Letting Life Lead
I can sense the look on some faces. This is one of those things that one has to understand and to not knock it until you try it. I stopped using commercial shampoo completely sometime around 2002-2003 because I was caught in an endless loop of perpetual dryness that left me on a hamster wheel of frizz-product-more product-frizz. Then my hair started to thin. That is a big deal because I don’t have a lot of hair. It is not thick like Asian hair, it is thin curly and crazy. When I put my hair in a tight bun, it almost disappears. I can’t make those thick Scandinavian braids (mine are puny). I can’t afford to lose hair!
Once I just let go of the shampoo and embraced my hair, the woman who cut my hair noticed that it was filling back in, so I had confirmation that changing my dependence on commercial products was working. For the first time in my life, I liked my hair! I usually leave it wild, but I can also easily straighten it with a flat iron now for a special occasion and it will still look shiny. These days, with two kids, I’m rather neglectful of my hair and it’s texture is less curly after kids than it was before (weird right?), but it is still quite healthy and it hasn’t begin thinning even though I’m now in my 40s.
Shampoo free benefits all hair types from the delicate textured hair, to mixed texture hair, to thick straight hair. I wrote the original version of this article back in 2007, but I have added a few updates including the newest books available at Amazon.
Why go shampoo free?
What is Wrong with Shampoo?
Does ‘Poo Free Really Work?
Doesn’t un-shampooed hair smell bad?
Isn’t unwashed hair gross?
How do you cope with the Grease-Ball stage?
If you don’t use shampoo what do you use?
Baking Soda and Vinegar Is that It? How Much?
Isn’t that a lot of Trouble?
Won’t Baking Soda strip your hair?
How often should hair be washed?
I’ve got HARD water help!
Anything else I should know?
Are there any special hair recipes?
What about organic shampoo? (What ingredients to avoid)
Why go shampoo free?
There are many reasons to eschew chemical hair cleansers and conditioners. Those who go shampoo free often are trying to wean themselves off of chemical products because of the harsh chemicals, damaged hair, environmental concerns, desire to go more natural, allergies, or because they heard about it, decided to try it, and were pleasantly surprised. Many people are concerned with the large amount of toxic products in their homes especially if they have allergies of any sort. Some people discovered accidentally that less fussing produced healthier hair.
What’s wrong with shampoo?
Household chemicals are notorious for causing eczema, inflaming acne, various types of contact dermatitis, and other allergy symptoms such as itchy, watery eyes, coughing, and sneezing. Shampoo is nothing more than a glorified detergent in a pretty package with pretty perfumes. They remove dirt as well as strip the hair of its natural oils. Most shampoos have conditioning agents, and conditioners have some detergents in them (if you have curly hair and a history of dryness you can effectively wash your hair with a conditioner only).
Shampoo is so harsh that it has to be sold along with an artificial oil replacement we know as conditioner! And what’s worse, some conditioners have substances in them that can only be removed by shampoo. And then after using conditioner for so long, the hair is coated with a waxy buildup that has to be removed with a clarifying shampoo (essentially a detergent that doesn’t have conditioners built-in). Can you see the vicious cycle? Because the hair we see on our head is dead, if it is mistreated and stripped it can not repair itself once it has been damaged until it grows out. Take a look at all of the products on the market created to fix a hair problem and you will begin to get the scope of the endless cycle of chemical dependence.
Does ‘poo free really work?
Yes it does!
Here is my hair taken Summer 2007. It looks like I have a lot of hair but I don’t. I have fine hair that is wavy/curly. I didn’t style it, I didn’t put any products in it . I water rinse (or BS/ACV washed), combed, and let it dry. The only thing I do to tame the curls is to twist it and put it up when it is still a little wet, and when I let it down I get pretty waves like you see here. If I let it run free or encourage wildness my curls are varied curly-Qs, corkscrews, twists and waves. As the days go by and my natural hair oils are distributed through the hairs, the waves and curls “fall out”, I can comb my hair reasonably straight with a few huge waves and also use a brush after a couple of days of “settling”. Something I could NEVER do before without turning myself into a frizzball was use a brush! My hair looked in my 30s the way it looked when I was 5! (Read on if you live in a hard water area…that is a special situation.)
