Two months ago I felt called to try and stop using conventional shampoo. I have long been aware of feeling chained to the hair washing spiral and my dependence on store-bought shampoo has become increasingly at odds with a passionate pursuit of natural alternatives for personal care and beauty products. And yet the very idea can seem so difficult to get one’s head around. Images of dirty locks and diminished self care spring forth in people’s minds, with the universal and ecological impact of our shampoo habit falling way down the list of priorities.
But if I told you that in the US alone (where I know many of you reside), almost 180 million bottles of shampoo are purchased, used and discarded each year, it is reason enough to sit up and wonder what alternatives there might be for both our own long term wellbeing, and that of mother earth. If I then also reminded you of some of the nasty chemicals it contains – from the synthetic foaming agents SLSs, endocrine-disrupting parabens and petroleum-based PEG to a whole rainbow of over 3000 artificial fragrances, all of which can penetrate the pores in the scalp and risk entering our circulation, as well as ending up in our planet’s water systems, you might be even more curious to explore a gentler way of washing your hair. And if, finally, I persuaded you that something as simple as rye flour can effectively cleanse your locks, and contains the very pro-vitamin ingredients that the mighty Pantene empire is named after, you might feel called to make the leap and commit to a lighter way of grooming. And because it’s a little minefield out there, for what it’s worth, I am sharing my experience here with rye flour shampoo and some other natural kitchen cupboard allies.
I can honestly say that my hair feels thicker, fuller and more “itself” than I have ever known it. It’s like a new friend. Yes, I am pregnant, with a head full of hair, and it will probably start to disappear on the other side, but even in the one instance in which I had to resort to synthetic shampoo (read on, you might find it amusing…), the hair I felt afterwards was a limp reminder of what I have been missing out on, and thoughtlessly subduing, all my life.
Since every body and head of hair is different, there is no one-size-fits-all natural shampoo alternative that will work on everybody’s tresses. I have researched the topic extensively and, just as with nutrition and self inquiry, the reality is that we each have to discover our own toolkit and what suits one person will possibly do nothing for the next. And so it was when I tried to wash my hair with bicarbonate of soda. It just didn’t work – dry, unhappy and cloyed at the roots, it was a disappointing first foray into what I had imagined as the wildly romantic journey of “no poo” living.
After a little research I found out about rye flour and this has been the gateway ingredient for me. Rye flour is well known for having the same pH as our hair – 5.5 on the acidity scale – and is also a rich natural source of pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), which is vital for the efficient metabolism of the food we eat into energy for cell and tissue renewal, and has been shown to penetrate the cortex of the hair shaft when used topically and help repair damage from styling and colouring, slowing down the hair’s ageing process.
I mix a paste with rye flour and water (about 4 tbsp of flour and enough water to make a satisfying texture) and massage it on my scalp and most of the way down my hair. After the irritating granules of bicarbonate of soda, I was surprised to find how satisfying it feels in lieu of chemical shampoo, and it was something I felt I could trust on my head – gentle and creamy yet with a sense of properly cleansing. I use it as normal shampoo, and while it takes a while to rinse out if you use a coarser flour (but you can sieve it first to remove the larger flakes), the process feels much the same.
Apple cider vinegar rinse
Apple cider vinegar makes a wonderful, gentle conditioning rinse and it is also effective at reducing build up in between washes (you can even use it after conventional shampoo but hopefully if you are still reading, by now you’ll be curious to try leaving that behind…). Its pH also complements the hair shaft and its gentle acidity helps soften hair from root to tip and maintain scalp integrity.
You’ll want to try out different ratios to find what suits your hair but a good place to start is to mix 1-2 tbsp with 2 cups of warm water, and halve the quantities for shorter hair; leave on the scalp and hair for five to ten minutes and rinse thoroughly. You’ll want to keep your eyes firmly shut; you’ll learn the hard way if you try to peek them open. You may also worry that you smell of ACV but this fades when the hair dries.
The transition period
I should point out that until this time, I had been shampooing my hair every other day (more or less) for a good few years. There is always a transition period when switching up haircare rituals and the no-shampoo one has been famously documented. What we are often surprised to find is how quickly the scalp stops producing the sebum that takes our hair feel greasy. Years and years of stripping it away with normal shampoo sends it the signal to compensate with more oils, and this is how the ugly cycle of greasy hair that needs constant washing is born. When we stop stripping, it is intelligent enough to adapt relatively quickly; a few days or perhaps a week of transition, and it self-regulates with the sensitive wisdom our bodies always hold but which we so often try to override without even really knowing why, except perhaps for some persuasive advertisement or an enhanced sense of convenience.
