Hair and Scalp Care
If you don’t need to strip off styling product buildup, then it’s best to avoid shampoos that contain Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and/or Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLS). These are very harsh detergents that often make your scalp oilier and your hair drier because your body tries to compensate for what’s stripped, and there are LOTS of claims that it does much worse than that. These claims are a hotly debated issue, and while I’m on the fence as to just how true they are (some link SLS with canker sores on up to cervical cancer) I don’t think they’re good ingredients because they’re incredibly harsh and are clinically proven skin irritants. Also, regardless of the effect, the SLS molecule is smaller than many similar surfactants (foaming chemicals) and is thus more easily absorbed into the skin, for better or for worse. There are a zillion good non-SLS shampoos out there – Ecco Bella, Burt’s Bees, Avalon Organics, Pure and Basic, and many more… just read the ingredients.
However, if you need to strip off product buildup, you don’t necessarily need to turn to an SLS shampoo to do the trick. Adding baking soda to an already clarifying natural shampoo can do the trick. (I like to add baking soda to Avalon Organics Lemon Verbena Clarifying Shampoo.) You may need to wash twice to really get the buildup off, but you’ll be able to feel once the job is done. Sometimes a liquid soap like Dr. Bronner’s can also work for this.
During your natural, let-my-hair-chill phase, aim for conditioners that don’t contain dimethicone, petrochemicals, or cetyl alcohol. If you must use one that contains cetyl alcohol (I often do; they’re extremely hard to avoid) then try mixing in some plant oil/glycerine for a moisture boost, or using a moisturizing cream as a styling aid afterwards. If you’re using a deep conditioner, that’s when it’s best to avoid large amounts of cetyl alcohol, or at least try to use one that lists it at least half-way down the ingredients list, because cetyl alcohol’s potential drying-out effect is more likely the longer it’s left on.
I find using coconut oil (or another emollient plant oil like macadamia nut oil, etc.) on dry hair right after a shower helps to seal in moisture for really dry and/or coarse/curly hair. It also makes it look greasy, especially if your hair is straight and/or fair and/or fine, so keep this in mind. This is a treatment that’s best done during chores and such – not a night-on-the-town kind of thing. Another good time to put on oil or other unsightly but effective moisturizing treatments is while you’re at the gym, etc. – put your hair up with product in it, and shampoo it out after your workout. Another good product for this is Burt’s Bees Avocado Hair Butter.
Also, when at the beach or pool, another great tip for keeping dry hair (or any hair, in this hair-frying context) nice and healthy is to saturate it with one of these oils and/or a heavy conditioner or a treatment like Burt’s Bees. That way, the sun, salt and chlorine can’t dry it out as much, and it’s less tangled after a day of swimming catching rays (with the appropriate physical sunscreen reapplied regularly to all of your exposed skin, of course).
For a healthy scalp AND shinier, smoother, more moisturized hair, use a natural-bristled brush on dry hair and really let the bristles massage to the scalp and distribute the natural oils along the hair shaft. NEVER brush wet hair – use a wide tooth comb to detangle, GENTLY. When hair is wet it is much more likely to snap and create split ends and flyaways. Using a plastic-bristle brush on dry hair is okay if necessary, but be sure the bristles are rounded and be gentle to your hair and scalp.
I think the very best brush out there is the Mason Pearson combo nylon and boar bristle brush. The nylon bristles massage and gently stimulate your scalp, while the boar ones transport natural scalp oil to the rest of your hair to help moisturize it. These brushes can be pricy, but you can usually find them for much cheaper on eBay. I believe some Sally Hansen Beauty Supply stores also sell a pretty decent knockoff for much less money.
The cause of dandruff ranges from just normal, necessary scalp exfoliation, to the presence/abundance of a yeast that causes this process to speed up unnecessarily. There is a lot of controversy about the particulars, but many agree that this yeast is photosensitive and thus more likely to flourish in darker months, and also if covered by a hat, so winter sometimes worsens the condition.
If you find severe itching along with the flaking it can be an even worse variety, and if you have flaking/itching around the nose and/or eyebrows too, it’s yet another condition, that’s even harder to get rid of. But generally, both of these are related to an overabundance of a certain yeast, and eating a diet rich in starches and sugars and acidic foods will only feed these yeasts more.
A common myth is that dandruff affects dry scalps only, and/or that it’s a sign of poor hygiene. Neither is true, but it’s unsightly and often uncomfortable, and it’s just a pain to have. There are a lot of potential solutions to try, though it’s sort of hit and miss with what works for whom. So here are a series of things to try!
Try switching to Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap (the liquid version) or another pure castille soap, and washing only every other day. Continue this for a minimum of two weeks, then return to your usual non-SLS shampoo. Note – Dr. Bronner’s can lead to hair feeling MUCH more tangled and dried-out, so it may be necessary to increase the amount of conditioner used as well as the level of general emollients you use on your hair.
An even more potent remedy is to mix some tea tree oil in with your usual shampoo, and/or with Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap (and bonus, the oil will thicken the soap so its consistency is more like normal shampoo) and then wash as usual, working the mixture into the scalp and leaving it on a couple minutes before rinsing. Some other oils to try are neem, tagetes, and manuka.
There are a couple of decent commercial natural dandruff shampoos that I like. Pure and Basic makes a good dandruff shampoo with salicylic acid (a BHA skin exfoliant) as the active ingredient. Jason also makes one in a medical-like bottle that contains sulphur — it stinks, and it contains dimethicone which sometimes is the CAUSE of my scalp getting itchy and dandruffy in the first place, but I think it’s a low percentage of dimethicone so it never seems to cause a problem.
Another meh scalp exfoliating treatment is Shift Balance by I.C.O.N., which they carry at Gary Manuel salon; it’s a pepperminty treatment you apply with a dropper (though it’s chock full of some synthetics, petrochemicals and such – but, hey, you can’t be a hippie all of the time). LUSH’s Recon also has salicylic acid, but it’s a thicker more emollient lotion that’s hard to apply to the scalp. However, some people’s dandruff conditions will be worsened by salicylic acid treatments and shampoos – give it a try to see if it works, but don’t stick with it if it doesn’t help after one or two uses.
Finally, another thing to try is using apple cider vinegar directly on your scalp. Pour or spray it onto the scalp, massage in, leave on a few minutes (or longer if you can arrange it – cleaning the house, etc.), then rinse and do your usual shampoo/condition/whatever routine. The smell of this can be overpowering, and it totally lingers on some coarser/more porous hair types (like mine!), but it’s the best dandruff killer I’ve ever found. It can be drying to the hair, though, so use a good emollient treatment.