We've covered myths about hair care and talked about some chemicals to avoid--let's talk about caring for your hair without subjecting yourself to loads of synthetic chemicals. But first, we need to understand the physiology/chemistry of hair.
Hair is quite complex on a microscopic level. There are three parts of the hair strand--the cortex, the medulla and the cuticle. The cortex is the innermost layer of the hair, comprised of tiny coiled strands. The cortex is very important because it determines the shape and color of your hair. The shape of the tiny coils determine if your hair is straight, wavy or curly. When you style your hair through heat, you're temporarily re-shaping the molecular bonds of these coils within your hair. When you get your hair wet, it disrupts these molecular bonds and your hair goes back to it's normal texture. Perms and chemical straightening treatments permanently reconfigure these chemical bonds. The cortex is also the home of the pigment of your hair. When you get your hair colored, pigments are deposited in the hair's cortex.
The medulla is a hollow shaft that appears only in some hair strands. Scientists aren't quite sure of the function of the medulla, however, they do know that it does help determine how light and color reflect off the hair.
The cuticle is probably the most important part of the hair--it's the part of the hair that you see and feel. It protects the cortex and determines the strength of the hair. The cuticle is set up in layers, almost like scales (see photo). When hair is damaged, these scales are broken or lifted up. The more lifted the scales of the cuticle are, the more prone your hair is to damage. When the scales are lifted, hair feels brittle, dull, dry, and hard to comb through. (This is where the concept of "dry" hair comes from.) But when the scales are laying flat, the cortex is protected and the hair is stronger. So the key to healthy hair is simply to make sure that the cuticle is laying flat and tight. Okay, I'll admit--there is some moisture content of both water and oil to healthy hair, but you don't need a deep conditioner to get it there. Dry hair problems rarely have to do with moisture content--the problem is the cuticle is raised or damaged. Just getting your hair wet saturates the hair shaft, and typically the scalp creates enough oil to give the hair an adequate amount of lipids. The real key to healthy hair is to tighten up the cuticle so the moisture stays there and the cortex is protected. So, how do you get your cuticle to lay flat? It's actually quite simple.
When hair is alkaline, the cuticle is raised. When hair is acidic, the cuticle lays flat. When you get a color treatment, a strong alkali (like ammonia) is applied to the hair--this makes the cuticle open up so the colors can then be deposited in to the cortex of the hair. On a daily basis, you want to make sure that your hair is in an acidic state so that it is strong, shiny and manageable.
Most shampoos you find in stores are made with synthetic detergents. No matter how gentle they are, these detergents can break down the cuticle of the hair over time--that's why your hair feels so weird and hard to comb through after you shampoo, and why you have to use conditioner. Hair cuticle is made up of keratin--a type of protien. Conditioners contain hydrolyzed protiens, polymers (like polyquaterniums), and silicone products (like dimethicone and petasiloxane) to replace the broken down keratin of your hair. If you don't strip the hair with detergents in the first place, you'll find you don't need conditioner.
Here are a few TRULY natural options that don't strip hair, protect and acidify it.
One great option is to use an herbal rinse with herbs containing natural saponins. Saponins are naturally-ocurring compounds that act like soap, lifting dirt and oil. A few plants with natural saponins are soapnuts, soapwort root, and yucca root. You can make a tea with one or more of these herbs and rinse your hair with this tea. It won't give you much lather, but the tea will gently clean your hair.
The down-side: you have to make the tea every time you wash your hair
The upside: a really natural and gentle option.
Clays are another great natural choice. Clays absorb oils and lift them off your hair without damaging hair. (You're probably all familiar with Terressentials Pure Earth Hair Wash). You just apply a big dollop of mud to your hair, massage scalp, and rinse out. It may feel weird not having lather in your hair, but it works!
The down-side: Clays are ever so slightly alkaline, so be sure to follow up with a diluted vinegar rinse so your hair is acidic. Also, can be a bit messy having clay in your bath or shower.
The up-side: No chemicals on your skin or down the drain.
Castile Soap Shampoo
This is the method that great-grandma used! A soap, not a detergent, cleans the hair. You still get that lather that you're used to, and you don't have to worry about chemical preservatives, detergents, or coatings. Wash with a gentle castile soap and then follow up with a vinegar rinse. Soap is naturally alkaline--that's why we recommend using vinegar after our shampoo. The vinegar tightens up that cuticle, making the hair strong, smooth and shiny again.
The down-side: if you have hard water, soap creates soap scum in your hair. (Although there are some workarounds)
The Up-Side: great lather with no chemicals.
One note--some castile-based shampoos add vinegar or lemon juice to the shampoo to lower its pH. However, you're still going to need to use a vinegar rinse if you want your hair to be acidic. When you add an acid to the soap, a chemical reaction ocurrs and the alkali is neutralized. If the overall pH of the soap reaches neutral or acidic, the soap is rendered completely useless and it turns in to slime. So just because the castile soap shampoo has vinegar or lemon juice added to it, it's still alkaline.
No matter what method you prefer, when you switch from a conventional shampoo and conditioner, there is a hair detox period where the previous chemical coatings you've been using are being removed. During this time your hair may be flighty or just feel funky. The detox period usually lasts about a week to ten days. But after these chemical coatings are removed, your hair will be soft, shiny and truly healthy. Because these chemicals are being removed, some damage may be revealed. Don't think that the natural shampoo is damaging your hair--it's simply revealing the damage. If you do notice that you have split ends or damage--get a trim. Your hair will instantly feel healthier.
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NOTE: Be sure to rinse the shampoo out with water first before you do the vinegar rinse. Otherwise the soap turns to slime in your hair that's hard to get out.