Archive for March, 2013

A month without shampoo: The good, the bad and the not-so-greasy

Warning: there’s a lot of backstory to this post. If TL:DR, skip to the 5th paragraph.

I’m not a particularly complicated person when it comes to my appearance, health and personal care. I don’t use anything on my face, I wear clothes that are comfortable and that fit, I wear shoes that are healthy for my feet, try to eat foods which are good for both me and the planet. I don’t smoke or consume caffeine. I care about animal testing, industrial farming and mono crops. There are exactly two issues with which I have a deeper relationship: the situation of my belly fat and my hair. The former is pretty straightforward: I need to lay off the carbs. The second is far more complicated. It’s big, it’s curly, it’s often a force of its own to be reckoned with (and it decides how late I’m going to be leaving the house in the morning).

The truth is, my relationship with my ever-changing hair has always been a bit tumultuous. This goes far back to my childhood in the US where my hair was nothing like it is today. I don’t have any photographic evidence, but my mother might be able to produce some proof of my wavy medium-dark brown hair (and buck teeth). When my family and I moved back to Israel shortly before the Gulf War in 1990, my hair took on an almost immediate FLOOF! quality. It gradually became lighter, and as a response to the humidity became quite large and frizzy. It wasn’t until the age of 14 that I actually became aware that under this pile of floof were curls – I had learned to brush my hair regularly from an early age, and it was only after a few brush-less visits to the beach did I realize that if I let it air dry and didn’t touch it with a brush, I would have a head full of corkscrew curls.

That is not to say that I had a newfound appreciation for my hair – I had always wanted straight, black hair, and after a few rounds of hair dye and industrial-strength relaxer at the age of 20, my dream hair was attained (much to the chagrin of my grandmother, may she rest in peace). From that point it was years of dying, bleaching and blow-drying. I took a break from hair experiments after moving to Germany (where people would stop me on the street to ask me about my hair constantly, I thought it was funny), but otherwise it was a head full of peroxide and a tub of turquoise Tönung.

Multi-colored locks are awesome, but bleaching destroyed my hair. Bleaching makes hair dry, brittle and lose it’s texture over time. My curly hair, one of my best assets, turned into a burnt, matted mess:

My destroyed hair in 2011
Photo by Matthias Bauer

I was time to go back to the roots (pun intended, sorry).

While doing some research on improving the situation of dry hair, I came up with a significant amount of references to silicone. Silicone is used in hair products to create softness and shine, and coats the hair with a layer that smoothes the hair’s cuticle and seals moisture in, immediately improving its appearance. Most hair conditioners and shampoos use silicone in their ingredients – there’s a good chance that, unless you use natural or organic products, the shampoos and conditioners in your shower include some form of silicone (just look for any ingredient ending with -cone or -xane). The problem with silicone is that it’s moisture impenetrable (that’s what makes it such an effective frizz-fighter) and non water-soluble. This means that moisture can’t get into your hair from the environment and water won’t remove it from your hair. It can only be removed by the use of a harsh surfactant, and in the case of most shampoos, that would be Sodium Laurel Sulfate (or one of it’s many cousins). Even though regular silicone usage itself is not drying per se it does need to be regularly removed from the hair to prevent buildup. If most silicones aren’t removed from the hair with a sulfate-based cleanser, they’ll build up and cause dullness, rattiness, breakage and all manner of ills.

The result of using Silicone-based hair products is a cycle of dehydration. Sulfate-based shampoos strip hair of its natural oils and dry the hair out, silicone-based products will coat the hair and make it appear undamaged. You’ll then have to use sulfate-based shampoo to remove the silicone, ad infinitum. Most people with medium-weight, healthy hair actually manage to get away with this (assuming you’re more concerned with the appearance of your hair after applying hair cosmetics as opposed to the actual health of your hair, akin to applying breakout-causing makeup to skin suffering from acne), but frizzy, dry, bleached or curly hair will become dryer, frizzier and lose its natural definition under the influence of sulfates. Most people with dry or curly hair have no idea how their hair might look healthy – they’ve been using silicones and/or sulfate-based shampoos their entire lives.