Doesn’t un-shampooed hair smell bad?
No. Un-shampooed hair smells like…hair. Hair doesn’t smell like lily of the valley, fake roses, lilacs, or freesia, but this doesn’t mean it smells bad. It will smell like it is supposed to smell–and it doesn’t smell like much of anything. For the most part the clean hair smell is sub-conscious. If one really likes the smell of pretty things, then one can always put a few drops of essential oils or coconut oil in their hair care routine. But honestly, you don’t really need to smell like honeysuckle for an hour to feel satisfied after a hair washing session. Once you get used to not having heavy perfumes around you, you won’t notice them or miss them. If you want to discuss bad smells, have a sniff of smoker’s hair! Smoke scented fake rose hair is not on my list of desired scents!
Isn’t unwashed hair gross?
First, shampoo-free people do wash their hair. They don’t have “unwashed” hair. They can go a rather long time between deep washings and find that a nice water rinse between thorough cleaning sessions is more than adequate. People are brainwashed into thinking that if it doesn’t lather and you don’t lather every day you are dirty.
However, it is well-known among all shampoo-free individuals that there is a transition phase of several weeks where the scalp over produces oil creating an unpleasant grease-ball stage. Think of it as a healing period and invest in a ponytail elastic and a baseball cap in the meantime. The scalp has been so used to working overtime to replenish all the stripped-away oils that they need time to settle down.
Unless you’ve been mud wrestling, there is no reason why you need to wash your hair every day. Everyone knows that freshly washed hair is harder to style! Over washing your hair (especially if you have dry or curly hair) just makes the problem worse. Curly girls especially can wash too much and this changes those lovely curls into a frizzy, ratty wreck (embrace the curl)! Every time your poor scalp tries to do its job and secrete oils to coat and protect the hair on your head, you go and apply a chemical to neutralize it then you apply another chemical to coat the hair in a type of oil you might as well put in your car (that’s not olive oil in there!).
Nothing helps more than a nice fashionable hat or fancy braids. Make friends with the bun, the ponytail, the topsytail flip, the french braid, and barrettes. People spend an obscene amount of money on gel to make their hair look slick and wet, so take advantage of those kinds of styles.
Understand this: 1. It is temporary 2. Your hair is going to feel “heavy”
Your scalp has been working overtime to condition and the shampoo has made this a 24/7 job and so it takes time for the glands to regulate to normal levels. If you have suffered from greasy hair all your life and can’t seem to go more than 1 day between a regular shampoo, take comfort in the fact that your scalp is just really healthy and working very hard. The biggest mistake you can make is to break down and use commercial shampoo! This perpetuates the cycle and the grease-pit will never get better. If you’ve suffered from dry hair, you may find that your “greasy stage” never happens or it will happen seemingly at random several weeks later when your glands “wake up” and overdo it at first. When this happens people think that the baking soda and vinegar or water-wash routine isn’t working anymore and reach for the shampoo. On the contrary, the oil glands have started healing and working again!
Your hair feels “heavy” at first because of the natural oils in it. You are used to hair feeling light because its been stripped of its natural oils for so long. Those who have gone ‘poo free have the opposite reaction if they shampoo in an emergency–they say their hair feels rough and light like straw!
This Crisco-on-My-Head stage can last anywhere from 2-4 weeks on average, some people it might be a couple of weeks longer or last only one week. If you wimp-out and use commercial shampoo in between you will prolong this stage!
If you don’t use shampoo then what do you use?
Plain water rinses between sessions. And for a hair washing session baking soda and apple cider vinegar work really well–but they should not be over used. I comb and brush well before a wash or rinse. Sometimes I use a natural shampoo bar or SLS-free shampoo on occasion (especially if I’ve been in a pool or am doing a nice deep oil treatment). Some people will mix some hair-nourishing ingredients together for a pampering session or some extra care for damaged hair. There are various sorts of recipes but the ingredients are generally cheap and accessible. Avocado, real mayonnaise, olive oil, coconut oil, shea butter, jojoba oil, almond oil, etc. can be used to condition. There are also egg washes, herb and tea rinses for various sorts of scents or cures. How much you fuss really depends on you.
