Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The True Tale of an Unwashed Woman

I’ve stopped washing my hair. And my face, for that matter. The inspiration was an episode of Mad Men in which an unseen character is reputed to not wash her face, but she’s French so it’s obviously good advice. (Thus proving that the national girl-crush on French women went back at least to the ’60s.) It reminded me of something I'd heard once -- that if you entirely stopped washing your hair, after a few greasy weeks a small miracle would occur atop your head; oils from your scalp would work their way down your strands to protect them and lend a glossy sheen, and your hair would then have reverted to its original, intended condition. Or something.

One of my more feline preferences is that I detest showering -- I do it, but it always feels like a chore, and its pain-in-assiness factor is exponentially increased every time I have to wash and dry my hair. Plus, I’m mostly working from home these days, so if my unwashed-face-and-hair plan were to wind up making me resemble a calzone, embarrassment would be minimal. So a month ago, I swore off shampoo and face washes. I use a boar-bristle brush frequently, as it’s supposed to help with the miracle part of this whole no-washing thing, and I’ve also rinsed it twice in water; I splash my face twice a day with lukewarm water.

Surprisingly -- or unsurprisingly, depending on whom you’re asking -- I look fine. My skin looks better, if anything, but really just looks the same; my scalp looks greasy sometimes but it’s nothing a quick brush, hair powder, or updo can’t fix, depending on its severity. The hair itself looks better than ever; it magically places itself exactly as it was cut, with no styling necessary.

The real surprise, though, is how smug I’ve found myself about it. It’s not simply feeling pleased that I’ve freed myself of some beauty labor; it’s that I feel self-satisfied to a degree that surpasses how one should ever feel about one’s hair. I’m enthralled with the idea that by doing absolutely nothing, I manage to bypass all these beauty systems and look exactly the same. Behold the ne’er-washed scalp – quiver at my sebum! I alone see the forest through the trees of toners, moisturizers, cleaners, foams, and conditioners – I alone see the folly of the industry!

Except I’m not alone. When I Googled “not washing hair” and “cleaning hair without water,” I was stunned by the number and intensity of people who’ve dabbled in the realm of the unwashed. There’s a woman who, years after writing an article about the “no-’poo” method, returns to answer questions from commenters. There’s the 213-page discussion on the Long Hair Community forum, which features a litter of vaguely creepy userpics of long-haired women photographed from behind. Their inspiration seems to be Penny Weynberg, who hasn’t washed her hair for 11 years and claims it’s now as “soft as dog fur.” That's not counting the HuffPo blogger, the folks in the Times article, and various British columnists. They take a sort of defiant, proud stance, posing theories about the body’s natural equilibrium and animal fur. They have to say it loudly: They’re not dirty even if they’re unwashed; they’re, in fact, possibly cleaner than you, with your overproduction of scalp oils and chemical conditioners. They have to say it loudly because if they don’t, then they’re just dirty, and nobody will want to sit next to them at lunch, grody grody grosspants.

I’m tempted to become one of the no-’poo evangelists (and indeed simply by writing here, I suppose I am), but it seems a little to me like those slim actresses who jabber on about how it’s totally genetic and they, like, love cheeseburgers and never work out. But I look at the incessant interest these people have in their own lack of shampooing, and I wonder what sort of need it’s fulfilling. For the women on the forums in particular, the amount of discussion surrounding the no-wash method seems to surpass that of conventional hair care. It’s like there’s a certain amount of time and energy that must be devoted to our tresses, and once the actual hair-washing is skipped, the discussion of the absence of hair-washing takes its place. Participants talk of “preening” their strands, break down various scalp-massage methods step-by-step, and test water temperatures for optimizing rinses. They use acronyms particular to the method: SO for sebum-only, WO for water-only, ACV for something I can’t imagine. They assure one another that they’re not “cheating” if they use an herbal rinse on occasion.

There seems to be a sort of disciplinary aspect to these communities, a proud self-flagellation in the face of having found a way around the time normally spent washing and drying one’s hair. Do we really want to be released from the bonds of beauty? I’ve found that while overall I’ve saved time by not shampooing, I’m also peacocking in front of the mirror more. I’ve started carrying my boar-bristle brush in my purse and find myself calculating activities based on its affect on my hair (“I’m working out tonight so it’s a good night for a rinse”), something that I didn’t do before. It actually reminds me of the paleolithic movement. A friend of mine has “gone paleo,” eating raw meat, volunteering to help people move because that’s how cavement stayed in shape or something, going on barefoot runs through Central Park, etc. It’s helped her lose weight, has cleared up her skin, and has rid her of depression—this after years of veganism, so it’s not as if she was walking around in a McDonald’s daze before going paleo. As she spoke, I did indeed see a glow come over her, but I suspect it was less due to raw meat and more because she had discovered a sort of shortcut to the tangible benefits of good health promised by every blaring magazine cover. It’s basically the Atkins diet from what I can tell, but whereas Atkins sounds old-fashioned and dangerous, the caveman diet sounds old-fashioned and totally fucking awesome. There’s something appealing about the idea that by going out on a primordial limb, you can magically wind up ahead of the game and can loll about at the finish line while the vegans, South Beachers, 5-A-Dayers, and master cleanse folks gasp their way to you.

