How Big Shampoo conditioned us to buy products our hair—and environment—don’t need

Lather, rinse, repeat (forever).
Lather, rinse, repeat (forever).
Image: Bizuayehu Tesfaye/AP Images for AVEENO
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

A few years ago, as a college student living in shared housing, I read about a radical idea. The concept was simple, but unexpected: go “no poo.” That is, give up conventional shampoo and conditioner in favor of natural cleansers, or just water. “No pooers” forsake shampoo for a variety of reasons, including environmental considerations, health, and improved hair aesthetics.

Being an experimentalist, I took the plunge. After some trial, error and very greasy hair, I am proud to say I was able to completely extricate shampoo and conditioner from my routine. Today I’m a true believer: as the “no poo” movement promised, my hair is in the best condition it has ever been even though I sometimes go 10 days or so with only water washes. (After that I turn to a natural cleanser, like applesauce, diluted apple cider vinegar, or shampoo bars).

Aesthetic benefits aside, however, my decision to break free from the tangled web of consumer hair care products is more proof that our society has become hopelessly—and needlessly—beholden to corporate beauty brands. Besides telling us how we should look and feel, their chemical-laden products help create the demand for fancy shampoos and conditioners and then are more than happy to supply us with an endless stream of flashy—albeit potentially unnecessary—products. The familiar cycle is yet one more example of our overly-consumerist Western culture. Luckily, we can do something about it.

A (very) brief history of hair care

It may seem like women have been shampooing their hair since time immemorial. But in fact, women rarely shampooed their hair in the earlier decades of the 1900s. (This was especially true of white women—African American hair care has a unique and fascinating history all its own.) Whereas today the average American woman shampoos several times a week, standard advice in the early 20th century was to shampoo hair once every four weeks. This 1908 New York Times article was viewed as a radical challenge to conventional logic because the column advised women to increase hair washing to once every two weeks.

By the 1960s and ’70s, however, women were being encouraged to wash their hair seven times a week, which not coincidentally was also when today’s synthetic shampoos and conditioners came of age.

But this increase is about more than beauty standards.

Conventional shampoo usage’s hidden costs

As with so many high-consumption activity, hair care comes at a personal and environmental cost. By cutting out shampoo and conditioner, “no poo” advocates also decrease the amount of petroleum-derived ingredients and product packaging they are using and circulating. Shampoos contain a witches brew of artificial compounds including antifungals, used in many antidandruff shampoos, which some researchers believe are causing havoc in our waterways. The less shampoo washed down your shower drain, therefore, the better. “No poo” is environmentalist approved, at the very least.

But conventional shampoo affects more than planetary health. Shampoo labels are a confusing morass of chemical ingredient names. These ingredients are added to affect the appearance, smell and thickness to your hair—some simply make your shampoo foam more, a quality meant to assure customers that the soap is “working.” The irony of course is that at the end of the day, many shampoos are just as likely to leave the average American without that shiny, hair-model mane, despite exposing them to dozens of chemicals—most of which are completely untested for possible health risks.

Conventional shampoo ingredients which we do have some data about include phthalates and parabens. Both have raised concerns in the scientific community due to their near omnipresence in human bodies, as observed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Studies point to growing evidence of adverse effects through these chemicals’ ability to disrupt hormones, especially in children. Some critics worry the chemicals are linked to everything from chronic diseases to cancers to developmental disorders.

“Big Shampoo” is big business

So are these health concerns and ecological issues worth it? There’s plenty of evidence that suggests they are not. Your hair naturally produces oils, called sebum, which are protective and beneficial to your scalp and hair. When these oils are removed by the harsh detergents of modern shampoo, your scalp compensates by producing excessive amounts sebum. This leads to greasy hair, which in turn leads to more shampoo usage. This greasy cycle is of course amplified by conditioners, which coat hair with silicones to help it regain the shine lost to the stripping effects of shampoo.

Although expensive and annoying for consumers, hair care product companies rejoice. The hair care industry as a whole ballooned to a mammoth $11.6 billion in 2015, according to independent market researcher Euromonitor International. The lion’s share (61%) of these gains went to only three three major players in 2014, L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever. Think about it: the fate of your environment, health and hair may rest in the hands of three gigantic multinational corporations.

But here’s the (dirty) Procter & Gamble doesn’t want you to know: the average human’s scalp should produce sebum at a slower and balanced rate once it is not subjected to the continuous cycle of lather, rinse and repeat. When this balance is achieved, a routine of regular hair brushing, water rinses and shampoo alternatives should be sufficient to keep your hair not only looking clean and healthy, but manageable, glossier and thicker than ever before. At least it did for me.

Conditioned to buy

Like other facets of our lives, the consumerist ideology of “more is better” has taken over our hair routines. As a result, we’ve become completely disconnected from the natural state of our hair, believing that only route to healthy scalps is a road paved with multiple, expensive hair care products.

It doesn’t take a scientist to realize that hair product companies stand to profit the most from this ever-increasing consumption of hair products and unhealthy hair. Creating products to dry and strip hair of it’s protective oils also creates the demand for more products to smooth and artificially correct the damage.

Maybe you’re not ready to completely cut shampoo out of your life, but “no poo” and its minimalist and anti-consumption cousins are a reminder that more is not always better. No matter how trusted the brand, hair care companies exist to sell as much stuff as possible, however possible. Why not try taking history and biology into consideration, instead of market logic for once? At the very least, give “no poo” a try—your hair, and your planet, may thank you for it.