Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Why I Stopped Using Shampoo, Why I Started Again, and What I've Learned Along The Way

I know a lot of people who are interested in living a more natural life, getting away from unnecessary chemicals and skin irritants. They've told me about their own health concerns and their relation to commercial products they were using.  In general, the idea of using fewer products is attractive to many of us who are a) exhausted with trying to keep up with current beauty standards and routines, and/or b) alarmed or concerned by the way these products are affecting us.

So, while I've told you all about my olive oil skin care (and received overwhelmingly positive feedback), I've also been eager to share my shampoo-free experience for some time now.  Honestly, I was hoping it would work beautifully and I'd have another naturally effective, safe and frugal practice to recommend to you.  Alas, at least for me, it was not to be.

But, while the no-shampoo thing didn't quite work out for me, I discovered a lot of really legitimate problems with popular commercial hair products.  Based on what I've learned, I'll never, ever go back to Pantene, Herbal Essences or even my beloved Redken leave-in conditioner.  And, my husband and my future kids will never use them, either. They all contain the same garbage, and it all screws up your scalp and hair (to say nothing of the water and sewage systems and the damage done to the environment).  Which, as I'll get into in my next post, is really the least of our concerns.
Let me back up.  For those of you who haven't heard of this outrageous-sounding practice before, "no-'poo" is a shortened version of 'no shampoo' and it means quitting the use of commercially produced shampoos, and usually conditioners as well, and often all other hair products.  You use a gritty/scrubby paste of baking soda, salt, or coarse sugar to clean the scalp and hair.  This acts as the shampoo or cleanser.  The other elementis the acidic rinse, which works as the conditioner, and is usually one ingredient: diluted apple cider vinegar, strong black tea, or weak lemon juice.  As I understand it, this step restores the hair to its proper pH balance. There are numerous ways to do no-'poo, but they all involve mostly stuff you can find in the kitchen.

So, if this is a new idea to you, you're probably asking yourself...why would anyone ever do this?  Actually, there are a multitude of reasons to get away from popular hair products. First, what traditional shampoo does, while a small percentage of it is actually busy cleaning, is strip your lovely hair of its essential oils and moisture.  This requires you to use conditioner, as your hair has very little moisture left, and usually multiple styling products.  Which, if you think about it, you also have to purchase, preferably (so they say) from the same line of products. Huh, it's like they thought this through, to get you to spend more money...  You buy their shampoo, which necessitates a half-dozen steps to superficially remedy the problems caused by the first chemical bath.  Except that everything else is also a chemical bath and doesn't actually help, though it might seem like it does.

It's a vicious cycle.  Your scalp, continually deprived of everything it needs to be healthy, produces larger and larger amounts of oil.  And how do we respond?  Like monkeys, we do what billions of marketing dollars have trained us to do.  We reach for more and more, pricier, stronger, harsher products to compensate. It never occurs to us that what we used in the first place is the real problem.

So take away the ickyness that is regular shampoo, and your scalp is happy...at least after it realizes it doesn't need to produce extra oil.  There's a transitional period before it adjusts.  But after that, obviously except in the case of a genuine medical problem, your scalp should regulate itself, like it's designed to do.  It'll still need occasional cleaning, but many people who don't use shampoo find they need far fewer washings...often about once a week or less.

Before I realized all this, though, I had my own reasoning for at least changing my own hair care routine.  I didn't start doing no-'poo in a paranoid frenzy.  Rather, I had some icky dandruffy issues that wouldn't go away, not even with the most medicated off-the-shelf shampoo in the store.  (Eventually I found out I really need to stay away from it.  But more on that later.)  I'm really opposed to going to doctors unless I'm genuinely ill, and itchy scalp does NOT count as being ill. So prescription shampoos, also known as Horridly Stinky and Toxic Chemical Dumps of Black Danger, weren't an option.  

I wandered into the no-shampoo community and stayed around for nearly five months.  Yep, you read it right. Sorry if it grosses you out, but starting early last October, I totally quit using shampoo and conditioner on my hair.

Starting out, it was beautiful.  I used a baking soda paste and weak lemon juice, along with a few carefully chosen essential oils: tea tree oil to help with dandruff, and lavender and peppermint for fragrance.  I scrubbed and scratched the baking soda mixture into my scalp, and at first it really stung, but that's also how I knew it was working.  Afterwards I'd do a quick rinse with the lemon juice mixture (about 1 cup in a 16-ounce bottle).  The lemon juice worked, and still works, like a miracle.  The baking soda left my hair squeaky and clean for sure, but very tangly.  The lemon juice, like magic, transformed the mess into a silky waterfall of hair.  After the very first non-shampoo wash, my hair was noticeably softer, cleaner and much more manageable.  It was incredible. I hadn't expected the lack of shampoo to affect my hair (again, this is before I knew what I now know). My hair was amazing.  It dried almost immediately, was probably 90% less frizzy, and needed VERY little hair product to keep the curls defined and glossy.  And more importantly, my dandruff was gone in less than a week! Overall, it was pretty much a miracle for me, and if I'd had this blog then, I'd probably have recommended it to everyone wholeheartedly. 

If only it'd have stayed that way.  Sure enough, shortly after I began, I had a very oily scalp (the transition period).  This lasted a few weeks, and I almost gave up.  Eventually it ended, but my hair never really recovered. And, over time, it's like the baking soda wouldn't come out of my hair anymore. My theory is that, perhaps due to our horribly hard water and low water pressure, the baking soda accumulated in my scalp.  There was this grimy residue, no matter how much scrubbing and rubbing and rinsing I would do.    It just...built up.  No dandruff, no flakes.  Just an overall residue.  I was devastated. I really wanted no-'poo to work!

