THE CASE for LESS SOAP
"Cleanliness is next to godliness."
Maybe that's how our obsession with soap started.
Or more likely, it began with someone like Nobel laureate Marie Curie who while working in triage during the war made the then revolutionary observation that simple routine hand washing by health practitioners could reduce the incidence of infection, disease and death by 80%. And she was right. By the 1980's the general positivity towards soap and cleanliness had perhaps reached its zenith, with mainstream marketing declaring that the liberal use of soap and foaminess - whether on our person or to wash dishes - was not only necessary, but even a virtue. Then came the age of the pandemic and the ritual of hand washing and general sanitizing has taken on a whole new meaning.
At nearly the same time and perhaps as a reaction to this trend we see the emergence of a growing number of anti-soapers or soap skeptics- those who seem to have concluded that our soap habit has gotten out of hand and that when it comes to our skin and hair, less soap or even no soap is better. Oil or clay cleansing for the skin, no poo or co-wash philosophies have not only gained momentum in recent years but have almost gone mainstream- with cosmetic companies taking notice. Proponents argue that soaps are damaging especially over time and that the simple act of cutting down or even eliminating harsh soaps altogether can not only return the skin and hair to a more balanced state (with less need for additional corrective products) but even reverse conditions such as chronic dry skin, eczema and even premature aging.
While it is now difficult to deny that use of less harsh soaps- especially on the skin -can benefit almost anyone... what about less soap on our hair?
Not your average soap
A cursory glance at the current hair care landscape will show that in recent years there has been a slow but steady move away from stronger chemical soaps towards more natural alternatives. This is either wholly or in part a reaction to the ubiquitousness of sulfate (sulphate) shampoos and the growing consensus that these have been doing damage to the hair unbeknownst to us for years.
But what exactly are sulfates? As the name implies, they are essentially synthetic, sulfur based surfactants that act as cleansing agents. Not your average soap, their unique chemical structure allows them to bind to oil, dirt and product residue and trap it before it is rinsed away. SLES (sodium laureth sulfate) and its many variations are so effective and relatively inexpensive that they are virtually the soap of choice in the cosmetic world and can be found in everything that foams or bubbles especially shampoos, shower gels and facial cleansers. But they are also equally found in conditioners (behentrimonium methosulfate), styling products and popular household cleaning products of all kinds, from floor cleaner and dish soap to even your favorite toothpaste.
The Dirty Dozen
Like so many other similar lab created cosmetic ingredients, the safety of sulfates has been the subject of ongoing controversy. The nagging issue seems to be that sulfates such as sodium lauryl and laureth contain measurable amounts of chemicals ethylene oxide and 1,4 dioxane. According to the International agency for research on cancer, ethylene oxide is a known human carcinogen and 1,4 dioxane a possible one. At the very least ethylene oxide has shown to be harmful to the nervous system leading the California Environmental protection agency to classify it as a possible developmental toxicant. Wondering as to its effects on the environment? 1,4 dioxane is considered 'persistent' insofar as it does not easily degrade and remains in the environment long after it goes down the drain.
In Canada, the presence of ethylene oxide and 1,4 dioxane in sulfates are enough to land them on Health Canada's ingredient hot list. Yet despite this warning, a recent assessment under the government's chemical management plan concluded that 1,4 dioxane "...did not meet the legal definition of 'toxic' because estimated exposure levels were considered to be lower than those that might constitute a danger to human health". In other words the argument is that we simply aren't exposed to enough of these chemicals for it to pose a real health threat or risk. In addition, some soap defenders argue that contamination of sulfates depends on the manufacturing process. They say that 1,4 dioxane can be adequately removed by a process called 'vacuum stripping' but like all things there is really no easy way to know if a product containing sulfates has undergone this process at all. So for these reasons and perhaps due to the continued usefulness of sulfates in so many products, their widespread continues. And apart from the warning that SLS and its derivates constitute a "moderate human health priority" and is at the very least "a skin, eye and respiratory tract irritant" it is still not enough to deter the legions of people looking for that foamy, squeaky clean that only sulfates can deliver.
