There’s been a pretty popular and awkwardly named “no poo” trend going around. People forgo shampoo to avoid chemicals that strip away hair’s natural oils; some even say shampoo is a sham created by advertisers over the past century. Katherine and Margaret here at Treehugger even ran careful experiments testing the trend.
I am not one of those people. I stopped washing my hair for two months by accident.
It all began when I was traveling through Portugal with my friends — let's call them Timward and Patriciabeth. I fully intended to shower, but something scared me off all the plumbing in our Lisbon apartment.
The washing machine was located under the stove in the tiny kitchen, because nothing says hygienic like a box of dirty water next to your food. Nonetheless, I’d already been traveling for a couple weeks with only a backpack’s worth of clothes, and my socks were so grimy that they were making my feet itch. I needed to do laundry.
I ran a load and, once it finished, I opened the washing machine door. A pool of water spilled out. And I don’t mean a trickle: the whole kitchen was flooded with half an inch of water. I slammed the machine door shut, but it was too late.
After pondering the injustice of the universe as a whole and my life in particular, I looked around for a mop. Finding none, I grabbed some towels and tried to soak up the flood. There was so much water that I had to keep squeezing the water out of the towels into the sink and reapplying them. Timward checked on my progress.
“Wow, that really is a lot of water,” he insightfully observed. “Do you need help?”
“Yes,” I responded. He nodded and walked away.
Then Patriciabeth popped in. “Looks like you’ve got it covered,” she chirped.
After that incident, I was too scared to try the shower. If a machine made for washing clothes could flood the kitchen, what was a machine designed for imitating rain capable of?
Luckily, I was already a pro at not showering. I generally washed my hair every five days or so, which is when my roots tended to get unbearably greasy. I figured I’d just shower at the next place.
Alas, faulty systems were not an exclusively Lisbonian problem. Portugal was a global empire in the 16th century, but it’s been going downhill ever since, thanks to an earthquake and a few plucky French invasions. Long story short, Portuguese electricity and plumbing aren’t great. When Timward tried to use the oven at our apartment in Porto, it literally shocked him. Still, I was getting desperate.
“I’m gonna take a shower,” I announced over cold sandwiches the next day.
“Be careful,” Timward warned me. “The water pressure’s crazy.” This did not sound like a problem to me. But when I turned on the tap, I discovered that the water was cold and the pressure non-existent. Apparently, by “the water pressure’s crazy,” Timward had meant, “I cranked the pressure way up and used all the hot water.” I heroically soaped and rinsed my body in about ten seconds but did not even attempt to clean my hair.
It was the same story everywhere else we stayed that month. Finally, on the last day, I managed to get warm water long enough to strong-arm some shampoo into my hair, at which point the water ran cold. (I can already hear commenters screaming, "That's washing your hair! You lied!" And maybe they're right. But "I accidentally stopped using shampoo for two months except for once or twice when I sort of didn't," wouldn't fit in the title bar.)
After leaving Portugal, I traveled alone to a Moroccan village with a population of 4,000. By then, a strange thing was happening: My scalp was feeling less oily.
“You’re gonna love the shower,” said the man who ran the guesthouse I was checking into as we tripped down a bumpy, dark stone path in the middle of the night. “It actually has hot water,” he continued, which I guess was something you could brag about there.
Finally. A hot shower. As I prepared my shower supplies, I discovered that I’d lost my conditioner. So I asked a French tourist to translate a few words for me (French is one of a few widely-spoken languages in Morocco, thanks to, naturally, a couple French invasions) and went to the village’s closet-sized general store.
“Vou as conditionneur?” I attempted to ask the 10-year-old boy at the outdoor counter. I mimed washing my hair. He gave me a look that said, “I don’t understand your French, foreigner, but if I did, I bet you’d be saying something stupid.”
Someone else in line assured me that there was no conditioner. I walked away, wondering how the villagers managed. Their hair looked fine. Maybe they kept a secret stock of conditioner hidden away so they could feel superior to tourists. If so, their plan was working.
I scoured my room for a towel. Apparently, my guesthouse did not provide one; I’d have to make do with my sweatshirt. Even worse, the shower in my bathroom had a detachable showerhead. That would have been fine, but the part that connected the showerhead to the wall was broken, so I’d have to hose myself down like an elephant bathing with its trunk. But greasy vagabonds can’t be choosers.
I turned on the faucet ...
And a sad drizzle of lukewarm water eked out.
Morocco is mostly desert. It’s blistering in the sun, but once the sun goes down or you step into the shade, the temperature drops by about 30 degrees. As a result, the guesthouse was an icebox; only a masochist would wash herself in tepid water there. I could rinse my body from time to time, but my hair would have to go au natural. Se la vie.
My hair, though surprisingly not oily, grew coarser and messier as time passed. In the U.S., I generally finger-combed my hair in the shower, but that was no longer an option, and there were no brushes for sale in the village. I took to wearing a plaid scarf I’d brought along as a bandana, making me look like a lumberjack pirate.
Eventually, I met a middle-aged Rasta guy from the Sahara with colorful beads in his dreadlocks and a penchant for quoting Bob Marley.
“Where's your family from?” he asked me over mint tea at a local café blasting a mix of reggae and Berber music.
“But originally?” he probed. “If you know your history, then you would know where you’re coming from.” I swallowed the real answer — some Jewish shtetl— because I was not telling anyone that on this side of the Atlantic.
“I like your dreads,” I changed the subject.
“You should dread yours,” he told me. “Your whole life would change.”
He was right. Dreads don’t get tangly; they are tangles. They could be the answer to my conundrum. It was a risky move; I’d seen a video of a woman grabbing a blond guy and chastising him for his dreadlocks in San Francisco. I wondered if Americans might find my hairstyle offensive when I returned to the U.S. Still, cultural appropriation might be better than the matted tumbleweed taking over my head.
But before I could dread natty dread, fate intervened.
“I haven’t had a hot shower in two months,” I complained to a 23-year-old French Canadian who was boiling water over the outdoor propane tank that was his kitchen. I played with a lock of my hair that was making the unilateral decision to start dreading itself.
“My shower’s hot,” he responded in his thick Quebec accent, the legacy of yet more French invasions.
I looked at him with the kind of expression you might see on a zombie's face as it approaches a survivor with an especially juicy brain.
“You can use it if you want,” he offered nervously. After pressuring the Canadian into lending me a towel, I locked him out of his bathroom and, ready for another disappointment, twisted the shower handle.
Warm water streamed onto my face like magma over an icy mountain. The world faded away; all that existed was the steamy cascade. I’d eaten truffles, gotten massages, and stayed in fancy hotels. But I’d never known true luxury until that moment. When I emerged from the bathroom, my hair had returned to normal.
"All good?" the Canadian asked me as I left.
"I've been reborn," I told him, stealing the towel.
Here’s the odd thing: Over those couple months, I’d washed my hair once. But despite getting a little stiff and quite tangled — again, no brush — my hair never really looked or felt too horrific. I think I passed pretty successfully as a perfectly sanitary human. In fact, my hair was greasiest at the two-week mark, which I've heard is the amount of time it takes your hair to adjust to the no shampoo lifestyle. I’d finally figured out how the Moroccan villagers kept their hair so silky without conditioner: if you don’t dry your hair out with shampoo all the time, you don’t need conditioner.
Since coming back to the U.S., I’ve started showering regularly again (you're welcome, America). But I only shampoo every ten days or so, and I don’t use conditioner. Ultimately, I learned that 1) the no poo trend might be onto something and 2) if you go anywhere that was invaded by the French, bring a comb.