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Is No Poo a good way to clean your hair? The Beauty Brains show episode 30

Can you make hair healthier by skipping shampoo? This week Perry and I discuss 7 different ways to “no poo” your hair. Plus ….another rousing round of Beauty Science or Bullsh*t.

Click below to play Episode 30 or click “download” to save the MP3 file to your computer.

Show notes

Beauty Science or Bullsh*t

The game that’s taking the internet by storm – we give you 3 beauty science headlines and you have to pick the fake one.

  1. Dying your hair with stripes can keep  flies off of your head.
  2. The world’s first robotic tattoo has been created by hacking a 3-D printer.
  3. A new “flesh eating” shower sponge uses a keratolytic enzyme to exfoliate dead skin cells while you bathe.

Listen to the show for the answer!

Question of the week: Is No Poo a good way to clean hair?

Allie asks…What’s the deal with this “no poo” craze? Does the hair get more healthy because of the natural oils you use? I’ve seen on Pinterest people talking about using baking soda as a cleanser and apple cider vinegar as a conditioner.

To answer Allie’s question we review several alternate ways to wash your hair.

The Ultimate No Poo

This means you don’t clean your hair AT ALL. Not even rinse it with water.

Does it work? Sure. You don’t actually have to shampoo your hair. Of course, it won’t be clean either. It will be less damaged and probably look more shiny. However, it may also look and feel greasy, smell funny, and be difficult to style in any way except laying flat on your head.

Shampoo free poo

This is rinsing your hair with water.

Does it work? It will certainly refresh your hair but it won’t remove heavy styling residue. (And, as we’ll explain, you’re still damaging your hair even without the shampoo.)

Cowashing

Also known as conditioner washing or “co-poo” this simply using a conditioner to wash your hair.

Does it work? Yes because conditioners contain surfactants (although a different kind than the ones used in shampoos.) Also, they are used at much lower levels so they don’t clean as well and conditioners may have more oily materials which leave your hair feeling dirty. For everyday cleaning you’ll likely be disappointed by using conditioner as your hair cleanser. It can also start to build up on hair and feel heavy. It will also attract a lot more dust, pollen, and dirt from the air.  The WEN brand is probably most popular in this regard but you don’t have to spend a lot of money to try this. Look for an inexpensive silicone free conditioner like the traditional VO5 and Suave products.

Reverse shampooing

This involves applying conditioner or an oil to your hair BEFORE you shampoo. The idea is that you’re “using up” some of the detergency of the shampoo on the “fake oils” so less of the “natural oils” are stripped away.

Does it work? Yes, to some extent. We did some experiments and saw some reduction in color fading. But it has the same negatives as cowashing.

Dry shampoo

This is typically an aerosolized powder (for example, starch) that you spray onto your hair and brush out. (also sprinkle in versions)

Does it work? Absolutely. The powder absorbs excess oils from your hair and then you brush the powder out. It also is scented so it’ll leave a bit of that fragrance behind. But it doesn’t clean your hair nearly as well as a regular shampooing. It also may leave a white residue and can leave hair feeling gross. However, if you want to skip a shampooing day or two this product is good in a pinch. It’s also good for color treated hair because it will help reduce the amount of color lost. We developed one of the first mass market dry shampoos and saw a secondary benefit which was “second day hair.” Gave hair better texture on the second day so it styled better.

Alternative shampoos

This is washing your hair with something other than shampoo (like baking soda or vinegar.)

Does it work? It depends on what your shampoo substitute is. Some people think they can use body wash instead of shampoo. And you can…but chemically body wash is almost identical to shampoo so there’s no extra benefit. (In fact if anything it will leave your hair feeling worse.) What about baking soda and/or vinegar? Baking soda is NOT a good idea. It’s not a good oil absorber so it won’t work like the starch in a dry shampoo. Plus, it has a very high pH which can slow down the restoration of the acid mantle on your scalp. Theoretically the high pH can damage the hair as well by causing additional swelling. Vinegar has a low pH but other than helping to remove mineral buildup, it doesn’t really provide any benefit. The idea that the low pH closes up the cuticle and makes hair shinier is just a myth.

No-Rinse shampoos

What is it? Here’s another way to wash your hair without water. The formula is a real shampoo except you don’t rinse it out. The most popular brand is No Rinse Shampoo. The formula is much runnier than a regular shampoo so you don’t need water to make it lather. Just put it on dry hair, work through with your fingers and watch it foam. Then wipe out the foam with a towel for clean hair.