Or, in my case, I can sit atop my shampoo-free perch and watch as other denizens of the beauty game fret about conditioners and gels, knowing all the while that my hair magically creates its own mousse.


  1. I totally get the natural mousse thing, that is a great way to describe it! I have been trying to tell my bf it is like i have spent hours making curls and spraying them and moussing them ect.. but i didnt! i just let my hair air dry after a light baking soda mix 'wash' and acv (apple cider vinegar) 'rinse'.

    However, I am considering the nothing at all approach. I read your comment on 'No More Dirty Looks' .. I get that your a dirty hippie stuff alot, however with out people saying it.. just implying it..

    Glad to find another on the same path as me.

  2. I'm thinking of trying the baking soda/ACV thing. Do you just make a paste with the ACV and massage it in like you would shampoo?

    Exactly re: the "dirty hippie" but without people saying it--the questions people ask are sort of incredulous and then it's always "Oh but it would never work for ME." Which I understand, and it probably isn't for everyone, but that can often be a polite way of saying "Ain't never gonna go there!"

  3. I have been experimenting with it.. right now i am mixing 3 tablespoons baking soda, one teaspoon of oil and one teaspoon of Dr. Bronners soap with 500 ml (around 2 cups) of water. I have it it a old soap/shampoo bottle and just squirt it on my roots and rub in... i dont worry about the end of my hair, they dont get oily and dirty. and the acv is the same type bottle (i have tried it with a sprayer bottle.. which worked well - it was just to big and i have not found a smaller one yet)

    you can read my experience here:

    I am thinking though maybe i need to let my hair really go through the '2 bad weeks process' then just use the wash/rise solution a few times a month to help with build up.

  4. Ooh, thanks for the link! I'd checked out your site earlier (love it, btw!) but hadn't seen that.

    For me it was really more like six weeks as far as the adjustment process. There were a lot of French twists, headbands, and hats going on. But honestly it wasn't that bad with the dry shampoo, and it's worth it, I say.

  5. wow! 6 weeks! I am going to bit the bullet and do it! it is starting to get warmer here (read in the 40's - haha) but I think I will just start wearing my hair up and get through the messy part. I really want to stop buying stuff to clean it if it can take care of itself. I made it the other day over a week and half.. but then could not handle it.. should have stayed the course.. would be closer to being done now.

    It was to the point that no matter how much powder i put in it.. it was still chunky.. but better to put it up and forget about it then. Game on them, washed it last saturday.. then so no washing (just water rinsing) from then till it 'self heals' hopefully sooner then later.

    Have you tried the baking soda acv method yet? Or are you still au'natural? you hair looks great in the makeover photo!

    1. Where is this photo? I can't find any on this blog?

  6. Yes, do it, do it! If you don't have one already, get a good boar-bristle brush--it really helps distribute the oils throughout the length of your strands. I will warn you that week 3 got funky for me--I could barely stand it! But I also didn't even rinse it until a month in, because I was trying to be hard-core about it. So if you just rinse when it gets to that point you should be fine, between rinsing and updos.

    Still au naturel! It keeps getting easier and easier, I've gotta say. It feels totally normal now to not wash my hair, and honestly I don't even think about it anymore until someone asks me about it. Maybe will try baking soda/ACV when the weather gets warmer, though.

  7. oh awesome good for you.. that must have been one hardcore month! well i guess i will report back in a month or so :)

    I have been wanting a boar brush! Guess this is the best reason to make the switch!

  8. Just wanted to post back in some results. Also, i wanted to say thank you for inspiring me to do this!

    I am now a few days shy of 2 months. Nothing but water has been used on my hair in the shower. And I have just been using baby powder when i get oily. I find that the first day after a water wash that it is more icky, but once it gets a few hours of 'breathing' in it is great. I have been washing it with water around once a week. I have been able to wear it down the past few weeks.

    I got a boar bristle brush and it has helped lots. My hair has great texture, does not smell, and does not look dirty. I ask people all the time if they think my hair needs to be washed - people who know and people who dont know what i am doing - they all say it looks fine! yay!

    It is just noraml to me now too, to not 'wash' my hair. My shower time is much less, which is great on the water/electric bill and mother earth. I am loving this!

  9. Oooh, I love it, Fonda! And, you know, I thought I was strange in having it be ickier right after a water rinse, so it's interesting to hear that you're having the same experience. It's like it needs, yeah, "breathing"--like the cells just need to expand or adjust or something. I am so pleased for you! I wonder if/when I'll wash mine. I may, but...maybe not!

  10. oh! good to know yours is that way too! honestly it gives me more motivation to not even use water since I know it will be abit funky the next day.

    also, even if i have not brushed my hair all week or had it up in a messy ponytail - it brushes through like it had already been brushed, where as before when i was using shampoo it would take ages to brush through after a mess ponytail or such.

