From Serial Washer ... to Cereal Washer
How I gave up shampoo & conditioner
I’ve always been fascinated by the old wives tale that if you leave hair long enough without washing it, it’ll adjust, rebalance and restore to full health. How could that be?! Since my early teens, I had never gone more than 1.5 days without washing my hair. That’s right, NOT . EVEN . TWO . DAYS …the slightest sign of oily roots and I was off to the shower to get rid! I made and used dry shampoo by the bucket-load incase I got caught out after a sweaty dance rehearsal or run. Even backpacking through the deepest remotes of Cambodia I would find a river to wash my hair in. A completely obsessed serial hair-washer. I knew it was a vicious cycle, the more I washed, the oiler it got, but I just couldn’t change it. So I was well aware from the start of this experiment that I had some tough hair habits to break.
I presumed I’d need to be alone for weeks on a desert island to try this experiment. As it happened the opportunity came in the form of the coronavirus lockdown. I had only to subject my family to the grossness and I hoped there would be enough familial unconditional love in the pot to see past bad hair! Luckily enough there was, but they didn’t let me off lightly. In my family we let each other know what we think and they did not allow a particularly oil-slicked day to pass unannounced and without snide comment!
BUT WHY BOTHER?
I appreciate this experiment might sound weird and hippy to some, but other cultures have a beautifully simple connection with mother nature for their beauty needs. For example, I'm in awe that Indians understand how to use fresh hibiscus flowers to wash hair. I’ve been mixing lotions & potions to make my own natural alternative home & beauty products for a long time so this didn’t seem far out my realm. There is a high awareness to the chemicals I use & eat, and I try to reduce the negative effects they have on both the environment and my body. I grow increasingly shocked at the amount of synthetic rubbish in high street products. Misleading advertising, such as ‘kind to baby’, is the biggest lie of all and if consumers had the slightest idea of what they were rubbing onto their babies they would be horrified. Aside from suncream and toothpaste, shampoo & conditioner were the only two beauty products I hadn’t attempted to make myself, so I was up for the challenge.
- Side note - I switched to shampoo bars 7 years ago for ease of travelling and to reduce plastic waste. Originally I used Lush bars which are good (much better than synthetic shampoos) but I was never sure about their SLS (Sodium Lauryl Sulphate) content.
- I later discovered Grüum, a small Manchester-based start-up, and highly recommend their shampoo & conditioner bars not containing any SLS (see highlighted links for further info).
As unique as our bodies are, so is our hair. There is no ‘one-method-fits-all’. It is a case of trial & error. Variables include: porosity of hair, climate, water softness, diet and hormone levels. Personally, I have fine hair and lots of it. It gets oily quickly and I often use a hairdryer. Over the years it has been dyed every colour, from white, to red, to lilac (a mistake). At brittlest, it would stand sideways without dropping and break when touched. I completely stopped dyeing my hair 4 years ago so it is fully my natural colour now, and I gave up hair straighteners as I prefer a natural wave. This has caused a noticeable improvement in my hair health.
The transition period (when your scalp adjusts sebum production and rids itself of synthetic chemical build-up) is, unfortunately, as long as a piece of string. I had optimistically hoped it would take around 3 or 4 weeks … and was wrong.
The start of the transition was the pits. I could have deep fat fried food on my head. I started by seeing how long I could bear it and then doing a water-only wash. I brushed it more often to distribute the sebum from root to tip. This acts as a protective barrier and intensive conditioning mask. I had to wash my hairbrush daily as there was a build-up of synthetic gunk clogging up the scalp that the body needs to rid. This has gradually improved over time.
Every now and again I experiment with pantry-type natural ingredients. My former science-geek-self did a merry dance when I starting researching the chemical reactions behind these.
Your scalp and hair's natural pH is around 5.5, making it slightly acidic. Normal synthetic shampoo is alkaline, which can throw off your hair's pH, causing brittle dry strands. Water (pH7) can also alter the hair's pH (more on water later).
