Is the ‘No Shampoo’ Trend Healthy or Harmful?

Dr Mercola

The “no-‘poo” trend — short for “no shampoo” — is all the rage. Taking part is easy; just ditch your shampoo (at least typical detergent varieties) and “wash” (or simply rinse) your hair less, such as once every five days instead of daily or every other day.

The idea is that over-shampooing your hair strips it of its natural oils. Dr. Lisa Donofrio, cosmetic surgeon and associate clinical professor of Dermatology at Yale University School of Medicine, told HealthDay News:1

” … [B]y leaving the natural oils on the hair, the hair doesn’t need any styling products … If you don’t apply any styling products, then there is no need to wash your hair. No products, no need to wash them out.”

Beyond this, there’s growing recognition that perhaps we’ve become too clean as a society. Your skin is teeming with bacteria and other microorganisms, much of it beneficial.

All of that washing may be disturbing this microbial balance. Not to mention, the shampoos many people lather on their scalps are chemical-laden and problematic in their own right.

Washing Your Hair Daily Is a New Phenomenon

The “trend” of not washing your hair too often isn’t actually new, relatively speaking. The idea of a daily shower was virtually unheard of 100 years ago. It wasn’t until the early 20th century, not coincidentally when advertising became prolific, that Americans began to be very concerned about personal hygiene.

As Gizmodo reported, the advertising industry created a “need” for newfangled products like “toilet soap” and “mouthwash” where one had never before existed:2

“Americans had to be convinced their breath was rotten and their armpits stank. It did not happen by accident. ‘Advertising and toilet soap grew up together,’ says Katherine Ashenburg, author of ‘The Dirt on Clean.’

… Even our very notion of ‘soap’ changed. Until the mid-19th century, ‘soap’ meant laundry soap, the caustic stuff used for scrubbing soiled linens and clothes.

A kinder, gentler alternative was invented for cleaning the body, and it had to be called ‘toilet soap’ to distinguish from the unrefined stuff. Today, ‘toilet soap’ is a superfluous designation. Toilet soap is simply soap.

Initially, most people washed their hair with the same all-purpose soap they used to wash their bodies. In North America, the first shampoo popped up in the mid-1930s, around the same time that marketing and advertising increased.

Only then, and in the coming decades, did frequent shampooing become commonplace.3 Prior to this (in the 1900s), the average person shampooed their hair only once every two to six weeks.4

Even today, most people do not wash their hair during every shower. In the U.S., for instance, even though most people take close to seven weekly showers, on average, there are only four weekly shampoos.5

Is Ditching Shampoo Good for Your Hair?

Many members of the “no-‘poo” movement claim abstaining from shampoo leaves their hair healthier, shinier and less frizzy. When (and if) shampoo is needed, only non-detergent cleansers, or those that contain natural oils, are used.

While most of the benefits are anecdotal, it’s well known that you can “train” your scalp to become less oily by gradually increasing the length between your shampoos. If you’re currently a daily washer, you’d switch to every other day, then every two days, then every three days over the course of three months.

While this doesn’t work for everyone (particularly those with very fine hair and/or very oily scalps), many people will find their scalp becomes less oily and they can easily go days between shampoos.

Other proponents ditch their shampoo in favor of baking soda and water followed by an apple cider vinegar rinse. Although some find this suits their hair just fine, the combination could potentially disrupt your hair’s pH and make it brittle.

If you want to use vinegar on your hair, you should ideally try it diluted (1/3 cup of vinegar mixed with 4 cups of water), which is a trick to add body and shine as well as help balance the pH level of your scalp.6

If you’re thinking of switching over to baking soda and vinegar, be aware that many people say their hair got worse for a few days (feeling grimy and unclean) before it ultimately got better.7 Everyone’s hair is different, so you can experiment with yours to see if ditching shampoo works for you.