Does it work? This formula will work better than the dry shampoos. It can clean your hair better than a conditioner. But it won’t be nearly as good as a regular shampoo. But if water is in short supply or you just don’t feel like hopping in a shower, this no-rinse shampoo might be for you. Also, you may find the residual surfactant that’s left on your scalp can be irritating.

Sulfate free shampoo

Honorary mention:  Again it’s a matter of personal preference. Sulfates are excellent cleansers and if you have very greasy hair or use a lot of styling products will probably will welcome them. On the other hand if your scalp is easily irritated or if you think you’re prone to dryness you may not like the way they leave your hair and scalp feeling. The sad thing is that most  sulfate free products work very similarly to sulfates. There are only a few detergents that have really been proven to be demonstrably milder.

Why is washing and drying damaging?

Two reasons: the hair fiber swells when saturated with water which causes uplifting of the cuticle. Drying the hair does not reverse all of this cuticle lifting and once the cuticle is lifted it can become loose.

The second reason is that you have to dry your hair. If you’re using a towel to any extent you’re causing a lot of friction by rubbing the hair. If you’re using a blow dryer the high heat can cause damage. Of course if air drying your hair must be perfectly safe, right? Not necessarily.

One study found that air dried hair sustains more damage to the Cell Membrane Complex (CMC), the sandwich-y layer of proteins, lipids, and covalently bonded fatty acids that is the “glue” that binds cuticles together. Once the CMC is damaged cuticles can become dislodged more easily which leads to rough damaged hair which may eventually split and break. The authors hypothesize that because air drying takes so much longer  than blow drying that some internal components of the CMC are exposed to water for much longer time. This water exposure over time causes a buckling in the CMC layer. Blow drying removes the water more quickly so the CMC doesn’t have a chance to buckle. While this is intriguing discover there are two major caveats: first, this is a single study and one should never completely believe a surprising finding that comes from only one study; more research needs to be done. Second, even though blow drying appears to cause less damage to the CMC, it does cause MORE surface damage. Therefore you’re trading one kind of damage for another by air drying hair.

Is No Poo better for hair’s natural oils?

This is another myth. Let’s talk about how oil (also known as sebum) gets on your scalp in the first place. Sebum is generated in tiny sebaceous glands beneath the surface of the skin. These glands produce an oily substance that reaches the skin’s surface through hair follicles. Some sebum is a good thing – it’s a natural moisturizer and it keeps your skin and hair soft and supple. (Of course  some people are prone to excess sebum production and that can be too much of a good thing.) The proponents of this myth must think that washing your hair strips away the natural oils  so that NOT washing hair leaves more natural oil on your hair. Right? No, not really.

Actually, stripping away oil with a shampoo will make your glands produce more oil. To understand how this works, you have understand how sebum production is regulated – in other words what turns the sebum glands on and off. It turns out that it’s the presence of sebum on the surface of skin that controls sebum production. How is that possible?

If you want all the details check out this study in which scientists stripped oil off skin and then measured how long it took the skin to re-oil itself. But their bottom line is that the presence of oil on the skin’s surface sends a signal to the sebaceous glands to turn off. This signal is caused by either the pressure of the oil in the follicle or by the creation of a chemical signal that travels back down through the skin. But then why doesn’t shampooing make your scalp oilier and oilier? That’s because the oil production levels off very quickly.

The Beauty Brains bottom line

To sum up the science: Any time you’re wetting and drying your hair you’re damaging the fibers and stripping color. Therefore, any alternative that eliminates water will reduce damage and keep color from fading. But there is certainly no evidence showing that at home solutions like baking soda and vinegar are better for your hair than shampoo. In fact, some alternatives (like using baking soda) may do more harm than good but other than that it’s really just a matter of personal taste.

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Buy your copy of It’s OK to Have Lead in Your Lipstick to learn more about:

  • Clever lies that the beauty companies tell you.
  • The straight scoop of which beauty myths are true and which are just urban legends.
  • Which ingredients are really scary and which ones are just scaremongering by the media to incite an irrational fear of chemicals.
  • How to tell the difference between the products that are really green and the ones that are just trying to get more of your hard earned money by labeling them “natural” or “organic.

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{ 25 comments… add one }

  • Judith May 13, 2014, 5:39 am

    I tried the conditionner only method and the sulfate free shampoo and it was horrible on me. I have a lot of small hair strands and my hair get’s greasy fast.

    I just can’t live without sulfates and I hate any type of moisturizing shampoo that doesn’t rince clean

  • BeautyMaze May 13, 2014, 9:06 am

    In this article you mentioned – There are only a few detergents that have really been proven to be demonstrably milder.

    I would like to know what they are because my scalp gives negative reaction on sls and sles.

