The Great Unwashed

Shunning shampoo in a bid for healthier hair is suddenly all the rage. Christa D’Souza gets down and dirty.

Beauty » The Great Unwashed

The Great Unwashed
The author, after six weeks of not washing her hair.

The Great Unwashed

Shunning shampoo in a bid for healthier hair is suddenly all the rage. Christa D’Souza gets down and dirty.

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.

Sometime toward the middle of week two, the itchiness, greasiness, and matte halo of frizz become unbearable. No one likes the sexy bed-head look more than I do, but there’s a difference between fashionably messy and Pig Pen. Compelled to cheat, just a little, I buy a canister of dry shampoo powder. Big mistake. Like the talc we used at boarding school for the same purpose, it turns my hair a dusty gray and leads to even more itching. To keep myself from running to the salon for a full-on wash and blow-dry (and believe me, I am very, very tempted, with an important black-tie event on the horizon), I make an emergency call to Joseph Zelasko, co-owner of New York’s Salon 74 and a keen “no poo” proponent.

According to Joseph, who has convinced many of his clients to stop shampooing, it takes four weeks to “turn a corner.” If I can only persevere for another 18 days, he promises, I will be blessed with smooth, soft, shiny locks. “Most commercial hair products, I believe, are pathogenic,” he says. “And there are lots of ways to keep your hair luxurious and clean without using them.”

Joseph suggests that I buy a hairbrush from Mason Pearson, one of the few with actual boar bristles. Apparently the natural material does the best job of redistributing sebum. Every morning and evening I administer 100 strokes, bending at the waist and brushing upside down to move emollients from the roots to the ends. After two days, I do, indeed, notice a difference. For one thing, my hair is not nearly as gloopy as it was on top, and I feel brave enough to stop wearing plaits in public. My officemates, who were appalled by my shampoo ban at the outset, are now fascinated by how “normal” my coif appears. I am too, but at the same time I can’t help feeling like a piece of vintage clothing that hasn’t been properly dry-cleaned. Back in the Seventies, British novelist Jilly Cooper famously defined a slut as one who irons her underwear but doesn’t wash it. Is someone who brushes her hair but doesn’t shampoo the 21st-­century equivalent?

In search of solace, I once again call Joseph—and hang up the phone thrilled. “Who says you can’t rinse your hair or even have it blow-dried?” he asks. So, at the beginning of week three, I head for my salon, Richard Ward Hair & Metrospa, off London’s King’s Road, armed with his instructions. Stephan, the brave boy who has elected to execute the gruesome task, rinses my tresses in the hottest water I can stand and administers a deep scalp massage. Next, for shine, is a soak in a white vinegar solution. “Don’t worry,” Joseph has assured me. “You won’t smell like a tossed salad. As soon as the vinegar hits the hair, its odor dissipates.”

Hmm. Sort of. The smell that rises up during my blow-dry reminds me of a fish-and-chips shop. Afterward, however, it does look almost as if I’ve had a real shampoo—a little motionless on top but certainly presentable enough for the aforementioned black tie. As per Joseph, I buy some leave-in conditioner to massage into my strawlike ends, and one week later, when I return to the salon for another rinse and blowout, the texture is almost silky smooth. By the beginning of the fifth week, if I may say so myself, I look pretty great.

Still, doubts remain. For one thing, while I don’t notice an odor, a friend leaves a sly comment on Facebook, where I’ve been diligently charting my progress. “Bad smell is like loud noise,” he writes. “After a while you cease to notice it.”

On my 38th day, I call in the services of another expert, famed hair and scalp specialist Philip Kingsley. “Not as bad as I thought,” he says, peering at the top of my head through a large magnifying glass, “but I bet it could be a lot better.” In the business for more than 60 years and a strong advocate of washing and conditioning, Kingsley finds the whole experiment absurd: “You wash your face every day. Why wouldn’t you wash your hair, too? It’s been to the same places, after all!”

Hairstylist Sam McKnight, the man behind Chanel’s always intriguing catwalk coifs, agrees. “If you live on the beach or in the jungle, marvelous,” he says. “But if you go into an office every day? I don’t think so. I have had many people in my chair who haven’t washed their hair in ages, and the bottom line is, it smells.”

I’d been considering whether I could continue indefinitely without washing, and that right there was my answer. It’s not just that I missed the smell of shampoo; it’s that between the 200 daily strokes, the dousing in hot water, the vinegar rinses, the head massages, and so on, not washing proved to be more high maintenance than the alternative. I have no doubt that there is some truth to the theory of self-cleaning hair, but I am neither a cat nor an oven. So after six long weeks, I’m back on the bottle—and it feels marvelous.

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