It all started when a friend of mine asked if I had read Curly Girl: The Handbook. This was a couple of years ago, and my friend started telling me about how this book was encouraging people not to use shampoo.
“No shampoo?” I asked. “That seems a little silly. How do you get your hair clean?”
The point of it all, she explained, was that most shampoos contained sulfates and detergents that stripped natural oils from your hair, which was bad for you and bad for the environment. You certainly don’t need to shampoo every day; she said she was only shampooing her hair once a week, and that kept everything plenty clean.
Intrigued, I started cutting down on my shampoo use and found that it didn’t make any difference at all in my hair quality. I asked my friend a little more about this Curly Girl thing.
“You’re also supposed to not wash out your conditioner,” she said. “And stop combing your hair.”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“You can use your fingers to get the tangles out, but apparently even combs can break the hairs. Plus, you don’t want to separate the hairs from each other once they have curled. The conditioner helps hold the hairs together.”
I started going through three times more conditioner than shampoo, with pretty good results. My hair, for the most part, retained a curl, or at least a wave. And I love the way my conditioner smells, so it was all good.
Or so I thought.
Then, several months ago, another dear friend pulled me aside and told me that he was highly allergic to something in my conditioner. He didn’t know what it was, but he asked if I could please use less of it.
I was stumped (and a little bit hurt). I knew my conditioner was fragrant, but I had gotten many comments over the years about how nice my hair smelled. Plus, I had been using the stuff since high school, and the shampoo/conditioner combination that I had been using was somewhat of a signature and a part of my own identity. Never mind the fact that I could only find this brand at Whole Foods Market — a sure sign that it was full of organic hippie goodness. How could he possibly be allergic to something so crunchy granola?
Just to make sure I was right about the organic nature of my shampoo, I went to my bathroom and checked the ingredients:
Nature’s Gate Herbal Shampoo: Water, Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate (Coconut Derived), Cocamidopropyl Hydroxysultaine (Coconut Derived), Disodium Cocoamphodiacetate (Coconut Derived), Glycerin (Vegetable Derived), Panthenol, Hydrolyzed Soy Protein, Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil, Borago Officinalis (Borage) Seed Oil, Tocopherol (Vitamin E), Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), Achillea Millefolium (Yarrow) Extract, Chamomilla Recutita (Matricaria) Flower Extract, Lavandula Angustifolia (Lavender) Flower Extract, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf Extract, Salvia Officinalis (Sage) Leaf Extract, Urtica Dioica (Nettle) Extract, Prunus Serotina (Wild Cherry) Bark Extract, Thymus Vulgaris (Thyme) Leaf Extract, Ascorbyl Palmitate, Sorbitan Sesquicaprylate (Coconut and Corn Derived), Polysorbate 20, Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose (Plant Derived), Sodium Hydroxide, Glyceryl Undecylenate (Vegetable Derived), Phenoxyethanol, Fragrance*.
OK, so there were a lot more multi-syllabic chemical names than I expected; there is clearly a lovely herbal element to it, with the jojoba and borage seed oils, yarrow and rosemary extracts, but only after the large amounts of cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine and hydrolyzed soy protein. These aren’t the worst things you could find in a shampoo, but the fact of the matter is that they are synthetically produced chemicals: not very crunchy-granola-hippie at all! I could have sworn that when I first started using this product back in the 1990s, I could understand the label a lot better, which signals to me that Nature’s Gate may have tinkered with the recipe over the years. Maybe it was a good thing that I wasn’t using as much of the shampoo anymore.
Then I looked at the ingredients in my conditioner.
Nature’s Gate Herbal Conditioner: Water, Quaternium-87 (Vegetable Derived), Cetearyl Alcohol (Vegetable Derived), Glycerin (Vegetable Derived), Polysorbate 60, Panthenol, Hydrolyzed Soy Protein, Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil, Borago (Borage) Officinalis Seed Oil, Tocopherol (Vitamin E), Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), Chamomilla Recutita (Matricaria) Extract, Urtica Dioica (Nettle) Extract, Prunus Serotina (Wild Cherry) Bark Extract, Lavandula Angustifolia (Lavender) Extract, Arctium Lappa (Burdock) Root Extract, Yucca Schidigera Root Extract, Lilium Candidum (Lily) Bulb Extract, Nelumbo Nucifera (Sacred Lotus) Flower Extract, Quercus Alba (Oak Bark) Bark Extract, Ascorbyl Palmitate, Phenoxyethanol, Glyceryl Undecylenate (Vegetable Derived), Citric Acid (Vegetable Derived), Fragrance*, Caramel.
So maybe one of those funky alcohols or molecules was emanating from my scalp and causing my friend to have an allergic reaction. I mean, what the heck was Quaternium-87 anyway? I decided it was time for a new hair regimen.
I decided to take the no-poo movement seriously.