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, 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.
Rye flour shampoo
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. 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.
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. 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 gentle conditioning rinse and it is also effective at reducing build up in between washes. 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 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. Keep your eyes firmly shut! You may worry that you smell of ACV but this fades when the hair dries.
The transition period
There is always a transition period when switching up haircare rituals. What we are often surprised to find is how quickly the scalp stops producing the sebum that takes our hair feel greasy. 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 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.
Natural oils and a boar bristle brush
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; 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 (both branded and homemade, from avocado and honey to coconut milk and chamomile) and regular touches of argan oil while it finds its balance and the damaged ends grow out.
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.