And yes, I have been happily cleansing my hair sans shampoo since 2008. Going "no poo" seems to be all the rage in both eco and frugal circles these days, but I've read numerous accounts of people who've tried it for a while and then run into trouble and thrown in the towel.
So I figured I'd give y'all a quick run down of what works for me. Thanks to Amy over at Money 4 This Not 4 That for encouraging me to post this stuff. Before I start I just want to point out that I'm by no means an expert. In fact, I'm just some random person who is writing about her own experiences, so please remember that this is free advice that you got on the internet, from a woman who really has no clue what she's talking about, so take that into consideration when making decisions about your own beauty routines.
Anyhow, lest my actual system get totally lost in my blathering drivel, I figured I'd give it to you up front.
So here's what works for me:
- Step 1: Wash with a mild baking soda solution. My solution is 2 tablespoons of baking soda with 500 ml of water and I use about half a cup per wash.
- Step 2: Rinse thoroughly
- Step 3: Apply citric acid solution to hair. My solution is mixed at the same strength as the baking soda... 2 tablespoons of citric acid powder in 500 ml of water, and I also use about half a cup. Please note: citric acid stings like words even I won't say if you get it in your eyes, so use some caution here.
- Step 4: Using a fine toothed comb, comb hair thoroughly (at least 100 strokes per side) with the acid solution on it. You'll probably notice some gray colored gunk coming out in the teeth of the comb. I generally keep combing until the gunk either stops or I get tired of it (whichever comes first.)
- Step 5: Rinse thoroughly
- Step 6: Rub a few drops of jojoba oil into the hair, avoiding the scalp area. Comb in and let sit for about 5 minutes
- Step 7: Rinse thoroughly
- Step 8: When out of the tub wrap hair in terry cloth towel for about 5 mintues
- Step 9: Comb with wide toothed comb
- Step 10: Take about an eighth of a teaspoon of coconut oil and rub it between your palms until it turns liquid. Work it into the ends of your hair with a scrunching motion. Continue scrunching hair until it curls nicely.
- Step 11: Let hair air dry
OK... so that's my system, now for the blathering part.
It seems that over the years I have amassed a huge amount of info, scientific data and/or wive's tales about various methods and recipes, and to tell the truth, I could sort of write a novel on this topic. And looking back at this post, it would seem that my brain was more clogged with anecdotes and semi-useless bits of info than I realized, so I apologize for the lengthy nature of this post!
Anyhow, since I don't think most people will want to wade through all if this, I've tried to blather in sections so if anybody comes here looking for info they'll have some prayer of finding what they're looking for.
Basic Information and Quick Troubleshooting Guide
OK... so your scalp, like the rest of your skin has sebaceous glands which produce an oily/waxy substance called sebum.We've got these glands all over our bodies, but there are more of them on our scalps and faces than any place else. All mammals produce sebum, and it's basically the stuff that helps to make the hair/fur waterproof.
The sebum is sticky and waxy, and tends to make your hair hang together in clumps, especially when you've got too much of it. Now, most people in the "no poo" movement believe that modern shampoos, by stripping the scalp of it's normal sebum, sort of trick it into thinking that it needs to produce more, and thus, we have an over production of the stuff. I've never seen any scientific evidence for this "over production" theory, and my medically inclined friends think it's nonsense, but I have noticed that as the years have gone by I need to wash my hair less and less. Not sure if I'm actually producing less sebum, or if my standards are just getting lower... either is a possibility!
At any rate, the goal here is to remove enough of the sebum so your hair looks clean, but leave enough in place to keep your hair healthy and shiny. Sounds easy enough, but I found that getting to the right amount of sebum was a somewhat tricky proposition.
Anyhow, the signs of having too much sebum are pretty obvious. Your hair will look oily, though it often feels sticky and heavy. The other common problem that people have with the "no-poo" method is a build up of a soap scum like material from the baking soda. When you've got a build up of scum, the hair tends to look dull, and feel almost brittle or crunchy. A more acidic rinse will help both problems, but if you're experiencing too much sebum a better brushing routine can be helpful, and if you've got a scum build up, you might want to try using less baking soda.
