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Water-Only Washing, Part 1: some background

November 23, 2010

I mentioned a while back on Dreamwidth that I’d started water-only washing my hair:

Oh yes, I’ve also been having surprisingly good luck with just using water and a lot of scalp massage to wash my hair. After about two weeks, it’s not greasy and smelly, which shouldn’t be a huge surprise since that didn’t happen when I switched over to conditioner-only washing. *wry smile* (People managed to have clean hair before this stuff was invented, after all.) My scalp was acting up again in spite of not using shampoos I’m apparently allergic to, so I decided to experiment, hoping it was an allergy to something in the conditioners. Especially since it totally cleared up when I was trying the ultimately too drying baking soda with vinegar rinse approach. That’s improved a little, but it’s early days yet. It may just be eczema, since it’s the time of year for that to really start kicking in–even so, putting fewer chemicals on an existing allergic reaction sounds like a good idea!

The big surprise there? My hair seems to be loving it so far. It’s shinier, and even the crown is holding more curl once it’s dry, without added gel or anything. (Thick, fine hair with Botticelli curls is kinda renowned for weighting itself down and going flatter on top.) I think even the conditioner was drying it out too much, which is darkly funny since I avoided using much conditioner for years because it make my hair look “stringy”–i.e., less dry and frizzed out, with some curl definition. Using the CO wash method, I could tell it was time for a wash because it started to get dry and frizzy on top. (I think my thyroid conversion is a bit wonky again, and drying my hair and skin out more.) And I was using a heavier conditioner after the cheapo light stuff for washing!

I had to pull out the conditioner a few days after that, to wash out coconut oil residue after an amla treatment mixed up with coconut milk to keep the fruit from drying my hair out–greased ramen noodles wasn’t the look I was hoping for there! Conditioners have surfactants in them, which is why they actually strip oils pretty well. But, other than that one wash, I’ve been doing the water-only (WO) for about 6 weeks now.

I’ve also been combing out an amazing amount of linty, dusty stuff when I’m dry-detangling and trying to get the scalp oil distributed down the length of the hair before hitting the shower. (Water does not touch my hair when there are still tangles; they’ll set like felt!) I don’t know if there is really more than usual, or if also using a fine-toothed wooden comb after the snarls are gone is just removing more lint and dust. But, that’s probably helping keep it clean without surfactants, too.

And it’s still not greasy and nasty, and is getting better shine and curl definition and frizzing and snarling less all the time. But, as one guy who wrote a series at The West Virginia Surf Report about his own experiment put it:

Robin from San Francisco asks: “Does it smell funny? Does oil drip from the tips?”

A research assistant has informed me that my hair doesn’t smell bad at all, but that it also doesn’t smell like it normally does. Could this count as smelling “funny”? My assistant wasn’t laughing when she said it, so I would say no.

As for any concerns about my hair becoming greasy, let me put your mind at ease. It’s difficult to describe the type of hair I grow, so I offer an analogy. Have you ever been on a hay ride? The sweet smell of the summer night drifting through the valley as you and your fellow riders bid adieu to the last streams of sunlight and welcome the grace of the moon with songs and laughter? Well, my hair is just like that. Just take away the enchantment, the singing, and the whimsy, then turn the hay-truck over and put it on top of my head. But leave the laughter.

Except for one time when I was a kid and put a half tube of VO5 in my hair so I could slick it back and look like a vampire, my hair has never been greasy. It’s dryer than a popcorn fart. I’m actually looking forward to some oil working its way into the program.

Yeah, that just about sums it up for me, too. (Oddly, I also tried the vampiric hair-slicking for Halloween one time, though I don’t remember what greasy substance I put in there–but the cruel adults decided it was cold enough that I needed to wear a wooly hat and spoil the whole effect. Bah.) A couple of weeks in, the hair started feeling a bit strange-textured in the shower, and is still doing that to a lesser extent, but it’s not at all greasy or dirty-looking when it’s dry, and it’s super-soft. Judging by some discussion over on the monster WO-thread at The Long Hair Community, that wet-texture weirdness should go away pretty soon.

What’s more than a little scary is that until I looked into taking decent care of curly hair–and stopped using shampoo on my head earlier this year–I had no idea that my hair was dry, rather than just inherently haystack-like and prone to matting1 and forming huge dreads. Clean == with every molecule of oil removed. *facepalm* I thought any trace of scalp oil meant that the acid mantle needed to be stripped with surfactants. Now I’m still getting used to what “clean but not like a crispy dessicated bush” feels like.

