By Emma John
*Ting-ting-ting* “Hey, Em-love, how are you? … There’s this new invention (read: recipe) that I’ve been experimenting with…” says the voice on the other end of the receiver. I reach for a pen and paper, prepared to jot down my next grocery-shopping list.
My dad is a research biologist. My dad also lives with chronic muscular pain, remedied in part by organic, non-dairy, non-soy, whole foods, bought in raw form, processed by him and his Vitamix — an on-trend team, yes, but this is the man who rigged a cold-brew coffee setup five years prior to its explosion in the hip coffee scene, lauded for its low acidity.
Throughout my life I have benefitted from my father’s wealth of knowledge and endless motivation to find creative ways to do just about anything. My questions for him have run the gamut, from navigating AP Chemistry problems to rehydrating a hangover with fruit (college was hard). And recently, “Dad. What’s the pH of my scalp?”
Why, you may ask, would I care about how acidic or alkaline the skin enveloping my skull is? It’s really quite simple: my hair.
My dad’s commitment to plant-based health does not stop with his eating habits; it spills over the edge of his spoon to engage with all facets of daily life, and I admit he’s influenced me to eat foods and use products (or in many cases, forgo products) that support the optimal health of my own body, the environment, and social systems. I’ve spent a lot of time pursuing unprocessed, non-commercial beauty and hygiene goods, ideally consisting of three ingredients or fewer. So, I’m familiar with the no-poo dialogue.
About a year ago, I opted to eliminate store-bought shampoo and conditioner from my shower rack for the following reasons:
- To stop stripping my hair of its natural oils. All about that personal biome.
- To liberate myself from the ambient anxiety of greasy hair and how often I had to wash my wavy locks.
- To stop wasting plastic from the packaging of shampoo and conditioner bottles.
- To find a solution to soap allergies in the form of an alternative cleansing agent.
- To reduce pollution of local waterways!
While doing some mild online research and speaking to other no-poo enthusiasts, the most common alternative method of cleaning hair that I encountered was baking soda, sometimes followed by an acid wash like apple cider vinegar. Sounded good in theory, so I gave it a shot.
My first time washing with baking soda seemed like a major success. When I tried it, I hadn’t washed my hair at all for two whole weeks. Needless to say, my hair was greeasssy. And the baking soda made my hair look as clean, if not cleaner, than anytime I had ever washed it with standard shampoo. But after a few more washes, my hair felt brittle and dry. No doubt I had been seriously turning my scalp into an arid desert by not honoring the natural balance of oils produced by my skin. Baking soda was just way too basic for my skin (no pun intended).
So here we are: “Dad. What’s the pH of my scalp? I don’t want to use commercially produced shampoo, and I don’t want to have the hair of an 80-year-old.”
Rather than attempt to paraphrase his findings, please find my dad’s email included as a screenshot, standing in its full Dad-Glory.
Just so you know: All of the included research is from online sources such as blogs, or other home-experimenters like us. While we don’t have the stamp of approval from a rigorous scientific board, we do know from tried-and-true experience that rye flour works! All of the associated intuitive benefits are based on our (my dad’s and mine, that is) knowledge of pH and the positive effects that we have personally experienced since using rye flour as a shampoo alternative.
A year later, I am happily a professional door-to-door saleswoman for rye flour!
Kidding. But seriously — it works, and it works well. My hair is clean, soft, vibrant, voluminous, and healthy. Here are some key conclusions (and methods of use):
Rye flour makes a wonderful shampoo alternative.
Rye flour itself has a pH of about 5, so it doesn’t mess with the pH of your scalp (which is typically about 4.5-5.5).
Use light rye flour.
Thanks Averi for this discovery! Light rye flour is ground finely without the husk, which means that it all washes out easily. Dark rye flour works equally well at cleaning hair, but I was often left with flakes of the husk in my hair after using it. This wasn’t a big deal, but it looked a little bit like dark dandruff.
Rye flour conditions, too, but feel free to draw on other resources.
As my dad noted in his email, rye flour has lots of pro-v nutrients that act as a built-in conditioner. But if you’re looking for extra conditioning, I emulsify a tiny bit of argon oil or coconut oil into my palms, until there is no longer a pool of oil in my palm, but my hands are lightly coated. Next, I gently detangle my hair by running my fingers through any knots. The oil from my hands conditions without drenching.
Whatever route you take, you’ll get your money’s worth.
A bag of Bob’s Red Mill Organic Light Rye Flour costs about $3.50 and lasts for almost a year, depending how often you wash your hair. You can also blend your own flour if you have the right high-powered blender. If you choose to make your own, blend it really, really finely, otherwise you will end up with the flakes that I mentioned. Alternatively, you could always sift the husks out. If you don’t want to make your own rye flour and don’t want to buy pre-ground flour from a bag, look for it in bulk sections of your local stores.
Keep your flour, whether purchased or homemade, in the fridge. This will help preserve its freshness.
Rye flour is a friend to the neat freaks.
If you’re into minimalist living, showers look great with nothing but shiny tiles and a bar of handmade soap.
Be cautious of gluten.
If you have celiac disease, you may want to avoid rye flour as shampoo, as it can be an irritant if you’re very sensitive. Try another method like coconut milk or oat flour. That said, rye flour is not nearly as glutenous as wheat flour, one of the reasons that it can be mixed into an ideal texture and washed out of your hair easily. If you’re gluten-free by choice, you’re A-OK to use the rye.
Mix it up!
Choosing to wash your hair with rye flour by no means needs to be an all-or-nothing endeavor. Mix up your routine with different methods of cleaning and don’t stress if you find yourself needing to wash your hair and you are without rye. I recently went to a salon for a haircut and wanted the head massage, so I let them wash my hair with shampoo. A few days later I went back to using rye with no repercussions. Find a routine that works best for you.
The biggest take-away as I see it? Don’t fall prey to marketing and social norms that tell you what a healthy, beautiful, socially acceptable state of being is.
As my dad noted, everyone’s hair and scalp is different. What worked for me may not work for you. Know that there are many ways to take care of yourself and your bod and your environment, so listen to your body — it is often wiser than your mind. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
Bring a spoon and a small bowl with about 1 heaped tablespoon of light rye flour (you may need to adjust this amount depending on the length and thickness of your hair) into the shower with you. When you’re ready to wash your hair, let some of the shower water run into your bowl and stir into a medium-thick paste (think in between pizza dough and pureed soup). Pour onto your scalp, massage really well all over your head, and rinse.
Looking for other natural skin, body and beauty tips? Stay tuned! In the meantime, here are some hot tips:
- S.W. Basics of Brooklyn (products with fewer than four ingredients, made in Brooklyn, DIY ingredients)
- Moonrise Creek (love their mineral makeup)
- Wellness Mama (DIY tips and recipes)
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