Experiments In Zero-Waste: Hair Care
Short of a few instances where I wanted to shave off all my hair like a buddhist monk/nun, just to see what it would feel like, I have almost always had a thick, long head of hair.
Caring for this mane used to take quite a bit of time and not-insignificant amounts of shampoo and elbow grease, creating equally significant piles of empty plastic containers.
Well, no more.
All other mammals manage to keep their fur shiny and plush without the aid of copious amounts of chemicals. As did we, not 100 years ago.
What did we forget along the way?
As with most of my eco-conscious awakening, my search for sustainable hair products began in my early years of university. I was learning about chemistry and reading an increasing amount of articles online about endocrine disruptors, parabens, micro plastics and how what we put into the drain was having a negative effect on marine life.
Like many people not knowing where to go and deeply entrenched in habit, I looked for the familiar. In a sustainable shop downtown I was able to find organic shampoo with few ingredients. Job done, right?
Not so fast
Except it wasn’t. After a year or so, I realised that while my new organic shampoo spewed fewer chemicals down the drain and into the sea, I was producing just as much plastic as usual.
There had to be a better alternative.
In the green-o-sphere, there is a trend called the “no-poo” way of washing your hair, short for “no shampoo”.
The principle is simple. You take your hot shower, add some dissolved baking powder (sodium carbonate), scrub that into your hair and rinse well with a diluted mixture of apple cider vinegar, or any kind of vinegar, really.
You’ll smell, well… like salad dressing. But it only lasts half an hour or so, until the heat of your body evaporates the vinegar.
Now, I knew about how it takes hair 6 weeks on average to “detox” and reduce oil production to a manageable level. I knew the chemistry behind it and I could deal with the smell. I wanted this to work so bad, and I tried and tried and tried.
But frankly, I just found the whole thing a hassle. There was the dissolving and dilution of baking powder and apple cider vinegar before each shower, not to mention the administration of it through your hair, in water form no less! At least shampoo is thick and runny and doesn’t drain out of your hair the moment you try to pour it in.
Brief step back
In London, there was too much other stuff going on, and we knew we were only staying for a few years, so I went back to looking for an organic alternative. Which worked, after a fashion. But then there was that blasted plastic consumption again.
For older readers of the blog, you’ll know that I make my own soap! I have been doing so since we got back to Norway, and it is a lot of fun. I even briefly tried to do it as a sidehustle, but found it difficult to combine with my demanding day job, so I shelved that project for the time being.
But having all that soap lying about and hearing all about shampoo bars being all the rage, I figured… why not give that a go?
As I briefly outlined in 12 Easy Sustainable Swaps That Can Save You Serious Cash, shampoo bars are not all created equal. Some will make your hair a greasy, tangly mess (but might work for other people), while others leave you feeling light and refreshed.
I experimented my way through various scented, unscented, coal- and clay-filled creations and found that a plain, unscented bar was the best alternative for me.
I still grew greasy really fast though. And for some of the bars, I was leaving the shower feeling greasier than when I got in. Trial an error, as you might say.
I was getting more and more frustrated with the project, and as our shower drain was clogged around the same time, I found I showered less and less to avoid the problem.
Then we went south for the wedding, and I just used some of what was available in the house we were staying at. It was not great, even going so far as to make my friend M. ask when I last had a shower as she was doing my hair for the big day, when I had showered only hours before!
Ugh, I was not having it any more. There had to be another way!
Dare I suggest it, a simpler way?
And then I stumbled over a post by Zero Waste Munster about her own hair care routine.
She just used water and… a brush.
Either a hard bristle brush or a really fine toothed comb. You need it to be fine toothed for it to get all the grime, dust, and sebum out of your hair. I recommend wood because plastic makes a lot of static.
I ordered mine from JoyoComb over on Etsy, and I couldn’t be happier with it. It is sturdy, exceptionally fine toothed and is polished to a gorgeous finish.
Is there a detox part?
Yes, there absolutely is. Depending on how often you wash your hair and how strong your shampoo is, this could be anything from 4 to 8 weeks. I hear 6 is pretty common, but if you’ve really stripped your hair of all its natural oils, you might have to have even more patience than that.
I had been washing my hair only a few times a week at that point, and my transition lasted for about three and a half weeks.
Luckily, we’re still in vacation mode at work with very few people, and Mr. E. was back south for the first two weeks, so it was prime time for my experiment. I even got M. and her long locks with me.
It was grimy, it was oily, and it felt like there was this disgusting hair helmet permanently fixated at the back of my skull.
Oh, you need to brush that mane of yours. A lot. Don’t just brush until all the tangles are out. No, you have to brush for several minutes every night. Especially during the transition phase.
Brush and brush and brush and brush. If your comb gets filled up with gunk, wipe it on a designated towel or cloth and continue. Hot water under the tap dissolves a lot of the oils as well.
Your brush is your cleaner and your detangler. Sometimes I brush in the shower too, to help get everything out (Yes, I still shower when I’m sweaty/smelly/dirty!). If you go and get a comb fine enough to comb out lice and lice eggs, there really isn’t any dirt or filth in your hair that is going to survive your rigorous regime. Just look to your comb for confirmation, there will be so much dirt on it that you can’t help but realise that it is actually cleaning your hair. And all without any chemicals.
At the peak, I had to rinse my comb several times every single night, and the amount of sebum produced (and random textile fibres) was disgustingly amazing! But you really just have to keep combing. You won’t get it all out on the first night. And during the worst of the transition where your scalp thinks it still needs to produce 10 x oils to counter the shampoo, you will not manage to get it all out no matter how hard you try.
If you have a partner or friends and like to have your hair tousled, you might have to sacrifice that for the next couple of weeks. That’s ok. Just keep doing your best and brush faithfully, every night. Even when you desperately want to reach for that shampoo bottle and just go back to how things were. Don’t do it just yet. You can do it.
Then one day, as I combed my hair in the morning I noticed something… different.
I wasn’t wearing a greasy helmet of hair any longer. It was lighter and didn’t clump together in a most unsightly fashion.
It felt… dare I say it?
I could almost feel the clouds parting and the birds singing the revelation. I had made it to the other side!
And if you think I am going back to the world of stringent shampoo and balm routines, think again.
How much more minimalist can you get in your life and while travelling? Just keep your trusty comb by your side, and you’re good to go! I know of few other, more powerful ways to fight the pink tax than to just refuse to participate in its entirety.