I spent Thursday *and* Friday brewing up some herbal infusions for hair. I haven’t used shampoo for about two and a half years, and my husband has been shampoo-free for at least a year and a half. I have been having a lot of difficulty with my scalp recently, partly because of changing seasons and allergic reactions. I’ve also been trying to convince my husband to stop using pure soap only on his hair, as it’s high-pH and not the best for his scalp or hair, thus we both needed new solutions.
Why did it take two days? Well, my husband has three main requirements for his hair cleansing: It must take no more time or effort than “typical” hair washing, it must make the hair feel clean, and it must not smell bad. In order to make something that would fill his requirements, I decided to look to Indian traditional herbs. We already use soap nuts for some of our laundry, and I have used weak soap nut water to clean my own hair a few times, so the idea of using soap nuts isn’t too unusual. In fact, I used the half-spent old nut casings from our laundry as the basis for the “shampoo.” Another common plant material used for washing is shikakai. The combination of soap nuts (reetha), brahmi, henna, amla, and shikakai is actually pretty easy and inexpensive to buy in Indian grocery stores. It’s great for brunettes. It’s claimed that it can even help detangle, reduce hair loss, and darken or slightly redden colour. Unfortunately, this makes it terrible for blondes; I got a number of odd looks at the store when I bought it, probably because it was so unsuitable for my blonde self. This meant I needed two separate formulas: One for brown hair and one for blonde hair.
For my own hair, I used soap nuts, soap wort, nettle leaf, marshmallow root, and fenugreek seeds. I had made hibiscus and green tea for kombucha, so I steeped the tea a second time, and then added the second tea and leaves/petals to both hair cleanser mixtures. (Adding a first steep of hibiscus tea would have made my mixture VERY red – not good for blonde hair.) I allowed the herbs to soak in soft water for eight hours and then heated them gently in that water for two hours. At this point, the soap nuts were soft but not giving up their saponins as well as I might have liked, so I tore the inner membranes and outer skins apart to allow the saponins to come into full contact with the water. I hear soap nut powder works better, and this is probably why – grinding the soap nut casings might be helpful next time, though it would make them more difficult to remove later. After the soaks, I boiled the mixtures for about 40 minutes. I drained the liquids, squeezed the herbs as dry as I could, and then boiled them again in a small amount of distilled water for another 20 minutes, draining and squeezing a second time. The herbs went into the compost; the infusions went into the ice cube tray.
I did not use henna, even though I had it ready, because when I opened the brahmi powder box the bag inside said, “Henna.” It even made the mixture smell like henna. I now know that they are not the same thing, and next time I will use henna as well as brahmi. Since my husband’s hair cleanser contained a lot of powders, I left those in the solution, only filtering out the big pieces. The powder should be easy to rinse out of short hair and these powders are meant to be used directly on the head and hair anyway.
I tried my infusion the next afternoon, mixed with a bit of distilled water, in a squeeze bottle. It felt a bit drying, so I rinsed with aloe afterward. That seems to have helped the scalp irritation, though it was a bit too moisturizing for my hair. I thought my infusion still needed some protein, so I whipped some up the next day with chickpea flour. I mixed the flour into some soft water, let it sit and settle for a while, then poured the liquid into ice cube trays (so that the water-based infusions can be stored indefinitely), and threw out the sediment so that it wouldn’t get stuck in my hair and come out as flakes later. Clean-up after all of these steps was as simple as washing soap off of a pot.
My husband hasn’t tried his blend yet, and I have yet to try a second time, though my first wash left me optimistic. I think I need to wash with soap once on the back of my head just to clear away the extra waxiness from a few months of scalp issues. Since my husband has short hair, and the Indian powders say to let sit in the hair for a little while, I’ve instructed him to take an ice cube out a little before his shower, mix with a little warm water if he likes, then put it onto dry hair at the start of the shower and rub it in a bit. At the end of the shower, he should rinse it out. It’s the closest I could get to meeting his requirements. He says it smells like tea, so he has no problems with its scent. Part of the no-poo journey is washing hair less and using rinses in between washes as needed, so the two to three bags of cubes I made will last quite a while, and take a bit of time to properly test. I’ll update on whether we’re happy or not after we’ve had a chance to try these for a few weeks to a month.
Common herbs/plants used in herbal/Ayurvedic/plant-based no-poo hair cleansing:
(People with contact allergies wishing to use this form of cleansing will need to select plants that do not cause them allergic reactions.)
- Aloe Vera
The leaves of this plant have long been used as treatment for sunburns and skin irritation. Although this use is not definitely proven effective by scientific study, it is generally accepted anecdotally and have been since at least the time of 16th century B.C. Egypt. Aloe is said to moisturize hair and scalp and calm scalp irritation. Aloe gels and liquids often contain a number of other ingredients (aloe liquid needs a preservative, even if labelled 100% pure), and can be highly-processed. Though these may be the only or most convenient options for some people, squeezing aloe directly from the fresh leaves is the best way to obtain the highest quality aloe with no adulteration. Aloe can be raised comfortably as a potted plant.
