Two Years Without Shampoo

As far back as I can remember, I have struggled with the balance between oily and dry hair and scalp. In high school, I washed my hair every day, sometimes twice a day. Then I started dying it in my early twenties. First it was highlights, then lowlights, then blue, red, purple, black, and everything in between. By the time I was 25, my hair was in a pixie cut that I bleached every month or two. And by bleached, I mean putting the chemicals on my hair and leaving them there for one... two... three... sometimes four hours?! I have no idea what (or if) I was thinking. 

I guess it's no wonder that by the time I turned 30, my hair and scalp were a hot mess. The only way I could prevent my (grown-out) damaged hair from turning dry and brittle was to keep dying it darker and darker, which meant continuing to slam my scalp with chemicals. And then, the only way I could keep my scalp from flaking was to keep washing it with Head & Shoulders or similar type shampoos, which I now know were filled with sulfates and other chemicals designed to dry your scalp the the point that it can't flake... or grow healthy hair... or do anything else. It was a terrible cycle and I was stuck. 

Luckily, I had a hairdresser who convinced me in my late 20s to start growing out my natural hair, though she could not convince me to give up the Head & Shoulders, since I was terrified of what would happen if I tried ending the chemical warfare on my head.

But try, I finally did. And sure enough, my scalp's reaction to being able to breathe again was a powerful, painful one. I switched to sulfate-free shampoo and conditioner when I was 32, and what ensued was a few months of flaking, itching, and wearing a lot of hats. It was during this time that I discovered SheaMoisture Dry Scalp Elixir, which became a life-saver (and which I still use for trouble spots to this day).

It was also during this time that I first heard about the "no poo" method -- using baking soda instead of shampoo, and apple cider vinegar instead of conditioner. I was still traumatized from the switch I had recently made, so I wasn't ready yet. But everything I read said that it worked -- without fail -- for every type of hair and every type of scalp issue. The seed of curiosity had been planted underneath my itchy scalp, and I started experimenting with adding baking soda to my shampoo, and researching all-natural remedies for dry scalp and damaged hair.

The most interesting thing I learned was the idea of pH balancing my scalp. I don't know why it had never occurred to me that the skin on my scalp might need balancing just like the skin everywhere else on my body. Turns out that all those cheap shampoos I had been using to get rid of flakes had been coming with a hidden cost: totally screwing up the natural balance of the skin on my head. According to everything I was reading, both baking soda and apple cider vinegar helped to balance the pH of the skin on the scalp.

Furthermore, if flakes are caused by dandruff, which is a fungus, the antimicrobial qualities in apple cider vinegar are an added bonus, while the pH balancing and exfoliating properties of the baking soda will scrub away any scalp build-up without stripping your hair of its natural oils. And don't forget about the antifungal properties of tea tree oil!

So, I continued on my way while the curiosity about the "no poo" method grew inside my mind. My new sulfate-free shampoos were nice and all, but I continued having issues with thinning / breaking hair, dry scalp, and needing to use products to get my hair to look healthy. 

Finally, in January 2016, that seed of curiosity bloomed into a flower of willingness (or possibly desperation), and I decided to commit to a year without shampoo.

Fast forward to February 2017: 

Last night, I took a shower and did my usual hair-washing routine (which I only do 2-3 times a week) and let my hair air-dry, then put it in a loose bun before bed. This morning, I woke up with soft, curly, shiny, thick locks of hair on my head, and no flakes in sight. I almost can't remember a time when this wasn't how my hair and scalp felt!

To say that giving up shampoo and conditioner saved my scalp and hair would be an understatement. From about two weeks into the switch, I have been almost entirely flake- and itch-free. My hair has continued to thicken and grow fast and strong, and I've received more compliments about my hair in the past year than ever before. 

I will say that it took about 6 months of trial-and-error to find the right blend of all the ingredients to achieve the same results after each wash. Patience and persistence are key, but you also can't really mess it up. Too much of this or not enough of that still results in clean, healthy, pH balanced hair and scalp. 