    I vote you dont wash it! Lets save money and not have to buy 'hair soaps' again!

  11. I've noticed that too--the hairbrushing thing! I think it's because of the oils that have coated the entire strand--it makes it easier to untangle or something? This is magic, I swear!

  12. I've secretly been doing water only for a couple weeks now. Rinsing only two or three times. I hadn't even thought of doing no rinse as well! But now I'll just go ahead and add that. The reason for secrecy is that last time I tried going with no shampoo (a few months ago) my mother kept telling people about it, and telling them just how weird it was. So I went back to shampoo to get her to shut up. She hasn't even noticed now and she sees me frequently.

    My question is this, most often I find others get that wet greasy look, whereas I get a thick wax like feel. Also my scalp is INCREDIBLY dry. Have you encountered these? Or know of anyone who has? As I said, is has only been two and a half weeks, so I'm just pulling my hair up a lot and sticking it out for two months.

    1. Hi Rachel Ann--Hmmm, for me the waxlike thing was just a variation on the wet/greasy look. I think that depending on your hair texture, the waxlike feel might be the goal? But if you have fine hair it might just not look right. Have you tried hair powder? That might break it up a bit--I find that stuff is magic.

      My scalp leans toward oily, so I can't help there. There's a Facebook group for people with "alternate hair-washing" techniques; maybe one of the peeps there can help?

  13. I'm interested in trying this out and I have a few questions. So, you don't "wash" or rinse your hair with water everyday? You only wash it with water like maybe once a week or every 3 days?

    1. Yep--when I was doing this, I just rinsed with water maybe once a week. I could've done more, but part of the reason I did this in the first place was to minimize hair damage from blow-drying (and I prefer to blow-dry rather than air-dry my hair), so I tried to wet it as infrequently as possible. But everyone's hair/scalp will be different in this regard.

    2. Autumn--you say "when I was doing this." Does that mean you are back to washing and using shampoos?

    3. Ms. Harris--yep! I was "stealth shampooed" during a body scrub so I was back to square one as far as full-on no shampooing. But what it did was sort of reset how much oil my scalp produces--I now shampoo no more than twice a week, whereas before I was shampooing nearly every day. My "grand conclusion" is here:

  14. My hair is course and thick - it tends to get very frizzy if I don't use a straightener. I am going to try this!!! Is there a "hair powder" that you recommend or just good old baby powder?

    1. Sounds like you have the perfect texture for this to work! Baby powder/cornstarch works in a pinch, but A) it can give a "powdered wig" effect to people with dark hair, like me, and B) I like the texture that hair powder gives. If your hair is already thick and coarse you might not need that extra help, but I've got pretty fine hair so having the added texture is a bonus. I'm a huge fan of this stuff:

      It comes in different colors so it doesn't look as weird as baby powder. Enjoy!

  15. Just read your article and comments and I'm dying to try this new way of doing things. some questions tho: I have gone about a 5-7 days without washing my hair but then my scalp gets so itchy I can't concentrate on anything. I have coarse, thick, curly hair if that makes any difference. What do I do to get past that itch? Or will it eventually work itself out? also, do I have to stop dyeing my hair? I was wondering if that would strip everything back to the start again? I do use a "natural" dye from the health store but not sure if that would strip anyway - it still follows the same format as normal dyes (it's not henna or anything). Any tips or advice would be great! Thanks. PS I'm in Australia so branded suggestions wouldn't help much. Thanks

    1. Hi Angie--Hmm, I'm not sure what to say about the itching. Are you wetting your hair at that point? Just giving it a good rinse might help. But if you're already rinsing your hair and are still having itchiness, it could just be that your scalp is sensitive to a buildup of sebum.

      And good question on dyeing your hair! I feel like the only way to know is to do a patch test. The only thing I can see being a problem is that if your hair is coated with a thin layer of sebum (which is the point here), it might not allow the dye to penetrate properly so it wouldn't "take." I'm sorry I don't have more specific advice! You may want to join this Facebook group and ask there:

  16. Hi there! I'm only day 11 into the process and I completely understand that I have a ways to go in the "detox" period, but I have some questions. First off I have to say that it's not nearly as bad as I thought it would be. It's not a total oil slick like it used to become when I would skip washes. It's more... Waxy? And still quite chunky. I have very long hair so it'll take a while to get all the oils to the ends. I guess my question is: what is the end goal? Will it always feel like I have a ton of pomade in it? I understand how that would be awesome for shorter or curly styles, but I was hoping it would just leave it, um, regular. It's very long and just slightly wavy. Just wondering if I should keep going and whether or not the end result will work for me. Thanks!

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  20. The problem you face for using too much shampoo that is hair loss. Shampoo containing the various elements. But every element is not helpful for hair. The SLS (sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate) is injurious to the scalp and is one of the main reasons for hair drop. So do not use excess shampoo to your hair . Use shampoo every 1-2 days but not using excess shampoo. When you use too much shampoo it create too much lather and it thinned your hair. On the other hand using excessive shampoo dry and hares your hair.