A Holistic Approach to the Best Hair of Your Life

Writer Neeti Mehra describes the routine she uses for her own 'crowning glory.'

back of woman with wet hair washing with shampoo bar

Treehugger / Vanina Howan

A few years ago, we celebrated my nani’s (my maternal grandmother's) 100th birthday. Over 150 of her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and the rest of the caboodle congregated from across the world to wish the grand old dame a happy century. When I look back at the photographs, her silvery hair puts ours to shame. Thick, healthy, and unruly, even four clips and a tight bun couldn’t keep it in check. A beautiful mane framing her slim face, it’s a memory that we still remember her by. What was the secret? Just department store soap and shampoo (in between she colored it, too, with regular hair dye) and tap water. It seems unbelievable.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, we’re born with a staggering 100,000 hair follicles on our scalp. Plus, these can crank out around six inches per year. But the bad news is that in some people follicles just stop growing as they grow older. Not only that, lifestyle factors such as stress can lead to hair loss and premature greying of hair. But before you panic, it’s normal for a healthy adult to lose around 50 to 100 hair strands each day. 

Cut to me. My hair care routine is infinitely more layered and complex than nani’s, following modern day hair rules (Clean shampoo? Check. Conditioner? Of course), while straddling the DIY and Ayurvedic beauty universes. (Oiling hair? Check. Neem wood comb? Check.) In fact, hair has become quite a hairy topic of discussion now, whether it's hair removal or hair growth, though I scarcely remember anyone discussing it two decades ago.

It was only when the pandemic struck that I could pay more attention and actually put into practice a natural haircare routine that I had learned over the years. It has definitely more steps than what my grandmother followed, but in the grand scheme of hirsute pursuits, it’s simple and old school.

A Good Old 'Champi'

If you look up "champi" (a head massage) online, you will find over four million results. Every Indian household grew up with a good old champi, and any day is good for champi! I try to get it done once every two weeks, either by cornering the mother or asking the local masseuse. (I prefer to use Ayurvedic oil. I usually buy from this online store, or this one. Always consult with an Ayurvedic doctor before using these products).

Heated oil is nicely massaged into my scalp, kneading away stress and worry. I leave it on for half an hour, then wrap a hot towel around my hair before going in for a head bath. Pro tip: Do not do this before a big night out, as it takes a few days for the perfumed oil to wash off completely.

Treat Your Hair Kindly

My cousin used to wash her beautiful waist-long black hair in a decoction of brewed amla (Phyllanthus emblica or Indian gooseberry), reetha (Sapindus mukorossi or Indian soapberry), and shikakai (Senegalia rugata or soap pod)—also known as the golden triad of Indian haircare. While I’ve briefly succumbed to it, I have not continued this time-consuming tradition.

I have no fixed shampoo—I try to stick to shampoos that avoid parabens, phthalates, and sulfates and those for color-treated hair—but I do have some heroes in my hair routine. These include my neem (wooden) combs, which I have in a variety of tooth sizes, to detangle and style my hair. After I gently wash and condition—goodbye, knots!—I wrap my hair in a small hair turban (an eco-friendly option is this biodegradable organic cotton and bamboo towel). You can also use a lovely thorthu, a loosely woven cotton yarn towel from Kerala, that doesn’t tug on your hair.

I let my hair air-dry into natural waves, applying a hair tonic, and occasionally spray on water from fenugreek seeds soaked overnight on damp hair. (I grind the seeds to apply as a pre-bath hair mask.)

Eat Well and Deal with Stress

The pandemic has been extremely stressful, and even while recovering from the illness myself, I’ve seen a lot of hair shedding. A daily routine of exercise, meditation, and pranayama (yogic breathing), supplemented by eating healthy homemade food for most of the time (we all have cheat days), helped me back into a routine and enabled me to embrace calmness. It’s always good to check in with a professional if you feel there is a hair condition to be addressed, to get guidance on nutrition, care, and any form of support. After all, a good hair day deserves its own story.

View Article Sources
  1. "What Kids Should Know About How Hair Grows." American Academy of Dermatology Association.

  2. Bryant, Erin. "How Stress Causes Grey Hair." NIH. Published February 4, 2020.