Apple Cider Vinegar: Nature's Scalp Treatment

Apple cider vinegar has long been known as an effective natural remedy for a number of conditions.  One common problem that people of all hair types experience is dandruff /seborrheic dermatitis, resulting in dry, itchy flaky scalp.  Dandruff is not caused by dryness of the scalp as is commonly believed; rather it is caused by the overgrowth of a yeast commonly found on the skin and scalp (Malassezia) which results in an increase in the production and shedding of skin cells.  This increased cell turnover results in flakes which then become visible to the eye.  Oiling of the scalp only temporarily masks the problem, but does not treat the actual cause.  Apple cider vinegar is a natural and inexpensive way to treat these issues by balancing the pH of the scalp and killing bacteria and the yeast that causes dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis.

In addition to dandruff treatment, apple cider vinegar also works as a great natural clarifier.  Acetic acid, the main ingredient in apple cider vinegar, removes buildup from styling products and shampoos, and helps to strengthen the hair by closing the cuticles on the hair shaft.  Removal of buildup and smoothing of the hair cuticle promotes natural shine and leaves the hair lighter and softer.

I have been battling dandruff and dermatitis issues for years, and no matter how often I washed and how thoroughly I scrubbed, no less than a day later the itchy, flaky patches would return on my scalp.  I tried anti-dandruff shampoos such containing zinc pyrithione (ex. Head and Shoulders) and coal tar (ex. Neutrogena T-Gel) with only minimal success.  I was also not a huge fan of putting all these artificial chemicals on my scalp and hair and didn not like how it interfered with the scent of my herbal shampoo.  I decided to return to using apple cider vinegar rinses, this time with a two part pre- and post-shampoo treatment, and have been very pleased with the results.  I've noticed a drastic improvement in the flaking and the rinses soothed the intense itching on my scalp.

Step 1: Apple Cider Vinegar Clarifying and Dandruff Pre-Treatment

1 cup filtered/distilled water
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
5 drops tea tree oil
1/2 teaspoon olive oil
Juice from 1/2 lemon or 1 tblsp lemon juice (optional)

Mix all ingredients into a spray bottle and shake well.  Spray or pour mixture onto hair, focusing primarily on the scalp.  Wrap hair in a towel for 30 minutes to 1 hour.  Follow with normal shampooing.

Tea tree oil has natural antiseptic properties and also helps to kill the fungus that causes dandruff.  For additional clarifying, you can add lemon juice which also helps to remove excess oil and debris.  I would not recommend using the lemon juice too frequently on in excessive amounts, as you don't want to completely strip the hair and scalp of its natural oils.

Step 2: Rosemary Infused Apple Cider Vinegar Rinse

2 cups filtered/distilled water
2-3 sprigs fresh rosemary
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
3 drops tea tree oil
2-3 drops essential oil (optional)

Pour water into a small saucepan and add rosemary.  Cover and simmer on medium-low for 15-20 minutes.  Strain rosemary out of water.  Add apple cider vinegar.  ALLOW TO COOL COMPLETELY. Transfer mixture to a bottle and add tea tree oil and essential oils.  After shampooing, pour rinse over scalp and hair.  Do NOT rinse.

Rosemary is also a good ingredient for soothing itchy, flaky scalp and works well in conjunction with the apple cider vinegar and the tea tree oil to treat dandruff.  In additional, rosemary is believed to stimulate hair follicles to promote hair growth and slow hair loss.  Rosemary is good for people with dark hair and helps to bring out natural highlights and shine, and it also leaves your hair smelling wonderful.  I find that the rosemary alone makes for a great scent, but you can also experiment with adding different essential oils to find a scent combination that you like.

Additional tips:

1.  Do not worry about the apple cider vinegar smell.  It will dissipate as the hair dries.  The rosemary further helps to counter the apple cider vinegar smell.  If you are still bothered by the smell, reduce the amount of apple cider vinegar used.

2.  You should make the rosemary infused apple cider vinegar rinse several hours or days before you have to shampoo to allow it to completely cool.  It may be comfortable to the touch but still too hot on your scalp (I discovered this the hard way).  The rinse should be room temperature.  If you do make it right before you shampoo, add plenty of ice cubes to cool the rinse completely.

3.  Store extra rinse in the refrigerator to keep it fresh.  Making a double batch will save you time and you won't have to worry about the temperature issue.  You can microwave it for a few seconds if the rinse is uncomfortably cold (especially if you use it in the shower; ice cold rinse does NOT feel good running down your back).

4.  The rosemary can be used more than once.  After you strain the rosemary out of the rinse, lay it flat on a paper towel and allow to dry, then store it in a plastic bag or container.  You can use the dried rosemary of two batches to make an additional batch.


Shampooing Locs 101

There is a pervasive (and hopefully lessening) myth that people with locs don't/can't wash their hair.  This is completely and entirely false.  If anything, I think I started washing my hair MORE since I've had locs (and certainly way more than when I had a perm).  Locs should be shampooed regularly, at a minimum every two weeks; though if you work out, have dandruff/dermatitis issues, or live/work in dusty environments you should really shampoo more often.  I thoroughly shampoo at least once a week.  This keeps dirt from accumulating and permanently becoming part of your locs.  For fully mature locs, you should gently squeeze the locs while shampooing and rinsing to make sure the shampoo penetrates the locs as much as possible, and so the shampoo is thoroughly rinsed out.  Special care should be taken when washing new locs (see below).

