Thursday, May 20, 2010

How does the no-shampoo concept work?

The "no shampoo" idea is to eliminate shampooing from your life and use conditioner only to wash your hair. You can use any conditioner for this process; you don't need something that claims to be a cleansing conditioner (which are usually way more expensive and found in salons!). The key is that the conditioner contains a cationic surfactant like behentrimonium methosulfate (found in Incroquat BTMS) or cetrimonium bromide, or some variation thereon.

You remember how surfactants work, right? (If not, please click here.) Surfactants are wetting agents that lower the surface tension of liquids and lower the interfacial tension between liquids - in other words, they emulsify. In a shampoo, we use anionic surfactants to create a lathery, bubbly creation. In lotions, we use non-ionic surfactants to create an emulsion. In conditioners, we use cationic surfactants to condition. These cationic surfactants also create emulsifications - ever use BTMS as an emulsifier? - which will remove the dirt and soil from your hair.

In the shampoo post from earlier today, I mentioned the three ways shampoo cleans your hair - the roll up, the micellular solubilization, and the dispersion and emulsification mechanisms. The latter two mechanisms are the key to the no 'poo method. The roll up mechanism does not work with the cationic quaternary compounds: Because there's no detergent, there's no displacement of oils by said detergent. The cationic compounds are good emulsifiers, so they will help solubilize and emulsify the oils and soils on your hair so you can rinse them away.

There is also a theory that electrostatic repulsion between the soils and the hair fibres are enhanced by anionic surfactants, which are dissolved into the shampoo. If you're using cationic ingredients, you won't see that repulsion and the soil can remain on your hair and scalp.

Does this method work? Thousands swear by it and love it - anecdotes do not data make, but it does have some promise for dry to very dry hair and for those who experience a lot of breakage. If you're an oily haired girl, this method is probably not for you as it is not great at removing sebum. If you're someone who uses a lot of hair styling products, if you want to try this method you'll want to choose something with cetrimonium chloride because it is awesome at removing silicones!

I've tried this method and it doesn't work for me. I have oily hair. After washing only with conditioner, I could still feel the oil on my scalp and hair, and I felt seriously unwashed. 

I can't really make any suggestions for conditioners you might want to use but you will need to use something with a cationic ingredient (see above) and you will want something with cetrimonium chloride if you're using styling products. I thought it would be fun to see the difference between something called a cleansing conditioner and a regular old conditioner off the shelf. Kim sent me the ingredients for the Wen conditioner, and I chose the Neutrogena product because it contained behentrimonium methylsulfate (found in BTMS).

Let's take a look at the Wen Mint Sweet Almond Cleansing Conditioner ($28 at

Water, Aloe Vera Gel, Glycerin, Chamomile Extract, Cherry Bark Extract, Calendula Extract, Rosemary Extract, Behentrimonium Chloride, Stearamidopropyl Dimethylamine, Cetyl Alcohol, Emulsifying Wax, Panthenol, Trimethylsilylamodimethicone, Hydrolyzed Whole Wheat Protein, PEG-60, Almond Glycerides, Menthol, Essential Oils, Citric Acid, Methylchoroisothiazolinone, Methylisothiazolinone, Fragrance

The ingredients we care about are the behentrimonium chloride, stearamidopropyl dimethylamine, and trimethylsilyamodimethicone (a silicone), which are all conditioning agents. The cetyl alcohol will boost the substantivity of the conditioners, the panthenol is great for damaged hair, and you know I'm a huge fan of hydrolyzed proteins as film formers. The almond glycerides may help moisturize your hair. In short, this looks like a fairly nice conditioner. (Although why there's e-wax in there, I have no idea! Probably for the "cleansing" part?) We also know rosemary extract can be good for oily hair, so this will remove some of the sebum.

Neutrogena Triple Moisturizer Daily Deep Conditioner ($6.19 at has these ingredients...

