Since the beginning of my health and wellness journey, I’ve experimented with minimizing ingredients lists and reducing toxicity in many areas of my life. This includes food, but also household cleaning products, cosmetics, and body and hair care.
My knowledge of holistic beauty care comes from both experience and research. While some self care rituals are based upon wisdom from ancient medical systems such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Ayurveda, or traditional medicine from Indigenous peoples across the world, many practises and products are also backed by science-based evidence.
Over the years of my experimentation, I’ve researched many practises and ingredients extensively, and what I’ve set out to share with you is based on my own experiences only. Of course, everyone having unique biochemistry will determine what will work best for them – with hair specifically, there are many things to consider. Hair length, texture, density, and porosity will all play a role in what will work best for you. Other factors, such as genetic hair loss, thyroid dysfunction, micronutrient status, and pre-existing skin conditions such as psoriasis or eczema will determine your ideal approach on a systemic level. After reading through my Holistic Hair Care Series, I recommend trying a few new methods at a time, and determining what resonates best with you.
One thing I want to address: NATURAL does not always mean SAFE or BENEFICIAL. Not all products, even If they are natural, single-ingredient materials or herbs, are beneficial, whether taken orally or used topically.
If you are not convinced that this warning applies to natural hair care, please read on.
The No-Poo Method: What Not to Do
Baking Soda Cleanse & Apple Cider Vinegar Rinse: The Influence of pH on the Hair
For those who don’t know, “no-poo” typically refers to refraining from using conventional shampoos. This could look like many things to many different people, but the most common protocol I’ve come across is the baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) cleanse with an apple cider vinegar (acetic acid) rinse method. This method includes diluting 1 Tablespoon of baking soda into a litre of water, pouring over the hair, and massaging into the scalp. The abrasion of the baking soda helps exfoliate, lift away dead skin cells and remove debris. Next, 1 Tbsp of apple cider vinegar is diluted in another litre of water and poured over the hair and scalp to eliminate bacteria, condition the hair, and clarify, adding shine and volume. The problem with the baking soda/apple cider vinegar protocol is because it doesn’t take into account basic chemistry. Consider the value of appropriate pH balance of our skin and hair as follows.
The ideal pH balance of our scalp is between 4.5-5.5, which is relatively acidic, considering the pH scale – 0 being the most acidic, 7 being neutral, and 14 being the most alkaline. This relative acidity that our scalp maintains is to prevent the growth of pathogenic bacteria and fungus, and to maintain a healthy environment for the hair follicles. Likewise, our hair prefers a mildly acidic environment, which keeps the hair cuticle soft, shiny, and in tact.
What happens when we use an alkaline material on the scalp and hair is that the hair cuticle opens, exposing the inner structures of the hair to the external environment, leaving it vulnerable to dehydration and damage. Baking soda has a pH of 9. Although initially the hair may feel soft after a baking soda cleanse, the cumulative damage that occurs to the hair shaft from over-alkalinity can eventually manifest as extreme dryness, brittleness, and breakage.
Some no-poo-er’s may argue that the apple cider vinegar rinse acts as a conditioner to reseal the hair cuticle after the baking soda cleanse, however this is inaccurate. Although apple cider vinegar does have the ability to smooth the cuticles and restore proper pH balance to the hair and scalp, this observation is only true to a certain degree. An application of water (pH) to the hair is enough of a pH adjustment that the hair cuticle does raise slightly. The benefit in this is that water is able to penetrate the hair shaft, which is the only true way to promote moisturizing. Using a vinegar rinse after a water-only rinse or after using a pH balanced shampoo can help promote cuticle sealing and moisture retention in the hair. In the case of using an extremely alkaline substance, the severity of cuticle lifting is too great to be entirely sealed by an acidic rinse. The repeated opening and closing of the cuticle will eventually lead to damaged hair.
