Here’s a Works for Me post with thanks to Becca Stallings of The Earthling’s Handbook
Check out the list of ingredients on a bottle of shampoo. What are all those weird chemicals? Are they really safe for you? Do they damage the environment? Even if the front of your shampoo bottle talks about being natural, the fine print on the back probably lists a whole paragraph of unfamiliar substances. Manufacturing all that stuff must use a lot of energy and resources.
What if you could just wash your hair with a simple household substance, one that’s made from plants and is safe enough to drink? That’s what I’ve been doing for the past nine years. This handy substance also costs less than shampoo, eliminates my “need” for conditioner to prevent frizz, and keeps my hair clean longer so that I can wash it less often!
It’s vinegar. Ordinary white vinegar. Apple cider vinegar works, too.
There’s also a more popular shampoo-free hairwashing method, much discussed on the Internet: using baking soda to scrub your scalp, rinsing it out, and then spraying diluted vinegar on the lower part of your hair. I tried that at one point, but it seemed to me that the baking soda didn’t make any difference–and it’s an extra step! So, yes, I’m aware of that method, but what I do uses vinegar only and uses it differently.
What kind of hair do I have?
That’s a fair question, since I’ve tested this method only on myself. My hair is wavy, kind of thick, and well past shoulder-length. It’s somewhat oily; I used to shampoo it every 1-3 days. I don’t dye my hair, which is beginning to turn gray. I don’t use hairspray, gel, or other styling products. I hardly ever blow-dry my hair because it makes better waves if I let it air-dry.
Most days I French-braid the front part of my hair to get it out of my eyes, and leave the rest loose. My hair is much easier to braid and looks nicer braided, now that I wash with vinegar. When I was using shampoo, it was difficult to get my hair to hold together without stray strands going the wrong way, and then the surface of the braid would frizz almost as much as the surface of my loose hair. I used to use a heavy leave-in conditioner to make my hair manageable, but vinegar conditions it better!
My skin is not an especially sensitive type. The vinegar running off my hair in the shower doesn’t irritate the rest of my body unless I have a cut or scrape or–let me put this strongly: Do not shave your legs before rinsing vinegar out of your hair!! It will really sting on freshly-shaved skin!
By coincidence, I started washing my hair with vinegar at almost exactly the same time I became pregnant. I have no idea how hormonal changes may have affected my transition from shampoo to vinegar. What I can tell you is that the same method kept working for me throughout pregnancy, breastfeeding, and ever since. Like most women, I lost a lot of hair within a few months after giving birth, but then my hair volume gradually returned to normal. I have not noticed any difference in hair loss from washing with vinegar instead of shampoo–I’ve always shed lots of hair when I wash or brush it, and that’s still true, but somehow I still have plenty of hair anyway.
First, rinse your hair.
Not only is rinsing the first step before washing, it’s an alternative to washing so frequently. I mentioned that I wash my hair less often than I did with shampoo, but I still rinse it every day or two. This removes dust and lint and such, and it loosens oil from the scalp and spreads it down the hair shaft.
Remove any tangles from your hair before you get into the shower. Rinse with the hottest water you can stand. First, use your fingers to lift your hair and rub your scalp until it’s all wet. Then run your fingers down through the full length of the hair.
You can use just your fingers, a wide-toothed comb, or a ventilated brush intended for blow-drying. I use a ventilated brush, which has slots between rows of bristles so that water runs through the brush. I’ve often heard that brushing wet hair will break it, but it doesn’t seem to be a problem for my hair.
Using a brush or comb: Place brush firmly against scalp at front of head and, keeping your head under the shower, pull the brush all the way back over your head to the back edge of the scalp, then down the hair to the ends. Repeat in front-to-back “stripes” until you’ve done your whole head.
How to wash your hair with vinegar
The amount of vinegar, and whether you use white vinegar or apple cider vinegar, will take some experimentation to decide. I suggest starting with white vinegar because it costs less, and in my experience it does not leave any lingering odor in hair once it dries. I use about 1/2 to 3/4 cup of vinegar plus about 3 cups of hot water.
Do not mix your vinegar with water in advance. You want to use hot water. Not only is this more comfortable, but in my experience it works better.
Put vinegar in a container that has enough space for the water you’re going to add–I use a quart plastic bucket that yogurt came in–and put it within reach of the shower.
Rinse hair as described above. Then remove loose hair from your brush (or comb or fingers) and rinse it. If you see any white film on the brush or it feels oily, wash it with soap.
Add hot water to the container. Now you can turn down the shower, but leave it going a trickle in case you get vinegar in your eyes.
Tip head back and close eyes tightly. Hold up some hair with fingers, pour a little of the mixture onto your scalp, and rub it in. Do the same with each area of your head. Massage scalp and run fingers or brush through hair to distribute oils down the hair shaft.
Your hair will feel very slippery and oily. If your scalp had a crusty feeling, you’ll feel this dissolve. A lot of the oil will come off onto the shower floor (it’s slippery, so watch your step!!) and the rest will coat and condition your hair. Do not expect to feel “squeaky clean”; this is different.
Let the vinegar soak into your hair for a few minutes while you wash other body parts. I wash with soap along my hairline, around my face and ears, because feeling oily there really bothers me–but by doing this before rinsing out the vinegar, I avoid making this area too dry and frizzy or flaky.
Rinse as described above. Your hair will still feel slippery. Don’t worry!