Water, Cyclopentasiloxane, Behenyl Alcohol, Behentrimonium Chloride, Cetearyl Alcohol, Cetearyl Alcohol, Cyclohexasiloxane, Dimethicone, Amodimethicone, Behentrimonium Methylsulfate, Stearamidopropyl Dimethylamine, Cetrimonium Chloride, Panthenol, Sweet Almond Oil (prunus amygdalis dulcis), Olive Fruit Oil (olea europaea), Meadowfoam Seed Oil (limnanthes alba), Glycol Stearate, Ceteth 2, Hydroxyethylcellulose, Methylparaben, Propylparaben, Citric Acid, Titanium Dioxide, Iron Oxide, Mica, Fragrance (Parfum)

I don't buy conditioners - I make my own - but this looks to be a nice one filled with all kinds of cationic conditioning agents and boosters, silicones, and a little cetrimonium chloride thrown in for good measure. If this looks too intense for your hair, the Neutrogena Clean Conditioner ($4.99 at is very similar with no oils and fewer silicones.

What's the big difference between these two? Cost, I'd say. The Neutrogena product has far more conditioning agents and things actually good for your hair (oils, silicones, fatty alcohols, and cetrimonium chloride) and costs a whole lot less. It'd be great for someone who uses a lot of styling products on her hair - the cetrimonium chloride can remove it. There isn't anything inherently more cleansing in the Wen conditioner than the Neutrogena conditioners, but you'll save a ton of money by going to the drug store armed with your knowledge of what ingredients matter!


Meaue said...

Great post! I understand the concept now - and understand why the sulfate-free "shampoos" do not work for me.

Artisan Soaps said...

It's the sharing of info like this, in this easy to understand manner, that makes you my B7B Guru Susan :P

Can't Thank-You Enough!

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Thanks for the comment, Zinc Shampoo, but why do I get the feeling the reason you posted was to get some free advertising for your site? You pretty much repeated what I said in the first paragraph of the post - just wondering if you actually read what I wrote?

kontakt said...

Conditioner washing is complicated. It takes a lot of trying out what works for you. Also, the washing process takes more time than using shampoo. You need to rub your scalp more thoroughly, and for most people it probably takes a couple of washes to find a technique that brings the conditioner all the way to your scalp without using up half the bottle.

As a COer one needs to learn to read the INCI declaration of contents, and avoid quite a lot of stuff. Hence, I think, a lot of these notions that silicones and mineral oils are "bad". In most cases they don't work with the CO method, but that doesn't mean they are "bad".

I never before heard anyone saying that the CO method has the best advantages for us who have very dry hair, but I think you are right. The CO method is the best thing that happened to my hair, ever, and it's been a year and a half now. It used to be so incredibly dry. Now I go to the hair dresser less often, and every time she cuts less then before CO... she no longer sounds like she believes my hair never saw a hair pack, although I used hair packs after the shampoo every time I washed it.

In theory, the CO method should cause the scalps of greasy hair to stop producing to much sebum since you stop removing it all the time. I've heard voices that were disappointed on this part. I used to take active part in a CO based web community - I don't any more, but it would be very interesting to hear how many of the people who used CO for longer time who have dry/normal/greasy hair. I bet we dry hair people would be over represented, but I do know there are people with greasy hair who use the CO method and are happy with it. To my understanding they most probably wash with a conditioner without too much oils and similar - I guess the oil/emulsifier ratio is what matters here. I happily wash my hair with stuff sold as hair packs/treatments, but as a dry one I don't mind using "oil exchange" (if you remember that comment) as a washing method on my hair as well. I guess CO people with greasy hair also had to work harder on washing technique than I did.

In the version of CO I learned, we would advice against both of the conditioners you mention here because they contain silicones. I know some silicones are water soluble and can be removed with conditioner, but most won't. At least what I learned. I know at there are some CO users who use products with silicones - some silicones, in some formulations. I haven't digged into that, since what I do work fine for me. But silicone build-up in your hair doesn't normally make the hair feel greasy, so that was probably not your problem with the CO method.