Yes, that’s it. You don’t need a lot. A weak base (soda) to wash and a weak acid (vinegar) to rinse and balance pH. One of the biggest mistakes new poo-freers make is using too much and doing it too often! This is your hair, it is not a dirty soiled pair of garden overalls! Depending on how much hair you have you use more or less. Brush or comb your hair always before you wash (this loosens dirt, product, stimulates the scalp and removes loose hair). Massage your scalp as you rinse or wash. A general rule of thumb is to use no more than 1 tablespoon per cup of water–start with less and see how it goes for you. Hair type and health varies from person to person. For example, I have medium-length fine wavy hair. I find that what works for me is half a tablespoon. For the vinegar rinse, use no more than a tablespoon per cup of water for normal application. Use less if the vinegar smell is strong. My fine hair doesn’t need a high concentration so I make mine very dilute.
Those with hard water will want to stay away from the baking soda or use it rarely. You can do fine with just a vinegar routine which can help with the high concentration of minerals in hard water. The heavy minerals in the water can create a heavy waxy build up when coupled with baking soda. There are non-detergent shampoos and shampoo bars on the market that will work better for counter-acting the effects of hard water together with the vinegar rinse. You will need to do some experimenting. Some people, instead, use distilled water to wash their hair to avoid the issue entirely.
I had the misfortune of forgetting about the hard water issue when my husband and I were visiting family. I ended up with some nasty, thick waxy build up at my scalp (they have water so hard it practically comes out of the faucet in brick form). My hair was a mess! It felt like a dry bird nest when I touched it! Not even four washes with regular shampoo while I was there did much to get rid of that feeling! I had to brush, brush, brush to loosen the gunk then follow that with a deep coconut/olive oil treatment, then finally wash it with a detergent free shampoo when I got home. It was awful!
Isn’t that a lot of trouble?
No. It’s funny, people spend hours curling, styling, crimping, straightening, perming, coloring, spraying, pinning, geling and moussing, but think it is too much trouble to change a shampoo routine. It’s no harder than opening a bottle of shampoo and squeezing (it’s also much cheaper). If you prefer to make a palm paste keep a pretty container of baking soda in the shower with a little scoop or small measuring spoon in it. Scoop into your palm and go. If you like liquid, keep a squeeze bottle in the shower. For the vinegar rinse, you can keep another squeeze bottle and pre-mix it. The added bonus is that both baking soda and vinegar can be used for cooking as well as cleaning the rest of your home. Alton Brown would definitely approve of these two multi-taskers. By the way, if you are looking for a natural way to color your hair I highly recommend using henna and indigo. One of the best out there in my opinion is from Henna For Hair and you can go for a classic henna red, to more subtle deep reds, to various shades of brown, to rich black indigo.
Won’t baking soda strip color from your hair?
If you color your hair (especially with a temporary color) yes. However, there is dispute as to whether it will strip all color-treated hair. As a general consensus, if untreated hair feels dry or loses its color the user is definitely washing far too often and using way too much. If you have color-treated hair it is up to you if you want to try it. If you do I would suggest upping the concentration of the vinegar rinse a little (vinegar is a color fixitive — that’s why you use it to dye Easter eggs). Wash hair with plain water and/or just rinse with vinegar. If you wanted to try the baking soda, you could try using very, very little baking soda no more than once a week (no more than 1/4 a tablespoon) as a paste and concentrate it on the scalp (the color is growing out there anyway), and don’t leave it sitting in your hair more than a minute and follow with the higher concentration vinegar rinse. There have been people I’ve talked to who have suggested and tried this conservative routine with colored hair and have reported no color stripping, so again, up to you. Other people have instead stuck with water washes and found a non-detergent shampoo to use now and then. Other people have simply switched to a kinder way to color their hair using henna and indigo: Henna for Hair
There is no easy answer to the problem of hard water if you don’t have a water softener. You can try adding some salt to your hair care routine. Yes, SALT. Commercial water softeners use salt to soften your water. How much really depends on how hard your water is. You’ll have to experiment to see what works best to prevent the waxy buildup that comes with having hard water. Start with 1/2 to 1 tsp of salt per cup of water and add more if you think you need it. At worse you’ll have created that coveted “beach hair”. There are non-detergent shampoos on the market that can be used to compensate. They are more expensive than a lot of the commercial shampoos, but generally on par or cheaper than the high-end commercial shampoos.
