Sarah Powell, an herbalist, medical anthropologist and proprietor of the Natural Bath & Body Business, Lilith’s Apothecary, lives with her husband and 2 year old daughter in Philadelphia. http://lilithsapothecary.wordpress.com/
I’ve spent the last ten years educating myself about natural skincare ingredients, the detrimental chemicals found in many commercial brand-name products, and the safest herbal alternatives for a lifestyle much more ‘green’ and sustainable. And yet there is one bastion that remained just out of reach: my hair. My hair is typical of many Americans who shower a lot, shampoo a lot, and don’t really know what to do about the oily scalp, dry hair problems that plague so many of us. Finding the perfect conditioner and the right shampoo to address various scalp issues is not an easy task! Finally, in my efforts to achieve balance for my hair and scalp, I realized that I needed to turn to the natural world around me. It is time to call in the herbal allies!
Many of us have already turned to natural facial and body care products, opting for largely chemical-free alternatives that avoid the most toxic and irritating ingredients, including sulfates, parabens and even propylene glycol. We choose truly nourishing facial creams, cold processed vegetable oil soaps and talc-free body powders, and yet natural hair care remains somewhat mysterious and out of reach. We’ve become so used to the sudsy, high lather feel of detergent-based shampoos that even companies determined to bring safer, natural alternatives to the fore shy away from truly natural hair care lines. Fortunately, many companies are producing shampoos without sodium laurel sulfate (SLS) and other irritating chemicals, but in their efforts to mimic the feel of commercial shampoos, they aren’t able to get too far away from the original product. The truth is that for some reason we still associate ‘suds’ with clean, even if those bubbles are just coming from foaming agents like SLS.
Shampoos are still largely detergent based, which tends to strip the hair of its natural oils, drying it out at the ends and often disrupting oil production at the roots. The result is either an oily scalp or the development of dandruff and other dry scalp conditions. At the other end of the root, our hair follicles are stripped of their nutrients and dried out, often requiring the use of a cream conditioner to replenish the hair with vegetable-derived oils. To make matters worse, we also tend to wash our hair far too often, never allowing the hair to recover from all of these assaults with detergent. We often think that we are aiding our damaged tresses with protein-fortified shampoos, but those proteins merely coat the hair shaft, making it appear healthier, and yet these same proteins coat the scalp, choking the follicles and leaving the scalp scaly and flakey.
For those who are interested in natural hair care and realize that their hair is out of balance, there is a simple solution that we can combine with other hair care routines and without giving up those sudsy shampoos just yet. For centuries, herbs have been used to promote luster, add shine, and even affect the color of our hair. Herbs like nettle, rosemary, and witch hazel are used therapeutically to treat dandruff, oily scalp, and even hair loss. For this reason, simple herbal rinses can be prepared at home in order to minimize the damage done by frequent shampooing and also to restore a balance at the root of it all: our scalp. For truly natural hair care, herbal shampoos can over time restore balance to the hair and scalp, but herbal rinses are a great place to start.
A rinse with either a water or vinegar herbal infusion can do a world of good for our curly locks or golden manes. There are many herbs to choose from, of course, and the first step is figuring out what you need to address. Does your scalp need a therapeutic cleanse that will rid it of build up and brighten those dulled tresses? Do you have issues with scaly dandruff caused by excess oil production or dry flakes from your stressed out scalp? Perhaps your hair is just really oily and demands frequent washings just to keep up with the oil production. The key is to choose a selection of herbs that will help and follow the directions below for either a simple water-based infusion rinse or a cider vinegar rinse. The water infusion will last three days in the fridge, while the vinegar rinse offers some advantages. For one thing, vinegar alone is a powerful astringent that will help control oil and dandruff issues. It also can rid the scalp and hair of stubborn build-up from hair products. Finally, you only need to add 1 tbsp of the vinegar solution to warm water per rinse and as vinegar acts as a natural preservative, the vinegar rinse will keep for months, if not several years, and can be stored right in your bathroom.
Herbal Allies for Hair Care
As Jeanne Rose tells us in The Herbal Body Book: The Herbal Way to Natural Beauty & Health for Men & Women, “A good head of shiny, glossy hair can be achieved simply by treating your hair as kindly as you treat the skin of your face" (Frog Books, 2000). By nourishing your hair with nutrient-rich herbal infusions and vinegar rinses, you can return your hair to glorious luster and shine, relieving it of itchiness, dryness, or excess oil production, as well as stimulating growth and gloss. Yarrow, horsetail and comfrey can relieve irritation; anti-inflammatory chamomile, and soothing mullein and violet aid allergic reactions; and nettle, arnica, and rosemary stimulate growth and gloss. Try a combination of some of the following herbs, as appropriate to your scalp or hair needs, and the follow the directions below to either make a water infusion rinse or a cider vinegar rinse.
Dry hair or scalp: acacia, chamomile, clover, comfrey root, elder, oat straw.
Oily hair and/or scalp: bergamot, cassia/cinnamon chip, lemongrass, lemon peel, nettle, peppermint, rosebuds, white willow bark, witch hazel bark.
Dandruff: aloe, bergamot, birch bark, burdock, cassia/cinnamon chip, cloves, juniper leaves, lemongrass, nettle leaf and root, orange peel, peppermint, rosemary, willow.
Add 2 -3 tbsp of your chosen herbal mix to a quart size mason jar. Add boiling water and allow to the herbs to steep for at least 30 minutes and up to 8 hours for a very strong infusion. If your mixture contains roots or bark, you may want to make a decoction, which will properly extract the necessary components from these tougher materials. In this case, add 2-3 tbsp to a non-metal pot. Pour a quart of water over the herbs and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes while tightly covered. Remove from heat and allow the herbs to steep an additional 15 minutes. Strain and store in the refrigerator until ready to use. When using a water infusion, use 1 cup of the infused rinse on wet, cleaned hair.
Add 2-3 tbsp of your chosen herbal mix to a quart size mason jar. Warm some organic apple cider vinegar and pour over the herbs, filling the jar to the top. Allow this infusion to steep for 2-4 weeks to make a strong herbal extract. Strain and store in a dark glass bottle. Add 1 tbsp of the vinegar rinse to a cup of warm water for each hair application.
Directions for Use:
Whether using the water infusion (1 cup) or the vinegar extract (1 tbsp. combined with 1 cup warm water), pour the rinse over hair that has already been cleaned and rinsed with water. If you can, catch the rinse in a bowl as you pour it through your hair and repeat as many times as you can, being sure to rub it into your scalp. You may rinse with water if you choose, though it’s best to just leave the herbal rinse on your hair and scalp.
Using herbal rinses is a great first step towards truly natural hair care. The next step is employing the use of truly natural herbal shampoos, conditioning creams or treatment oils, and the continual use of these wonderful therapeutic herbal rinses to achieve the luster, shine, and balance we all seek to attain.