There’s no risk to it (other than a few bad hair days), although some dermatologists warn that not cleansing your scalp could lead to irritation, inflammation and dandruff.8 If you’re willing to try “no-‘poo,” however, you might very well be rewarded with the healthiest hair you’ve had in your entire life.

Fewer Shampoos May Mean Less Exposure to Chemicals

If you use common commercial shampoos, you’re lathering up your scalp with chemicals with every wash. Several years back, many people were shocked to learn that even Johnson & Johnson’s baby shampoo contained toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane.

In response to consumer demand, in 2012 Johnson & Johnson agreed to remove some of the toxic chemicals from their products (and reportedly took formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane out of their personal care products as of 2015).9 However, many questionable chemicals still exist in popular shampoos.

For instance, shampoo commonly contains endocrine disruptors, which are chemicals known to interfere with development and reproduction, and they may cause serious neurological and immune system effects. What else might be lurking in your shampoo?

  • Sodium lauryl sulfate, a surfactant, detergent and emulsifier used in thousands of cosmetic products, as well as in industrial cleaners.

It’s present in nearly all shampoos, scalp treatments, hair color and bleaching agents, toothpastes, body washes and cleansers, make-up foundations, liquid hand soaps, laundry detergents, and bath oils/bath salts.

The real problem with SLES/SLS is that the manufacturing process (ethoxylation) results in SLES/SLS being contaminated with 1,4 dioxane, a carcinogenic byproduct.

Phthalates are plasticizing ingredients that have been linked to birth defects in the reproductive system of boys and lower sperm-motility in adult men, among other problems. Be aware that phthalates are often hidden on shampoo labels under the generic term “fragrance.”

Methylisothiazolinone (MIT), a chemical used in shampoo to prevent bacteria from developing, which may have detrimental effects on your nervous system.

Parabens, chemicals found in shampoo, deodorants and other cosmetics, have been shown to mimic the action of the female hormone estrogen, which can drive the growth of human breast tumors. A study published in 2012 suggested that parabens from antiperspirants and other cosmetics indeed appear to increase your risk of breast cancer.10 The research looked at where breast tumors were appearing and determined that higher concentrations of parabens were found in the upper quadrants of the breast and axillary area, where antiperspirants are usually applied.

Not Ready to Give Up Your Shampoo Completely?

If you want to find out whether the no-‘poo movement is right for your hair but aren’t ready to go “cold turkey,” start by increasing the length between your shampoos. This will help you retain the natural oils in your hair and cut back on your exposure to detergents and other chemicals.

Better still, when you do shampoo your hair, look for a natural shampoo that’s more than just soap-based. The pH of soap-based cleansers is very basic, about 8 to 9, which can cause damage to your hair by lifting cuticles and causing reactions, which affect the disulfide bonds in your hair.

Ingredients like sodium silicate and borax are added to help overcome the scum formation and dulling effect on your hair. Look for a natural shampoo without harmful chemicals that also has botanical extracts added, like chamomile for shine and added strength (to help prevent split ends and breakages).

Other beneficial ingredients include triticum vulgare (wheat) protein, which is an oil that helps your hair retain its moisture, and red clover, which may promote healthier looking hair.

Some people also try “shampooing” their hair with conditioner. This is another option to help avoid stripping your hair of its natural oils, however you’ll want to be sure the conditioner you choose is non-toxic. Another option is to use coconut oil on your hair.

Coconut Oil Is an Excellent Natural Hair Treatment

According to a study that compared mineral oil, sunflower oil, and coconut oil as possible products for nurturing and conditioning hair, coconut oil was the only oil that reduced protein loss for both damaged and undamaged hair.11 Researchers noted in the Journal of Cosmetic Science:12

“Coconut oil, being a triglyceride of lauric acid (principal fatty acid), has a high affinity for hair proteins and, because of its low molecular weight and straight linear chain, is able to penetrate inside the hair shaft.”

