IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Ditching shampoo a dirty little beauty secret

For most Americans, the idea of skipping shampoo for even a day is enough to make us feel a little itchy. But some hair stylists and dermatologists say going a few extra days between shampoos — or ditching the stuff entirely — could actually benefit your tresses.

It's a bit counterintuitive, but those who've tried it are quick to brag about the improved condition of their hair. "I'm thrilled with it; my hair's very shiny and it's just thick," says 34-year-old Lynch, who lives in South Vienna, Ohio.

In recent years, "no poo" has become something of an underground beauty trend (despite being saddled with an unfortunate moniker) that's split into two camps: beauty mavens who believe they've found hair care's dirty little secret, and environmentally minded folks who want to use fewer plastic products and products with fewer chemicals.

“I think we’ve been so conditioned that you have to wash your hair every day ... that it’s just bizarre for somebody to think something otherwise,” says Lynch, who fits comfortably within the eco-friendly category of no-pooers.

Europeans and Australians have a more lax attitude toward shampooing, but in the U.S., the thought of going more than 48 hours without shampoo makes many squirm. Still, the idea seems to be finding its footing here — beauty blogs and message boards are abuzz with 'poo eschewers, and some stylists say more of their clients are asking about it.

Spencer used to wash her hair about every other day, but decided to quit shampoo last summer after reading several positive, lengthy discussion threads on the topic on a parenting message board. “I haven’t told many people about it,” she admits. “It’s just kind of … weird.”

Modern shampoo has been around since the 1930s, and in the decades that followed, it became one of America's most heavily advertised products. The harsher formulas of those initial iterations of shampoo meant that most women were washing their hair only once a week (and telling unwanted suitors, "I can't go out; I'm washing my hair."). But as formulas got gentler in the 70s and 80s, daily shampooing became the norm.

But some wonder if we were sold a bill of goods. That trend toward everyday cleansing might have triggered a vicious cycle, some experts say — shampoo cleanses by stripping the hair of its natural, necessary oils, causing the scalp to produce more oil in response, making it impossible for some to skip shampoo for even one day without sprouting a gigantic greaseball.

“When you over-shampoo your hair, your hair is over-secreting oil in order to survive,” says Lorraine Massey, co-owner of Devachan Salon in New York and creator of the No Poo conditioning cleanser. (It's been more than 20 years since Massey's last shampoo.)

Dr. Paradi Mirmirani, a dermatologist in Vallejo, Calif., says it's a matter of preference. Shampoos are fine to use every day, but "there's nothing gross" or unsafe about ditching shampoo.

Some who've junked shampoo use only hot water to rinse the hair. Others use only conditioner, which can be especially helpful for the curly hair that tends to dehydrate quickly and explode into frizzies. But for Lynch and her like-minded no-pooers, the cleanser of choice is simply a 59-cent box of baking soda: She mixes one teaspoon with one cup of water.

“You shake it up real good, and when you get in the shower you pour it on, massage it in and let it sit for a bit, and rinse it out,” Lynch says. The mixture absorbs excess oil without the chemical frills or fruity scents. (On the downside, no bubbles and no lather make for a rather unsatisfying shower for some.)

But step out of that shower, and the no-poo learning curve just gets steeper. In the beginning stages of a no-poo experiment, most people seem to go through a two- to six-week period when their hair looks like, well, poo.

Some stylists say that's because once the shampoo is no longer stripping the hair of its natural oils every day, the scalp must learn to scale back production of those oils. Mirmirani says that although measuring scalp oil is not an easy thing to do — she's in the middle of a project that is seeking to do just that — the theory does make sense.

“On the other hand, I think there’s some people who have bigger oil glands and have oilier scalps than others," she says. "In some degree, it’s genetically based."

Both Lynch and Spencer, the reluctant California no-pooer, pushed through an awkward phase of grease and grime — and each were rewarded with shinier, healthier-looking hair that had less frizz and more body than they'd had before. And no, it doesn't smell or itch, they both say.

But many dermatologists, including Dr. Wilma Bergfeld of the Cleveland Clinic, are skeptical of the no-poo idea. She's mostly concerned that some might take the idea too far, failing to adequately remove scalp oil and subsequently inviting millions of microbes to a delicious feast. (That's when things can start to get smelly.)

Cleansing the hair with baking soda followed with an apple cider vinegar rinse, something both Lynch and Spencer have tried, might work, Bergfeld says. But without the acidic effect to balance the harsh alkaline of the baking soda, the hair and scalp might become brittle and dry. That's what happened when 25-year-old Anna Allen of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, swapped shampoo for baking soda in February. She noticed her scalp felt drier and itchier than it ever had, and she saw telltale dandruff flakes for the first time in her life.

But Allen liked the effect her little experiment had on her hair, if not her scalp, so she's still avoiding shampoo. She's now two years into her no-shampoo venture, and apart from baking soda, she's also tried going conditioner-only. Without shampoo, she's found her hair has a loose, pretty wave to it, rather than the unruliness she thought she was cursed with. She's really learned what her hair can do — all by doing much, much less.