Thoughts on Motivation
Many people decide to forego shampoo for a variety of reasons. Some want to save money, some have environmental concerns, and some don't want to be exposed to the chemicals lurking in the seemingly harmless bottle of shampoo. While these are all noble rationales for abstaining, I fear my own personal motivation was a tad bit less um... lofty.
And to tell the truth, there were some real ugly patches along the way, so I'm not entirely sure I would have stuck with it if I was simply acting out a do-gooder impulse. But fortunately, my motivation was much more personal and banal.
Motivating factor number one: Allergies. As the world's most allergic human, I had developed a strange, barely visible rash which my doctor diagnosed as nummular eczema. Seriously folks, I wouldn't wish this stuff on my worst enemy, it itched so bad that it sort of made me want to rip my skin off. The doctor said I basically just had to live with it, and gave me Prednisone cream. The cream helped a bit, but then I had developed a case of chronic hives, and at that point I decided to take matters into my own hands. After some internet research I concluded that part of the problem might be my habit of soaking for hours in a hot tub, which, when I washed my hair meant subjecting my skin to what essentially amounts to a chemical detergent.
Motivating factor number two: my hair looked like shit.
I had greasy oily roots, a wavy OK looking middle section, and ends that stuck out like straw. I tried every commercial product under the sun and was pretty much at my wits end. They say that vanity will get you nowhere, but in my case, this turned out not to be true.
So, when I first decided to try not using shampoo, I had no idea that there were other crazy people out there doing this too. I was actually surfing channels late at night and an infomercial for some non-shampoo hair product called Wen came on. Normally I wouldn't subject myself to something like an infomercial, but this one featured Melissa Gilbert, and as a life long fan of Little House on the Prairie, I'd watch just about anything with Melissa Gilbert in it.
Anyhow, there was no way I was gonna shell out some ungodly sum of money for this product, but the concept that perhaps it wasn't healthy to wash out all of the natural oils, and that shampoo wasn't actually necessary for life ingrigued me.
So I decided that instead of paying for some fancy system that wasn't shampoo, I'd just try rinsing my hair with water and see what happened. And the result was... complete and total disgusting disaster!
I'm sure that there were many factors contributing to the total fail I experienced first time out of the shoot, but one of the big ones was silicones. Apparently most modern conditioners and styling products contain ingredients that are made from silicone. Since modern shampoos strip hair of its natural oils and sebum, the silicones coat each shaft of hair and basically do the job that the sebum otherwise would. The problem is that they don't allow any of the natural oils to absorb into the hair shaft, so you end up having to wash and condition every day... which is great for the people selling shampoo and conditioner, but not so great if you want to get out of the cycle of daily washing.
Well, in my vain attempts (ha ha) to get my straw like ends to behave, I had been using just about every leave-in conditioner, curling gel and any other product I could think of... all of which contained a hefty dose of silicone. If you look at the label, anything ending in "zane" "xane" "cone" or "conol" is a silicone ingredient, and since most aren't water soluble, they probably won't just rinse out.
Sooooo, if you've been using products with silicones in them, you should do a clarifying wash with a non-silicone containing sulfate shampoo before you start this process. Pretty much any cheap basic shampoo should do the trick (pretty much all shampoos these days have sulfates in them). Once I got my silicones washed out, the process went a LOT smoother.
Why your Water Matters
Apparently, not all water is created equal when it comes to its ability to get things clean. I'm not scientific enough to explain this all in detail, but my kindergarten level understanding is that the harder the water, the worse job it does. Basically, hard water is water that has a lot of minerals dissolved in it - mostly calcium and magnesium, and it causes soap scum to form instead of lather, which causes all soap related cleansers (see the baking soda section) to clean less effectively. In fact, I read somewhere in my travels that when detergents were first introduced, one of their main selling points was that they cleaned just as well in hard water as soft.