I'm not trying to convince or "win" you. As I said, CO washing is more work than using shampoo.

(Longest comment ever?)

(Btw, I'm moz on the Dish. Just in case you come across me there.)

kontakt said...

And the term obviously is "oily", not "greasy" hair. The kind of distinctions created to make non-native speakers feel stupid.

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi kontakt. I think I've written comments that might rival it, but it's an impressive comment nonetheless!

I get the idea behind conditioner washing, it just doesn't appeal to me. I like using shampoo in my hair - I like the squeaky clean feeling in my hair and I like the suds. My frizzy hair needs silicones - it would rebel too much without them - and I need to remove the sebum from my hair and scalp.

I live in an area with poor air quality and a lot of farming, so I'm worried about not removing the environmental debris from my hair and scalp, and I'm trying not to over-condition my hair. I used to use every intense conditioning product on the market, and my hair was a mess. Now I use my conditioner bars or my regular conditioner (in less humid seasons) with leave in conditioner for detangling and it's enough for my hair type.

I understand what you're saying about the sebum build up - I still can't find any good information about having a sebum limit point for our hair or skin, and if leaving sebum on our hair or skin can keep more from being produced - but it just doesn't feel right for me (the actual sebum build up, not what you're saying). Sometimes, I'll go without washing my hair because I know the sebum can offer some benefits, and I feel really gross the whole time! I can't give you quantitative analyses of how much sebum I started off with and how much I ended up with, but it certainly felt like I was still producing more sebum even though I felt really oily!

I think there are some real benefits for conditioner washing, but I don't think I'm one of those who could benefit from it. A big part of our hair care regimen is feeling good and enjoying it, and I don't think I would enjoy it much. I like my hair to feel squeaky clean and that's not an experience I've had with conditioner washing.

BTW: The conditioner I was using was my own recipe - no oils, with non-water soluble silicones.

kontakt said...

I guess I was responding in part to your more recent post, where you answered a question saying that probably most people need shampoo (or something similar). I was thinking of writing a blog post of my own in response to that, since I am not sure I agree, but in the end just commented. However, we totally agree that the CO method is not for everyone.

Where did you learn that cetrimonium chloride can remove silicones, and that you can use silicones with the CO method as long as you use cetrimonium chloride? What I learned was pretty much "the original CG (Curly Girl) method", ie what Lorraine Massay describes in her book Curly Girl, in which silicones (at least the non-water soluble ones, but most people cut all of them out for simplicity's sake) and mineral oils are huge no-nos, and beeswax, castor oil, and a few other things are somewhat smaller no-nos. I'd love to learn just how one should think to combine silicones with CO. I'm not asking you to dig for sources but if you have any suggested reading, I'm all ears.

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi kontakt. I can't find you the exact reference regarding cetac at the moment - my notebooks are all over the place as we're moving our office upstairs and everything's in boxes, although I'm disorganized at the best of times - but I'll post the details (textbook and page) when I find it!

I haven't done what I consider to be any serious reading on the conditioner only method of hair washing as I'm not really interested in trying it, and I don't know anyone who has very dry hair. It's hard to find accurate information about this method of washing, and I don't own the Curly Girl book. I understand the mechanisms by which it works, though, hence the post. If you do write a post on your blog, please post the URL here so we can all enjoy it!

I suggested using cetac if you want to use silicones as it is good at removing silicone build-up when used in a conditioner, so it stands to reason it should be good at removing silicone build-up when using in conditioner only washing.

Are all oils out of the question or just castor oil, beeswax, and mineral oil? Why these oils and noth others (if others are permitted)? I can understand beeswax - although I'm not really sure why anyone would include that in a hair product - but mineral oil can be very light and can be made water soluble as easily as can sunflower, jojoba, olive, and so on. I would think most, if not all, oils would be out of the question because they might not be removed all that well with conditioner only. (Again, I haven't done a ton of research on this topic, so I'm seeking information!)

kontakt said...