    • Randy Schueller May 13, 2014, 10:20 am

      This one is generally considered to the be mildest:

      Sodium Cocoyl Isthionate (or SCI for short) is thought to be milder than other surfactants for two reasons: It doesn’t strip as much natural oil from your skin and it doesn’t attach to protein as strongly as other cleansers so it rinses better and is therefore less irritating. So why doesn’t every cleansing product use this ingredient? Again, two reasons: it’s expensive and (by itself) it doesn’t produce the most aesthetically pleasing product. That’s why you’ll most commonly see it used as a secondary surfactant in products.

  • Laura May 13, 2014, 9:56 am

    I use sulphate free shampoo and it’s totally eliminated the dandruff problem I always thought I had. Also seems to keep my colored hair from fading as quickly, and I get less dryness and spliit ends between cuts.

    • Randy Schueller May 13, 2014, 10:22 am

      If switching to a sulfate free shampoo fixed your flaky scalp, then you may have just had dry skin and not true dandruff. Either way, it’s good that you found a solution!

  • Antoinette May 13, 2014, 10:10 am

    Alternative ways of shampooing hair has been a part of the African American hair cair community for many many years. Most shampoos are not formulated for kinky. those of us with natural hair struggle. Literally. Moisture rention is a big deal so we add oil after a wash routine. It is necessary for detangling, keeping hair soft and ultimately preventing hair fall. Squeaky clean takes a backseat to retaining length. This article is interesting but again, I find myself disappointed in the lack of scientific discussion in the context of African hair and oil (natural or otherwise). Not the beauty brains fault. There just isn’t much out there in the way of research.

    • Randy Schueller May 13, 2014, 10:24 am

      Antoinette – thanks so much for your thoughts. If you could provide a little more information on your “oil cleansing” method I’d be happy to add that to our list of alternative shampoo methods.

  • Lisa May 13, 2014, 10:59 am

    In March 2013 I set out on a “improve my hair” journey. I have thin, fine, straight hair that I was perming every 4-5 months. Also, I have washed -and conditioned – my hair daily since high school (Now in my 50’s) I tried no poo, baking soda, vinegar, etc. to no avail.
    I settled on 2 items that I alternate: watered down Bronners castile soap, or homemade shampoo made with coconut and castor oils (I make soap as a hobby) There are many castile soap “shampoo recipes” on the internet.
    After one year, there is a HUGE improvement in my hair. It is thicker, has more body (no more perms) and does not need conditioner. Also, I oil my scalp once in a while before shampooing.
    The most important lesson I believe I learned was the value of less frequent washings, and probably milder shampoos. Yes, initially I had greasiness which I eased with dry shampoos – or arrowroot powder, but now I can go 2-3 days without washing.
    Thanks for all the info on this topic. I guess everyone has to experiment to get their own optimum formula!

  • Monique May 13, 2014, 11:50 am

    I have natural kinky dry hair and I notice that the less ingredients in my shampoo, the better. I started formulating my own shampoo and found out that the amount of soap concentration may be the problem. Sometimes we may think its the soap that is causing the issue, but in actuality it’s the amount of soap used. I used the same surfactants ingredients, but at a less amount and I experienced better results. Antoinette can remove a small amount of shampoo and try diluting that small amount of shampoo with water. She should keep records of the amount she is using. If she gets better results; then its not the soap itself, but the high amount. She can then make that her hair care regimen by always diluting a small amount; however, she should calculated how much to use so she does not waste any unused diluted shampoo. hopes its helps

  • Barbara Bird May 13, 2014, 1:40 pm

    Great info. I especially appreciated the explanation about sebum production. It was disturbing to see the notion of vinegar closing the hair cuticle being called out as a myth. I had thought it true that high pH (i.e., baking soda) raises the hair cuticle and low pH (i.e., vinegar) closes and tightens the hair cuticle. I am guilty of passing this on as fact to pet groomers in my seminars on canine coat damage.

  • S.N.N. May 13, 2014, 2:09 pm

    I love your website—I often send links to my friends who have been hoodwinked by “natural” marketing gimmicks. However, after going back and listening to your 27th podcast, I must say that I highly recommend taking an intro to ethics class at your local college. I’m not an animal rights activist, but I am a professional academic and philosopher, and you guys are making some sloppy inferences to make the least. I highly doubt anyone who takes the time to carefully think through the reasoning would find field mice dying in a field relevant to animals that are bred to live their entire lives in a cage for experiments.