How often should hair be washed?
That depends on hair type, your activity, and your styling product use.
A. If you use hair spray or gel or other products — brush your hair every night and wash it with plain water to rinse away the product. Strive for a good wash with baking soda ACV routine no more than once a week, but twice might suit you better. You will likely find that your hair doesn’t need product anymore and this will become a non-issue most of the time. If you continue to use commercial products, you are likely going to have to use a non-detergent shampoo to wean yourself off.
B. If you use no hair styling products there is no need to wash your hair with the BS/ACV (or whatever you choose) more than once a week. Instead do a nice clean water rinse in between for a freshen up.
C. You will wash your hair more in the warmer weather than in the colder weather. Adjust your hair care routine to suit. If you wash once a week in the winter you might go twice in the summer in between the water-only rinses. If you do a water rinse less in the winter, keep in mind you will do it more in the summer.
D. If you hair feels dry, use less baking soda and up the vinegar concentration of your rinse; try to find that balance. Use a little natural oil (shea butter, jojoba oil, coconut oil, almond or olive oil) rubbed in your hands and smoothed in your hair to help.
E. If your hair feels oily (and you have passed the de-tox phase) stimulate your scalp and distribute the oils evenly through your hair with a boar bristle brush, a comb, or your fingers (for the curly girls–never brush when in the throes of the fresh curl!). Check your vinegar rinse and reduce the concentration. If you are using oils to condition your hair don’t put it near the scalp, ends only, and use less!
F. If your hair changes you must change your routine! Age, puberty, pregnancy status, menopause, hormone shifts, illness and even medication will change hair health and texture. Despite the fact that the hair you see is dead, your scalp and hair follicles are very much alive and they will change just like the rest of you.
Anything else I should know?
Eat Well: Start taking care of your hair before it grows!
Curlys and Wavies: Stop shampooing, stop using the dryer, and throw out your brushes! Stop hair-torture. Use your fingers or wide toothed comb to de-tangle (jojoba oil works very well for this, but others work nicely too, so does aloe) and adjust curls while your hair is still wet. And then don’t mess with your curls until your next rinse or wash. Focus your hair routine on conditioning if your hair is dry (avoid commercial hair conditioners that have -cones like the plague). You can use your fingers to twirl those curls. When you sleep you should tie your hair back in a clip, bun, sock curls, or if it is long a loose braid to reduce tangles. (Learn more about your curly hair at Live Curly Live Free)
Wash your brushes and combs every week: Nothing worse than having fresh clean hair and then combing or brushing it with dirty, dusty, items. Fill the sink with very hot water, add some soap, and some tea-tree oil if you wish. Let them sit for 20 minutes and then swish them and scrub them with another brush or with a nail brush.
Use a natural boar bristle brush and or a wide/toothed comb: This will help distribute oils through out your hair and won’t damage it. Do not use anything that is metal or stiff. It is too harsh on your scalp and will break your hair. Also be sure to brush, comb, detangle hair before you wash you have hard water you’ll have to experiment or you may want to use distilled water: It may seem to be a trouble but it will be worth it.
Put down the dryer and step away: You are better off letting your hair air dry. Save the dryer for special occasions and if you must blow dry your hair then you should protect your hair (aloe or a light coating of olive oil should do nicely) and resist the urge to put your dryer on the melt-the-polar-icecaps setting.
Dry your hair nicely: When you dry your hair don’t rub it. Instead blot it with an absorbent towel. Detangle while it is wet gently from the ends up. If you have curly hair, after it is blotted and detangled with a comb–scrunch, scrunch, scrunch (if you want ringlet curls…twirl ’em). If you combed or brushed your hair prior to washing it and didn’t rub your hair all over the place, but instead massaged from the head down it won’t be too tangled. Again, if you must use a dryer, protect the hair and use a lower setting.