Arrange damp hair and let it air-dry. The smell of vinegar will fade as it dries.
How to make the transition to vinegar washing
This is what worked for me: I alternated vinegar washings with shampoo washings for several months. Right away, I began to feel that my hair didn’t get dirty as quickly, so I started to wash less often and sometimes just rinsed my hair. After about 5 months, a shampoo washing made my hair very dry and frizzy, so after that I washed with vinegar every time. Your timing may vary, but I recommend starting with your normal washing schedule and using vinegar every other time; be alert to how your hair feels, and don’t wash it until it feels dirty. (See below.)
I’ve noticed that in discussions about washing hair with baking soda, using vinegar only in small amounts to condition the hair shafts, most people mention a difficult transition period in which the scalp feels waxy and sticky while the hair shafts feel extremely dry. I did not experience anything like that with my recently washed hair–to me, those sensations indicate that hair needs washing!
How often to wash your hair
Vinegar-washed hair feels a little different from shampoo-washed hair both when it’s clean and when it’s dirty, so it takes practice to learn when to wash it again. Here are some signs that your hair needs washing:
• Hair feels sticky and gummy. It gets difficult to brush and style.
• Hair won’t lie down. It frizzes, or pieces keep sticking out straight at odd angles.
• Hair feels wiry instead of silky.
• If you scratch your head, you get gray stuff under your nails.
You’ll also need to wash your hair if you’ve been swimming in a chlorinated pool. I don’t swim often, but when I do it makes my hair horribly sticky! Washing with vinegar makes it better, though. I’ve never tried doing this day after day for any extended period–but the one time I swam two days in a row and therefore washed with vinegar two days in a row, my hair was frizzy and felt dry afterward. I just rubbed some hotel hand lotion on my palms and then rubbed them over my hair, and that helped a lot. (If I’d been at home, I would have used coconut oil or olive oil.) You can reduce the effects of chlorine by getting your hair soaking wet in the shower before you swim; it will absorb less chlorine.
I used to wash my hair with shampoo 2 out of 3 days in summer and 1 out of 3 in winter. I now wash with vinegar every 4-7 days in summer and every 7-14 days in winter. This saves a lot of time and water! (I wash more often in summer because hot, humid weather makes my hair more oily, while the dry air from winter heating means my hair needs more oil to prevent frizz.)
Once or twice a year, I’ll have a time when my hair doesn’t seem clean after vinegar washing and then feels worse for a couple of days. Then I wash with diluted shampoo (I mix it with water in my hand, or if we happen to have an almost-empty shampoo bottle, I put in some water and shake it) to strip off the oil so that my scalp can “reset” and be less gooey. Usually my hair then feels better, but somewhat dry and awkward, until after the next vinegar washing.
What’s that white stuff on my hairbrush?
If you’ve used some kind of styling product within the past few months, that’s probably what it is. I’ve heard tales of people whose product build-up came off with vinegar much more noticeably than it had with shampoo.
However, I’ve had white stuff on my hairbrush as long as I can remember. It was worse in the years when I used all that leave-in conditioner, but it still happens now. I think it’s just hair oil.
Wash your brush when you wash your hair. (If the white stuff builds up slowly, you won’t have to do this every time you wash your hair, but when you do wash your brush you may as well time it so that you have a clean brush for your clean hair.) Soak it in soapy water–I use dish detergent because it cuts grease well–and then rub the bristles with a comb or your fingernails to remove any remaining gunk.
Does my whole family do vinegar hairwashing?
No. I haven’t convinced my partner to try it–although he’s the one who came up with the brushing-while-rinsing technique above, he continues to use shampoo, sparingly.
Our son is only eight years old. Vinegar stings the eyes much more than shampoo–and it’s thinner, so it’s more likely to run into your eyes–so I’ve never tried it on him.
What about dandruff?
I’ve never had long-lasting problems with dandruff, regardless of my hairwashing method–but the few times it’s cropped up since I began vinegar washing, I added a few drops of tea tree essential oil (health-food stores sell it) to my vinegar mixture, and that seemed to help. Tea tree oil is a natural antibacterial.
What about the beautiful fragrance of shampoo?
I don’t miss it! Vinegar leaves hair smelling fresh and clean without smelling like anything. It even gives hair an ability to shed odors–I try to avoid being around cigarette smoke, but if I am, the smell of it completely leaves my hair within a couple of hours!
When I want to smell pretty, though, I can add a few drops of essential oil (sweet orange is nice) to my vinegar mixture, or put it on my hairbrush immediately before brushing.
What about traveling?
The easiest strategy is to wash my hair before the trip so I won’t have to do it while I’m away. However, I’ve sometimes brought vinegar with me, bought some in a supermarket near where I’m staying, or gotten some from my host. Usually it’s easy to find an appropriate container to mix it with water–in a hotel, you can use the ice bucket. If you pack a bottle of vinegar in your bag, make sure the cap seals tightly, and put the bottle inside a plastic bag just in case it leaks.
Will this work for other types of hair or other lifestyles?
I’d love to know! One reason I am writing this guest post is that I hope to hear from other people who try washing their hair with vinegar only and will tell me how it works for them!
Becca Stallings is an environmentalist, mother, and social scientist who works as data manager for a research study and spends her lunch breaks writing The Earthling’s Handbook, a collection of useful information for living, eating, thinking, and parenting on Earth. She has been trying to use resources wisely all her life but finds more habits to change every year.