Castile Soap, Shampoo Bars, and the Low-Poo Method
Castile soap is a common natural substitute for conventional shampoo, and is used straight, diluted, or as part of a DIY-recipe with other oils and herbs. The most common application is using pure castile soap, which is a concentrated form of liquid soap, diluting it with a small amount of water, and washing your hair with it as you would a normal shampoo. Although castile soap is not as sudsy as conventional shampoos, it is still a strong cleansing agent. For this reason, shampooing with castile soap is often referred to as a “low-poo” method. Like the previously discussed method, although castile soap doesn’t contain toxic ingredients in itself, it does have its own drawbacks and is not ideal for regular use. To understand the issue with castile soap, it is important to understand what soap itself is.
By nature, soap is created from fatty acids and an alkaline substance. Since oils do not have a pH value, the end product is always alkaline. Modern soaps are created through a process called saponification, where plant-based oils, animal fats, and/or pure glycerin are processed using lye (sodium hydroxide). The end result depends on the ratio of lipids to water to sodium hydroxide, and therefore can exist in the form of either a liquid or solid. In the case of Castile soap, it is most commonly found in a liquid form, where the pH ranges between 9.5-11 depending on the exact formulation.
Soap is designed to bind to oils, dislodging them from the surface and pores of the skin as well as the hair follicles, allowing the oils to be rinsed away with water. The oils in which soap binds to includes both bacteria and debris containing oils, as well as the natural sebum that our skin produces to protect and moisturize the skin. By stripping the skin and hair of all beneficial oils, Castile soap is promoting dryness and increasing the need for moisturizing products.
Shampoo bars pose a similar issue as castile soap for daily hair care. Shampoo bars are actually not shampoo at all, but are essentially regular soap bars with some added nourishing oils and herbs. While I love the concept for simplicity and minimizing waste, they pose the same issue as Castile soap by being too alkaline and too drying. It is common to feel an improvement in hair health upon the first few months of using a shampoo bar or Castile soap, as the hair is being stripped of silicons, parabens, and build up of other synthetic ingredients from conventional shampoo. However, shampoo bars will also strip the hairs natural oils and can lead to dry, unmanageable hair when used long term.
No-Poo? No Problem: Naturally Nourishing Hair Care
Water Only Method, Herbal-Poo, and DIY-Poo
The first of these methods is something called the “water only method”. This protocol is super self explanatory – you refrain from using any variety of soap or shampoo on your hair, using only water to rinse out your locks. There are certainly some benefits to this method, including the elimination of all chemical ingredients, oil-stripping soaps and detergents, and topical irritants. Be aware that reactions even happen using pure ingredients from nature, such as single ingredient foods and herbs. For somebody with eczema, psoriasis, or dandruff, this may be a good place to start – by eliminating all ingredients that you’re putting onto your scalp, you eliminate the possibility of a reaction to that ingredient.
Another benefit is detoxification. Many conventional hair care products contain hormone disruptors, carcinogenic ingredients such as sodium laurel sulphate (SLS), parabens, and other materials that build up in the hair such as silicons. When using the water only method, with the help of an appropriate brush (such as a boar bristle brush), the hair follicles are gently unclogged, and the scalp is able to slowly release any stored toxins. These detoxification pathways can be improved by using clays and herbs, as you’ll read below.
Lastly, the water only method is a good place to start for those who want to preserve their natural oils and coat the entirety of their hair strands with their own protective, nourishing sebum, the natural oils produced by our scalp. These oils coat the hair, locking moisture in and preventing environmental damage, and help smooth the cuticle. Our own natural sebum is the best deep conditioner we could use on our hair. This is so important for those with dry, damaged hair, and by utilizing the oils that our own scalp is producing helps eliminate the need for additional moisturizing products. Rinsing with water helps distribute these oils rom the roots and down the hair shaft. Another great way to prevent oily roots and to properly distribute these oils along the length of the hair, use a boar bristle brush nightly.
One issue with the water only method is that long term, it can lead to pH imbalance on the scalp, which promotes dandruff, itchiness and bacterial overgrowth. This is because the natural pH of our scalp is around 4.5-5.5, and water has a pH of 7. Although the pH of water is actually neutral, the scalp does prefer to be acidic – and this mild acidity fights pathogenic bacteria and fungus that cause dandruff and exasperate symptoms of psoriasis and eczema. This symptom often only arises after months or years of water only washing, and can be easily troubleshooted by adding in an apple cider vinegar rinse (or other herbal rinses) as explained below.
