Question: Is No Poo a good way to clean hair?
Allie asks…What’s the deal with this “no poo” craze? Does the hair get more healthy because of the natural oils you use? I’ve seen on Pinterest people talking about using baking soda as a cleanser and apple cider vinegar as a conditioner.
To answer Allie’s question we review several alternate ways to wash your hair, and whether or not they work.
The Ultimate No Poo
This means you don’t clean your hair AT ALL. Not even rinse it with water.
Does it work? Sure. You don’t actually have to shampoo your hair. It will be less damaged and probably look more shiny. However, it may also look and feel greasy, smell funny, and be difficult to style in any way except laying flat on your head.
Shampoo free poo
This is rinsing your hair with water.
Does it work? It will certainly refresh your hair but it won’t remove heavy styling residue. (And, as we’ll explain, you’re still damaging your hair even without the shampoo.)
Also known as conditioner washing or “co-poo” this simply using a conditioner to wash your hair.
Does it work? Yes, because conditioners contain surfactants (although a different kind than the ones used in shampoos.) Also, they are used at much lower levels so they don’t clean as well and conditioners may have more oily materials which leave your hair feeling dirty. For everyday cleaning you’ll likely be disappointed by using conditioner as your hair cleanser. It can also start to build up on hair and feel heavy. It will also attract a lot more dust, pollen, and dirt from the air. The WEN brand is probably most popular in this regard but you don’t have to spend a lot of money to try this. Look for an inexpensive silicone free conditioner like the traditional VO5 and Suave products.
This involves applying conditioner or an oil to your hair BEFORE you shampoo. The idea is that you’re “using up” some of the detergency of the shampoo on the “fake oils” so less of the “natural oils” are stripped away.
Does it work? Yes, to some extent. We did some experiments and saw some reduction in color fading. But it has the same negatives as cowashing.
This is typically an aerosolized powder (for example, starch) that you spray onto your hair and brush out. (also sprinkle in versions)
Does it work? Absolutely. The powder absorbs excess oils from your hair and then you brush the powder out. It also is scented so it’ll leave a bit of that fragrance behind. But it doesn’t clean your hair nearly as well as a regular shampooing. It also may leave a white residue and can leave hair feeling gross. However, if you want to skip a shampooing day or two this product is good in a pinch. It’s also good for color treated hair because it will help reduce the amount of color lost. We developed one of the first mass market dry shampoos and saw a secondary benefit which was “second day hair.” Gave hair better texture on the second day so it styled better.
This is washing your hair with something other than shampoo (like baking soda or vinegar.)
Does it work? It depends on what your shampoo substitute is. Some people think they can use body wash instead of shampoo. And you can…but chemically body wash is almost identical to shampoo so there’s no extra benefit. (In fact if anything it will leave your hair feeling worse.) What about baking soda and/or vinegar? Baking soda is NOT a good idea. It’s not a good oil absorber so it won’t work like the starch in a dry shampoo. Plus, it has a very high pH which can slow down the restoration of the acid mantle on your scalp. Theoretically the high pH can damage the hair as well by causing additional swelling. Vinegar has a low pH but other than helping to remove mineral buildup, it doesn’t really provide any benefit. The idea that the low pH closes up the cuticle and makes hair shinier is just a myth.
Here’s another way to wash your hair without water. The formula is a real shampoo except you don’t rinse it out. The most popular brand is No Rinse Shampoo. The formula is much runnier than a regular shampoo so you don’t need water to make it lather. Just put it on dry hair, work through with your fingers and watch it foam. Then wipe out the foam with a towel for clean hair.
Does it work? This formula will work better than the dry shampoos. It can clean your hair better than a conditioner. But it won’t be nearly as good as a regular shampoo. But if water is in short supply or you just don’t feel like hopping in a shower, this no-rinse shampoo might be for you. Also, you may find the residual surfactant that’s left on your scalp can be irritating.
Sulfate free shampoo
Honorary mention: Again it’s a matter of personal preference. Sulfates are excellent cleansers and if you have very greasy hair or use a lot of styling products will probably will welcome them. On the other hand if your scalp is easily irritated or if you think you’re prone to dryness you may not like the way they leave your hair and scalp feeling. The sad thing is that most sulfate free products work very similarly to sulfates. There are only a few detergents that have really been proven to be demonstrably milder.
Why not just use shampoo?
This can be drying and damaging for two reasons: the hair fiber swells when saturated with water which causes uplifting of the cuticle. Drying the hair does not reverse all of this cuticle lifting and once the cuticle is lifted it can become loose.
The second reason is that you have to dry your hair. If you’re using a towel to any extent you’re causing a lot of friction by rubbing the hair. If you’re using a blow dryer the high heat can cause damage. Of course if air drying your hair must be perfectly safe, right? Not necessarily.
One study found that air dried hair sustains more damage to the Cell Membrane Complex (CMC), the sandwich-y layer of proteins, lipids, and covalently bonded fatty acids that is the “glue” that binds cuticles together. Once the CMC is damaged cuticles can become dislodged more easily which leads to rough damaged hair which may eventually split and break. The authors hypothesize that because air drying takes so much longer than blow drying that some internal components of the CMC are exposed to water for much longer time. This water exposure over time causes a buckling in the CMC layer. Blow drying removes the water more quickly so the CMC doesn’t have a chance to buckle. While this is intriguing discover there are two major caveats: first, this is a single study and one should never completely believe a surprising finding that comes from only one study; more research needs to be done. Second, even though blow drying appears to cause less damage to the CMC, it does cause MORE surface damage. Therefore you’re trading one kind of damage for another by air drying hair.
Is No Poo better for hair’s natural oils?
This is another myth. Let’s talk about how oil (also known as sebum) gets on your scalp in the first place. Sebum is generated in tiny sebaceous glands beneath the surface of the skin. These glands produce an oily substance that reaches the skin’s surface through hair follicles. Some sebum is a good thing – it’s a natural moisturizer and it keeps your skin and hair soft and supple. (Of course some people are prone to excess sebum production and that can be too much of a good thing.) The proponents of this myth must think that washing your hair strips away the natural oils so that NOT washing hair leaves more natural oil on your hair. Right? No, not really.
Actually, stripping away oil with a shampoo will make your glands produce more oil. To understand how this works, you have understand how sebum production is regulated – in other words what turns the sebum glands on and off. It turns out that it’s the presence of sebum on the surface of skin that controls sebum production. How is that possible?
If you want all the details check out this study in which scientists stripped oil off skin and then measured how long it took the skin to re-oil itself. But their bottom line is that the presence of oil on the skin’s surface sends a signal to the sebaceous glands to turn off. This signal is caused by either the pressure of the oil in the follicle or by the creation of a chemical signal that travels back down through the skin. But then why doesn’t shampooing make your scalp oilier and oilier? That’s because the oil production levels off very quickly.
The Beauty Brains bottom line
To sum up the science: Any time you’re wetting and drying your hair you’re damaging the fibers and stripping color. Therefore, any alternative that eliminates water will reduce damage and keep color from fading. But there is certainly no evidence showing that at home solutions like baking soda and vinegar are better for your hair than shampoo. In fact, some alternatives (like using baking soda) may do more harm than good but other than that it’s really just a matter of personal taste.
What's your method of cleansing? What has your results been?