I haven’t run into a lot of transition problems, probably because my hair and scalp are dry and I was washing once or twice a week with conditioner for months before switching to WO. It apparently takes a while for some people’s sebum production to even out, especially if they go straight to WO from daily shampooing. (Which can actually make your scalp pump out a lot more oil, going overboard with trying to replace what you just removed and get the skin pH back to normal–bit of a vicious circle.) No temporary greasies so far here, though.

The scalp problem I mentioned in that Dreamwidth post is mostly gone. I’m pretty sure it was atopic eczema and contact dermatitis, aggravated by something in the conditioners–take your pick as to what. (The last time I used shampoo, after weeks off it, I got not just itchy, flaky spots but oozing sores!) This is the best shape my scalp has been in for more than a week at a time, in at least 25 years. Actually, I figured out another probable factor: I have a big enough head of densely-packed hair that not enough water was getting to parts of my scalp! It’ll just about get wet to the scalp, but then the upper layers just sort of pack down and shed the water like a duck.

While eczema (atopic dermatitis) is very common, it can sometimes mimic other skin diseases, such as seborrheic dermatitis (dandruff), psoriasis, or contact dermatitis…
People who have it as children may always have dry or extra-sensitive skin, even as adults. #

Nah… An interesting bit of research: Why Eczema Often Leads To Asthma. AFAICT, people with both (especially women) just don’t “grow out of it”. It’s only recently that I’ve looked into the eczema much, as trivially as it was treated when I was a kid. While seborrheic dermatitis is a type of eczema, my persistent rash seems to have been very directly allergy-related; sometimes the broken skin will get a secondary bacterial or fungal infection, which is why the neem and tea tree oils were helping. (Very much like the cat’s flea dermatitis, actually.) Medicated shampoos–regardless of brand/active ingredients–always made the situation a lot worse, and no wonder!

I figured this out because I was getting a few patches on my head that were building up a little oil on the scalp (less than I used to get regularly with shampoos), and they also corresponded to the itchy and flaky parts. These were also parts that weren’t getting as much water flow over them, and so were probably keeping more dust and other allergens. So, I started washing it in sections–which I wish I’d known to do before!–though I haven’t been clipping it up (yet), just carefully moving handfuls of wet hair around out of the way. (It’s only shoulder length now, so that’s feasible.) That way, it’s easier to make sure that the shower beats down on every square inch of scalp while I massage at what’s under the water. It takes a few minutes longer that way, but is definitely worth the extra hassle. Not only is it less prone to tangling up washed in sections, the itchy bits are mostly gone after a few washes that way. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the shampoo and/or conditioner had been leaving a lot of irritating residue there before! :-|

Actually, I haven’t been doing a strictly water-only method. Since we have really hard water (“so hard it could almost get up and take a rottweiler for a walk” *g*)–pretty much all calcium–I’ve been continuing to use a vinegar rinse about once a week when I remember to. That’s probably why the amla had been doing my hair a lot of good, too: it’s acidic dried fruit, and letting it sit on the hair for half an hour probably removes a lot of limescale! I’ve been itchier overall since I moved here, and the water is probably part of the reason; I was living on limestone karst before, but the water here gets a chalk scum on top when you boil it! I haven’t used the amla lately, but including some herbal/essential oil rinses and treatments is close enough to “water only” for my purposes. I’ve held off on anything but the vinegar, to see how it works without. No gel or other styling products either, but it’s been looking decent without.

The success of this method on my hair got me thinking: how much good have I been doing myself, taking the same “clean means totally degreased with soapy stuff” approach to washing my body? Do I really need to do that? If my scalp eczema has improved so much from not irritating it with chemicals on a regular basis, might the rest of my eczema-prone skin respond similarly? Considering that none of the bad things I’d been led to believe would happen have happened so far from not using detergents on my head, what terrible consequences are likely to result from not soaping my body up?

As it turns out, none so far, but it’s very interesting what we’ve been taught to anticipate. More on that in the next post.

1 And just look at some of the judgmental reactions to the matting problem here! Yep, it can mat to the scalp overnight while being very clean and brushed; BTDT! Too much shampooing and combing, much less brushing, made mine mat. There is, indeed, a very effective home remedy: scissors, then clippers. :(

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