August 23, 2010

No shampoo, and no problems

I've been thinking where else to apply the back-to-nature principle, which goes like this: if we're disturbing the outcome of natural selection, this practice is guilty until proven innocent. In some cases, a good case can be made -- like washing your hands. True we didn't evolve in a world with soap, and we are thus messing around with our natural state. However, we live in a world that's far more germ-ridden than when we all lived on the African savanna, mostly due to crowding, contact with animals, and living -- and doing our business -- in the same place over time. So, severely cutting down on the concentration of harmful junk on our hands gives a huge boost to our health.

That does not apply to shampoo, though. It has no anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, or anti-viral powers, unlike soap. (There are special shampoos if you want to zap the bacteria that contribute to dandruff or if you have lice, but I'm talking normal everyday shampoo.) All it does is remove some of the dirt and dust that sticks to the oil that your scalp makes and that coats your hair follicles (sebum), so there's no sanitation or hygiene angle here. Yet it doesn't have laser-like precision in removing these dust particles -- it strips away a good deal of the sebum too.

Now, natural selection put oil-making sebaceous glands on your scalp for a good reason -- and you don't even have to know what it is, although it's fun to speculate. It survived natural selection, so it must have been doing something good for you. And people can easily tell that their hair gets messed up in some way (too dry, too limp, whatever) after shampooing, so they then try to put some of the moisture back in with conditioner. Whenever you need a corrector for the corrector, you know you're digging yourself deep.

Washing the dirt and dust out of your hair doesn't take anything more than a thorough rinse in a shower with good water pressure. This is what humans have done for as long as they've had access to bodies of water in which to bathe, and the hair of hunter-gatherers looks just fine. They've also infused oily substances into their hair -- olive oil in the Mediterranean, coconut oil in the South Seas, a butterfat mixture among the Himba pastoralists of Namibia, and god knows what else. But whereas rubbing fatty stuff into the hair appears universal, using cleansing agents just to get out a little dust hardly shows up at all.

That's true even in the industrialized West. I searched the NYT archives for articles mentioning how often you should shampoo. There aren't any such articles before the first decade of the 1900s, when the consensus was that once a month was good, but aim for once every 2 to 3 weeks. That was true for the 1910s, too. I couldn't access the articles from most of the following decades, although there is one from the WWII days that mentions women's weekly shampoo. Brief histories I've read suggest that the advertizing of the '70s lead to even more frequent shampooing, and certainly I remember from personal experience that by no later than the end of the '80s, daily shampooing was expected.

As much as I rave about that decade, no one did babes like the '60s. Everything lined up just right for them -- lots of animal products in the diet, little / infrequent shampooing, no layers of hairstyling products, normal amount of sun exposure, and little or no air conditioning = normal level of sweat, helped out by a normal mix of physical activity. God, that big bouncy hair... here is a cropped, safe picture of Cynthia Myers, Playmate of the month for December 1968. You won't see that in the era of Clueless and Mean Girls. In fact, if it weren't for styling products, I doubt you would've seen it in the '80s either.

As for guys, here's a picture comparing current star Zac Efron to Leonard Whiting, who played Romeo in Zeffirelli's 1968 movie. Whiting's hair looks thicker at the individual hair level, more voluminous overall, and more lustrous.

It's been almost two weeks since I last shampooed my hair, although I still rinse it well with just water in the shower, and it's not a big greasy mess like I imagined it would. After a lifetime of daily shampooing, it'll take my sebaceous glands some time to adapt to the *lack* of the oil-sapping stuff and dial down their activity. From what I've read, it'll take between two weeks and two months for a complete return to normalcy, but it's worth it. Reading around, I was struck by how wimpy people are when they try this out -- "omigod i could never go for more than like three days, i'd feel so gross!" They know that it will all work out, but we've become so focused on immediate comfort rather than enduring robustness. It's considered a violation of someone's human rights to tell them to deal with it until it gets better.

There seems to be an eco-friendly movement afoot called "no 'poo" -- those damned Greens will never learn good advertizing -- which aims to reduce shampoo use for some environmental reason or other. It seems like most of them still use a cleansing agent and conditioner to ameliorate the damage done by the cleanser, though. Knowing that they're eco-friendly, we can infer that they ingest little animal fat and protein, on which our hair is so dependent, so they're not the best example of what little or no shampoo looks like -- for that, have another look at those '60s honey bunnies.


  1. RE: Cynthia Myers,

    If anyone wants to see physical degeneration in action, just compare the PLAYMATES OF THE MONTH from 1960-1969 to the ones from 1990 on. The decline in beauty will astound you. Heck, I bet that even our esteemed host, no lover of Nordic girls, will admit that the blondes from the 60s PLAYBOY put the current crop to shame.