    Let’s consider an analogy: Let’s say that a certain people die every year in tractor accidents as a result of farming. We wouldn’t consider that analogous to keeping someone on a chain and using physical harm in order to make them work. Why do we find these two cases different? Because one is the indirect result of actions–it is an incidental cost of farming that one increases the risk of tractor accidents, but no one intentional falls (or causes someone to fall) from a factor. We do not find the farming industry *answerable* for these kinds of incidental deaths, however tragic they may be. However if someone intentional chooses to harm someone in order to farm by, say, whipping them on the field or keeping them captive, we view these tragedies differently. It isn’t because the harm is greater—arguably the person being whipped in is a better state than the man who fell of the tractor! It is because someone commits a deliberate harm that we feel is unjust given that their motivation is simply to farm (not to punish a war criminal, etc). They are seeking to profit by exploiting someone who we feel has a certain level of worth or dignity.

    Now let’s look again at the animal testing and mice case: A farm, in tilling land to plant a field, is not looking to exploit or cause direct suffering to an animal. We might say what they do is more akin to a child who steps on a bug when they go outside to play (a cost of playing in the grass) than someone in a lab putting masks filled with toxic vapors on dogs that are never allowed to leave their cages their entire lives. The person in a lab is not indirectly harming an animal—the harms aren’t incidental. Their immediate action is to exploit an animal in order to profit in some way.

    Now this isn’t enough to show that animal testing is wrong. First, we need to establish the value of animals. Do we think bugs are of equal value to a human? Not most of us. What if we get a little smarter—fish? Dogs? Apes? What level of sentience (or other value) is enough to imbue a creature with morally significant status?

    Further, based on that status, what sort of endeavors are worth the kind of suffering animal testing causes? Treatments for cancer? Developing new medications? ….Mascara?

    Finally, there are all kinds of reasons to shop cruelty free other than thinking that your products are “pure” of any wrongdoing. My spouse worked at an NGO for years. Everyone who works at NGOs knows that even the best are sausage factories. Abuse, embezzlement and waste are rampant. These evils are terrible given the stakes involved. That said, the other alternative is to do nothing. As of now, dysfunctional NGOs are often our best way to get money to people suffering in the third world—and, at least some of the time, they do good work.

    Likewise, maybe it’s worthwhile to shop cruelty free because it sends a certain message to a market that investing in cruelty free methods might pay off in terms of value added to the customer (and incentives to the consumer to buy). It also might draw attention to an issue that would otherwise remain invisible to a large percentage of the populous…So one does not have to believe that animals are not harmed in order to feel morally compelled to buy cruelty free.

    • Randy Schueller May 13, 2014, 3:17 pm

      SNN – thanks for your thoughts. We’re hoping to revisit this topic in the future.

  • Tsippi May 13, 2014, 5:07 pm

    Not only African American women, but most women with curly or very wavy hair find that a lo-poo or no-poo routine will make their hair much more manageable. Because our cuticles don’t lie flat, moisture retention is a big problem; most curlies wash (and condition) their hair to ADD moisture rather than just clean their hair. Pre-conditioning, Co-Washing, or using a Lo-Poo can all help with that. Also, the foam in traditional shampoos roughs up our cuticles and makes us look like Rosanna Banana Banana for a few days, so most of us find low foaming shampoos better. I’m intrigued by what you say about vinegar, though. When I put a vinegar rinse on my hair, I can feel the volume of my hair decreasing for the first 60 seconds or so, and it take a lot less time for my hair to dry. Would vinegar affect curly hair differently than straight hair?

  • Christina May 14, 2014, 6:44 pm

    I love Beauty Science or bulls**t. Keep it up! It’s a fun and enlightening part of the show. I also see a comeback story for Perry’s track record with the musical stylings of the Rocky Soundtrack in tow.

  • Kaylee May 15, 2014, 9:39 pm

    Okay, a lot of this stuff does not work for ethnic hair. No way do black people use dry shampoo. Plus removing oils from ethnic hair is a no, no. Ethnic hair needs all the oils it can get. Maybe this stuff is for people who have hair like Caucasians, but doesn’t work for others. The only thing that might work would be sulfate free shampoos.

  • chinabestwigs May 16, 2014, 2:30 am

    Keep your hair clean. Hair tangles when dirt and sweat build up, wash your hair after exercise, swimming etc. Brush your hair and remove all tangles before washing it. Wash your hair going in a downward motion. Use a good quality shampoo, your stylist can advise you what product is best for your hair. When lots of water is added at once to very dry hair, hair can swell up and tangle. Gradually wet the hair and brush gently before you completely wash it. This is more common with less expensive extension hair.
    http://www.chinabestwigs.com

  • Danielle June 17, 2014, 6:03 am

    I’ve been no-poo for over a year. Pre-trial I had frizzy, oily hair. I tried bicarb soda and apple cider vinegar for around 4 months and found that it dried my hair out more, although I wad able to stretch the time between washes. These days I rinse with water every 2-3 days, then rinse with apple cider vinegar around once a week. I have type 1 hair, long & these days quite sleek & shiny. Training my scalp to be able to only use water was definitely a good idea.