It's just soap
Sulfate apologists don't care about their increasingly radical status within the hair care space and they don't seem to see what all the fuss is about. For them, frequent use of high soap or sulfate shampoos is of little to no concern. They routinely claim that "my hair doesn't mind sulfates" and that they don't see any ill effects from their use at all. While for some this may be the case, for an increasing majority, regular use of high detergent shampoos present a unique set of problems that we believe becomes more visible and apparent over time and with frequency of use, most of which has to do with the cuticle of the hair.
"Most no pooers do report an almost immediate improvement in general hair health when they give up commercial shampoos and this comes as no surprise: once you stop the wholesale attack on the microbiome, the hair and scalp begin to rebalance themselves almost immediately."
What is the cuticle? We define it as that all important, visible, outermost layer of hair which under the microscope looks like the overlapping scales of a rooftop or a snakes skin. It is our first line of defence, protective armor and what we first see. Generally speaking, if the cuticle layer is healthy, your hair will also look healthy and its importance has in fact given rise to an entire industry of post-shampoo stylers (usually silicone based) devoted to concealing and literally coating a damaged cuticle so that the hair will at least 'look' healthy even when it may not be.
What is important to know here is that yes, sulfates 'clean' the hair but usually do so with a price. Their unique chemistry traps dirt and grime but does so aggressively, often with accompanied pushing and lifting of the cuticle structure. Once the cortex is damaged or exposed, water can freely enter a once closed system. With outer layer structurally more weak and inner layers of the hair more vulnerable, the damage soon begins to snowball and accumulate over time and on repeat. This physical alteration, weakening and exposure of the cuticle protein creates a cascade of other issues, namely:
- An exposed cortex usually equates accelerated color fading. Colors become washed out including most salon colors and dye molecules in general
- Fading of natural hair color, especially blondes and redheads
- Visible thinning of the hair due to protein loss
- Increased dryness and frizz
- Already fragile, thin or naturally fine hair is made even more delicate and prone to breakage
- Naturally curly or wavy hair pattern becomes weaker or is lost altogether
Of course said ill effects won't happen overnight, but are gradual and occur with time and frequency of exposure. Age is also a factor here- a young girls tresses can withstand much more abuse than a woman who is in mid-life or older. But even then, damage is damage and it is almost always cumulative.
A vicious cycle
One thing is certain though: sulfates excel at ridding both the hair and skin of oils, dirt, grime and bacteria. But again, this efficiency is perhaps where the problem lies. The almost universal complaint of former and even current sulfate shampoo users is that it cleans yes, but a little too well. The hair and scalp is often left overly dry and devoid of moisture, much more than what is comfortable. Yes, we do collectively want to remove excess oils (think sweaty yoga class for example) but do we really want to carpet bomb our hair and scalp all in the name of "clean hair"?
Increasingly, we are saying no. Why? Because the scalp (like the skin) has its own microbiome comprised of an intricate community of good bacteria, fungus and oils that we do need to keep happy in order for it to be healthy and balanced. When they are subjected to routine attacks with strong soaps and chemical detergents the usual problems often ensue: chronic dryness, dandruff and even hair loss that are difficult to reverse. Ask yourself, is your hair often a tangled mess straight away after rinsing off your shampoo? Finding that you require an ungodly amount of conditioner to simply rebalance your hair again and comb it out? Is your conditioner bottle usually empty before your shampoo bottle? These are all too often the first signs that your current shampoo is either too strong for your hair or has too much soap and its time to reevaluate what you are using to wash your hair.
Meanwhile, it is perhaps one of the great paradoxes that regular, long term use of sulfate shampoos or other similar strong soaps can also provoke the opposite response: chronically greasy hair. But how could this be? Again, like the skin, our scalp microbiome likes to have a minimum of natural oils present at all times to stay balanced and healthy. If these are consistently wiped out, the microbiota can respond by actually ramping up oil production resulting in an oilier hair and scalp between washes, necessitating more frequent shampooing and perpetuating a vicious cycle.