Fast-forward another month or two. (Yes, I tolerated it for that long.) My hair, once shiny and bright, was heavy and dark. (If you and I crossed paths during that period, I apologize for my appearance, and now hopefully you understand.)  I wanted this no-shampoo thing to work like it had at first...but I was sick and tired of the way I looked. I got into the shower at 6 a.m. one morning.  I'd forgotten to mix up my weekly batch of baking soda stuff and the bottle was empty in the shower.  Next to it was Justin's shiny, purchased bottle of all-natural, paraben and fragrance free shampoo.  I caved.  Even though it didn't lather much (real shampoo won't), the bubbles and freshness were luxurious.

So, long story short, I'm done with no-'poo. The shampoo I'm now using is the only one that passed our highly objective and scientific Smell Test, as we perused the small offering of natural hair products at Hy-Vee.  It's by a company called Jason Naturals, and it's about the same price as the last dandruff shampoo we were buying. It's really wonderful for my hair, which is now free to be genuinely shiny and soft. We are still saving money overall, because I don't buy any fancy, expensive (and still just as damaging) salon products.  Justin and I use the same shampoo, so that part's easy.  Plus, I use the diluted lemon juice as conditioner.  It still works like a dream!
If you're up for a challenge and some creativity, I'd encourage you to try going without shampoo for a while.  I know many people who swear by it. If the idea grosses you out, there's still an important lesson: many popular commercial hair products are still very bad for your scalp and hair, and even if you aren't up for no-'poo, you should look into finding healthier, more natural products that don't ruin the normal balance of your scalp and hair.

But the real problem isn't even the superficial damage done to your scalp.  Your skin is your largest organ, and the most porous. Whatever we put on our skin, especially repeatedly over time, and when it's in many different products, ends up in our bodies and in our bloodstream. And, frighteningly, it's even being shown to affect the brain development of children in utero.  Overall, while research is in the beginning stages and no one should be screaming in terror, it's pretty clear that there are more than enough reasons to throw away what you were using (recycling the bottle, of course) and start fresh. Or at least finish the bottle and buy a different product next time. My next blog will be about these problems...read it here.

In the meantime, you can read for yourself:
Why It Matters
Maybe you didn't know: The FDA does not test safety of personal care products
Top 20 Worst Offenders/Brands of Greatest Concern
Your Shampoo Is Made of Psychology

And you can search the Skin Deep records to see what's really in your favorite products.


  1. Wow. I am impressed! And very interested in trying this. Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. Hmmm, I had tried this before but gave up pretty quickly. Maybe I should try longer - - and use the lemon juice rinse as well!


  3. Thanks for stopping by, Hannah and Laura! My next post will also be really important...don't leave forever :)

    Laura, I found this LiveJournal community to be very helpful! You can see what issues other people are having, and search by keyword. I got pretty much all my ideas from this place, so if you want to get back into no-'poo, you should check it out! http://community.livejournal.com/no_poo/

  4. Nikki, I've officially gone 'no-poo' as of today. Here's to my 6-week trial run and hoping it keeps working. :) So far I love how un-itchy my scalp is today. I love how inspired I am by you!

  5. Hannah, that's great! I hope it works out for you. Let me know if you have any questions...also check out the link in my last comment for lots of ideas!

  6. I love this post, and I am impressed that you went 5 months without shampoo! I've been on a long journey to find the ideal natural shampoo for my hair. I did the baking soda routine for a couple of weeks but it just wasn't working with my very long, thick hair. Now I'm using California Baby shampoo, which seems to be working beautifully.

  7. I just had to comment, even though you wrote this post a while ago: I started with no poo in September 2008 and I had a lot of trouble in the beginning, I suppose that was the detox period. But I also had a hard time finding a routine that worked for me. By January 2009 I found a way to make it work for me: I put some baking soda in a cup, dilute it with water, pour it over my head and scrub it in.
    But I was only using baking soda and nothing else, and over time I got the same problem you had: build-up from the hard water, the grimy residue you're talking about. I realized I was being stupid to skip the acidic rinse! So I changed my routine at the end of the summer to include using a small spray bottle with white vinegar, not just because it works as a conditioner, but mainly because it's the pH opposite of baking soda and helps the baking soda build-up go away. So right now, I'm perfectly happy with my baking soda / white vinegar combo and still shampoo free! Now if only my shower would work properly...
    When I move to the United States and have to buy a new supply, I think I'm going to try ACV for a change :)

  8. I've gone five weeks now without shampoo. Thanks for sharing the information about tea, and the lemon juice rinse. I've heard of using that on vintage hair websites but never tried it. I've found that frequent brushing and using a conditioner and shampoo brush keeps the oiliness at bay for me. My scalp broke out frequently before I started and since I've left shampoo alone, I haven't had one break out on my scalp. I'm a hairstylist/owner so this experience has been very odd, and yet enlightening for me. I'm scared to tell my clients for fear that they might find it disgusting. My hair has never had such consistent body and shine no styling products required. I think that baking soda and vinegar are excellent stripping agents and may be to hard for many heads of hair. Apple cider vinegar made my head feel good but it stunk. I'm thinking of finding a good natural haircare line or making my own to sell in my salon. I can't sleep at night thinking of all the harmful chemicals that I use on my clients, that my staff inhales, that I inhale.