What is "forbidden" is stuff that is supposed to be impossible or difficult to wash out of the hair using conditioner, creating build-up or similar. Beeswax is used in some styling products (and actually in some conditioners in small amounts).

In this context, "oil" means non-modified oil. PEG-modified castor oil is OK, for instance, and all other vegetable oil modified or not (unless you make some very weird stuff with them, I guess). In a similar vein, I suppose modified mineral oils falls out of the forbidden mineral oil category.

Mineral oils are said to be very difficult to wash out of the hair. I can well imagine that some are and some are not, but when you market a method like this you need to create simplifications, a description people somewhat easily can follow. Then probably some of the "forbidden" stuff actually would work, at least in some formulations! but you can't make it too complicated, can you? Reading an INCI is way hard for most folks anyhow.

I haven't myself read the CG book (although I plan to). Possibly I find that what I've learned is a completely skewed version of it :P but I guess not.

If I get back to the topic on my own blog and referring to you, I'll place a link here - and at least make a thorough summary in English. (I blog in Swedish, usually.)

kontakt said...

Regarding regular vegetable oils being washed out with conditioner or not: the theory and the experience is that they can. You yourself explaned why CO wash works, and the conditioner can solubilize some amount of oil, right? Also we speak a bit "oil exchange" here, perhaps? What if some is left and some is washed out, and it will all be exchanged in a couple of washes... but it doesn't create build-up on the hair surface, I guess. But I haven't read much except from what the fans of the method has written.

kontakt said...

I have "Curly Girl" in my hand... and no. What I learned isn't the original CG method. I'm trying to find out who formulated the concept I know, and how it happened. I will surely be blogging about this method, but it might tell a while before I have something worth mentioning. (The name is Massey, Lorraine Massey. I keep spelling it wrong.)

Anonymous said...


I happen to come across your intesting post regarding cleansing conditioner. I am currently starting the co-wash method however I sometime use products with silicones. So my questions is if I am trying to remove silicones build up then why use a silicone based conditioner like the one mentioned. (Neutrogena triple moisture daily deep conditioner)that is chock full of silicones? Wouldn't that defeat the purposes of removing silicone build up? Please explain as I am trying to educate myself on ingredients that matter so I won't make the mistake of spending money on a so called "Cleansing Conditioner" that would be pretty much the same thing as a regular condtioner that I can in my local grocery.

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

I've written a post about your question here. I hope it answers your question!

Clive said...

Neutrogena Triple Moisturizer Daily Deep Conditioner ($6.19 at has these ingredients...
Water, Cyclopentasiloxane, Behenyl Alcohol, Behentrimonium Chloride, Cetearyl Alcohol. . .

- Wow, the cyclopentasiloxane is the first ingredient (after water?) - what percentage I wonder? I thought this was ever only used in small amounts, like 0.2%

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Clive! I use cyclomethicone in my hair care products at 2%, and I wouldn't go lower than that! I have used it at up to 80% in my anti-frizz spray. I'm not sure at what levels commercial manufacturers would use this ingredient, but I can assure you that I wouldn't bother using it at 0.2% because it really wouldn't have much of an effect in my products!

Here's the link to cyclomethicone on this blog.

TikiBarSoap said...

I "no poo" with baking soda in water and condition with apple cider vinegar. When I used to use shampoo and conditioner my hair always felt oily, heavy, and weighed down. The more I washed the oilier my hair felt. Since switching over to "no poo" my hair has so much more body and never feels oily or dirty. Its really amazing to me that something so simple works so well, but it really does! Plus its dirt cheap :) I would like to try this conditioning rinse though, it seems interesting. I am not sure if it would work with my hair but I am willing to try anything once!

A2:Wavy Savy said...

This is a life saver for my hair. I started my quest for products to improve my wavy hair two years ago, and now I feel like I am getting closer. Your info greatly helps in solving a lot of my hair problems without a hole in my pocket! Thanks a lot.