Anyhow, I believe that the harder your water is, the stronger acid rinse you need to use. I think lots of things can contribute to the hardness of your water including where you live, the time of year, and the age of the pipes in your home. Here's a water hardness map of the US (from the United States Geological Survey) to give you a general idea:
If you'll notice, Denver is right smack dab in the middle of hard water country, so this may explain why I had such a hard time finding something acidic enough to work for me. This is just a guess, and I know every head of hair is different, but I kind of think that variations in water hardness might have something to do with why people report such different results when trying to go "no poo." My guess is that people in hard water areas have difficulties right off the bat, while people in soft water areas generally experience great results at first, and then succumb to a build up of sebum and scum as time wears on. That's just a guess though.
Thoughts on Baking Soda
OK, here's what I know about baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate as it's also called. It has a ph of 9 putting it on the alkaline or base side of the scale (7 is neutral.) Now, if you know anything about soap, you might recall that soap is generally made by mixing some sort of oil or fat with lye, which has a ph of about 13 making it very alkaline. Soooo, the way baking soda works to clean your hair is by actually mixing with the oils on your scalp and forming a very mild soap of sorts.
Anyhow, I tried borax and had a really hard time getting the stuff to dissolve in water. I've also read some reports that it might be somewhat toxic, so I decided to stick with baking soda.
At any rate, knowing that the goal was to make "scalp soap" helped me figure out how much to use. I'm sure the necessary concentration will vary according to a bunch of factors, including the hardness of your water (see above) but when I get it right, it actually starts to feel slippery or soapy. If I've been really lazy and haven't washed my hair for a week or more, making it more greasy, I can sometimes swear that it actually makes a very light lather.
Acid Rinse Issues
OK, so the point of rinsing with something acidic is two fold. First of all, when you use any soap based cleanser, and baking soda counts as soap based for our purposes, you're gonna get at least some degree of soap scum.
The scum is actually a type of salt left over from when the soap reacts with minerals in the water (hence, the harder the water, the more scum). Acids will dissolve the salts and minerals and help to remove this scum or buildup. Acids will also cut through grease and wax, so they do a good job of helping to dissolve and remove excess sebum. You don't want to mix your baking soda (base) with your acid however, because this will cause them to react with each other rather than to actually clean your hair.
Now I'm sure that most people out there who have heard of "no poo" have been told that they should wash with baking soda and rinse with a diluted apple cider vinegar solution.
I tried the ACV approach, and, to be honest, it really didn't work for me. First of all, I couldn't stand the smell. They all say that the smell goes away once it dried, but according to the nose of CatMan, this is not true. It also didn't seem to leave my hair shiny and smooth like it's supposed to, especially when diluted.
Sooo... I tried lemon juice. It worked OK, but had several disadvantages, the main one being that you have to keep it in the refrigerator. I seriously can't count the number of times I'd be settling into a nice hot bath, only to realize that I'd forgotten the lemon juice again! I sort of got tired of streaking through the house to get it and then pouring ice cold liquid on my head. Lemon juice can also bleach your hair and/or turn it a reddish color. As a strawberry blonde, neither of these things was really a concern for me, and I never noticed any change in the color of my hair, but I still didn't have that nice smooth shiny feel like people claimed.
So, I decided that perhaps since we have really hard water, I just needed something stronger. At that point I switched to straight, undiluted distilled white vinegar and FINALLY my hair started working. It actually stopped feeling sticky and crunchy and started being really nice, smooth, shiny and soft. Hooray! I still couldn't stand the smell so I'd mix some essential oils in with the vinegar and while this helped, I still felt like a walking Easter Egg, but at least my hair looked better.
And then came the attack of the yellow jackets... I suddenly started getting stung right and left. Then, after getting 3 stings at once, my whole leg swelled up like a sweet potato and I had to be put on steroids. I couldn't figure out what was going on, and in doing research I found out that vinegar is used in wasp traps because they're attracted to the smell! OY!
At this point I actually got so discouraged that I tried going back to shampoo... once. I washed my hair, got out of the tub and within about 20 minutes was totally covered with hives again! Soooo... back to the acid drawing board.
