In December 2019, my girlfriend mentioned that my hair smelled unusually good. What was I doing differently? Nothing, I thought. Everything was just as always. Except that I had run out of shampoo a few weeks prior, and hadn’t noticed until then.
As a teen, I used plenty of hair products. Gels were cool in the early 2000s, and sculpting wax remained in vogue even afterwards. Such products require washing out at the end of the day, otherwise it feels gross, and (ironically) would make your hair unwieldy afterwards. By the time I got to college, I was used to shampooing my hair most days.
However, my college roommate suffered from severe male pattern balding as he hit his early 20s, and he made that suffering a core piece of his identity. Fear is contagious, so I quit hair products, and began to exclusively use the most scalp-friendly shampoo I could find, Kiehl’s Amino Acid Shampoo. I reduced my shampooing to twice a week, and was careful not to use too much.1 My hair was fine and usually short, so that was perfectly sufficient for the most part of the last decade.
That was until I ran out in mid-November 2019. I hadn’t even noticed, and my girlfriend had complimented me on my hair, so I thought I might as well keep going. I had previously read about the NoPoo Movement – people washing their hair with stuff like olive oil or quitting shampoo altogether – and that had been intriguing. Ever since I tried anti-dandruff shampoo and it immediately gave me dandruff, I had a hunch that shampoo might just be a scam. I was ready to give NoPoo a try.
Seven or eight months later, I still haven’t used shampoo or conditioner once. I rinse it with warm water every morning when I shower, give it a quick rub with a towel, brush it, and I’m off to the races.
The results are fantastic. My hair is silky smooth, looks and feels clean, and a slight build-up of natural oils makes it easy to form. If I run my hand through my hair to push it back, it stays (mostly) in place.
Keeping my hair in place had been a real frustration with a frequent shampooing routine: my hair would be so light and dry that it was impossible to rule – I would have to use a product to keep it from dangling into my forehead, or I’d have to get haircuts to specifically trim the unruly parts that would stick out. Reducing shampoo – and eventually eliminating it – made it possible to actually get somewhere combing it.
During this time – thanks to COVID-19 – I haven’t had a haircut, so my hair is now also longer than usual. (I feel like a stand-in from an ’80s movie.) It’s easy to go NoPoo when you have short hair, because there’s ultimately little hair to accumulate lots of grease and oil. The threat of greasy hair is more severe when your hair is longer, which is why I suspect it’s mostly men2 who opt to abandon shampoo. For me, it ended up fine.
Abandoning shampoo works because it restores the natural balance of oils on your scalp. Most shampoos are effectively like dish soap: they aggressively remove grease from your head. That dries out your scalp, so – no surprise – you produce more oils to compensate. That makes your hair greasy in short order, so you then have to shampoo again. It’s even more extreme if you apply additional grease in form of hair products. Like a ketamine-cocaine bender, you are net balanced while swinging between extremes. That’s not great. Consequently, most people report that the toughest thing about abandoning shampoo is the first two or three weeks, while your hair becomes quite greasy as your scalp readjusts how much oil it needs to produce. I was fortunate that during that time, I had been too busy to notice.
I hope to get a haircut soon as COVID wraps up, but I don’t see myself using shampoo again in the course of my everyday life. It might be worth making exceptions if I somehow get really dirty in nature or doing some DIY stuff,3 but for the most part it just seems unnecessary.
While previously I would liberally use big globs of shampoo, I was surprised to find that just a teaspoon-full of Kiehl’s would suffice. ↩
That’s my anecdotal impression, not based on any rigorous quantitative evidence. ↩
I suspect that the initial popularity of shampoo came because people used to get much dirtier than today. People would work on their cars, on their homes, in their gardens, and actually get covered in physical dirt. That’s quite rare nowadays. For apartment-dwelling millennials, there’s no DIY or repair work, and certainly no gardening. I spend most of my time indoors. For people like me who rarely/never get dirty in the first place, shampoo seems like a relic from another time. ↩