The no-poo movement | Should you skip the shampoo?

The No-Poo Movement


There has been a no shampoo push recently, where more and more people advocate not using commercially made shampoos.

People are motivated by the belief that it’s cheaper, it’s free from harmful chemicals and that it’s better for hair since shampooing allegedly strips out our hair’s natural oils. These are great reasons, but it’s a bit strange thinking of going no-poo or making my own shampoo, simply because there also seem to be a lot of drawbacks. It’s unfortunately named the no-poo movement (Why would anyone think that was a good name? It’s as if you’re just inviting pun-ishment…) and the net abounds with personal anecdotes of going shampoo free for a year or even longer.

For instance, one option to no shampooing is the baking soda and water recipe. This recipe pops up over and over again with the combination working for some and not for others. Commentators on the DIY Network have reported that it strips color out, can bleach hair, and doesn’t work in hard water.

On the other hand, the New York Times reported 86% of 500 participants reported that their hair either felt the same or better after a no shampoo challenge hosted by Sydney radio host Richard Glover. One participant, 22 year old Emma Rowles, mentioned that her itchy scalp must have been due to previous shampoos and stated that she would never let a drop of shampoo anywhere near her head again.

Does going no-poo reduce oil production?

The advocates for the no ‘poo movement say that when you shampoo your hair too much, it strips out essential oils and causes our sebaceous glands to produce more than needed. So essentially, the more we shampoo, the more we need to shampoo.

“If you wash your hair every day, you’re removing the sebum,” explains Michelle Hanjani, a dermatologist at Columbia University. “Then the oil glands compensate by producing more oil,” she says. 1 (NPR)

The theory goes that less shampooing will result in our hair readjusting its oil production to correct levels. And yet, dermatologists do not all hold the same opinion.

But this simply isn’t true, says Dr. Rogers. “Our sebum production is affected by various things including hormones, diet, and genetics. But the simple act of washing your hair less is not going to slow it down,” she says. “That’s sort of like saying ‘If you shave your legs less often, the hair will go slower;’ there is no scientific basis for these statements.” 2

Generally, it does seem that most dermatologists do recommend not shampooing everyday, but the no-poo belief that it will somehow cause sebum production to normalize might not have basis in fact.

Everyone’s Scalp is Different

Personal care is called personal care for a reason: we all have different hair and skin types, and so what works for your best bud might not necessarily work for you. You might have an oily scalp or a dry one, and so you’d need to pick a hair care regimen that is tailored specifically to your hair.

So for no-poo, people have tried a ton of things:

  • Baking soda and apple cider vinegar
  • Co-washing or just using conditioner
  • Variety of natural shampoo recipes
  • Only water

Baking soda and apple cider vinegar is all over the internet as a viable alternative to shampoo but I’m pretty cautious by nature so I researched it first, and came across accounts of hair gone bad – brittle hair or hair falling out in clumps.

I already have pretty fine hair so this freaked me out. Apparently, going the baking soda route has a lot of risks because baking soda is pretty abrasive and is the wrong pH level for hair. (More on this later.) Plus, baking soda is used for cleaning tiles, scouring pots and pans, and de-clogging drains, so just thinking about it on my already sensitive scalp made me twitchy.

Co-washing is pretty simple. Instead of using shampoo, people only wash with conditioners. The theory goes that since conditioners are gentler than shampoos, it is actually healthier for hair.

I really don’t know how that theory came about. When I look at the ingredients list of conditioners, I find some of the same harmful chemicals that are used in shampoos. I don’t also necessarily believe that its only for thick, curly hair – I tried it myself for several months and I have fine sensitive hair that did fine without shampoo. I did think that my hair seemed smoother and better hydrated than before, so if you want to go out on a limb a bit but aren’t ready to go all out, then this might be the best option for you.

Natural shampoo recipes sound great. Bloggers have tried all kinds of things and reported good results, such as Nina Nelson over at Sustainable Baby Steps. Christina at the Hippy Homemaker has a several options that would likely cover anyone’s needs. At the end of the day, it really depends on what works for you. It’s just like haunting the corner drugstore until you find the brand that works.

And then we have the hardliners who wash their hair only with water.

This is not something that most people are comfortable doing off he bat. When I moved to the no-poo movement, I did so because I couldn’t figure out the right shampoo for my hair. It was always fizzy and sensitive and nothing I did seemed to be able to tame it. So I started shampooing less, about one shampoo every 3 to 4 days, then I gradually switched to co-washing, then washing with water for every other wash. I use product once a week, and the rest of the time I just use water.

Although washing less seems a bit strange, it seems to be generally believed among dermatologists that washing daily can dry out skin and hair. It’s really not recommended to wash hair daily.

My hair’s improved. It’s easier to manage, less frizzy and less limp, but I’m still looking for the perfect match and thinking of going for all-natural cleansers since shampoo chemicals read like a list of criminals.

Going no-poo might help avoid dangerous chemicals

Most people by now have heard of the possible dangers associated with 1,4 dioxane, formaldehyde, phthalates, parabens, sulfates and methylisothiazolinone. What’s really the score?