It may seem counterintuitive but our scalp likes and indeed needs oils. In cases of chronic conditions such as dandruff or flaky scalp, the traditional response has been to use stronger and more medicated shampoos. But these rarely work. The layman might be surprised to learn that the use of oils on the scalp has been shown to be far more effective at reversing scalp conditions such as dandruff, as it is more supportive of the microbiome and helps to shift it in a healthy direction. In India for example, the simple use of coconut oil on the scalp is a well established anti-dandruff treatment, containing lauric acid and other naturally present anti-microbial actives that have been proven to be far more effective and curative at combatting dandruff than most medicated shampoos, treatments or other drugstore concoctions.
So it understandable that given the short and long term effects of sulfate use on the hair (and skin) that the response of some has been to stop washing the hair with soap altogether - or to look for natural, no-soap alternatives.
Although it might sound idyllic enough, not washing the hair for long periods of time does present its own set of issues. Most no poo pooers do report an almost immediate improvement in general hair health when they give up commercial shampoos and this comes as no surprise: once you stop the wholesale attack on microbiome, the hair and scalp begins to rebalance itself almost immediately. But long term, the effects of failing to rid the hair and scalp of at least some of the excess oil, dirt and grime can be problematic. Besides the impossibility of managing or even styling dirty hair, the buildup of oil, dirt, sweat and other unwanted bacteria can invariably lead to another nightmare situation: clogged hair follicles.
Once hair follicles are clogged they can literally become permanently blocked and stop producing new hair altogether. No shampooers try to get around this by turning to common household ingredients such as baking soda and vinegar which is a great combo for cleaning out a blocked kitchen sink but won't do anything good for your hair. This is not so much due to the absence of soap but more about the rules of PH or acidity and alkalinity. The PH level of the hair/scalp likes to stay roughly between 4.5 and 5.5 and a soda and vinegar concoction is not at all within range. The same can be said for straight apple cider vinegar washes (although we do like this as an occasional clarifying rinse before shampoo). Conditioner washing or co-washing is another alternative trending in recent years but the popularity of these has recently waned maybe due to its general ineffectiveness but perhaps more due to the fact that its composition can lead to clogged follicles and hair that is generally over-moisturized and difficult to manage or hold a style.
It is worth noting that if you do use stylers of any kind (curly girls take note) your requirements for shampoo will also increase as these do tend to build up on the hair with regular use. So while "no poo" may sound nice the reality is that for various reasons associated with lifestyle, practicality as well as overall hair health it is not a viable option, long term.
So what is the awakened, healthy hair seeker to do? Between the extremes of no shampoo and high soap or sulfate shampoo is something we call mild poo. This more moderate position is rooted in the philosophy that hair needs to be shampooed regularly- just not too frequently and with mild, natural soaps instead. "Less soap" and not "no soap" is the name of the game and we think the reasonable alternative to either extremes. Sulfates are replaced with softer alternatives such as cocamidopropyl betaine or capryl glucoside and at lower concentrations that you will find in most commercial or even higher end shampoos. These shampoos accordingly have slightly less foam or lather (which is often an indicator of high soap shampoo) but more than enough to adequately cleanse the hair and scalp. After all, now much soap do we really need?
While many sulfate users might initially find the slight difference in foaminess difficult to get used to, this is quickly forgotten once they witness the positive way in which the hair responds. Less soap after all usually equates to less foam which equates to less damage/dryness/tangling and amen to that. The mild poo shampoo user will also happily discover that once they commit to a milder shampoo, there is less of a need for the barrage of corrective silicone stylers such as leave-in conditioners, serums and balms that are all to often needed as corrective measures and to add back softness and manageability.
But as always, close reading and investigating of labels is a highly recommended practice. Many brands may have nixed the sulfates only to replace them with multiple ( up to 6 or more) other milder soaps that combined have an almost similar amount of foam and damaging effect on the hair.
So wash your hair but do so gently. Know your shampoo, your soap and let the mild poo revolution begin.