Many of us have been told by our hairdressers that less is more when it comes to washing your hair. Daily hair washing for some has become nearly taboo, with the understanding that too much washing can strip away the hair’s natural oils and lead to dryness and breakage. Increasingly, various so-called “no-poo” methods have gained in popularity, where shampoo is cut out of the hair routine entirely. What are some of these methods, and how are they effective? First, we’ll need some background:
Humans have been washing their hair since ancient times, using everything from soap nuts to woodfern to quinoa and even ashes (see: wiki:shampoo.) Before liquid shampoo entered the market in the early 20th century, western bathers would often wash their hair using castille soap boiled into jelly. Because the chemical reaction that happens between soap, water and your body leaves a sodium deposit after rinsing, a post-washing rinse using vinegar was sometimes used to remove the deposits and restore the hair’s naturally acidic pH.
Soap itself is what’s known as a surfactant: an agent that contains both water- and oil-soluble components. Shampoo also contains surfactants: by now you are likely familiar with the most common, sodium lauryl (or laureth) sulfate.* It’s easy to see why something that can trap oil molecules in water would be effective at washing your hair.
The outside of our bodies is protected by what’s known as an “acid mantle,” ranging between a pH 4.5 and 6. Sweat and sebum mix to create this barrier that is hostile to viruses, pathogenic bacteria and the like. Part of what prompted the creation of shampoo as an alternative to soap is this issue of acidity. Soap is rarely neutral at a level 7, but more often closer to a pH level 10. This high alkalinity roughs up the hair cuticle, leaving it dry and tangled, and often with residual sodium deposits. Shampoo is designed to be “pH balanced” with a modestly low acidity: around a 6. Conditioner and say, apple cider vinegar are both much more acidic, around a level 3 or 4. When these acids come into contact with the cuticle of the hair (or the outside layer of the cells of our skin,) they have a sealing and tightening effect, compacting proteins and improving strength and surface texture, aiding in detangling and increasing shine.
But back to surfactants for a moment. The type used in shampoo are anionic, or negatively charged. Keratin, the protein present in hair, also has a negative charge. Because of this repulsion, on a chemical level, shampoo is very effective at rinsing clean and taking all of the hair’s oil with it. Conditioner, on the other hand, also contains surfactants, but these hold a positive charge, meaning the moisturizers and humectants therein are able to bond to the hair strand, adding moisture and improving texture.
So what’s so wrong with our friend shampoo? An occasional lather is probably not going to do anything terrible to you and your hair in the long run. But, like many indulgences, a little temperance is in order. Repeatedly removing the natural oils from the scalp and hair can leave hair dry and more prone to breakage. Worse, because of the body’s attempts to maintain a properly balanced acid mantle, it can respond to constant washing by producing more sebaceous oil to compensate, resulting in the greasy feed-back loop that has trapped many people in the cycle of “necessary” daily shampooing. Add in all of the other unwelcome additives present in many commercially available shampoos (thickeners, stabilizers, preservatives like sodium chloride (salt), metallic flakes to create pearlescence, silicon and wax additives for shine, synthetic fragrance… the list goes on) and now you’re piling toxic sludge on top of weakened hair strands. So. Yuck?
So what’s the solution? The first step is weaning yourself off the daily shampoo cycle. Go as many days as you can, and remember it will take your body some time to adjust and temper the amount of oil being produced. Dry shampoo or hair powder can be an excellent aid during this process (Moko carries an excellent one from Lulu Organics!)
Some no-poo-ers use baking soda followed by an apple cider vinegar rinse in lieu of shampoo and conditioner. This method is effective for some, although the soda and vinegar reaction can result in a buildup of sodium residue over time.
On its own, apple cider vinegar diluted with water can be used to scrub the scalp, dispersing excess oils while sealing the hair cuticle down with its acidic pH. Many quality conditioners can be used in the same manner, replacing shampoo with a gentle yet effective scrubbing agent.
Recent interest in the “no-poo” lifestyle has also resulted in an increase in the number of commercially available non-lathering hair cleansers, such as Purely Perfect’s cleansing cream. These products are similar to a conditioner, in that they have a low pH and contain moisturizers and/or oils to maintain the integrity of the hair cuticle while gently emulsifying excess sebum and buildup off of the scalp. Moko now carries the Purely Perfect line, to the delight of many happy clients!
While many people swear by these products and methods, others are happily addicted to shampoo. Not every method is right for every person, but a little experimentation is good to find what is best for your scalp and hair.
* All of Moko’s shampoos and products are SLS free!