Known also as Indian gooseberry, it is a plant whose fruits contain high concentrations of vitamin C, giving it antioxidant properties. Amla has also been shown to have antimicrobial properties. It is said to increase hair pigmentation and hair growth, strengthen hair roots, and improve hair root strength. Amla’s tannin content can cause hair darkening.
A plant that is said to reduce hair fall, reduce hair depigmentation, control dandruff, increase hair density, and even help to treat eczema and psoriasis. It can darken the hair colour.
A specific form of marigold that contains both saponins and a glucoside. It has been found to have anti-inflammatory and antifungal effects and to help reduce dermatitis and dandruff. It can also slightly adjust the colour of blonde or brunette hair, and moisturize the scalp.
- Cassia Obovata
Also known as “neutral henna” or “senna italica,” the leaves of this plant are not a kind of henna at all, though the plant is used similarly. It is said to create hair glossiness and thickness by lightly coating the hair shaft. It can have a slightly yellowing effect on the hair, which can brighten blonde shades, but is said to be not as good in cleansing as brahmi or henna.
A daisy-like plant with anti-inflammatory and emollient properties. Chamomile can help to soothe the scalp and enhance the colour of blonde hair. Chamomile has also caused lightening effects in some other colours of hair.
Chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans, are a legume high in trace minerals and some vitamins. They can act both as an anti-inflammatory agent and antioxidant, as well as a good source of protein. Chickpea flour (gram flour) is said to strengthen hair, promote hair growth, reduce dandruff, irritation, and hair loss, soothe irritation, and prevent loss of pigmentation. It is mildly cleansing due to its natural surfactant action. It can be applied as a paste or as a tea (no powder left in the liquid).
Coffee is said to help stimulate hair growth due to its caffeine, as well as increase shininess and deepen hair colour, helping to reduce grey hairs as well. Due to its colourant effects, it may not be suitable for lighter hair colours.
Also known as methi, fenugreek seeds are said to help strengthen hair and roots, treat dry scalp and dandruff, add shine, delay graying, and moisturize. They also have a pleasant maple syrup-like scent.
- Green Tea
Green tea is similar to black tea, containing tannins, antioxidants, and caffeine, but goes through less processing than black tea, maintaining more of its beneficial aspects. It has both anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties. It is said to stimulate hair follicles for increased hair growth, strengthen the hair shaft, add shine and seal in moisture, bring relief from psoriasis and dandruff, and help to protect from sun damage.
A flowering plant that contains a reddish-brown dye. Traditionally used for marking the skin and dyeing hair, as well as in washing as a protein treatment. Is most likely to be pure when bought in a powder form.
Hibiscus is another plant from the mallow family. It contains some natural surfactants and mucilage, making it slightly cleansing, and is also somewhat astringent. Hibiscus helps to increase shine, reduce frizz, prevent split ends, and detangle, as well as helping to reduce redness and itching of the scalp. Its bright red/brown (red in acid) colour could impart some colour to hair.
The aboveground parts of this brush-like plant have been used since classical times for various medicinal purposes. It has antioxidant properties and contains traces of nicotine. Studies of its use are limited, with some precautions, but it is said to help make hair shinier when applied topically.
Lemon is high in a number of vitamins and minerals. Lemon juice is said to help add shine to the hair by closing the cuticle with its acidity, help exfoliate and get rid of excess buildup, straighten hair, reduce dandruff and itchiness, increase hair growth and thickness/decrease hair fall, and lighten hair colour. Can dry out hair if used in excess or without appropriate moisturizing treatment to balance.
Licorice is a legume whose root is well-known by candy-lovers for its distinctive flavour. It has shown antiviral, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory effects. Studies have shown positive effects in the treatment of atopic dermatitis, as it has corticosteroid-like action, so its use should be taken with some caution. Licorice is said to help combat hair loss and dandruff, as well as helping to regulate sebum production, moisturize, and soften hair.
A tall plant whose roots contain a form of mucilage used in creation of the sweet treat by that name but also acts as an emollient and is used to soothe irritation. On hair, it can help to soften, promote hair growth, add shine, and soothe scalp itchiness/irritation. Its proteins can also help to add some protein to hair.
Although nettle as a plant is commonly known for its “stinging” properties, it also provides a treatment for itself; nettle leaf infusions can help to soothe irritated skin. It is both vitamin-rich and anti-inflammatory, and is said to stimulate hair growth.
Soaking uncooked rice for two to three hours in water produces a starch-filled water that is mildly cleansing.
Another grain, rye flour is a stronger cleanser than rice water. It can be applied either as a water-based paste or as a tea, with the powder strained out.
A shrub whose name means hair-fruit; related to gum arabic (of the acacia family). Its fruit pods, leaves, and bark are traditionally used as a hair cleanser with a low amount of lather, as it also contains saponins. It has a low pH, making it gentle on hair, and is also said to have detangling and anti-dandruff properties. Can affect hair colour.
- Soap Nuts
Berries that contain saponins that help to remove excess oils by reducing the surface tension of the water, allowing it to dissolve the oils – can be drying if used in excess. Of the Lychee family. Also known as reetha.
A plant in the carnation family whose leaves and roots contain saponins which act as surfactants, similarly to soap nuts.
What are your favourite plant-based hair care recipes, and how do they suit the needs of your hair and allergies? Comment below.