Herbs, Clays, and Other Plant-Based Cleansers
There are many single ingredient materials from nature that provide benefit to your no-poo routine. These can be used on their own, or in a synergistic combination to provide nourishment and light cleansing to the scalp and hair. Some of my favourites are rhassoul clay, honey, apple cider vinegar, and aloe.
Rhassoul clay – also known as Moroccan red clay – can be mixed into a paste and used as a gentle cleanser, or used as a detoxifying scalp and hair mask. My favourite method of using this is as a mask, where I mix the clay with apple cider vinegar and apply to a damp scalp and hair. From there, I leave it on for about 30 minutes, and then rinse out. This helps draw toxins out of the scalp, draws out and binds to heavy metals to be rinsed away, and lightly removes excess oils from the scalp and roots of the hair. I mix this clay with apple cider vinegar so it’s pH balanced – otherwise the clay and water mixture on it’s own has a pH of about 9, much to alkaline to be used regularly on the hair. This hair mask can be used standalone as a daily cleanser, or as a detoxification treatment as needed. There are many other types of clay, including bentonite, French green clay, and white clay, but Rhassoul is my favourite for hair application because of its oil cleansing properties and high mineral content.
Raw honey – an easy, inexpensive ingredient that can be purchased locally and used with much versatility. Honey can be added to your rhassoul clay mask for added moisture, or can be used as a standalone cleanser. Applied directly to a damp scalp, honey acts as a gentle antimicrobial and balances the pH of the scalp without stripping away natural oils. Honey is also a humectant, meaning it attracts draws in humidity from the environment. This ingredient can be added to a leave-in spray to promote moisture in the hair.
Apple cider vinegar (ACV) – one of the most versatile hair ingredients. ACV is the perfect ingredient to mix into hair masks and leave-in treatments, as its pH ranges between about 3 and 5, which balances the (often alkaline) pH of other ingredients such as clays and herbs. It can be used diluted in water as a clarifying hair rinse to promote proper pH balance, eliminate pathogenic bacteria, and help seal the hair cuticle. Used in this fashion it’s also a helpful detangling agent. I often dilute ACV 1:1 with filtered water and use it as a leave-in spray, and follow with a ceremide oil (such as wheat germ oil) to seal in moisture and protect the hair.
Aloe – another great pH balanced ingredient, aloe has cuticle sealing properties, and is a great base for a homemade shampoo. The gel also makes a great styling agent for curl definition. It is a very nourishing, healing ingredient for both the skin and hair, and can also be used directly on the scalp to soothe inflammation from eczema, psoriasis, or sun burn. Pure, preservative-free aloe has to be refrigerated, but you can also get the 99.99% pure stuff that is shelf stable. If you have the space for an aloe plant, they’re very low maintenance and using the gel fresh from the plant is the best, as all of its delicate water soluble vitamins and minerals are still in tact.
Cleansing herbal rinses – there are a handful of saponin-rich herbs that are great for cleansing hair rinses. Saponins are phytochemicals that have surfactant properties, producing a lather when mixed with water and effectively cleanising away dirt and oils from a surface. A commonly used saponin-rich herb is the “soap nut”. Technically not a species of herb, the soap nut is actually a genus of several different soapberry-producing trees and shrubs, known as the sapindacae family. Soap nuts are commonly used as a natural, zero waste alternative to laundry detergent, but can also be used as a cleansing hair rinse. In addition to soap nuts, we can also use soapwort root (saponaria officinalis), yucca root (yucca elata), and amole (chlorogalum pomeridianum). All of these herbs have both cleansing and sudsing properties, making them a perfect candidate for a herbal shampoo. A herbal rinse can be prepared by making a simple infusion – add 8 Tablespoons of your selected herb in a pot with 1 litre of water, and bring to a light simmer. After the herbs reach a simmer, turn the pot to the lowest setting and allow them to gently steep in the warm water for an additional 30 minutes to an hour. Allow the infusion to cool to room temperature before using it over your hair. Depending on the amount of hair you have and how oily your hair is, you may need to use anywhere from a cup to the whole litre at once.
Have you tried a variation of the No-Poo method? Feel free to share your experiences below!
Kayla MacDonald, R.H.N.