there for a reason—it makes our hair soft and protects our skin. Stripping away sebum every day leads not only to greasy roots, but to fairly brittle, damaged ends, since the sebum can’t be distributed along with hair shaft (with a natural bristle brush a la Marsha Brady) as nature intended.
In high school I had the classic greasy roots/dry ends conundrum, and no matter which “clarifying” or “moisturizing” or “damage repairing” shampoo I used, or how frequently I used it, my hair just kind of sucked. It wasn’t until someone broke it to me that washing my hair was the problem that I was able to break the cycle—first by simply washing my hair less, then by “washing” with conditioner only, and finally by dropping the shampoo and conditioner altogether at some point during my freshman or sophomore year of college.
I went pretty merrily this way for the next several years—”washing” with baking soda and “conditioning” with apple cider vinegar once or twice a week.People use lots of different methods, but here’s what works for me:
- I keep a jar of baking soda on the shelf in my bathroom. Before I shower, I scoop a couple of tablespoons a big jar.
- Once in the shower, I wet my hair very thoroughly, which takes a minute or two because my hair is very thick and porous and there’s quite a lot of it (even though it’s pretty short).
- When my hair is soaked, I fill the baking soda jar the rest of the way up with warm water, then pour it very slowly over my hair, stopping several times to “scrub” and make sure the soda mixture is distributed. I can tell when I really need to wash my hair because it will feel very slippery.
- Do essentially the same thing with apple cider vinegar: a couple of tablespoons in a jar, fill it the rest of the way up with water, then pour over. I typically don’t rinse the ACV out, though.
- Go on about my shower business.
However, as I briefly mentioned earlier, distribution of sebum along the hair shaft plays a fairly critical role in this no shampoo thing/no conditioner thing, and it turns out I’d only really addressed one half of the equation. Baking soda does a great job of gently stripping the oil from my scalp, but apple cider vinegar isn’t the best moisturizer. It definitely makes my hair smooth and less staticky, but it’s not an oil, and thus isn’t exactly moisturizing. I tried the boar bristle brush thing for a while, but my hair has just enough wave to get poofy when brushed, so I abandoned that pretty quickly and instead used the boar bristle brush as a makeshift dry skin brush until I was able to find a suitable replacement. To make up for the lack of natural sebum, I typically used coconut, jojoba, or argan oil as a leave-in conditioner. Because my hair is very porous this is okay, but I know it would leave a lot of people feeling a little too greasy.
Then, for Valentine’s Day Ben got me the handmade wooden comb from Kaufmann Mercantile that changed everything. Unlike the boar bristle brush, it doesn’t make my hair poof, and it also feels wonderful, and so I started combing my hair every night before bed. I have never really washed my hair according to a schedule—just whenever the roots started to feel particularly greasy or, when I’d been in smoky bar or a really sweaty yoga class. After using the wooden comb for a couple weeks, however, I realized I hadn’t felt the need to wash my hair, at which point I decided to see how long I could push it. After all, I work from home, and I wasn’t getting married for another few months. Here’s what I learned:
- When it’s warm outside, a month to six weeks is about as long as I can go between washes.
- Despite what I kind of assumed, my hair didn’t get progressively greasier until I couldn’t help but wash it. Instead, it looks pretty much the same for six weeks, and then suddenly I have to wash it.
- Wetting my hair without washing it only makes it get greasy faster.
- My hair doesn’t smell any better or worse than when washing with baking soda once or twice a week. That said, it really just smells like hair. Since I haven’t used shampoo in so long and I’m pretty sensitive to fragrance anyway, I don’t particularly miss it, but I know this is one of the biggest hurdles for people trying to limit or omit shampoo, so I thought I’d point it out. Adding a couple of drops of essential oil to the ACV rinse is really nice, but certainly doesn’t last the full month. I have considered adding a few drops of lavender to my comb at night and seeing what happens, but honestly I am usually already in bed when I remember and would just rather not getup again.
- A lot of people have complained that baking soda is just too harsh, and I think that can certainly be the case. To remedy this, many people wash instead with honey, a mixture of coconut milk and aloe juice, buckwheat flour, and all sorts of other things. For me, simply limiting baking soda to every four to six weeks and working hard to distribute the sebum in the meantime seems to be a nice balance and keeps my hair from being damaged by the baking soda.
I’m not saying you should throw away your shampoo and buy a wooden comb. However, if you feel like your roots constantly need washing and your ends are really damaged, breaking the cycle and baby-stepping into a low-shampoo or shampoo-free routine might help. Also, there is something really satisfying about not spending $5 to $20 a month on a plastic bottle full of crap I can’t pronounce, and I mean that in the least judgy way possible. If shampooing your hair makes you happy, then please continue to lather up! I know I won’t be giving up my red wine and Netflix marathons anytime soon.
So, how often do you wash your hair? Are you low-shampoo or shampoo-free? Do tell in the comments.