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Hair care, chemicals and all

No poo method

Back in September, during Zero Waste Week, I shared my product-light, waste-light personal hygiene regime. At the time I promised a follow-up article on hair care. As my locks are reminding me I need to get them trimmed, it seems like a good time to run through my waste-light yet chemically ladened hair care routine.

Before revealing my hair secrets, I should reiterate I’m hardly a hippie. Others suit that style but I prefer an elegant well-groomed look, and I manage this perfectly well without shampoo, conditioners, serums, hairsprays… That’s not to say that I don’t wash my hair! I just don’t use “traditional” shampoos.

Shampoo’s vicious circle

There is actually nothing traditional about conventional shampoos. These hair detergents didn’t appear on the scene until the 1930s and are made from synthetic surfactants derived from petroleum. An analysis of the label of most shampoos quickly reveals the product’s fossil fuel origins.

So how did we get hooked on these petroleum-based products in less than a century? Shampoos are hardly subtle products. They strip hair of its natural oil, hence the squeaky clean feeling immediately after a wash. Our bodies are, however, programmed to maintain a protective oily film on our scalp and hair so when shampoo strips this film, the sebum producing glands on our head go into overdrive. Typically our response is to panic, feel greasy and unclean, wash our hair again a couple of days later, and before we know it we are washing our hair every (other) day. I knew that regime for too many years, until nearly four years ago.

Due to circumstances I didn’t get round to washing my hair for a number of days. Initially it felt greasy but after about five days that feeling abated, as did the longstanding eczema on my scalp. The latter didn’t disappear entirely but it eased a lot. Intrigued, I did some research into shampoos and alternative products.

‘Unrefined’ haircare products

Like many who ditch shampoo, I don’t buy expensive ‘green’ products. I simply started using a little bicarbonate of soda, mixed into a paste. The slightly abrasive powder acts like a gentle scrubbing product, washing out the grime of London’s polluted air but leaving most of the natural oils in tact. As we have very hard water in our area, I then condition my hair with half a cup of cider vinegar*, remembering to keep my eyes shut of course!

After a few months, I moved on from the bicarbonate of soda. Not because it don’t work but because I accidentally stumbled across an ancient cleaning product that has worked wonders with the eczema on my temples: rhassoul clay. The thought of washing head and hair with clay may seem bizarre to some but is it any stranger than paying a fortune at a spa to be wrapped in mud?

A teaspoon of the traditional Moroccan clay, mixed with a little water, is the most effective ‘shampooing’ product I have come across for my hair. The silica in the clay is so fine that it is even gentler than bicarbonate of soda but still effective at shifting dirt. It has further benefits compared to petroleum-based shampoos. For one, it does not leave my scalp feeling like stretched, parched leather after a hair wash. My hair also looks much healthier! I have a bouncy natural wave in my hair (just as I did when I was a child) without having to use styling products (aka another batch of petroleum-based products). Best of all, I only need to wash my hair once a week, saving me time, money and water.

The thought of only one hair wash per week may make people cringe. If, however, the head’s oil producing glands are not in overdrive, it is perfectly possible to remain fresh and groomed without constant shampooing. I do comb and brush my hair vigorously twice a day, remembering my granny’s 100-strokes advice, and wash brushes and combs regularly with a little bicarbonate of soda. That aside, my ‘shampoo’-free routine is remarkably low maintenance.

And the chemical angle?

Here’s a summary of my hair care products.

  • Water – H2O with whatever mineral particles are in our tap water
  • Rhassoul clay – a mix of SiO2 (Silica), Al (Aluminium), Fe (Iron), Na (Sodium), Mg (Magnesium) and Ca (Calcium)
  • Cider Vinegar – CH3COOH (Acetic acid) and H2O (water)

These products contain natural compounds, have undergone minimal processing – actually the tap water is probably the most processed product in my routine – and are as natural as they can be. They are not, however, chemical-free because nothing tangible in this world is. We are made of chemicals, after all DNA (the building blocks of life) is a molecule! Everything we eat, use, touch… is comprised of chemical compounds so advertising any product or concoction as chemical-free is misleading.

As a copywriter I know the importance of a good headline. I also know that many articles about ‘chemical-free’ alternatives to mass produced or petroleum derived products are incredibly well-intentioned. However, I’m not sure that such over-simplification serve us particularly well.

In my mind, the best way to equip ourselves against the relentless power of advertisers trying to tempt us with yet another unnecessary product is to develop an enquiring mind and the habit of quizzing labels. I’m not suggesting that we should all become chemists**. However, picking up the basics so we can distinguish natural products from highly processed ones or naturally occurring plant ingredients from fossil fuel derivatives will serve us well in our bathrooms, kitchens, wardrobes, gardens…


* To date I have been buying cider vinegar but inspired by my friend Jackie, I’m going to try my hand at fermenting my own.

** Apart from some basic chemistry at school years ago, my understanding of chemistry comes from cooking, gardening, pottery and scouring labels with my well-thumbed Oxford Dictionary of Chemistry.

  • Jacqueline Manni January 20, 2015, 4:45 pm

    It’s so strange how hundreds of years of how we did things get completely overtaken by a new thing that came along less than 100 years ago. I too wash my hair once a week, and was raised to. When I was a teenager I saw my friends washing their hair every day so I though something was wrong with the way I did things, and started washing it more. My grandfather sat me down and told me in all seriousness that I should stop because he feared my hair would fall out (!) 🙂

    One of my little pet things is looking up when something we do all the time now was “invented” — shampoo, the sewing machine, deodorant, commercial bread in a plastic bag… It gives me a whole new perspective about what is “the way things are done” 🙂

    • Meg and Gosia January 21, 2015, 10:17 pm

      Yes… demand creation has made so many things that are relatively recent essential, something that is so normal we don’t even question it. I understand that people need jobs and therefore a certain amount of ‘economic’ activity is necessary but talk about having sleep walked into working crazy hours to earn the money for stuff we never needed in the first place, and killing off our innate creativity in the process. Sheer madness!

  • Rachelle Strauss January 27, 2015, 8:26 am

    Sounds like you’ve got your hair care regime sorted really well. I’m a huge fan of clay but I find after a year or two my hair feels the need for something else a bit more aggressive. I used to wash my hair daily – I was bought up that way, but when I had kids of my own I figured there had to be a better way. Through observing nature I changed our ways hugely and didn’t ‘wash’ my DD’s hair with anything other than water for about four years. People used to stop us in the street and comment on her beautiful skin and hair (I never told them of course!)


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