My pantry cupboard raids have included the following:
(I’m aware it sounds like a pancake recipe)
- Egg yolk - Mind blown! Hair was silky smooth & squeaky clean. A protein drink for you hair with a pH of around 6. I couldn’t actually believe the results and instantly felt an urge to tell friends & family, who did not share my enthusiasm and instead thought I’d gone mad. However my mum was happy her hens were also supplying shampoo! And my Grandma said in the olden days they used to sit in front of the fire with egg white hair masks on. Nothing is ever 'new', it just comes back around.
Summary = Amazing for cleansing & conditioning.
Terrible for bathroom smell.
Disclaimer: separate the egg and only use the yolk if you wash with hot
water…otherwise you will end up with scrambled egg on your head. Awkward.
- Rye Flour - Similar pH to scalp (pH5) so doesn’t mess with the natural balance. Make into a paste with water, slap on & rinse off. Wonderful wonderful wonderful! Hair is clean & feels incredibly thick. Also the vegan friendly option.
- Chickpea (Gram) flour - does the same job as rye flour. Slightly earthier smell. As there is no gluten in rye & gram flour, they don’t get gloopy and rinse out easily.
- Apple sauce - good for removing waxy build-up from hard water mineral deposits.
- Bicarbonate of Soda - Not recommended for regular use due to alkalinity (pH8). However it does wonders for removing hard water mineral deposit build-up occasionally.
- Apple Cider Vinegar - Many known health benefits to ACV with hair shine being one of them. If poured directly onto the scalp it will disrupt the pH, so I only dipped the ends in a watered-down solution. I didn’t notice a difference but I only tried twice as my hair is already in good condition after the sebum brushing.
- Cotton t-shirt towel-drying - Noticeably helped remove excess oil. However, it’s time-consuming and probably causes breakage.
- There are many more ideas for natural shampoo and conditioner alternatives online. Just search the glamorously named ‘No Poo’ (no shampoo) movement and discover endless amounts, including tea rinses, clays and soap nuts.
WHAT ABOUT THE SMELL?
You know when you get your hair wet in the rain?…it smells like that, of nothing. If you want to add scent, rub a drop of essential oil in your palms and rub into hair when wet. I only did this once or twice with clove oil (because it was the only oil in my toilet bag) and resulted in me smelling of ‘Christmas’ which was quite nice. I’ve since stopped with scents because it doesn’t bother me that my hair doesn’t smell and I’d rather save my essential oils for other projects.
Let’s get real about this. I’m not glorifying it and giving you any insta filters. If you’re going to give it a go, you need to be fully prepared for the grossness.
Picture 1 - after 2 weeks with 3 water-only washes.
Rank, bogging, manky, as we say in Scotland.
Picture 2 - after first egg yolk wash - a miracle to behold!
Was so delighted that I wore my hair down to celebrate.
Picture 3 - water wash & drying with a cotton t-shirt.
Pleasantly surprised with the results.
Picture 4 - week 11, after a chickpea flour wash
NOT ALL WATER SUPPLIES ARE CREATED EQUAL
I started this experiment in Scotland and had no idea how good the water quality was … until I went back to London. I now realise how lucky I was to have started the transition with soft water. Hard water is very difficult to manage on the hair (and skin). It is drying and leaves heavy mineral build-up. I have since moved to Italy where the water is also very hard. Change of climate is now another variable in my experiment, with heat and humidity adding to the mix. It feels like I have taken some steps backwards in my progress and am still very much in the transition period. At the moment, I use rye or chickpea flour with a sprinkling of bicarbonate of soda, and alternate with a water-only wash/cotton towel dry.
It has been 12 weeks since I last used shampoo & conditioner and my hair is now publicly passable, which is a relief considering the world is emerging from lockdown. I didn’t think I’d have the patience to last this long but now I’m here I want to continue, with my ultimate goals being to wash my hair less and never rely on synthetic products.
Gone are the early days of the permanently sleek oily top-knot concealed carefully by various headbands, and I like wearing it down with its new voluminous swish. The ends are in the best condition they have ever been. However I’m not about to become the poster girl for Pantene Pro-V or such-like glossy brands. There are still heavy waxy bad days. And I’m still trying to find a solution to combat the hard water problem. It is work is progress...
Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say here.
Good luck if you give it a bash.