I tried vitamin C powder, and it worked OK, but not as good as the vinegar had. The solution also tended to turn a funny brown color after a day or two, and since I had read an article about the dangers of using rancid vitamin C in skin applications, I decided it wasn't gonna work.
Then CatMan suggested citric acid. It's used as a preservative in most commercial shampoos and conditioners, it's odorless, and comes in a powder form so you can mix it to the strength that you need. Finally!!!
It totally worked and I'm very, VERY happy with the results! You can usually buy citric acid wherever you get supplies for canning and preserving. I actually got a big 5 pound bag on Amazon.com for not much money.
Thoughts on Brushing
Now, many people who do the "no poo" thing go all out and use a water only method. The first 6 months that I tried this, I somehow decided that this was the goal, and... well, it pretty much made me miserable. The basic plan with water only washing is that you just wash your hair with water to remove any dirt etc, and then after it dries you brush thoroughly to remove the excess sebum. It works best if you use a natural fiber brush like boar's hair or, if your hair is thicker, a wooden bristle brush.
The theory is that it both removes the excess sebum (because it sticks to the bristles of the brush) and it also helps to move the oils and sebum down the hair shaft to distribute it evenly and make your hair evenly "moisturized".
Soooo... I got a wooden bristle brush and I brushed... and I brushed... and I brushed. I'm not sure if it was because of the hard water, or if I just have a particularly sebumy scalp, but I would literally brush for hours a day and it still felt like my hair was glued to my scalp. In about an hour's time, I'd generally have a ball of sebum about the size of a large marble that I'd scraped off the brush bristles, but my hair still felt like it was waxed to my head. And my scalp was literally raw from all of the brushing...
So, after about 6 months I decided I'd never make it as a purist, and devised my own system. My hair tangles easily, so I generally keep a plastic comb in the bathtub and use it to comb in whatever I'm using in my hair. One day I was combing in my acid rinse, and noticed a bunch of gunk coming off on the comb.
I believe this gunk is some combination of sebum, baking soda residue, and dead scalp skin (lovely thought, I know). Anyhow, I discovered that the combination of the acid rinse and the combing really helps to get rid of the extra sebum and remove any sticky feeling. I actually read about one system that involves using a washcloth on the wet hair instead of a comb... I tried it for a while, but combing seemed to work better.
Anyhow, I know some people say that you should never comb your hair when it's wet because it can easily break, but I found that much less hair comes out with this method than with the hours and hours of brushing that I tried before, And I really found that the combination of the strong acid and the physical combing was what I needed to get the sebum down to manageable levels.
Adding extra Oils
After about 18 months without shampoo or other hair care products, I started to notice that my hair was feeling a tad bit dry and prone to static. It may be that I've done too good of a job of removing the sebum... I don't know. At any rate, I found people on the web using all sorts of oils as a hair conditioner. The one that really worked for me was jojoba oil.
Apparently it's actually more of a wax than an oil and will soak into the hair shaft in much the same way that our natural sebum does. I use a tiny bit (like a few drops) and avoid getting it near my scalp. It leaves my hair shiny and soft. Jojoba can be a tad bit pricey, but since I use it instead of lotion for my skin, I buy it in bulk on eBay.
If the ends still look a bit dry, or don't seem to be curling well, I use a bit of coconut oil on them.
I also LOVE how the coconut oil smells! I'm not sure how the oils help to make it curl, but they sure seem to do the trick.
OK!!! So there it is... everything you never wanted to know about hair care without shampoo. I hope someone, somewhere, sometime finds something useful in this excruciatingly long brain dump.
If not, at least I've kept you out of trouble for an hour or two!
So how about you? Have you tried no poo? What did or didn't work for you?
p.s. Comments on this post are moderated - so your comment won't appear until I approve it, which (provided you aren't a spammer) I will do usually within a day. I welcome your thoughts and really enjoy hearing about other people's experiences with the whole no poo thing!