Halfway through my last haircut, the stylist asked me what kind of “products” I used.
This was an embarrassing subject for me. “Not that many,” I mumbled.
He ran his fingers though my shoulder-length hair and said, “Whatever it is, honey, you keep doing it. Your hair’s looking fine.”
I’m terrified that this stylist (surrounded by packaged lotions piled high on shelves) will find out I don’t use anything. No hair dye. No conditioner. And here I cough uncomfortably and confess, no shampoo. A “no-’poo do,” as we folks like to call it.
I used to use shampoo, but around six years ago the ends of my red hair began to rise into the air a little higher each week, frizzy and dry as poodle fur. I tried soaking it in different types of conditioners but they seemed to affect only the hair near my scalp, flattening it with grease until I began to resemble Little Orphan Annie in a rainstorm. Desperate, I experimented with expensive and time-consuming hair-care techniques, the kind that called for heat compresses, mud from the Dead Sea, and (oy) deer placentas. Nothing helped.
Around the time I was seriously considering a crew cut, I read about a traditional Mexican no-shampoo method that spread natural oils through the hair rather than leaving them clumped up near the scalp.
This hair treatment is simple, cheap, and fast — my kind of beauty routine. All I have to do is wash with water, then brush my wet hair with a washcloth 100 strokes each side. This moves the oils from the scalp, spreading them evenly across the hair. Miraculously, within two weeks, my frizzy ends became less flyaway. My hair began to shine again, getting wavy instead of bushy. And, since the oils weren’t massed near the scalp, my hair didn’t droop, limp and greasy.
The more I used this washcloth process, the less I needed to shampoo (winnowing down gradually to every week, then every few weeks). After a month or two, I found I could stop shampooing entirely — except in rare circumstances, like that time I sanded drywall and appeared to have been dragged in from an archeological site.
Insane in the mane
Before you mutter anything about what a big fat liar I am, take a look at a book of old photos — maybe one featuring daguerreotypes from the turn of the century. As you peruse the photos, consider this: the first commercial shampoo wasn’t even invented (right here in Springfield, actually) until 1930: Breck. Before that, people didn’t rinse their hair more than a few times a year. Although soaps gentle enough for personal hygiene had recently been invented, they definitely weren’t used on hair. Sure, some historical photos might get retouched, but not a photo of a Yakama Native American, her hair thick, lustrous, and definitely not oily. And not a daguerreotype of an Irish maid, her curls vibrant even in black and white.
Since I’ve gone “no ’poo”, I’ve done my research. The oil in hair, known as sebum, is a protective sheath of esters and fatty acids that give your hair shine and bounce and protect it against damage. According to research conducted at Bristol-Myers Squibb, sebum even has natural antimicrobial properties that help stop scalp infections. Like melanin in your skin, sebum is created as needed. If you spend a day on the beach, your melanin goes into overdrive and your skin gets darker. If you wash your sebum down the drain every morning, your follicles click into sebum-overproduction in order to protect your scalp and hair. When you stop shampooing constantly, they begin to produce less.
In fact, shampoos aren’t designed with your hair in mind. Instead, they’re meant to satisfy your fingers and eyes. Marketers know you don’t believe you’re cleaning unless there’s a thick lather, the kind you get when washing the dishes and scrubbing the floor. But your hair is more delicate than pans, and the chemical that produces lather, sodium lauryl sulfate, is too harsh for hair. Over time, it strips away sebum, leaving hair frizzy and dull. You get split ends and breakage. You begin to look like Ronald McDonald. And so you reach for conditioner.
Conditioners, which began to be sold commercially a few decades after shampoo had created the need, coat your hair with artificial esters and gives it back some shine. Of course, the stuff builds up after a while (along with the natural sebum your poor follicles are still desperately overproducing) and the combination makes your hair lie flat as a wet blanket.
Okay, time to shampoo. Vicious cycle.
Without shampoo for five years now, my hair has never looked better. Shiny, with body and blond highlights, it glows with health. My mom, who has a bloodhound’s sense of smell and absolutely no tact when it comes to dirt, stuck her nose right into my hair and (incorrectly) guessed that I’d washed it yesterday. I even went to the fancy Grettacole Salon in Copley Place for a professional opinion. The stylist there, not knowing about my hair-care regime, decreed my hair shiny, healthy, and clean with lots of body.