(Created as a guest post for Well Grounded Hopes)
Three months ago, I gave up shampoo. All shampoo. And conditioner. Yep, I no longer wash my hair. But it isn’t gross, at least not now that my hair has adjusted (I admit that it was touch and go for a couple of weeks there). As granola as it sounds to say that I don’t wash my hair, you would never know it (no dreads, no flies buzzing around me at all times, no slime oozing off my head). Actually, my hair looks and feels healthier than ever before.
This was a long, long time coming. I have had an itchy flakey scalp for as long as I can remember. By the time I started high school, I had learned to wear my hair in pony tails and buns just so that the flakes wouldn’t frost my shoulders throughout the day (I was teased enough without giving my tormentors that kind of ammunition!). I used to love weekends because I could sit and scratch my scalp and let the flakes land all over the floor before giving my head a good wash and wiping up the mess (sorry for the visual). I always used special dandruff shampoos and toward the end of high school, started using topical steroids for my scalp to help control the inflammation. My doctor said I “just” had some scalp psoriasis and suggested I use baby shampoo.
Baby shampoo didn’t help, plus it dried out my hair which was quite long most of this time. So, I changed shampoo and conditioner brands sometimes as frequently as every time I bought a bottle. Some would cause an instant burning sensation (my scalp would turn red for a few days then the skin would flake off like a bad sunburn) and I would have to toss the bottle after one use. Some brands would seem okay for a while, maybe even a few months, before I slowly developed a reaction. Sometimes I would react worse to the shampoo and sometimes I would react worse to the conditioner. This may have been an allergy, a chemical sensitivity, or a case of contact dermatitis or psoriasis aggravated by the chemicals in my shampoos. Eleven years ago, I gave up “cheap” shampoo and started only using the high quality products sold in my hair salon, but I still had to change products every few months. My four-year flirt with brightly colored hair and fancy styling products ended when I became violently allergic to the hair dyes and every product my hair salon sold. So, seven years ago, I started using organic, “chemical-free”, fragrance-free alternative shampoos and conditioners. In fact, I’m pretty sure I used all of them because I STILL developed sensitivities to them and their matching conditioners and had to switch brands every few months (for a while I even used olive oil as a conditioner and just changed shampoo brands). This may be because many “chemical-free” organic shampoos only avoid certain chemicals (like parabens) and many still contain some plant extracts that really amount to the same chemical, even if it does originate in nature.
As I continue to battle with autoimmune disease, attempt to adhere to the restrictions of the autoimmune protocol and to heal my body through diet, activity, stress management, prioritizing sleep, sun exposure, and supplements, I have started to evaluate my health through a more focussed lens. It is such hard work to get my body to heal and any exposure to irritants, allergens or toxins is going to slow it down. So, something like an itchy flaky scalp is a big sign that there’s something I’m missing. It’s also a very discouraging sign that my body has not fully healed in spite of my efforts, which really makes me feel like I am waging an uphill battle.
My decision to give up shampoo came just over three months ago when I last got my hair cut. I knew that my scalp was starting to show the hallmark signs of a new shampoo sensitivity (although this time, it had been almost a year). I was frustrated trying to implement the very overwhelming autoimmune protocol and was only seeing very mild improvement to my lichen planus (this is right before everything started to come together). The hair dresser admonished the obviously poor health of my scalp the entire time she was cutting my hair (crediting inferior hair care products in spite of the fact that the shampoo I was using was purchased from her salon!), and pushing her favorite special scalp healing treatments very aggressively. The barrage got to me. I caved and bought a $30 bottle of a daily treatment for my scalp. I went hope and tried it. My scalp burned so badly I had to hop in the shower and wash it out immediately. My scalp was beet red for three days before the skin flaked off in sheets, burned and killed by this product that was supposed to heal my scalp. I was so discouraged to have such a violent reaction (I thought that, with paleo, these types of violent skin reactions that have plagued since I was 13 years old would be a thing of the past). The silver lining is that this was one of the events that helped me find a higher compliance level with the autoimmune protocol. And, it was the last time I washed my hair with shampoo.
There are some really good reasons to give up shampoo, or at least to read the label and purchase carefully (for referenced summaries of potentially harmful chemicals in cosmetics, including shampoo and conditioner, see this report by the David Suzuki Foundation or this website by the Breast Cancer Fund). I’ll just state right up front that I’m not a big fan of the scare tactics used in many websites listing all the potentially dangerous side effects of chemicals contained in soaps, cleansers, shampoos, conditioners, moisturizers and cosmetics. Using a line like “this is an ingredient in anti-freeze, would you put anti-freeze on your baby?” just makes me mad and triggers my stubborn rebellious side. Show me some science that these chemicals are harmful and that they can be absorbed in significant quantities through your skin or have additive effects over time; then we’ll start talking. But, some of this data actually does exist for some chemicals commonly found in shampoos and conditioners and also common contaminants (much of this data doesn’t exist yet). More convincing to me is that some of the chemicals commonly used in shampoos are common allergens and irritants (which is different than being toxic). Some are estrogen-mimicking compounds (again, different than being toxic). But to be honest, I’m not sure this would be on my radar if I hadn’t had such a long term battle with my scalp and my health in general. For me, the choice to give up shampoo was purely a reaction to not having any shampoo brands left out there that I hadn’t already tried and developed a sensitivity to.
Has giving up shampoo made me healthier? I can’t honestly say yes. But, it has changed my hair. It took about three weeks for the oil production in my hair to slow down (at first, I cleansed daily with lemon juice, but I don’t anymore). Now, my hair has a very lanolin-coated feel to it (like soft pet hair, maybe?) but also feels very soft and smooth. It is definitely a different feel to how my hair has ever felt before and I still feel like I’m getting used to it when I run my fingers through my hair. My hair has a fabulous shine, but always looks like it needs to be combed (I blame the too wavy to be straight, not wavy enough to be curly quality of my hair here). There are still a couple of odd flakes, but my scalp doesn’t itch (unless I eat something I shouldn’t!) and there’s no redness anymore. And that is definitely an improvement!
So, what do I use on my hair? Most days, I just use water and give my scalp a bit of a massage in the shower. Every 3-4 weeks, when the oil build-up gets to be too much, I cleanse my hair with baking soda and then condition my hair with lemon juice. I achieve this by mixing 1-2 Tbsp of baking soda into a cup of water and slowly pouring it over my head in the shower. I rinse fairly immediately because I feel like the baking soda strips too much moisture from my hair and my hair will feel too dry for several days afterward. The lemon juice helps neutralize the baking soda and restores some of that sheen to my hair. I place the lemon juice in a small spray bottle and spray my already wet hair, massage in, then rinse out. I have found that how long I go before I need a baking soda/lemon juice clean is longer every time. Perhaps eventually, it won’t be needed at all. I don’t use any styling product whatsoever in my hair and I don’t think that this would work for someone who really likes to style their hair using any kind of gel, mousse, mud, or spray. I’m glad I went through the adjustment period with short hair, although now that my hair has such a lovely sheen, I am thinking about growing it long again. I save a ton of time by not having to wash and condition my hair every morning. Not to mention all the money I save by giving up shampoo!
There are lots of recipes out there for homemade shampoos, but I don’t think they are necessary, unless you have a lifestyle where your hair really gets dirty. So yes, I don’t wash my hair. But my hair is gorgeous and my scalp is healthier. I’m actually wishing I’d tried this about two decades ago!