This week: surfactants.
A surfactant—sometimes referred to as a detergent—is a substance that, when dissolved in water, gives a product the ability to remove dirt from surfaces such as the human skin, textiles, and other solids. It is what is responsible for all the suds and bubbles in your shampoo.
A lot has been written in recent years about the “sulfates,” which belong to the class of surfactants known as “anionic.” Many curly hair experts, myself included, advise avoiding shampoos that contain a sulfate surfactant for two reasons: 1) we consider them to be extremely damaging to curly hair because they strip it of its natural moisture, making it frizzy and unmanageable and, 2) more than a few studies have shown that long-term sulfate use can lead to damaged hair follicles, hair loss and hair breakage.
Advocates of shampooing insist that by not using sulfate surfactant-based shampoo to cleanse the scalp and hair, individuals will start to experience scalp issues and eventual hair loss. These shampoos, they argue, are the only way to ensure the hair and scalp are as clean as they need to be in order to maintain proper hair health.
However, it is NOT the sulfates in shampoo that keep your scalp and follicles clean—movement and agitation are what do the cleansing. Think of a washing machine: that agitator in the middle that swishes your clothes back and forth is there for a reason. Without it, your laundry detergent would be fairly ineffective, no matter how many mountain fresh chemicals are loaded in there.
If you use a non-sulfate based or conditioner cleanser or shampoo with an alternate surfactant once a week and give yourself a really good, brisk scalp massage while cleansing—using your fingertips and rubbing your scalp with a firm, energetic circular motion—you are massaging the sebum, dirt and debris out of your hair follicles while stimulating your sebaceous glands to maintain their proper function.
A good, gentle shampoo acts as an agent to carry that oil and debris away without damaging and drying out your hair shaft. That’s the real purpose of a cleanser, not harsh detergents that strip your hair of the moisture and essential oils that keep it healthy.
If, however, you use a non-sulfate or conditioner cleanser or shampoo with an alternate surfactant once a week and you squirt a bit on your scalp and kind of halfheartedly move it around, then rinse without really doing any kind of work, you aren’t cleansing your scalp correctly and you may, in fact, start having problems. But it doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that you are not using shampoo. I’ve seen clients who use regular shampoo and their scalp is full of dry flakes and scales because they don’t cleanse their scalp properly.
I personally believe much of the “you MUST use shampoo” screaming is an effort to drive more product sales within the beauty industry. Quite frankly, however, if you are doing a weekly non-sulfate cleansing with some serious scalp massage and really focusing on getting your scalp clean, you are doing all the right things and you should never have any issues with clogged or damaged hair follicles (at least not because of your cleansing routine).
Next week: silicones
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