Back to me and my bleached, ratty hair – the silicones had to go. Out went the Argan oil serums and hair creams (mostly Dimethicone, a common silicone in hair products), in came hair conditioners from the organic section of the drugstore.

After a short stint with sulfate-free shampoos, I came across a concept I was unfamiliar with called “co-washing”. The premise is simple – wash your hair and scalp with hair conditioner (silicone-free, of course) or a “conditioning cleanser” to lift dirt off the scalp and hair and allow the scalp’s natural oils to restore moisture to dry hair. Sounded a bit grimy to me, but I found the idea curious and reported results and photographic evidence to be undeniable, so I got a trim at the hairdresser’s to get rid of my burnt ends, and then gave it a try.

That was in February, and was the last time I shampooed.

I went from this (January 2013):

My hair in January 2013
Photo by Matthias Bauer

To this (March 2013):

My hair in  March 2013

My hair, surprisingly, isn’t grimy, greasy or dirty. The remaining bleached sections are still pretty dry, but the difference in frizz and curl definition is obvious. The first week or two were a bit strange, as my scalp and hair adjusted – it’s been pretty smooth sailing (and surprisingly low-maintenence) since then. It takes some getting used to – conditioners or conditioning cleansers don’t lather up like sulfate-based shampoos do, and smart marketing has conditioned us to believe (pun not intended! argh) that the presence of suds mean that the shampoo is actually working. Most conditioners include some extremely mild surfactant ingredients, which are usually enough to remove dirt and water-soluble styling products without stripping the hair and scalp of natural oils.

Co-washing may sound very straightforward – and to a certain extent, it really is – but the one-size-fits-all appeal of silicone is difficult to reproduce with other hair products like conditioners. Silicone does one thing, and does it well: coats the hair and masks dryness or damage. After going silicone-free, there are no more one-size-fits-all solutions. Different ingredients in hair products will work differently for each person, depending on the texture, thickness and porosity of their hair. This is a downside of forgoing the universal hair cosmetic: the attention you need to give your hair to find the right products that work with your hair type (and the money involved in purchasing them) is a bit of a put-off. Hair suddenly becomes an issue. To put it another way – to switch away from silicones and sulfates is to make a commitment to care for and about your hair.

That said, I don’t cleanse or condition my hair any more or less than before “the big switch” – a co-wash every other day with a bit of a freshening-up in between. And after 16 years of learning to never brush my hair when dry, I’ve now stopped brushing entirely, retiring my hairbrush to a lonely corner of the closet, where only the very occasionally-used items get stored, like sunscreen (not much use for that in northern Europe, unfortunately).

Switching over to a “stranger” method of taking care of my hair has had the added benefit of teaching me a lot about what goes into the cosmetics we use – and how and why to read the label on the bottle. Awareness is extremely liberating! If you want to find out more about what goes into daily cosmetics, I recommend checking out the book No More Dirty Looks.

I’m still trying to figure out what the best way is for me to take care of my hair during the silicone and sulfate recovery phase, but I’d recommend anyone who’s hair is wavy, frizzy, poofy, curly, bleached, dyed, heat-styled, dry or anything in between to do some research about going silicone/sulfate-free (or even “no-poo”) and to check out Lorraine Massey’s book “Curly Girl” (here on and here for the Kindle version) as a great resource for the wavier and curlier end of the spectrum.

“No-poo” and sulfate-free shampooing methods are not without their critics. There’s enough hype and confirmation bias to go around. Silicones are not a miracle in a bottle nor the root of all evil – similarly, sulfates are probably not a sneaky trick by cosmetics companies to dry out your hair so you’ll buy their conditioner – they really are a very effective cleanser. It remains to be seen how my hair is going to survive the pool/beach season (if it ever arrives) – chlorine and salt water are not easy to remove from the hair. “Low-poo” may be on the horizon.

Photo by Matthias Bauer

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