Natural oils and a boar bristle brush: the best conditioner
This natural sebum that the scalp produces is the best conditioner for our hair: it is created specifically for it, and no manmade goop can replace this finely tuned, bespoke blend. I invested in a natural boar bristle brush which helps catch the oils and transport them down the length of the hair; before plastic alternatives came on to the scene these are what were used and with good reason. That said, I do need to use a Tangle Teezer every now and then on wet hair if I’ve really been going for it with the rye flour paste. Two months in with regular boar brushing and my over-bleached locks are still often on the dry side, so I know this self-conditioning process takes time. I have supported my hair with the occasional organic treatment mask (both branded and homemade, from avocado and honey to coconut milk and chamomile) and regular touches of argan or coconut oil while it finds its balance and the damaged ends grow out. For many of us, making the change overnight will result in tangles and battles with the brush; don’t feel bad or like you’re backtracking if you need a mask once a fortnight or so – as with all paths to a more natural way of eating and living, it’s the small steps that lay the foundations for lasting change, and transition periods are a part of the process. If you are fiercely all-or-nothing, you might feel drawn to give up when a new way of doing things is just around the corner. Support yourself (and your hair) with what you need as you let go of one thing and slowly get to know another. One area I am still feeling out is colouring my hair. Before my pregnancy I had regular naturally-derived highlights with Aveda and organic Colour Systems at Glasshouse Salon in London; six months without and I feel drawn to do something gentle about my mousey roots. If I do, and it’s washed with shampoo, then it will just be a perfectly imperfect part of the journey as I realise what I’m ready to let go of, and what I am not… Time, it all takes time.
The question most people ask is: how often? And this depends entirely on your hair and scalp. I use my homemade arrowroot dry shampoo to widen the space in between washes, and a simple warm water rinse also goes a long way in restoring some cleanliness and shine. For some people, it’s enough to use rye flour and ACV once a fortnight, for others, every four to five days is pushing it. Find your rhythm and start there.
Oh, and I should end with a funny story: about four weeks ago, at my parents’ house, I forgot my rye flour and my hair was on the uglier side of dirty after a week in the London summer heat. Determined not to use the Pantene in the bathroom, I found some spelt flour in the baking cupboard and mixed it with water. I could have Googled if it would work but just could not be bothered to engage with my phone. And anyway, I thought, how bad could it be? As I slathered the paste all over my scalp in the bath (no patience for a patch test), I felt it slowly start to solidify like days-old pizza dough. Before I knew it, it has encased my roots in an unforgiving sort of wholemeal putty, and in an ironic twist of fate, as I gaped around the bathroom I realised that my only option to remove it without losing most of my hair was to coat it in the lonely bottle of Pantene and comb each section two or three times. Resentfully drowning in artificial fragrance and wistfully tugging on my caked locks, I couldn’t help but giggle inside as I remembered yet again the glorious adventures and imperfections of this beautiful, never-ending quest for a more natural way of living.
Update: December 2016
After three months using the rye flour I wanted to share that I have used Organic Colour Systems products at the wonderful Glasshouse Salon in London (to get some highlights done) and Jason organic shampoo a couple of times. Six months into pregnancy and feeling the need for some gentle blonde to brighten me up, I went to see Olivia’s talented team and got some foils; they scrubbed me super clean with their shampoo and protein-enriching treatment and after that I was curious to see how long my hair took to feel like it needed washing again. With some arrowroot dry shampoo and regular brushing it lasted a good week. Curious to compare methods after so long, I then tried Jason Sea Kelp shampoo in between rye washes to see how my hair felt… it felt both like a betrayal and an experiment and the first thing I noticed was how quick it was compared to applying and rinsing the flour. Because once the first fun wears off, shampoo-free living is a true commitment; like much of the homemade beauty path, it requires dedication and sometimes a little more time than we are accustomed to (especially if your water pressure is not up to the job). And what did I discover? The same hair, a little more squeaky clean, but a little over-fragranced and ready for a wash only one or two days later compared to rye.
It feels important to feed this back because these practices and commitments have to be rooted in real life. My feeling as my pregnancy unfolds is that the time to myself and for exploring things like this is a gift I won’t get back for a while; however it seems that apart from saving five minutes in the bath, using shampoo has very little edge over working out a way to live without it. We will see how things unfold and I will continue to share it here…