  • 1,4 dioxane and formaldehyde are human carcinogens and have an overall hazard score of 8 and 10 (10 being the highest) from the D.C. based Environmental Working Group (EWG). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirms the classification of 1,4 dioxane and it has been linked to tumors in the liver, gallbladder, lung and breast while the Consumer Product Safety Commission identified its presence, even as a trace contaminant as cause for concern. Formaldehyde has even more data supporting the link between it and cancer, and everyone – including the industry funded Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) panel – considers its presence undesirable.
  • Pthalates are a group of chemicals that serve to make plastics more pliable and are in many plastics, finishes, detergents, flooring, wallpaper, food, and personal care products. Some of them – such as di(2-ethylhexyl) and di-n-butyl-phthalate – may affect the male reproductive system and be carcinogenic, while the others remain under investigation. They are also alleged to be endocrine disruptors.
  • Parabens are used as preservatives in many different products and are thought to be estrogen mimics, thus possibly fostering the growth of breast tumors. The FDA continues to study the problem but the European union has banned several (Isopropylparaben, Isobutylparaben, Phenylparaben, Benzylparaben, and Pentylparaben) due to lack of safety information and concerns about skin irritation. Methylparaben and ethylparaben are reputedly safe.
  • Sulfates are used to create lather and are estimated to be present in 90 of shampoos and body washes. They are considered safe by the FDA, the EU, and Health Canada as well as by the CIR. However, their method of manufacture often creates 1,4 dioxane which can only be partially removed and in higher concentrations, sulfates have been shown to cause labored breathing, diarrhea and death in animals.
  • Methylisothiazolinone is a preservative from the isothiazonlinone group and is used both in personal care products and in a wide array of industrial products, from boat hull paint to metalworking and plant manufacturing. It has been flagged by the EU as a skin irritant and worrisomely has been shown to be toxic to animal life.

Safety information for personal care products is marked by lack of regulation and data. The FDA does not require cosmetics to be approved by them and only studies those that are raised as possible concerns due to lack of resources. The EU has banned 1,300 chemicals and raises concerns over lack of data but some of the chemicals are not used in personal care. It does seem that the industry motive is to use something and see if something bad happens, and until then to do just a cursory check on safety.

And what regulators might consider safe in small instances really fails to measure what a lifetime of exposure might do. A small amount taken daily is chronic and much more problematic than one time exposure.

Even worse, some ingredients are not listed on the product’s packaging, with fragrance being a prime offender. Industry concerns about trade secrets are to blame and so fragrance – which often contains troubling ingredients – manages to sneak into the homes of even the most well-informed customers. Even if all the ingredients are on the list, sometimes unwanted chemicals such as formaldehyde are released by other innocuous sounding ingredients.

A few years back, J&J was put under consumer pressure to remove 1,4 dioxane and formaldehyde. You would never have found those ingredients in their list though – formaldehyde was slowly released over time by ingredients such as quaternium-15 and 1,4 dioxane was an unwanted by-product of the manufacturing process.

That’s tough.

Even if you were the most educated consumer in the world, you’d never find things that were hidden and you’d never have visibility into the manufacturing process.

Kind of makes the decision to go all-natural so much more compelling, doesn’t it?

PH Matters!

The problem with baking soda and apple cider vinegar is that their PH levels are no where close to the natural PH of our hair or skin which is from 4.5 to 5 on the PH scale.

Baking soda is about 9 on the PH scale and its effect on hair is to open up the outer layer of hair called the cuticle. This allows the hair to absorb more but it also can cause the cuticle to weaken and eventually break.

According to no-poo advocates, the apple cider wash counters this. Since apple cider is an acid, the hair is brought back to its correct PH level and the cuticles closed to prevent damage.

I’d prefer not to experiment with my hair, and I personally have a lot of concerns about trying to find the correct PH balance by mixing my own baking soda and apple cider concoction. The internet talks about having 1 tablespoon of baking soda to 1 cup of water, but that results in a PH of 9.5. To get baking soda down to a neutral PH you’d need 1,418,439 cups of water. Most shampoos (aside from soap bars) are in the 5-7 PH range.

Plus, do you really think that the roller coaster ride from one PH level to another is all that helpful for our delicate hair? It’s kind of like shaking a baby upside down and then keeping him perfectly still so that you’d get the perfect rocking rhythm for him on average.

So what’s a girl to do?

I’m firmly heading in the all-natural direction, but then that seems to work with my hair and my personal preferences.

What’s your hair like? Are you comfortable risking all those chemicals or would you prefer to live without them?

Depending on your answers, you might head in totally different directions. Some prefer buying shampoos that remove some of the chemicals or use milder chemicals. Some want to create natural shampoos and still others might prefer sticking to completely natural hair treatments such as coconut oil or gugo.

What is clear from the no-poo movement however, is that not everything that is natural is good for you (baking soda and apple cider) and that not everything on the drugstore shelf is as regulated as we would all want.

It is also pretty clear that there are alternatives that are available and that range from clay shampoo to soap nuts to coconut oil treatments, which may be able both healthy and chemical free. It comes down to what you think is better for you and what your scalp says.