  • Raquel June 20, 2014, 4:01 am

    Hi, I’ll go straight to the point and tell you that I didn’t like your article so I’m not bothering with the podcast, and I don’t think I’ll ever bother with any others. You seem to want to look impartial about the “no-poo” subject but it became clear to me very soon that you were consistently emphasizing the supposed “cons” of everything but shampooing, very biased IMHO, and not worthy of any serious consideration.

    I must tell you that I am a non-practicing cosmetologist and very knowledgeable about hair product ingredients and how the scalp and hair react under different circumstances. Moreover, I have curly hair and I’ve been co-washing it for over 12 years with EXCELLENT results, and when I use a blow dryer it’s with a diffuser and only for a few minutes, but whenever I have the time I just let it air dry completely and I’ve never noticed any negative effect on my hair whatsoever and I’m sure that thousands of other curlies who also air dry (plus the millions who existed before hair dryers were invented…) would agree with me.

    I’ve colored my hair all these years and worn it at different lengths, right now a few inches below my shoulders and despite repeated colorings and one bleaching in the last 3 months my hair looks very healthy and the color LASTS, why? Because I do not use shampoo. Hair doesn’t need shampoo, in the history of makind shampoo is a very recent invention and all the hype about “how good” it is for our hair really comes from marketing, period. Oh, I almost forgot, I was losing at least double the amount of hair that I now do when I used shampoo, and I (along many others) suspect that a lot of those harsh shampoos contribute to the rampant hair loss seen today, both in men and women.

    I really don’t have much patience for “science” that tries to sell modern practices as “better” for us than the tried and true ones that humans have used for many centuries, so you may convince younger and less knowledgeable people but certainly not me.

    • Randy Schueller June 20, 2014, 6:19 am

      @Raquel: I’m sorry that you don’t care for our approach to this topic. I agree that our discussion tended emphasize the “cons” of no poo options but that’s because that’s what the evidence that we found indicated.

      You (and others like you) play an important role in this discussion because you can share your personal experience with others and let them know what worked for you. After all, as we said in our bottom line “other than that it’s really just a matter of personal taste.”

      I hope you’ll stick around to continue help inform our “younger and less knowledgeable” readers.

    • Erica August 12, 2014, 11:35 am

      What is your weekly hair washing routine involve? I am extremely interested?

  • Jennifer August 22, 2014, 5:50 pm

    The information you provided gave me a whole different perspective on how our hair works per say, but I just wanted to know if you could explain the effects of different levels of ph on hair? How low does an acid need to be to remove the minerals in your hair and why doesn’t it affect the sebum on our hair? Also does the ph really not affect the cuticle at all? Sorry for all the questions but from all the websites I visited they do not seem to explain these areas very well.

    • Randy Schueller August 23, 2014, 8:39 am

      Hi Jennifer: Vinegar, with a pH of 2.2, is low enough to remove minerals from hair. Keep in mind that you don’t have to use an acid for that. Shampoos with a chelating agent like EDTA can also remove minerals.

      The pH of most products doesn’t have a big effect on hair. Very high pH (like above 10 or so, like you’d encounter with a relaxer) will lift the cuticle which is not good.

  • Rhoda Lewis September 10, 2014, 8:42 am

    I have dry frizzy hair. I had the Brazillian Blowout done three times, and while it worked, the chemicals hurt my eyes, I worried about what it must be doing to the stylist and it is expensive! I also am very active, so even if I don’t wash my hair, it gets wet from sweating. I’ve always thought that leaving the sweat on is bad for my hair, so I would wash it almost every day. But now my frizz problem is getting out of control. So my question is, what would you think about a combination of shampooing/co-washing? Like every other time, or every two times I wash my hair, I only use conditioner? I saw that you like coconut oil for deep conditioning, so I plan to try that too. Also, am I right that leaving sweat to just dry in my hair is bad for it? Apart from being stinky?

    • Randy Schueller September 10, 2014, 10:09 am

      Hi Rhoda. You can certainly alternate shampooing with cowashing. And you may see improvement with coconut oil since it works from the inside of hair. Good luck and let us know how it turns out!

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