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Is the No-Poo method safe for hair and scalp?

Our FaceBook page was abuzz recently over this HuffPo article on the woman who hasn’t washed her hair in 5 years.  If you really did NOTHING to clean your hair and scalp, would that be bad for you?

Increased oil

Trichologist and fellow cosmetic scientist, Tony Maleedy, weighed in on the debate with this analysis:

“What many people seem to forget is that underneath all that hair is the scalp and not washing your hair is, clearly, also not washing your scalp. The scalp on a typical head has a surface area of approximately 600 sq cm, or about 7% of the total skin surface. This particular area of the skin differs from others in that it contains very large sebaceous glands (the oil producing glands in the sides of the hair follicles) which secrete large quantities of oil (sebum) onto the surface of the scalp.”

A fungus among us

“Sebum is composed of fatty acids which are the food source of a fungus called Malassezia Globosa. This fungus is always present on the scalp, but when the level of sebum increases the fungus proliferates resulting in scalp itching, tenderness, flaking, inflammation, spots, dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis and other problems. Washing the hair and scalp with shampoo controls the level of sebum on the scalp and reduces the chances of scalp disorders developing. All these problems are commonly seen when hair is not washed frequently.

Another factor is that as the Malassezia Globosa fungus breaks down the oil it gives off an unpleasant odour, which may not be noticed by the person themselves but almost certainly by other people.”

Seeing is believing

Tony was kind enough to share this electron micrograph of hair (click the image to enlarge. Go ahead, it’s pretty cool):


“As some people seem to think it’s a good idea not to wash their hair I was wondering if you would like to see just one example of a standard hair not washed for five days. This micrograph was taken at the University of Bath in the UK (x 95 magnification). Most of the debris is dust and dead skins cells and we think the longer fibre may be wool, attached perhaps as the person took a jumper off.”

Thanks Tony!

To be totally transparent, Tony does market his own line of shampoo and other hair care products (which you can find at tonymaleedyhair.com).

What do YOU think? Have you tried skipping shampoo? How long have you gone? Leave a comment and share your experience with the rest of the Beauty Brains community. 

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • E.D. January 20, 2014, 5:35 am

    Tony is misinformed about no-poo. There are plenty of surfactants in commercial conditioners and part of no-poo even without any products is a vigorous scalp massage. For people with extremely dry hair and scalp (me), regular shampoo is a disaster.

    I use a conditioner 2-3x a week to clean my scalp. Trader Joe’s Tea Tree Tingle conditioner is my favorite, but any cheap conditioner without silicones would work.

    • whimsy January 20, 2014, 10:58 am

      The main point that I take away from this post is that people should wash their hair and scalp with some regularity. I have tried looking at long hair forums and some people brag about going a whole month without washing, shampoo or conditioner!

      I, myself, work-out 3-4 times a week and my scalp definitely smells of it (based on comments from other people). I can’t imagine going a whole week without washing my scalp and hair near the roots. However, I do have an oily to normal scalp so I can deal with more washing than probably you do. I use baby shampoo though and Mop conditioner.

      Your point is definitely valid, but I think this post was aimed at the more marathon no-wash situation. How do you justify leaving a whole month’s worth of sweat, oil and living on your scalp without washing, because it does smell.

  • rozy January 20, 2014, 10:50 am

    This ‘crunchy’ subculture is so dumb and most of them are well off enough to afford real drugs and real personal care products. That would be absolutely disgusting to not wash your hair because we live in well water and when our water does not work it is extremely irritating and my scalp always feels bad. Its my pet peeve. I hate it. If you are living somewhere with *good* city water and water pressure, take that to your advantage please! No one wants to smell you nasty “crunchy” hair. K thx bye.

  • Samantha January 20, 2014, 11:23 am

    Hey if misinformed people want a gross scalp more power to them. Also I didn’t see mention of co-washing so those getting all worked up need to chill.

  • Eileen January 20, 2014, 12:33 pm

    The HP article/interview was just a silly much-ado-about-nothing type of post which is the norm for HP. The woman’s hair does look lank in the no-poo picture where she’s holding her baby. I would imagine it doesn’t smell too good, either. Washing with just water will actually remove a lot of debris from the hair, but it doesn’t do much to remove the build up of oil mixed with debris so there will always be at the very least an unpleasant smell factor. She and her family have undoubtedly become accustomed to the smell over the years, but I bet people who randomly encounter her find it unpleasant. I’m sure many of us have been in situations where we’ve wanted to hold our breath as we’ve passed someone–someone who was otherwise clean and well groomed–because the odor of their rancid scalp oil was simply too much. To me it is illogical that a person who tends to all other aspects of their hygiene would not do the same for their scalp and hair but as the saying goes, to each his own.

    As for the picture Tony provided, it is interesting and makes a point for the need to wash our hair, but it does not speak to the no-poo v. shampoo discussion. A more appropriate illustration would have been to show pictures of two hairs (from the same head) that hadn’t been cleansed in a week and then show side-by-side pictures of the same hairs; one having been washed with shampoo and the other washed only with water. Repeat the process weekly with the same two hairs for several months and see what kind of picture emerges. Of course, such an experiment would not take into account the condition of the scalp which is the source of all that oil and odor but it would give a glimpse as to how much debris remains on the actual hair.

