first published in Healthy Life magazine
I shampoo my hair once a year whether it’s dirty or not.
Just kidding. It’s only been three months since my last shampoo, but I’m seriously thinking that – barring some extreme filth emergency involving bird poop or a headfirst tumble into a mud puddle – I’ll never shampoo again.
Before you crinkle your nose and say “eeew,” let me remind you that “shampooing” is not synonymous with “washing.” I still wash my hair almost every night; I just changed my old “shampoo, then conditioner” routine to “conditioner-only.” Three months into this experiment, it’s shaping up to be the smartest hair-care decision I’ve made since I outgrew my Goth phase and quit dyeing it black.
People have been washing hair for centuries, but modern shampoo – made of synthetic detergents that remove oil from your hair (along with whatever dirt the oil has absorbed) – has only been around since the 1930s. Early shampoos were so harsh, their own manufacturers recommended using them only once a week (hence the classic anti-date excuse “I can’t go out because I have to wash my hair”).
In the 1970s shampoo formulas became gentler, and daily shampooing became standard in America. But maybe that standard is wrong.
“It is good not to wash your hair every day,” said Ellie Canuteson, manager of the Complexions Spa and Salon in Albany. “It’s good not to shampoo it every day, too.”
Overshampooing causes two problems: it can dry hair out or, paradoxically, make it greasier than if you never shampooed in the first place.
Hair is dead tissue; that’s why it doesn’t hurt when you cut it. It also can’t produce its own moisturizing oils though your scalp does, a substance called “sebum.”
When shampoo removes sebum from your hair, your scalp compensates by producing extra sebum. So you wind up in a vicious cycle: the more you wash your hair, the more sebum you generate. But if you avoid shampoo altogether, eventually your sebum levels balance out and leave your hair healthier than ever before.
Or so I read on the Internet. A few months ago I searched for advice about my own hair, which alternates between wavy and curly (depending on the weather) and is just over two feet long with its curls and kinks straightened out. It also had dry, split ends no amount of conditioning treatments could eradicate.
I found entire chat forums dedicated to the care and feeding of long hair. Many members have hair falling past their knees (if their avatar photos are accurate), and they talked about shampoo the way Christians talk about the Antichrist. So I took their anonymous advice and cut shampoo out of my life.
I asked Ellie Canuteson what she thought of the no-shampoo scheme.
“I’m not a huge fan of it, the reason being your scalp does need to be cleansed … [it] does produce a lot of oil.” However, she says, “If you don’t produce too much oil, you can maybe go two weeks without shampoo.”
Coincidentally, two weeks after I quit shampoo is when my hair started looking like hell. The long-hair forums warned that if you stop shampooing, it takes anywhere from two to six weeks before your sebum levels reach equilibrium.
I needed three. The first week wasn’t bad. The second week, I looked exactly the way you’d expect when you hear “I haven’t shampooed in two weeks.” The third week was even worse: my hair was oily at the scalp and a frizzball everywhere else.
By week four I almost gave up. But then – it was almost like a fever breaking. I took a conditioner-only shower after another frizzy, oily day, went to bed that night … and when I woke up next morning my hair looked fine.
Better than fine, in fact. Compared to my shampoo days, my hair is shinier, wavier and curlier than ever before.
“That would be because you’re not taking moisture out of it,” Canuteson said. “The more moisture you have, the more wavy, more curly it is … when people tell me ‘My curls aren’t what they used to be’ it might be because they’re stripping hair of its natural oil.”
That loss of oil also causes dry split ends. If you have long hair, see if this sounds familiar: when you wash your hair and let it dry naturally, most of it stays damp for at least two hours but your ends are bone-dry in minutes.
That was the case with me, until I quit shampoo. Now that my ends can finally retain moisture, I’m finding one or two split ends per month, as opposed to several in a single day.
My hair also gets less tangled. In my shampoo days I needed as much as 40 minutes to comb out my hair after shampooing.
“Great news! Global warming has ended!” my significant other said one night, after a typical shampoo job. “Advancing glaciers grip the earth in a new Ice Age, while civilizations collapsed and rose again.” He paused for effect. “All this happened while you took your shower.”
Despite the sarcasm he had a point – I did take ridiculously long showers, because I needed multiple applications of water and conditioner to comb out the post-shampoo snarls. Now, detangling is easy and my water bill has been cut in half.
Despite my enthusiasm for the no-shampoo regimen, the stylists I spoke to had reservations. Ellie Canuteson recommends at least two or three shampoos per month, and Colette Cristafulli, retail manager at Albany’s Jean-Paul Day Spa, was even more skeptical about my experiment.
“I do have clients who don’t wash their hair often, due to the curl issue or the frizz issue,” she said, but thinks switching to a gentler shampoo is better than cutting shampoo altogether. Cristafulli recommends formulas that are “sulfite-free and paraben-free.”
If you follow in my shampoo-free footsteps, there’s a few things you must remember. First, you will go through a period when your hair looks absolutely awful. Don’t quit shampoo today if there’s any event in the next month for which you need to look your best.
A boar-bristle hairbrush is excellent for redistributing oil from the scalp to the ends. And use the lightest conditioner you can find; those heavy moisturizing formulas are for shampoo users with low sebum levels.
Perhaps the best advice of all comes from Ellie Canuteson: “I think probably, if someone wants to do this, consult with your stylist.”