Shampooing our hair feels like second nature. However, humans haven't always lathered up as often as we do—and followers of the no-shampoo trend profess that hair looks healthier sans sudsing. Tweaking your shampooing habits nixes the harsh chemicals and leaves your hair feeling soft, shiny, and naturally clean.
Could you give up shampoo? If the thought alone has you imagining limp, greasy hair, you’re not alone. After all, we’ve been taught to “lather, rinse, repeat.” But we might want to think again. The no-shampoo movement (or “no-poo” movement, as some people call it) is gaining momentum, with converts swearing that laying off the lather gives them hair that has never looked better.
A short history of shampoo
For such a commonplace product, shampoo is actually a relatively new invention. The first modern shampoo popped onto the North American scene in the mid-1930s; before that, people generally used an all-purpose soap. What’s perhaps most surprising is how infrequently people used to wash their hair. According to a newspaper article from the 1900s, people at the time typically shampooed anywhere from once every two to six weeks—or longer. Only with an increase in marketing and advertising in the 1930s to 1950s did frequent shampooing become popular.
Leopoldo Santos, MD, clinical fellow at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Dermatology and Skin Science, explains, “Many people believe that shampoos are designed to clean the hairs; however, the scalp is the principal target. Essentially, shampoo is composed of detergents, which clean scalp and hairs by removing dirt, styling products, sebum [natural oils], and skin scales.”
Santos adds, “Shampoos are composed of many types of detergents. The strongest ones have an electrical negative charge that increases the hair frizz effect, friction, and difficult untangling hairs.
“A good shampoo is composed of detergents with well-balanced negative and positive charges, resulting not only in a good cleansing of the scalp and hairs but also minimizing frizz and beautifying hair.”
It’s well known that chemical cleansers and lathering agents, such as sulphates, are hard on hair. Contrary to popular belief, there is no need for a lather to ensure clean hair. In fact, contemporary shampoos contain conditioning agents—added because, although people want to shampoo every day, squeaky-clean hair is rough, tough to style, and dull looking.
Why go “no-poo”?
Each individual’s reasons for reducing their reliance on shampoo are different.
The typical shampoo contains between 10 and 30 questionable chemicals—or more. For tips on how to avoid chemicals, check out the sidebar, “Choosing a natural shampoo.”
Healthier hair and scalp
Sometimes, having hair that’s very oily can be attributed to shampooing too frequently. Stripping the hair and scalp of their healthy oils is thought to create a vicious cycle, leading the skin to produce even more oil. Breaking the cycle means shampooing less—gently teaching the scalp not to produce as much oil.
Being eco-friendly and budget-conscious
By using less product, less often, and taking shorter showers, you’ll be doing the environment and your wallet a favour.
So what’s the verdict?
Much of the evidence about going sans shampoo is anecdotal. However, many proponents say that their hair looks better without shampoo: smoother, shinier, less frizzy, and healthier looking, but not greasy.
However, skipping shampoo altogether is not recommended by dermatologists. As Santos explains, “The accumulation of sebum production may irritate the scalp causing local inflammation, which accelerates the proliferation of skin cells, resulting in skin exfoliation or dandruff. Dandruff can be caused by many factors, however; even healthy scalps that are not often cleaned will develop dandruff.
“The frequency of shampooing depends on how much sebum/oil is produced by each scalp. One may need to shampoo every day to maintain a non-oily scalp, while for others every second or third day may be enough.”
Bonnie Bentley, Vancouver-based colourist and stylist, agrees: “I would recommend shampooing less often to retain the natural oils, but I definitely would not abstain altogether.”
In some cases, going longer between shampooing has long been recommended. For example, people with very coarse and curly hair, such as those of African descent, should wash no more than once a week.
However, those with straight or fine hair may find it more challenging to go longer without shampooing, says beauty expert Michelle Villett. Really, it all comes down to what works for you.
Ready to skip the shampoo?
While some people only rinse their hair with water, most people don’t go cold turkey.
As Bentley recommends, “In order to increase the length of time between shampoos, start by leaving one day, then two days, then three days in order to train the scalp to be less oily (over approximately three months).”
Some people find that co-washing (washing with specially formulated cleansing conditioners, found at well-stocked natural health retailers) nourishes their hair without drying it out. Villett recommends them for those with coarse or curly hair.
Baking soda and apple cider vinegar
Many people swear by using a baking soda and water solution as a shampoo alternative, with an apple cider vinegar rinse afterward.
However, those with chemically coloured hair should proceed with caution, warns Bentley, as this method “is best suited for someone with 100 percent virgin or natural hair. If you do have colour-treated hair, the safest alternative would be a sulphate-free shampoo.”
Villett adds, “I think people need to be careful with baking soda and vinegar, as they may disrupt the hair’s pH and make it brittle.” However, she finds that “a diluted vinegar rinse (10 parts water to one part vinegar) can be a great way to add body and shine.”
Tips for beginners
Tempted to try the trend? Learn from the pros.
Before jumping in, Bentley recommends talking to your hair stylist to see if it’s right for you.
To help your hair with its transition period, Bentley and Villett recommend using a dry shampoo. Natural options can be found at well-stocked natural health retailers. “Use it on the roots of clean hair right after you wash and dry it,” says Villett. “This will help create a barrier against the oils before they travel down the hair shaft.”
“If you have bangs, you could shampoo your bangs only (since they are the first area to show the grease),” says Villett. “Gentle teasing or backcombing with a paddle brush can also help disguise oily, flat hair.”
If you’ve been trying to wash your hair less for three months and it doesn’t seem to be less oily, “there may be an imbalance in your scalp, and that should be addressed by a dermatologist,” says Bentley.
Choosing a natural shampoo
Shampoo shopping? Read the ingredient labels! Several common chemicals have been known to cause health problems such as allergic reactions, including fragrance and parabens.
Other common ingredients to avoid are foaming agents— either sodium laureth sulphate or sodium lauryl sulphate. They’re not only unnecessary, but they’re also toxic to the environment and can be contaminated with carcinogens.
Safer natural or organic shampoos can be found at your local health food store, including options for coloured hair or dandruff.