Part of the reason why coconut oil is so beneficial for your hair is that it’s hydrophobic, meaning it repels water. So when applied as a pre-wash conditioner, it inhibits the penetration of water into each strand, which would otherwise cause the cuticle, or surface of your hair shaft, to rise, making it prone to damage and breakage.

Furthermore, when applied as a pre-wash treatment, a small amount of the coconut oil is able to penetrate deeper into your hair shaft during the wash, when your hair fiber swells slightly. This can also explain why so many rave about the oil’s ability to prevent “the frizzies” in humid weather — this is another feature of its hydrophobic activity.

If You’re Considering ‘No-‘Poo,’ Consider Washing Less All Over

A growing minority of people are not only ditching their daily shampoo but also their daily shower. Some might even call it trendy to wash less often. Part of this movement has to do with the growing realization that microbes, including bacteria, are not the enemy, and in fact we must live with them in proper balance in order to survive and thrive.

Others cite environmental concerns as their reason for fewer showers, especially water usage. One seven-minute shower uses more water than a bath, and it’s expected that water usage for showers will grow five-fold by 2021.13 Still others are looking to cut back on their use of chemical-laden body washes (and shampoos), and note that their skin, like their hair, has never looked better since they’ve cut back on so many showers.14

Even dermatologists tend to frown on daily showers, especially in hot water and with harsh soap, because of the damage it can do to your skin. According to John Oxford, professor of Virology at Queen Mary’s School of Medicine and Dentistry:15

“A vigorous daily shower would disturb the natural bug flora of the skin as well as skin oils … As long as people wash their hands often enough and pay attention to the area of the body below the belt, showering or bathing every other day would do no harm

… Even twice a week would not be a problem if people used a bidet daily as most infectious bugs hang around our lower halves … We should wash to stop cross-infection, not for grooming reasons.”

Remember, daily (or more) washing is a relatively recent phenomenon, and science is clearly showing that your body’s microbiome plays a major role not just in your health, promoting or warding off skin diseases for example; it can also dramatically alter things like body odor. So, it’s really in your best interest to work with your microbiome, rather than against it.

Ironically, soap tends to remove the protective sebum that is full of beneficial fats that your body uses to protect your skin. Yet, many people regularly use soap to wash their entire skin surface and remove this protective covering … and then pay money to apply lotions to restore what they just removed.

The same holds true for hair. We wash away the natural oils with shampoo and then apply expensive chemical conditioners to put moisture back in. As mentioned, you needn’t go “cold turkey” in giving up your shampoo. Instead, try washing only when necessary and use soap (or natural shampoo) only on the areas that really need washing, such as your underarms and groin or, for your hair, only your bangs, which tend to get oilier faster.

6 thoughts on “Is the ‘No Shampoo’ Trend Healthy or Harmful?

  1. Well, it makes sense that the human body should be self-cleaning in a basic way. It’s not as if natural or sexual selection would allow thousands of generations of people to be unsightly greaseballs waiting for the advent of 20th century hygiene products.

    As Richard Blake noted in the first of his Aelric books, the human body is capable of maintaining a minimal level of hygiene even without regular washing. It is wearing the same clothes for months on end that is the main cause of unpleasant odours.

      • Ah, well – what I mean to say, the way those books describe the details of life in the dark ages is an education in itself, everything from the creation of papyrus scrolls to the more mundane and sordid aspects of life that everyone wonders about but is afraid to ask. And all done without interrupting the flow of the story – nothing short of genius!

  2. There is a semi-apocryphal story about an Oxford college (I know not which one) at which the students requested that a “bath” be installed at the bottom of one of the staircases where there happened to be a small cubbyhole. it was about 1800 or 1820 I believe.

    The College dons objected, not only to the proposed expense but to the professed need. “BATHS? WHAT DO THEY WANT BATHS FOR? They’re only here eight weeks.”

    • That said, i want a concerted and strategic assault to begin. This is to be directed upon all those people which use the word “chemicals” as a very very generalized pejorative.

Leave a Reply to James R Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s