I don't normally think too much about hair—mine goes its own way without much help or fuss from me beyond regular washing and conditioning. But one morning as I was slathering high-priced, pH-balanced, sold-only-in-salons shampoo onto my scalp and massaging glorious suds right down to my split ends, I looked more closely at that ingredient list. Methylchloroisothiazolinone? Ammonium laureth sulfate? It occurred to me that I had no idea what this stuff was that I was so blithely slopping on my head. The alien words were tucked in among more comforting ingredients such as yarrow and geranium, but in my mind I pictured a laboratory full of frizzy-haired scientists subjecting braids and ponytails to torturous experiments.
Tremendous hype surrounds hair care products, and each product purports to do special things for specific types of hair. But nature has provided the means of caring for hair for centuries. Why couldn’t she do it for me?
So I embarked on a two-week experiment in which I did without commercial products and used only simple plant materials on my hair. I didn’t expect that my split ends would vanish or that my hair would suddenly become so lustrous and silky and bouncy that men would stop me on the street to run their fingers through it. All I wanted was a product, harvested from my garden instead of the marketplace, that would leave my hair feeling and looking good.
What I discovered is that homemade herbal products are not only effective, but kind to the hair. I wasn’t willing to start my workday by foraging in the forest and pounding roots with rocks; there are limits to my curiosity and my time. But I found many of the ingredients for hair care in my garden and my kitchen cabinets. What I didn’t have on hand was available from a health food market or by mail order.
I learned that I could get my hair clean with the natural saponins and gentle suds of plants such as soapwort and yucca root, both easily grown perennials that are hardy in many parts of the United States. They didn’t produce the billowing foam I was accustomed to in commercial shampoos, but the lack of lather didn’t affect their cleansing power. And I could feel the softening effect on my hair within the first week. Detergents, the cleansing agents in most shampoos, can strip the hair of its natural luster and silkiness, particularly if used daily. Soap plants are nonalkaline; compared to commercial soaps and detergents, they are mild cleaners, and they don’t leave deposits that build up on the hair.
I made a trip to the library to try to penetrate the mysteries of shampoo chemistry and figure out what is in the average commercial shampoo. The surfactant—the cleaning power—is usually ammonium (or sodium) laureth sulfate, or sometimes ammonium lauryl sulfate, and the zillion-syllable “methyl” words usually refer to preservatives. Other additives include thickeners, foam boosters, pH adjusters, emulsifiers to keep the ingredients from separating, opacifiers to make the solutions opaque, conditioners, and ingredients that add color and fragrance. The main ingredient of shampoos and conditioners is water—75 to 90 percent in shampoos and as much as 95 percent in conditioners.
Deciphering the list of ingredients helped explain why my herbal hair preparations aren’t like the Prell I can grab off the shelf of the nearest store. Herbal solutions take a bit of thought and time. They can’t be stored for long because they contain no preservatives, and they tend to look and smell “earthy”, unlike the smooth, creamy, colorful lotions that pour so thickly out of store-bought bottles.
I was less successful in finding out what ingredients in the chemical makeup of herbs affect hair and in what ways. Almost every book on the cosmetic uses of herbs includes a section on hair care, but I found little information to explain why, how, or even whether herbs affect hair. I can speculate that herbs with emollient properties might be good for dryness, and that astringent herbs might help counteract oiliness, but all I know for sure is that certain herbs have long been recommended for specific hair types.
My fair, dry hair wasn’t a mass of tangled straw, as I half expected it to be, after my first herbal shampoo and rinse. I found I got the conditioning I needed from rinsing with infusions of burdock, elderflower, stinging nettle, and other herbs from the chart on page 53; these didn’t seem to leave the heavy feel that some commercial conditioners do. My hair was manageable and easy to comb.
Chamomile and lemon juice, traditional rinses for blonds, gave my hair a hint of sunshine: I don’t think it was my imagination, although I’m allowing for the possibility. Chamomile and rosemary are often touted as color enhancers, but they are not dyes or bleaches, and the results are not at all like those of chemical dyes. The rinse must be caught in a bowl and poured over the hair again and again until patience runs thin, perhaps 10 to 20 times; otherwise, the infusion washes down the drain before it has a chance to do its job.
For the sake of time and convenience, I also made a small supply—what my household could use up in a couple of weeks—of an herbal shampoo with castile soap as its base. Though castile is made from olive oil and is milder than many other soaps, it is still alkaline and will leave a film on the hair unless neutralized with a rinse containing vinegar or lemon juice. Shampoo advertisements have encouraged us to think about pH balance, and the reason became clear to me one morning when I forgot to add the vinegar to a rinse formula. My hair felt brittle and fragile. At the first opportunity, several hours later, I rinsed my hair with the correct formula. My hair immediately felt stronger and smoother.
My two-week trial run has been extended indefinitely; I like my herbal hair. I still resort to commercial products when I’m caught in a time crunch, but I use my own shampoos and conditioners whenever I can. I usually find the preparations pleasant and the time manageable. I can fix an afternoon cup of chamomile tea while I brew the same herb in a rinse for my hair. Outside, my garden now has a “shampoo section”, and just for fun, I found an old sink to use as a planter.
Herbal Hair Products You Can Make
The recipes that follow are flexible; they are meant to be guidelines. One of the greatest advantages to making herbal hair preparations at home is the opportunity to experiment and find out what works best for your own hair. The accompanying chart suggests some herbs to try.
Always make and store herbal hair preparations in nonreactive containers; otherwise, you might find your hair turning an unexpected hue. I steep my herbs in an enamel bowl and store leftovers in the refrigerator in a plastic shampoo bottle. Before trying any new herb concoction on your scalp, dab a bit of the preparation on the inside of your elbow and cover it with a plastic bandage. Wait for 24 hours and then check for redness or itching. If you don’t see or feel any allergic reaction, the preparation is probably safe to use on your head.
Far North Gardens, 16785 Harrison, Dept. XN, Livonia, MI 48154. Catalog $2. Quillaja saponaria seeds.
Frontier Cooperative Herbs, 3021 78th St., PO Box 299, Norway, IA 52318. Dried soapwort root and yucca root.
J. L. Hudson, Seedsman, PO Box 1058, Redwood City, CA 94064. Catalog $1. Saponaria officinalis, Yucca filamentosa, and Y. glauca seeds.
Richters, Goodwood, ON L0C 1A0, Canada. Catalog $2.50. Aloe vera plants, Saponaria officinalis seeds, Yucca glauca seeds and dried root bark.