Monday, April 3, 2017

All washed up: The never-ending search for hygienic hair

Warning! This is a long post...but if you read all the way to the end of it, you might hear an encouraging message and get some takeaway tips for managing your hair!

I'm no stranger to experimentation with my hair—short, long, blond, streaked, blue, black, self-cut, every kind of curler—I've tried it all, and you've seen it all. Well, almost all.

What you don't see are the continual behind-the-scenes experiments that I've been running for years, regarding the less glamorous aspects of hair care—mostly, how to keep it clean.

Up until around 2013, I'd had a pretty simple hair routine: I washed my hair every day with whatever 3-dollar bottle of Suave I'd most recently bought at Target. I didn't even use conditioner.

I'd long ago come to the conclusion that if I didn't wash my hair every day, it would become streaked with oil, stiff, and stringy looking, within a few hours of that magical nightly cutoff point. They say that blond hair, straight hair, and fine hair are all more predisposed to be oily, so I got the triple whammy.

I was fine with my daily washing schedule, until I read something telling me that shampoo is bad. Well, not unequivocally bad, but definitely not your hair's best friend. Shampooing, you see, dries out your scalp, causing it to freak out (in scientific terms) and produce more oil in a desperate attempt to balance out the dryness. Unsurprisingly, the result is even more oily-looking hair than before! A vicious cycle!

The solution, I read in some natural beauty blog, was the "No-'poo" method. It was a silly name, but it promised to return your hair to its perfectly balanced, healthy, pre-shampoo state, by basically not washing it. If necessary, you were supposed to "gently" clean your tresses with "natural" baking soda—and no harsh surfactants! 

I followed the dictates of the No-'Pooers for several months, leaving my hair unwashed and only using a baking-soda-water mixture to get it clean. The baking soda was not enough to really get rid of the grease, so I still had to shampoo every several days (they said that was an OK compromise for the initial stages when your hair was getting used to its new routine). But it never really did get used to its new routine. During this time, my photos all reveal me in a seemingly permanent style of overly long, limp, grease-soaked bangs. 

Bangs plastered to my forehead, as per my Summer 2014 usual.
I eventually gave up on no-'poo; I can no longer remember whether it was before or after I read that baking soda is just as drying as shampoo, not to mention it wreaks havoc on your scalp's natural pH any case, learning that was enough to dispel any sense of guilt I had at my shampoo-a-day habit.

Well, maybe not completely any sense of guilt. Everywhere I turned, I was still reading articles telling me to cut down on my shampooing.

From these articles, I gleaned that it's a measure of success among stylish women, how long one can go without washing one's hair. Once a week seems to be the golden standard to which we all must aspire, while oil fountains like me, who start to look like wet dogs in under 24 hours, are doing something wrong. (Women's media: promoting unattainable standards since the 1600's!)

From this new crop of self-hatred beauty resources, I learned about dry shampoo. At first, I thought it sounded fake—how can you really wash your hair without liquids? As it turns out, dry shampoo doesn't really "wash" your hair—it just absorbs the oil so it looks cleaner. It's basically like a spray-on version of the baby powder I'd long been using for emergency bangs-refreshing, but easier to use and less static-causing.

So my new routine became thus: Wash my hair every two days; then spruce it up on the second day with a hearty misting of dry shampoo, thereby saving my locks from a daily encounter with the dreaded real shampoo.

It was a system that was working for me—making me feel virtuously balanced between cleanliness and earthiness—until some other publication had to go and ruin it by reminding me that caking my hair in a desiccating powder every two days wasn't really doing it any favors. As I read it, I had to concede that, just as diatomaceous earth kills insects by absorbing all their moisture, dry shampoo is probably killing my hair, little by little, by stripping it of moisture in the same way shampoo does.

So at this point (it's only taken me 4 years to reach this conclusion), I realized I was in a catch-22. The same catch-22 I was in 4 years earlier, but with fewer options left to try. Either wash my hair every day, making it look nice and clean and shiny, or don't—replacing the shampoo with some other product which is probably worse for my hair in the long run.

Framed like that, it seems pretty obvious that I should just give up on the "alternative" beauty methods and stick with the shampoo that has been working for me all my life.

But the problem is, I don't know when to quit.

So I decided to try an extreme measure. The next time I was on vacation and didn't need to go to work for a few days, I would completely stop washing my hair. Free from the constraints of looking office-appropriate, I could cover it with a hat or scarf if it then started to look hideous. That time came just a few weeks ago, when I was on spring break and had 5 straight days off work. I washed my hair on a Friday evening, and then didn't wash it again until Wednesday afternoon.

By the second day, it was looking its usual oily self, but I persisted. Surprisingly, as the days went on, it didn't look appreciably worse (I guess a certain degree of greasiness is indistinguishable from any other). It never got so bad that I needed to cover it with a hat or scarf...and I actually got to experience the surprise benefit of increased stylability! That is, if I brushed my bangs to the side, they would stay there instead of immediately flopping right back into my eyes. I was beginning to see the upside of having greasy hair.

Since being unwashed didn't look nearly as bad as I'd been expecting, I've continued the experiment, going as long as I possibly can without washing my hair. Since March 17, I've washed my hair exactly 4 times (4 times in 18 days! That's 1.5 times a week! I'm basically a glamour girl now!). I've made some concessions, putting baby powder in it when I needed to look presentable for a photo or an important night out, but basically I'm rocking the hippie hair like I was born for it!

When I do wash it, I try to only wash my strands and avoid rubbing shampoo into my scalp. I figure if oil overproduction is really caused by distressing my scalp, then the solution is to just make sure my scalp is happy—I can do whatever I want to my hair and my scalp won't know about it! Eventually I might reach a point where my scalp thinks it never gets washed, and then maybe I will finally be the beautiful, fluffy-haired princess I always wanted to be!

Maybe. As with any good experiment, more research is needed. Consider this post my preliminary findings, with more data to be released at the end of April.

This is my head, 4 full days after a my last hair-wash, plus a baby-powder
bangs-refresh two days ago. Pretty, right?


Anonymous said...

I have found that at the end of the day, nothing works. I have read the same blogs and tried some of the same things. Bottom line is: if you want oil-free hair everyday, then shampoo it everyday to keep up and eliminate the daily oil production. I have come to the conclusion that those that wrote those blogs were naturally blessed with less oily hair.

Geoff said...

I am appalled with myself if I don't wash my hair daily.