    • Randy Schueller January 20, 2014, 3:04 pm

      @Eileen: I love the ideas of your poo/no-poo experiment. Maybe Tony will donate some lab time and run the test for us! One minor point though: Hairs have to be removed from the head before they can be electron micro graphed like this. So the first part of your experiment could be done as you suggested but the process couldn’t be repeated on the same two hairs. You’d have to sample fresh hairs each time.

      • Eileen January 20, 2014, 6:06 pm

        Hi Randy,

        Perhaps hairs could be taken from the same sections of the scalp each time. Hmmm . . . I’m certainly not a scientist but I trust that those of you with a scientific background could easily devise an experiment that would be meaningful–provided you could convince someone to only wash half their head with shampoo and the other with just water over a lengthy period of time 🙂

  • loulou January 20, 2014, 8:44 pm

    I wash my hair w/clarifying shampoo 1x a week and water and baking soda every other day..i have done this for a while..if I have exercised or get sweaty I wash the skin where the sweat was…I am 49..as we age our body chemistry changes..everyone needs to work out a schedule routine that works for them…I would rather spend my extra $on other stuff than $$$hair products….I also have well water

  • Jill January 20, 2014, 10:19 pm

    I haven’t used shampoo in a year. The chemicals in shampoo are harmful—it isn’t those who are going all natural who are misinformed, it’s the people who know nothing about what is in the products they are slathering on themselves.
    My hair is clean and get tons of compliments. My husband has no complaints either.
    I shower everyday—I just don’t wash my hair every day. Sometimes I just rinse it with water. Other times I use all natural shampoo bars and apple cider vinegar as conditioner. And no, the vinegar smell doesn’t stay. It evaporates and goes away as soon as I rinse it out.
    Just because she didn’t use shampoo for 5 years doesn’t mean she didn’t wash for 5 years. There’s alternatives. Castile soap, baking soda, organic shampoo bars, or water rinsing to name a few. Look into the “dirty dozen” toxins in your cosmetics. You will be shocked.

    • Randy Schueller January 21, 2014, 6:03 am

      Jill: We’d love to debate the scientific data with you if you can provide references to back up your assertion that “the chemicals in shampoo are harmful.”

  • Tony Maleedy January 22, 2014, 4:45 am

    As the person that provided the original information for this blog I’d like to address some of the comments made.

    E.D. Yes, there are plenty of surfactants (surface – active – agents) in commercial conditioners, but these surfactants are not aimed at removing oil and grime from your scalp and hair, their function is to soften, moisturise and generally improve the condition of the hair, not clean it.
    The other point is that, generally speaking, conditioners are not needed on the scalp or on the hair close to the scalp because these regions have a plentiful supply of natural oil (sebum) from the skin. Conditioners should be used on the drier mid-to end sections of the hair, not the scalp.

    Eileen. I like your idea of an objective experiment to monitor hair washed with a shampoo and others simply rinsed with water. But as Randy correctly points out we can only put hairs that have been removed from the person’s head under a scanning electron microscope (plus they have to be covered with a fine layer of gold) so these hairs are useless for further testing. But I will give this some thought and maybe come up with an answer.

    Jill. It’s very easy to say chemicals used in shampoos are harmful, but, as Randy asks, where’s the evidence for this assertion? (the Dirty Dozen Toxins information is not evidence). These surfactants have been used to make shampoos for over 70 years and as far as I am aware there is no evidence from the FDA, the European Cosmetics Regulatory Authority or any other such body that says they are harmful.

    The main reason I encourage people to wash their hair and scalp frequently is because I have spent over 20 years as a trichologist in clinical practice in London and New York treating people with hair and scalp disorders. In that time I have examined the heads of many thousands of people and a significant proportion of the scalp and hair problems I have seen, from dandruff and seborrhoeic dermatitis to some forms of hair loss, are either caused or exacerbated by the scalp not being washed often enough. And in these cases the ‘cure’ is simple!

    So if you shower or bathe regularly using soap or shower gel, but you don’t wash your hair (and scalp) ask yourself ‘Why, am I treating the skin that happens to be on the top of my head so differently to the skin on the rest of my body?’

  • Eileen January 22, 2014, 11:31 am

    Thank you Tony for joining the conversation! And I want to thank you and Randy for being voices of reason.

  • Gairuntee January 22, 2014, 10:03 pm

    I think there is some confusion about no-poo. It doesn’t mean you don’t wash your hair. It means you don’t use shampoo to wash your hair.

  • Stacy January 23, 2014, 10:42 am

    I could never go for the no-poo method. I work out four to five days a week and I sweat a lot. I like to wash my hair with shampoo. Maybe it’s a mental thing, but it makes me feel clean and refreshed.

    Regarding the “dangerous chemicals” in shampoo… here’s a statistic: 100% of all people who use shampoo in their life will die.

    • Randy Schueller January 23, 2014, 2:34 pm

      Unless they use conditioner, right? RIGHT? Please say it’s so.

