I Haven't Shampooed in Months (and thoughts on Paleo-Pragmatism)

I’m a skeptic when it comes to hippie crap- I trust that most of the chemicals we’re exposed to on a daily basis have passed some basic safety screenings, I think organic food is mostly a marketing ploy, and I think vegetables are best used to feed my future food. That said, occasionally the tree-huggers get something right, and it looks like they might have some good instincts when it comes to shampoo.

The main thesis of the anti-shampoo (“no-poo”) movement is that your scalp likes to stay mildly acidic, and uses an oil called sebum to regulate its acidity. Sodium laureth sulfate, the main surfactant in most shampoos, strips the sebum away, and your scalp overproduces more to compensate, leading to greasy hair. If you stop stripping away the sebum, your scalp should produce less of it, and your hair should stay cleaner and more manageable.

There are a few popular methods of doing this. Curly-haired people report a lot of success with washing with silicone-free conditioner, because conditioners actually contain mild surfactants that lift grease and dirt without completely removing sebum. Others find that shampoos without sodium laureth sulfate do the trick. Finally, the hardcore no-poo’ers forego hair products all together, and use cheap, common kitchen ingredients to clean their heads.

image from manicorganic.files.wordpress.com I started with the baking soda and vinegar method, which appears to be the standard in the nopoo community. It took about a month for my scalp to normalize (I rinsed with water if it got too oily), and afterwards, I found I only needed to wash every 3-4 days for a clean head of hair. However, our house has hard water, and it seemed to react with the baking soda to give me some flakiness, so I went looking for other methods. I went through a variety of homemade treatments I found on the nopoo LiveJournal Community before I came around to…water. Yup, I take a shower every 1-2 days, massage my head as I rinse it in water, then dry off with a towel. I had to do it every day at first to avoid a grease-fest up top, but now it’s holding up fine, and I haven’t put anything in my hair, homemade or otherwise, for a few weeks.

While the no-poo (or less-poo) movement has been covered by NPR and the New York Times, why don’t more people know about it? After all, it only costs a few bucks to try, and the benefits are pretty high if it works out. Two reasons for the low popularity come to mind: First, there’s no money to be made from it. Like the Paleo movement, barefoot running, and other rejections of conventional wisdom, no-poo has few opportunities for commercialization, and must rely on do-it-yourself hobbyists and self-experimenters to spread its message. Second, advocating against shampoo runs directly counter to the financial interests of society’s hair-care gurus, the stylists. What salon would knowingly cut their own revenues by advising their clients to use fewer hair products?

I see no_poo falling under the umbrella of a movement I call the Paleo-Pragmatists. We don’t reject wheat, sugar, shoes, and soap because we’re trying to act like cavemen, save the bunnies, or commune with nature, we do it because we personally observe positive benefits for our bodies, moods, and wallets. We trust conventional wisdom only as far as it will stand up to confirmatory experimentation, but don’t take the success of one unconventional lifestyle change as a mandate to adopt all the behavior of the people from which it was taken (If raw and cooked meat are nutritionally equivalent, there’s no reason not to grill up your steak). The crusaders in this movement are people like Dr. Harris, Seth Roberts, and the ALC community, people with flexible, analytical minds and adventurous souls, people making small differences in the world by connecting anecdotal evidence with the latest medical research, sharing thoughtful n=1 experiments, and bringing together communities of like-minded people to learn and grow together. This is an exciting time for nutrition, medicine, exercise, and our general understanding of how the body works. I’m not sure if we’ll ever completely topple the establishment (though it looks like the saturated fat lie’s days are numbered), but I don’t see this momentum stopping any time soon.

Update:Kayce says

I don’t know about the commercialization piece, but one reason it hasn’t been adopted may be that it just doesn’t work. I’ve seen some people try this and they just come away with greasy or extremely dry hair. Now, they may have not found the right method to get it right. However, there is a strong short-term incentive not to continue trying – namely, not wanting to show up to work or go out in public with greasy, unkempt hair.

I’ve had even worse experiences with people who try no-deodorant alternatives. I’ve personally had people who smell horrible say to me “look, I’ve tried it and I don’t smell!” and boy is it just not true.

You have to start the journey knowing that the first 2-8 weeks can get nasty. Especially at the beginning, your hair will feel greasy and look flat. There are a variety of ways people push through it— rinsing with water daily (or more often if necessary), wearing hats, or shampooing once a week— and some treatments may work better than others. People with thin, straight hair tend to have a harder time than those with thick, wavy/curly hair.

If you go through a few different methods and still have no luck, or if you simply decide no_poo isn’t for you, a harm-reduction strategy is to shampoo less frequently (say, 2-3 times a week, rinsing with water in between only if necessary), and use shampoos with no Sodium Laureth Sulfate.

As far as deodorant goes, I don’t use any, and I sure hope I don’t smell horrible.