  2. what if the no-pooie has dandruff? i used to have a really itchy flaky scalp until i started using dandruff shampoo. i mean it was serious.

    there must have been pooless dandruff control in the past. i just don't know what it is.

  3. Somewhat off-topic, but if anyone wants a cinematic portrayal of what an American girl ate in the early 1960s, check out THE PLEASURE SEEKERS (1964), with Ann-Margret, Pamela Tiffin (wow!), and Carol Lynley. There are several scenes showing the girls eating breakfast together, and, to put it mildly, their fare is quite light on carbs. Indeed, these lovelies seems to eat mostly meat and cheese for breakfast.

  4. "there must have been pooless dandruff control in the past. i just don't know what it is."

    I've heard that boiling pitch is great for ending flaky scalps. In fact, it ends scalps, too.

  5. Normalize your insulin levels and dandruff shouldn't be a problem.

  6. As much as I rave about that decade, no one did babes like the '60s. Everything lined up just right for them -- lots of animal products in the diet, little / infrequent shampooing, no layers of hairstyling products, normal amount of sun exposure, and little or no air conditioning = normal level of sweat, helped out by a normal mix of physical activity.

    Not to mention something else. Something that today has tragically become all but extinct :(

  7. Agreed, Peter; all hail the GNP!

  8. Regarding the dandruff question, I recall in Memoirs of a Geisha (the book wasn't that great, but I read it anyway) they used to scrape and scratch the scalps of women until the dandruff disappeared. Don't know if it works, but, since we want to scratch it, maybe scratching it gets it out.

    I've tried going no shampoo and no deodorant but then my family gets pissed off. I tried to explain that I was waiting for my natural oils to come back but they still just flipped out on me. In fact, my dad said I can't show up in his house anymore unless I "practice good hygiene."

    How important is washing your hands? I mean, of course in public restrooms and after defecating it certainly makes sense, but to wash them with soap every time you take a piss seems absurd, not to mention the scathing effect it has on your skin.

  9. women also evolved armpit and leg hair and lived with it for thousands of years. in this case, i think form > function. maybe europeans will disagree, but i don't really care if there are health benefits for women who don't shave pit and leg hair. it's aesthetically disgusting.

    it also brings to mind ultra-liberal feminists and/or butch lesbians. neither of those types of women tend to be attractive.

  10. The black kids in my class who had cornrows? Ugh. The smell was unbearable. Kids came up to me asking if they could move their seats.

  11. When I was a teenager (in the 80s), my hair and skin were excessively oily. Shampooing every morning wit hshampoo formulated (or marketed) for oily hair left my hair looking greasy by evening, and I was too disgusting to be seen in public if I went more than a day without shampoo. Most other teenagers then shampooed daily, though maybe they didn't all need to.

  12. Adding to earlier point - my face still generates a lot of oil, though my hair doesn't anymore, and most of the rest of my body doesn't, either. In my normal morning shower, I shampoo, then use the excess suds to wash off the stale sweat, etc., from the day (and night) before. But I need soap to get my face feeling clean. So, given that shampoo (at least the stuff I use) is less effective than soap at removing oils, I don't think that daily shampooing is really taking my hair that far from its natural condition.

  13. I'm of Jewish and Italian descent - my hair is mid-back length, thick, curly and pretty oily. Curly hair often gets dry at the ends though. For most of my life I shampooed daily or every other day and showered obsessively once or twice every single day... In the past few months I swore off shampoo almost completely. I still shower every day and rinse my hair with water, but no 'poo. I brush my hair with a natural bristle brush every night to distribute the natural oils. My hair has never, ever looked so great. For the first couple weeks it was a little too oily, but I just brushed and brushed it out. When I experimentally shampooed it after swimming in a lake (didn't want it to smell funky) it was dull for the next couple days. Not sure if no 'poo would work so well for people without natural oily complexions or with fine, straight hair... but I'm for once very, very happy with my "roots."

    About the dandruff, sometimes things like shampoo use can become a vicious cycle... the scalp dries out and produces more oil, which then causes the scalp to become suffocated and flake. Try brushing more to distribute the oils... There's a reason we're a social, grooming species. Having a sexy man brush my hair is a pretty fantastic feeling.

  14. I only shampoo when my girlfriend shampoos me. Good luck getting more people to change, though. There's a lot of brainwashing, or maybe I should say brainshampooing, on this one.

  15. My friend had the worst case of dandruff you could possibly imagine. One night I rubbed pure tea tree oil into his scalp liberally and he let it stay in his scalp over night. The next day an entire layer of skin on his scalp flaked off it was like a blizzard. After that he never had dandruff again.


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