Photo of Hannah Faith by Christina Afrique
There is so much information available about products you should use and the regimens you should follow to achieve healthy hair. Hair is a sign of health, vitality, and youth. These are all desirable traits, so who wouldn’t want a full head of healthy hair? If you are on a quest for healthy, full, shiny hair, you need to have a strong foundation, and that begins with a healthy scalp. If the scalp is unhealthy, then the hair will be unhealthy, or even worse---there will be no hair at all. On the other hand, if you take the right steps to maintaining a healthy scalp, your hair will flourish. In part 1 of this scalp care series we will address some pros and cons of some common products and ingredients used to maintain a healthy scalp.

To maintain a healthy scalp we must understand the basic function of the scalp. The scalp consists of skin cells that are constantly replicating and shedding to produce new cells on the scalp. Like the skin on the rest of our body, this process happens synchronously and microscopically; it is invisible to the naked eye. It is only when something disrupts this process that scalp problems arise. These problems manifest in the forms of flaking, pimples, or bumps on the scalp and severe itching. Any of these symptoms can be a sign that there is a need to change your diet, hair regimen, or there is a medical issue.

Dandruff is the typical sign of an unhealthy scalp. Dandruff can be a result of stress, extreme weather conditions, nutritional deficiencies, or other scalp conditions. The most common cause of dandruff is the overgrowth of a fungus on the scalp. When dirt and product residue accumulate on the scalp and is not cleansed regularly, it becomes the perfect breeding ground for bacteria and fungi that leads to a lot of scalp discomfort. The introduction of cleansing conditioners or co-washes into the hair care market has generated a lot of confusion, misinformation, and resulted in a lot of people discontinuing the use of regular shampoos. This is not a healthy practice to maintain a healthy scalp. Although cleansing conditioners contain mild cleansing agents, they are not effective in completely removing buildup and residue from the scalp. It is like taking a shower with lotion. Get the picture? Cleansing conditioners are perfect to use in between regular shampoo days to remove sweat or product buildup, but should not completely replace your use of shampoo in your hair care regimen.

What About Sulfates?

Cleansing conditioners are not the only things preventing a lot of women from using shampoo. As more information on the negative impact sulfates can have on the health of the hair surfaces, more people are getting rid of the products they have been using for years. The primary culprits are sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS/SLES) and ammonium lauryl sulfate (ALS). These ingredients are the harshest sulfates and found to cause skin irritation and dryness. The research on these ingredients has created a “sulfate-free” market, resulting in several product companies who use the marketing claim. The reality is not all sulfates are bad and some shampoos still contain sulfates. Sulfates are surfactants, which means they remove dirt and oil. Cosmetic chemists combine them with gentler surfactants to create a mild but effective product. Some of these gentle surfactants are:

  • Coco glucoside
  • Disodium laureth sulfosuccinate
  • Sodium cocoyl isethionate

Additionally, it is the repeated exposure to sulfates that will have the most impact on the health of your hair and scalp.

Read more: The Truth About Sulfates, According to Science

Alternative Scalp Cleansing Methods

An alternative method used to cleanse the scalp is the apple cider vinegar (ACV) rinse. The property of ACV that make it effective in removing buildup from the scalp (not hair) is the acetic acid that is formed during the fermenting process. The acetic acid is a potent antimicrobial that can kill some types of bacteria. This is a homeopathic way of removing buildup and dead skin cells from the scalp. Using baking soda as a cleanser can be really harsh on the hair. Baking soda is a base with a high pH, which means it will strip your hair and scalp of oil and buildup, but will also raise the cuticle scales on your hair strands, causing frizz and possibly tangles. Most people will recommend the ACV rinse after using the baking soda to smooth the cuticle. The acidic properties in ACV make it great for balancing out the pH of the hair, but the rinse alone lacks the moisturizers and proteins that are among the ingredients in a great pH balanced shampoo and can cause dryness. Therefore, you should try deep conditioning regularly to maintain moisture balance in the hair.

Lastly, we must address the use of diluted Dr. Bronner’s castile soap, and I don’t use the word diluted lightly. The soap is so concentrated that most preparations suggest a ratio of 4:1 and include the incorporation of oils, butters, or milks to add more moisturizing properties to the mixture. I know there are a lot of kitchen chemists who enjoy blending concoctions for their hair and scalp, but to simplify things, a professional cosmetic chemist has already done the work for you in the formulation of pH balanced clarifying and moisturizing shampoos. So if you want to cut out the guesswork, time, and extra investment in essential oils, simply incorporate a shampoo into your hair care regimen that will gently cleanse your scalp, add moisture, and help to create a foundation for healthy hair.

Read more: Why Your Moisturizer Doesn't Work

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Do you have more questions about cleansers?