Herbal Hair Care

| August/September 1993

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.

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