As somebody with coarse, dense, dry, curly hair – I get it. The No-Poo method and herbal hair care sound great until you consider giving up conditioner. How am I supposed to detangle, moisturize and set my curls? Without conditioning, won’t my hair be a dry, tangled, brittle mess?
Consider this. The active ingredients in your favourite conditioner are natural oils, herbal extracts and plant based amino acids – the rest are refined ingredients such as waxes, alcohols, and preservatives, all added to create an appealing consistency in the product and extend its shelf life. If we removed the emulsifiers, surfactants, and other processed ingredients, we would have the raw, beneficial ingredients, undiluted. The truth is, nature doesn’t create natural materials in the refined, perfected form we’re accustomed to in hair care products, and even the “natural” ones often contain these denatured ingredients.
The good news is, when switching to truly natural hair care, we don’t have to compromise quality or performance of products. By selecting the right ingredients for our hair and understanding when and how to use them, we can provide raw nourishment to our scalp and hair, help repair damaged and dry locks, and promote healthy new growth.
Water: The True Indicator of Hydration
By definition, the moisture content of hair refers to the amount of water being retained within individual strands. We don’t want to be constantly saturating our hair with water, as this raises the cuticle, ultimately promoting damage when done in excess. However, regularly exposing our hair to some humidity or periodically spritzing with water can be beneficial, as it is one of the few materials that can be fully absorbed deep into the strand. By gently raising the cuticle, water acts as a vessel for nutrient delivery, allowing water soluble vitamins and minerals from herbs to penetrate the hair, as well as smaller amounts of penetrating oils and proteins.
On days that I don’t wash my hair, I like to spritz my hair with a homemade water-based leave in conditioner (see below) to promote hydration.
Herbal Conditioners: Rinses and Leave-Ins
By nature, many herbs and food ingredients have conditioning and moisturizing properties. These materials include mucilage herbs, apple cider vinegar, honey, and aloe vera gel.
Herbal rinses can be created by simmering mucilage herbs such as slippery elm bark (ulmus rubra) or marshmallow root (althaea officinalis) in water to create a beneficial infusion for the hair. Due to the mucous-like consistency these herbs create, these infusions are great for adding “slip” to the hair, allowing for easy detangling and increased manageability. This is an especially effective step to smooth coarse, dense, curly hair, which is more prone to knotting, dryness and frizz. These infusions can be diluted and used as a rinse after you cleanse your hair. Alternatively, an apple cider vinegar rinse can be used to help smooth and close the hair cuticle, restore proper pH of the scalp, and increase shine and softness.
Herbal leave-in conditioning sprays provide benefit for easy detangling and increased moisture, and are super easy to make. I make a 1:1 water to apple cider vinegar spray to help balance pH, add shine, and seal the hair cuticle. Other fun ingredients to add to a leave-in spray include honey, which draws humidity from the environment, promoting moisture in the hair. Aloe juice helps balance pH and seal the hair cuticle, as well as sooth and heal an irritated, inflamed, or itchy scalp. Aloe juice can be used as a spray, or the gel can be used as a styling gel to enhance curl definition. As noted above, mucilage herbs such as slippery elm bark or marshmallow root can be used to detangle and soften the hair – create your herbal infusion, spray on lightly towel dried hair, and gently finger detangle as needed.
Daily Hair Oils: Penetrating vs. Sealing
One of the biggest mistakes in natural hair care is the careless use of oils. Although oils have a very valuable place in our hair care routine, using the correct oils at the correct times is imperative for good results.
Penetrating oils are oils that can be partially absorbed into the hair shaft, promoting deep moisture and nourishment. These oils include virgin coconut oil and raw, unrefined sunflower oil, and in lesser amounts, castor oil, olive oil, and avocado oil. The best way to use these oils is when your hair is dry as a pre-shampoo treatment. This entails applying a small amount of your oil of choice a few hours before washing in order to penetrate into the hair, and protect it from the protein loss and cuticle lift as a result of exposure to water. Another method would be a warm oil application – gently heat the oil in a double boiler (not the microwave), and apply to dry hair. Arrange your hair into a protective style such as a banded ponytail or a low bun, and allow the oils to absorb overnight. This method is also best done the night before shampooing.
Sealing oils are oils that cannot penetrate the hair shaft, but instead, sit on the surface and help smooth the hair cuticle. Ceramide oils that are high in linoleic acid are best to use as sealing oils, as they are particularly effective at repairing damage to the cuticle, and bonding damaged hair. These oils can help prevent moisture loss by sealing water within each individual hair strand. Because they coat the hair, they also help protect the hair from environmental damage, and by smoothing the cuticle and split ends, they improve the appearance and feel of damaged hair.
Used improperly, these oils can actually promote dehydration – when applied on dry hair, they prevent water and humidity from penetrating the hair. The only time to apply these oils is when the hair is wet.
After washing or rinsing the hair, lightly towel dry until the hair is still damp to the touch. Spritz your hair with any water-based herbal leave ins (raw apple cider vinegar or herbal infusion) or water-based styling agents (aloe gel), then follow with a sealing oil such as raw, unrefined sunflower oil, hemp seed oil, sesame oil, and my personal favourite, wheat germ oil. Wheat germ oil provides incomparable shine to my hair, and naturally has a light nutty scent. Whichever oil you choose, make sure to use judiciously to prevent oily, weighed down hair.
Daily Brushing for Hair Health
One non-negotiable step in my hair care books is regular hair brushing. As someone with curly hair, I happily went years without brushing my hair (except immediately before washing) as I believed it would ruin my curl pattern, increase frizz, and damage my hair. However, brushing your hair nightly is an important step in maintaining moisturized hair, as it helps stimulate the scalp and distributes sebum away from the roots and down the hair shaft. Sebum, the natural oils produced by our scalp, is the most protective and moisturizing material for our hair. This step also reduces oiliness at the roots, allowing more days between washing.
I prefer to brush my hair at night, as it allows my hair to absorb its natural oils, and in the morning, my curl pattern looks fresh and reset with no frizz. First, I detangle my hair with a wooden seamless comb. This is a necessary step for anybody with coarse, dense, or curly hair, as a boar bristle brush likely won’t be stiff enough to detangle all the way through. Then, I use a natural rubber scalp massager to stimulate my scalp and sebaceous glands. This improves circulation, lymph drainage, and detoxification, all necessary for healthy hair and promoting new growth. Finally, I use my boar bristle brush. Starting underneath, I flip my head over and brush from the nape of my neck towards the ends of my hair. Now in an upright position, starting on one half of my head, I brush my hair in sections from the roots to the tips, encouraging my oils all the way to the vulnerable ends of my hair where they need the most moisture and protection.
This practise has helped me see a reduction in scalp oiliness, go extra days between washes, and promote more consistent moisture levels in my hair. I also notice less breakage between trims, and the general condition of my hair appears to be improving.
Kayla MacDonald, R.H.N.