  • somebimbo January 23, 2014, 12:26 pm

    My scalp is prone to dandruff and my hair is very long and thick and curly. Anyone with curly hair will attest that shampoo is not your hair’s friend and anyone with dandruff will attest that it is (and anti-dandruff shampoo at that, which can be very drying). I tried no-poo, I tried WEN and similar products, I tried shampooing just once a week, I tried no sulfates, etc. No matter what, it was either my scalp buildup got to be too much, or my hair got very dried out. Now I use an anti-dandruff shampoo only on my roots and scalp every 2nd day and I use a deep conditioner and a leave in conditioner on my hair each time. This seems to keep both beasts in decent condition though it’s still not a perfect method.

    Always looking for perfection…

    • Christina B. September 23, 2014, 3:27 am

      I have curly hair too. I’ve skipped shampoo for a few months now & my curls have a more defined shape. I also had problems with dandruff. For those, I use apple cider vinegar, instead & occasionally plain sugar free yogurt (which is a conditioner & is great for getting rid of fungus) on my scalp. I find if I keep the skin on my scalp healthy it stays dandruff free.

  • J February 6, 2014, 2:44 pm

    different strokes for different folks. shampoo doesn’t work for everyone, no poo doesn’t work for everyone. how bout we don’t all try and prove one side is the right way for everybody and just let people do what is right for them.

  • lindygirl1960 February 6, 2014, 6:55 pm

    @ J – exactly.

  • Cordy February 21, 2014, 12:51 am

    I love science. But frankly, I am not sure about some parts of this answer. I’d love to lob in some follow-up questions!

    If not washing your hair causes an overgrowth of fungus, how did humans survive for the tens of thousands of years before we invented detergents? This is a totally serious question. It seems INSANELY maladaptive to me that a mammal would exist for its entire run as a species (except for the last handful of decades) in a state of extreme fungusiness. So I am curious about this idea. And what about other mammals? Even other mammals with sweat glands don’t use detergents to clean themselves; are they not subject to this fungus? If not, why not? (I also don’t really understand what I am supposed to take away from the image of the unwashed hair. Dust and skin particles are everywhere in the world.)

    I am also pretty skeptical of the claim that not using shampoo is terrible for your scalp skin. My data point for this is that I have, I guess, really sensitive skin, and using shampoo caused me to have weird skin drama, low-level rashes, flaking, itchiness. This line from the “why you have to use shampoo” paragraph: “scalp itching, tenderness, flaking, inflammation, spots, dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis and other problems.” That is my scalp on shampoo. The more I washed, the worse it would become. I tried so many different products to no avail, including ones allegedly formulated for sensitive skin. It’s why I eventually wound up trying no-poo – and whatever complaints I have about no-poo (and I have some), at least my scalp is happy. All the problems I had while using shampoo vanished. So I am not sure I believe that shampoo is the cure for what ails your scalp, because with shampoo, my scalp was miserable, and using a mild baking-soda/water solution once or twice a week, my scalp is as happy as a clam. How do you think this works?

    My main complaint about no-poo is that I live in an area with hard water, and I definitely get weird mineral buildup on the length of my hair. I may try going back to conditioner-only, for that reason, but I’d prefer not to, as even conditioner-only caused some scalp weirdness. This was the sort of thing I was hoping this post would address, evidence-based explanations of exactly how no-poo works (or does not!), not somebody with a shampoo to sell talking about how crucial shampoo is. Can a lady at least get some study abstracts about this?

    • Randy Schueller February 21, 2014, 7:01 am

      Hi Cordy. You raise some good questions and I’ll pass them on to Tony (the chemist who wrote this post.)

  • rozy April 3, 2014, 8:04 am

    Cordy evolution is not perfect, as any woman whos suffered giving birth vaginally can tell you.

  • PaleoGuy January 26, 2015, 4:53 pm

    I am a little late to the party here, but I figured you are also missing a VERY large piece of the puzzle that is no poo. Others have mentioned that no poo does not mean no washing, which is correct, but no one has mentioned brushing. When I first switched I was using only hot water, and had the predictable mess of oil, dirt, and dead skin after 2-3 days. I then read up a bit more and bought a boar-bristle brush and began daily brushing. This made the difference.

    A natural-bristle brush made for the purpose actually cleans your hair and scalp while distributing your natural oils through the length of your hair. My hair has more body, feels healthier, looks shinier, and I have literally no dandruff to speak of. None of these positive effects in my case were caused by baking soda or vinegar because I literally used nothing but water. I have occasionally used shampoo as a “treat”, but it tends to cause some trouble in the days following its use. My hair does not smell bad (female-companion certified).

    A brush is absolutely essential for no poo, especially for those with longer hair. Brushes were historically used for this purpose until around years ago when we gained the ability to bathe every day and had easy/affordable access to all kinds of soaps/shampoos/etc.

    As my name might suggest, I agree with Cordy on this subject. The paleo mindset in these affairs is that your body is right, and shampooing every day is in no way natural or healthy.

    You can attack the no poo movement on many factors (baking soda usage being one of them), but you are setting up a straw man in ignoring the modernized version of the much more proven “no poo” methods of our quite recent ancestors.