The No-’Poo Do

By AUDREY SCHULMAN  |  May 25, 2007

Since I’ve gone “no ’poo”, I’ve done my research. The oil in hair, known as sebum, is a protective sheath of esters and fatty acids that give your hair shine and bounce and protect it against damage. According to research conducted at Bristol-Myers Squibb, sebum even has natural antimicrobial properties that help stop scalp infections. Like melanin in your skin, sebum is created as needed. If you spend a day on the beach, your melanin goes into overdrive and your skin gets darker. If you wash your sebum down the drain every morning, your follicles click into sebum-overproduction in order to protect your scalp and hair. When you stop shampooing constantly, they begin to produce less.

In fact, shampoos aren’t designed with your hair in mind. Instead, they’re meant to satisfy your fingers and eyes. Marketers know you don’t believe you’re cleaning unless there’s a thick lather, the kind you get when washing the dishes and scrubbing the floor. But your hair is more delicate than pans, and the chemical that produces lather, sodium lauryl sulfate, is too harsh for hair. Over time, it strips away sebum, leaving hair frizzy and dull. You get split ends and breakage. You begin to look like Ronald McDonald. And so you reach for conditioner.

Conditioners, which began to be sold commercially a few decades after shampoo had created the need, coat your hair with artificial esters and gives it back some shine. Of course, the stuff builds up after a while (along with the natural sebum your poor follicles are still desperately overproducing) and the combination makes your hair lie flat as a wet blanket.

Okay, time to shampoo. Vicious cycle.

Grateful head
Without shampoo for five years now, my hair has never looked better. Shiny, with body and blond highlights, it glows with health. My mom, who has a bloodhound’s sense of smell and absolutely no tact when it comes to dirt, stuck her nose right into my hair and (incorrectly) guessed that I’d washed it yesterday. I even went to the fancy Grettacole Salon in Copley Place for a professional opinion. The stylist there, not knowing about my hair-care regime, decreed my hair shiny, healthy, and clean with lots of body.

As a bonus, the rest of my health may be better, as well, since commercial shampoos can include a cocktail of chemicals, such as methylisothiazolinone (a known human mutagen), and zinc pyrithione (a nerve and muscle toxin). As Kristan Markey of the Environmental Working Group told me, “Taken orally, zinc pyrithione is very toxic. It’s a broad systemic toxin. Something between a teaspoon and an ounce will kill you.” As for the preservative methylisothiazolinone, he added, it is “already restricted in certain concentrations in countries such as Japan and Canada. It has immune-system toxicity. Still, it’s used in several hundred shampoos and conditioners.”

Who wants these toxins rinsed down the drain into rivers and lakes, much less slathered on one’s scalp? Skin can absorb chemicals, just as the lining of the stomach does. Yet the FDA, through some crazy legal loophole, doesn’t regulate the ingredients in personal-care products.

(Seriously. There are endocrine disrupters galore in nail polish. And I don’t even want to mention hair dyes.)

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