While continuing to research recipes and combinations over the course of the trial year, I stumbled upon a few extra secret ingredients that might actually be the real heroes: aloe vera gel, tea tree oil, lavendar oil, and rosemary oil. Hilariously, companies like Hairstory (run by the founder of Bumble & Bumble) are now starting to release hair washes that contain mostly aloe vera and essential oils -- for $40 - $90 per bottle. And, they still have to add in all kinds of extra ingredients to preserve the stuff on the shelf -- namely alcohol. Meanwhile, I have barely spent more than $90 on hair washing materials in the past year, and am getting the same results I'm reading about in the reviews of these overpriced products. So let's get to it!

What You Need 

- Two plastic squeeze bottles (like THESE)

- A big box of plain ol' baking soda (like THIS)

- A big glass jar of (preferably) organic apple cider vinegar (like THIS)

- *Secret ingredient* 100% pure (preferably) organic aloe vera gel (THIS is the best stuff I've found so far)

- *Secret ingredients* Tea tree, lavendar, and rosemary oils (I just get mine at the grocery store, to be honest)

My "Hair Wash" Recipe

1. In a squeeze bottle, I put about 1/2 inch of baking soda.

2. Next, I add 5-6 drops of tea tree oil. I use this oil during the washing step to help scrub away and treat any bacteria or fungus on my scalp. 

3. I also add 5-6 drops of lavendar oil, which helps calm and soothe the skin, while also adding a pleasant smell to my hair.

4. Lastly, I fill the rest of the bottle with warm tap water and shake well. 

My "Conditioner" Recipe

1. In a squeeze bottle, I put about 3/4 to 1 inch of apple cider vinegar.

2. Next, I add 1/2 to 3/4 inch of aloe vera gel. This stuff is the only "expensive" ingredient (at $18 a bottle), so I try to go easy on it. This way, one bottle lasts about 4-5 months.

3. On top of that, I add 5-6 drops of rosemary oil, which is supposedly good for hair growth -- or at least follicle stimulation. Plus, it smells nice and clean! 

4. I top it off with more lavendar, both for the soothing quality and the smell. Again about 5-6 drops.

5. Lastly, I fill the rest of the bottle with warm tap water and shake well.


It is weird at first to go from the exciting, suds-y shampoo experience we grew up with to the watery, boring feel of the baking soda mix. But remember that the "sudsing" effect is created by the sodium lauryl sulfate that is so hard on your scalp.

I have found that I need to use the entire bottle of the hair wash mix to get a real, deep clean. Also, if you leave the mixture in the shower and it cools, the baking soda will get cake-y. So I may as well use it all! 

I start by wetting my hair in the shower and squeezing half the bottle onto my head, working the wash through my hair -- ideally with exfoliating gloves or a scalp brush. Then I'll add the rest of the bottle and let it soak through my hair.

I leave that on for a few minutes and then rinse it out. 


I only use half the bottle of my conditioner mix each time I wash my hair. Any more than that and my hair can get stringy or weighed-down by the aloe. Half a bottle seems to be the perfect amount. This also helps me save on ingredients. 

After rinsing the baking soda mixture out of my hair, I squeeze the ACV/aloe mixture into my hair, all around my scalp, and make sure it soaks through. I especially make sure to get the mixture around my hairline, where I can sometimes get dry patches. 

The longer you can let this mixture sit on your hair, the better. I don't scrub it into my scalp, but I do run my fingers through my hair to make sure all the strands get covered. This also helps me pull out dead strands of hair. 

When I'm ready to rinse, I make sure the water is lukewarm - not hot. This helps close my hair follicles and seal in the goodness. I've tried rinsing with hot water and cold water, but the lukewarm (on the side of cool) water seems to leave my hair the cleanest and softest.


Everyone's hair is different, but mine seems to do best when I let it air-dry. For this reason, I always shower in the afternoon or evening, so my hair has plenty of time to dry on its own. If it's still damp when I go to bed, I tie it up in a loose bun so I don't wake up with bed head. 

The second and third days after the wash are always the best, but I can now go a full four days between hair washes without getting oily hair or a flaky scalp. And whenever I do have some dry spots (which happens sometimes, especially based on what I'm eating, what's happening with my body's hormones, the weather, etc.), I use a couple sprays of that SheaMoisture Dry Scalp Elixir.

Remember: Just like quitting deodorant or moving toward a plant-based diet  (which will also do wonders for your hair , so long as you are avoiding soy and getting plenty of plant-based protein and iron), there will always be an adjustment period as our bodies get used to returning to their natural state. Be patient! I promise it will be worth the effort.

Sarah Saturday