Walking down the grocery store aisle, I generally try to look out for ingredient lists that look less like an organic chemistry lab manual and more like a concise poem of whole, recognizable foods. For me, this isn’t just about personal health, but rather, an intentional effort to better understand the societal and natural world implications of the stuff on my fork. Recently, I started thinking about how this framework for conscientious consumption applies to other parts of my life. What about my dental hygiene? My love of glittery eyeshadow? My haircare products? I asked myself if my habits align with, or diverge from, my environmental, economic, political, and social beliefs, and if it isn’t obvious, I came to the quick conclusion that no, they largely do not. But, what would it look like to me if they did?
If there is anything I’ve learned about making changes, especially significant ones, is that you take it one baby step at a time. I wanted to start small, and, for whatever reason, I kept coming back to the notion of “healthy” hair. Hair seemed like a manageable part of my life to unpack, explore, and reinvent for myself within the confines of quarantine. To that point, I wonder if there's ever been a better time to experiment with hair than during a period of long-term social distancing?! No one but my family and colleagues, via a perpetually blurry video call image, would see my day six, greaseball hair if plans truly went awry.
I quickly got to Googling, reading about the seemingly endless virtues of apple cider vinegar (for your hair texture, and apparently every other part of your life) and exploring the “No 'Poo,” that is, shampoo-free, dark-web. Through it all, I think I have found, for now anyways, a haircare routine that I really love. Best part of all, it includes entirely natural, inexpensive hair products that I feel truly proud to support. And, because I hate surprises, spoiler alert: my hair has never looked and felt better!!
But, before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s rewind a little. Hair is complex! It’s deeply embedded in heteronormative and Western notions of feminine beauty, culturally informed, and often expensive to maintain. With so much going on, it is easy to forget what it means to simply leave it alone to do what nature intended. Let’s not forget that modern-day liquid shampoo has only been around since the 1930s, making it a relatively new part of our daily routines. Of course, women were still futzing with their hair long before then, but the regularity with which they were scrubbing and the products they were using, were totally different. It begs the question if we actually need to use shampoo at all?
Growing up, I simply used whatever products were already in the shower (often large, Kirkland containers) and, later on, relied on advice from my peers for navigating which Herbal Essences scent would get the cute boy from P.E. class to notice me (still taking recommendations on this one!). I feel very lucky that I was born with low-maintenance hair that didn’t seem to be dramatically impacted by the fact that I washed it nearly every day for 23 years, sleep with it wet, and brush it with the rigor of an Olympic athlete. For this, I have my father— who, when he still had hair, looked like George Harrison if George Harrison was dirty-blonde, Jewish, and surfed—to thank for this one. But, as it turns out, my hair was impacted by how I was taking care of it, even if subtly. What I thought was combatting a natural tendency to reach Danny Zuko levels of grease by washing it daily, ended up causing my hair to fall flat and weighed down by all of the chemical-ridden heavy conditioners—not to mention the number of plastic bottles I tossed into the recycling bin every month. Rinse and repeat.
My first step to a more thoughtful haircare approach was an easy one: simply reducing my washing frequency—mostly because I'd always been curious what would happen if I did! I'm not much of a rule-breaker, clearly. From what I've read, there isn't substantial research proving the claim that washing your hair less will result in a direct decrease in sebum (natural oil) production. That said, the internet does seems to agree that washing your hair 2-3 times a week, depending on the nature of your scalp, level of activity, and personal preference, is about right. For the sake of leaning into quarantine head-first, I spent about a month washing my hair only once a week. Nothing really changed here except for the length of my showers and some (very) noticeable oil buildup by the time washing day came. But, after a few weeks of "re-training," the amount of grease on day four felt far worse than it looked. Maybe there is some truth to the urban legend after all!
Figuring out which products to use involved a little more work. There are countless articles about, though very little scientific evidence supporting, the infamous No 'Poo Method (I found the articles linked here and here to be the most helpful). If you aren't familiar, the basic idea is that a water rinse every few days—or using baking soda and an ACV rinse in place of shampoo and conditioner, respectively—removes excess dirt and oil, allowing the remaining sebum to do the rest. For as many glowing reviews of this thrifty technique there are out there, there are just as many that claim it isn’t significantly better than some sulfate, paraben-free shampoos on the market. In fact, some individuals warn that the No 'Poo Method is too harsh, leaving their hair damaged by the strong alkaline solution. I liked the idea of a vinegar rinse in place of conditioner—it alleges to make your hair softer and shinier—but wasn't prepared to deal with the olfactory consequences. Ultimately, I decided removing shampoo from the equation entirely wasn't going to work for me (baby steps, remember!), and, instead, came to discover the many wonders of natural shampoo bars.
I tried out a few bars, but especially enjoy using this one and this one (in 'Balancer') from Package Free Shop, which I wrote about last month here. Like its namesake suggests, the bars arrived wrapped in a recycled piece of newspaper, and also happen to be cruelty-free, natural, and vegan! I alternate between the two bars to scrub my scalp, and am skipping conditioner for now (there are conditioner bars available though!). My hair fares surprisingly well without conditioner, but, depending on the day, I feel it lacks the silky shine I'm not fully ready to give up. I never said I wasn't a little vain! On the days I want a little post-wash boost, I apply a dab of coconut oil to my palms, working it into my damp hair from the bottom up. From there, I let it air dry à la Emily, and use this plastic-free brush to detangle and spread the oily goodness on days 3-4 sans wash. She feels strong, voluminous as ever, and, in my opinion, the closest I've come to Pantene commercial quality tresses!
While I couldn't be more pleased with the adjustments I've made to my hair routine, I recognize that this isn't going to work for everyone. Quite like the way we eat and approach skincare, hair is extremely personal; what makes sense for me may seem outrageous to you. And that’s a good thing! More than anything, I hope that this experiment of sorts encourages each of us to become more intentional, rather than perfect, in our choices. As an added bonus, hair is a super low-stakes place to begin making lifestyle changes since, for the most part, it always grows back! Does that mean the next step of this journey involves cutting bangs? Eh, ask me during the next pandemic.
The Products I Am Loving Now:
P.S. If you have any tried and true natural hair recommendations, I would LOVE to hear them in the comments! x