Avoid products as much as possible: You will find that you won’t need hairspray and gels and mousses and creams if you change the way you treat your hair. Save the fancy products for the fancy occasions. If you do use them be sure that you wash them out every night and give your hair periodic rests from their use.
Get a good haircut: There is nothing you can do about split ends except remove them via a good cut. Have your hair styled in a way that suits your hair type as well as your face. If you are unsure, ask a good stylist. If you have naturally curly or wavy hair, embrace it. Don’t try to go for a cut that is suited for pin-straight hair. This will require chemical alteration and that is not good for your hair. Fried and dried doesn’t look good on anyone. Likewise, if you have straight hair stop trying to curl it every day. It’s fine to go for that special look once in a while for something different, but keep in mind that if you make it a daily habit to attack your hair and make it conform it will become damaged.
It took many years to damage your hair, it won’t cure overnight: Be patient. Your hair and scalp need time to recover from years of abuse. You won’t see shocking results over night–though you should notice some small improvements. It will take several weeks to really see results. The wait is worth it.
Egg Shampoo: 1 oz olive oil + 1 egg + 1 tbsp lemon juice + 1 tsp apple cider vinegar. Blend all ingredients. Wash hair with mixture. Rinse. Discard leftovers.
Dandruff: 1/2 cup white vinegar, 1/2 cup water. Apply twice weekly.
Dandruff: 2 egg yolks beaten, 1/2 cup water. Massage onto hair. Leave in 5 minutes. Rinse with water then follow with an apple cider vinegar rinse. Rinse once more.
Dandruff: 4 tbsp dried thyme, 2 cups water. Boil 10 minutes, strain, let cool. Massage into damp hair. Leave in 1 hour. Rinse.
Dry Hair: 3 tbsps honey + 1 tsp olive oil. Mix thoroughly. Warm in microwave or stove. Apply to damp hair and massage through from scalp to ends. Wrap head in plastic wrap and use dryer on medim-low setting or wrap head in hot towel. Let set 20 minutes. Wash hair thoroughly.
Dry Hair: 1-3 tsp of honey + 4 cups water. Stir honey into warm water (more honey for more hair, less honey for less hair). Blondes can add some lemon juice. After a wash. Massage mixture through hair. Do not rinse out. (honey is a humectant — it attracts moisture).
Deep Condition (Avocado): 1/2 cup real mayonnaise, 1/2 avocado mashed. Massage into hair and wrap with plastic wrap or plastic wrap wound around your head (for a warm set, use a blow dryer on a low-medium setting or wrap head with a hot towel) Let set 20-30 minutes. Wash hair thoroughly. Other options include: 1/2 avocado + 1/8 cup coconut oil
Deep Condition (Oil): 2 tsp jojoba oil + 1 tsp soybean oil or 1/2 cup soybean oil + 1/2 cup dried rosemary or 1 tsp jojoba oil + 1 warm beer. Heat until warm (strain herbs if using). Masage into scalp and hair and let sit 20 minutes. Wash hair thoroughly.
Frizz Tamer: minute amount of coconut oil, or jojoba, or olive, rub into palms, smooth over hair (avoid scalp, back and ends only)
Frizz Tamer: Aloe vera juice or aloe vera gel. Work into hair in a spritz bottle (juice) or rub in palms (gel) and work through hair from scalp to ends.
Oily Hair: Dust hair with cornstarch (use a powder puff or makeup brush). Let sit five minutes then brush out.
Oily Hair: 1/2 cup dried rosemary, 2 cups water. Simmer for 10 minutes. Strain. Let cool and use as a rinse for hair.
Gray Hair Remover: 1/2 cup dried sage + 1/4 cup dried rosemary + 2 cups water. Simmer rosemary and sage in water for 30 minutes, then steep for several hours. Strain. Apply to gray hair (a spray bottle helps controlled application) and let sit 6-12 minutes, then wash as usual. Repeat weekly until desired shade is reached, then once a month for maintenance. (Results may not be apparant for a few weeks). Gray will return if the routine of maintenance is stopped.
