A woman reaches a point in her life when she shouldn’t be working certain looks. A very short skirt is one of them. Braids are another. And yet here I am, a half century old, with two Pippi Longstocking plaits, just like the ones I wore 40 years ago under my straw school boater. If the look is slightly crazy, do forgive. But after 10 days of going without shampoo, it seems the most effective way of protecting my friends, colleagues, and family from the noisome, itchy eeeew-ness that is my hair. Indeed, to minimize the surface area even further, I’m thinking of pinning my braids atop my head like former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
For the purpose of this story, I have committed to not washing my hair for six weeks. Those of you who quail at the idea of going longer than 24 hours without shampooing, consider this: There is a growing “no poo” movement afoot, and its members include not only scrofulous college students but Robert Pattinson, Jessica Simpson, Prince Harry, and more than a few big-name hair gurus. Renowned runway and editorial hairstylist Guido Palau is one of them. “My father never washes his hair, and he is 85 and still has the thickest hair,” he says. Ever since Palau cut down his own shampoo habit to once a month, he adds, “my hair has more shine and a smoother texture.”
The theory is this: Shampoo strips hair of sebum, the oily substance secreted by our scalps to ward off bacteria and wetness. To compensate, we produce too much of the stuff, leading to the dreaded greasy look. In an attempt to remedy that problem, we lather even more frequently, and soon our ends are dry and frizzy, necessitating the use of conditioner and other expensive and time-consuming unguents. We are all, in other words, hamsters on the chemical-products wheel, and if we want to get off we must cut out, or at least curtail, their use.
“Shampoo” comes from the Hindi word champo, which means massage. In the 19th century, British hairdressers co-opted the term to refer to a cleansing scalp-rub treatment. Modern shampoo as we know it was first widely available in the 1930s, and although formulations have fluctuated, its basic components remain the same: salt; a lathering agent; and surfactant, a chemical that allows oil and water molecules to mix. And, of course, there’s the added fragrance. If you like the smell of clean hair, don’t be fooled: It’s not the clean you’re smelling.
Regardless, it’s that “fresh” scent, more than anything else, that I miss during my experiment. The fact that my hair has always looked far better a couple of days after a wash and the thought of Mia Wasikowska’s and Julianne Moore’s adorably grubby ’dos in The Kids Are All Right are some of the things that keep me going for the first 10 days—10 days in which I have taken two Bikram yoga classes, grilled four nights’ worth of lamb chops, and been to Cairo and back. Thank God I’m not a smoker.