I found the above recipes all over the Internet, but you can experiment and make your own formulations. A lot more information is out now than when I started. There is now a book available called Hair Gone Wild. Your hair is unique so you should find a unique combination for your particular needs. Try not to mix more than two or three ingredients together at any one time (water excluded). Keep in mind that there are some items that aren’t the best for certain hair colors and there are certain effects you may not want. Lemon juice, for example, will lighten dark hair. Black tea may darken blonde hair. Cranberry juice might add some nice highlights to brown hair, but will not do good things for blonde!
Just because something says organic doesn’t mean it is necessarily better. If you insist on using a shampoo or want to use it once in a blue moon, you have to know what ingredients to avoid. Also, more expensive doesn’t equal a better shampoo. Read labels!
Beware of commercial herbal shampoos. More often than not they still contain several harsh detergents in addition to a long cocktail of herbs that are just as drying. Furthermore, practically all of the chemicals used in shampoos and conditioners are known to be skin irritants and are known to cause contact dermatitis (itchy scalp anyone?). Can you find detergent-free shampoo? YES. Detergent is cheap and convenient, it’s not the only way to clean. A lot of skin problems can be cured by avoiding typical commercial beauty products in general. Shop around!
You’d be surprised at how many by-products of oil refining end up in beauty products. Petroleum is not good for you.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate – This is the detergent agent, the stuff that removes dirt and makes a lather. It’s the same stuff that is found in industrial cleaners, but in a much lower concentration. SLS is a known irritant. Though it won’t give you cancer, if you are sensitive to it (like many people) it will cause your scalp to become irritated and is also very drying. FYI, it’s also found in some toothpaste and I advise you to find one that doesn’t — especially if you tend to swallow a little when you brush. There are several cousins of SLS such as Sodium Laureth Sulfate which is milder but still a harsh irritant. Anyone who has allergies, psoriasis, dermatitis, or eczema should stay away from SLS, especially.
Here are some common sulfate ingredients by name so that you can learn to recognize them.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate Ammonium Laureth Sulfate
Ammonium Xylene Sulfonate TEA Lauryl Sulfate Sulfur (in dandruff shampoos)
Selenium Sulfide (in dandruff shampoos)
Magnesium Sulfate Sodium Thiosulfate Sodium C14-16 Olefin Sulfonate
Alkyl Sodium Sulfate Alkyl Benzene Sulfonate TEA-Dodecylbenzene
Sodium C12-15 Alkyl Sulfate Sodium Dodecyl Sulfonate
Oftentimes, shampoo manufactures will add even more chemicals to their products in order to reduce the irritating effects of the ingredients above. The result is a long list of ingredients.
Isopropyl Alcohol — Is a deriviative of petroleum. This additive in shampoo is not only irritating but also dehydrating. It’s found in many beauty products and acts partly as an antibacterial. People with sensitive skin especially can not tolerate isopropyl alcohol. Avoid any type of alcohol when seeking a shampoo.
Propylene Glycol — also derived from petroleum. Propylene well as other glycols like butylene glycol are more surfactants/solvents. They are known skin irritants.
Lauramide DEA — as well as cocamide DEA is the stuff they add to make the product foam and make you think that the product is cleaning better. There is no reason that a product needs to foam in order to clean. Yes, they add a chemical to make fluffy bubbles.
Mineral Oil and Silicones — Mineral oil is a byproduct of the petroleum refining process. I coats the hair like a plastic making the hair feel smooth. It can not be removed from the hair without a detergent. Other chemicals that make the hair feel soft after a session of detergent stripping is hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride which is a polymer, dimethicone which is a silicone, and quatemium 80, a quatemary agent. There are many more added conditioners that coat your hair with silicone or a wax. Avoid anything that has -cone in it!
Artificial Colors — are known allergens and irritants. Their purpose is nothing more than to make the product look pretty and different from other products.
Preservatives — Yes, shampoos contain additives to preserve them. DMDM hydantoin and methylparaben are to common ones you might see. Preservatives are notorious allergy triggers.
Other stuff — There are plenty more things like thickeners, pH balancers, and things to make the shampoo pearlesce. I think you get the idea! I am not worried about seeing sodium hydroxides and acids in shampoos as these are the more innocuous ingredients and neutralize each other.
Got questions? Comment below!
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