It is important to wash locs with a good moisturizing shampoo.  Remember, the key to beautiful natural hair is moisture, moisture, moisture!  My current favorite shampoo is Carol's Daughter Black Vanilla Herbal Shampoo for dry to very dry hair.  I like the Black Vanilla shampoo because it moisturizes very well without the use of a conditioner. Look for shampoos containing natural oils (olive, coconut, safflower, sweet almond, etc.) and/or shea butter. If your locs are fully matured, the use of conditioner is fine every 2-3 washes; it is not necessary to use every time you shampoo.  Too much conditioning can lead to build up in locs. 

Special Note for Baby/Teenage Locs:

If you are new to locking, you need to take special care not to agitate your baby locs too much.  For the first few weeks you should clean your scalp with astringent (like Sea Breeze) or witch hazel (which is less drying).  Saturate a portion of a clean washcloth and gently rub your scalp along the parts and between each loc. When you do start to use shampoo, you should avoid vigorous scrubbing for a few months.  During the first 3 months of locking, I sectioned my baby locs into 4-5 sections and rubber banded the ends together to keep the locs from untwisting.  Instead of using the shower head, use a container of water and gently poured that over the hair to wet and rinse the shampoo out.  Take special care to just focus on washing the scalp for the first few months and not do too much vigorous washing of the baby locs themselves.

You also want to avoid any shampoo that espouses to help with "manageability" or "dangling". Locs NEED to tangle; that's what makes them locs. This seems very obvious, but I almost ruined my first set of locs using Organic Root Stimulator Uplifting Shampoo (an otherwise great shampoo) because I didn't think about the word "manageability", I just was focused on clarifying (see below).  For someone with baby/teenage locs (I'd say up to one year) conditioner is not your friend.  Conditioner will cause locs that are not fully matured to unravel.  

Clarifying (and Dandruff Treatment):

It is important to avoid build up in your locs as much as possible.  The best way to avoid buildup is to prevent build up.  Shampoos, conditioners, styling products, dirt and lint can all accumulate and contribute to build up, making your locs dull and stiff.  The best way to avoid build up is to avoid using too many products in the first place.  However, every few weeks you should use a clarifying shampoo to remove any products that have built up in your locs.  You don't want to use clarifying shampoo every time you shampoo, as they can be somewhat harsh and drying.  You can use a clarifying shampoo such as Neutrogena or Panteen, or seek out a shampoo with more natural ingredients such as Avalon Organics Lemon Clarifying Shampoo.

Another way to clarify your locs is with the use of an apple cider vinegar rinse.  There are many recipes for ACV rinses out there.  Personally I simmer 1-2 sprigs of fresh rosemary in 2 cups of water for 15 minutes, then add 1/4 cup of apple cider vinegar, about 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil, 3-5 drops of tea tree oil, and 2-3 drops of either peppermint or lavender essential oil (depending on my mood).  You can use this rinse either before shampooing by saturating your hair and scalp and allowing to sit for 15-20 minutes, or use it as a final rinse after you shampoo.  The apple cider vinegar smell will dissipate as your hair dries.  ACV is great for removing build up and helps treat itchy, flaky scalp by balancing the pH of the scalp.  Rosemary is good for people with dark hair (i.e. most of us) to help bring out the natural highlights, and also helps treat thinning hair.  For additional clarifying, you can add the juice of 1/2 lemon to the rinse.  Lemon juice also helps break down oil and product build up. 

Products to Avoid:

It is important to read the labels of hair products just like you would with food, and like food, products with natural ingredients are better for you than artificial.  My general rule of thumb is that if I can't pronounce, I don't want to put it on or in my body.  Not everything I use is "all natural" and I don't think you should feel pressured to use all natural products just because you have natural hair.  It's just a rule of thumb to stick with as much as you can.  However, here are a few products you should look out for and try to avoid when you look for a good shampoo, particularly if you have sensitive skin: 

Sodium lauryl/laurth sulfate.  This a very common detergent found in shampoos that causes soaps and shampoos to create lots of foam, but is also a skin irritant.  It dries out skin and hair because it is an effective degreaser; however our skin and hair needs some level of oil to be healthy.  We have been conditioned to believe that more foam means better cleaning, but this is not necessarily the case.  Natural products will have less foam than shampoos containing this chemical, but work just as well. 

Propylene Glycol.  This is another common ingredient in shampoos and conditioners.  It is a humectant, which are supposed to retain moisture in hair and skin by attracting water, however, they can also leave a suffocating film on skin and hair.  Propylene glycol is also used in industrial products, and can cause skin irritation. 

Silicone Oils (eg. Dimethicone, Cyclomethicone, Copolyol).  These chemicals are classified as emollients, which are supposed to prevent dryness.  They are often included in hair care products to produce shine for the "appearance" of healthy hair.  However, these chemicals create a coating on the hair that blocks the absorption of substances that are actually moisturizing and nourishing to the hair and scalp.

You can find a more extensive list of common harmful chemicals in cosmetic products here


Hair Smoothie

Good hair begins here.

Beautiful and healthy hair, skin and nails do not come from the products you put on your hair and body, but rather what you put IN your body.  There are many hair products which claim to promote growth, strength and prevent breakage, but because your hair is essentially "dead" material, all of that begins well before the hair emerges from your scalp. Products only give the temporary appearance of healthy hair (even listen closely to a shampoo commercial?), but the foundation of strong, healthy hair is based on our nutrition.

While a balanced diet is essential for overall health and the promotion of healthy hair, here are a few key nutrients necessary for healthy hair growth:

1. Protein:  Protein contains amino acids, which are the essential building blocks for cells, including hair. Five amino acids are of particular relevance to hair growth - cystine, cysteine, methionine, arginine and lysine. Inadequate protein intake over time can slow hair growth and eventually lead to hair loss.  At least 15% of your daily caloric intake should come from protein from lean meats and legumes.  Legumes also provide biotin, another nutrient essential for hair growth.

2. Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Essential omega-3 fatty acids are necessary to support scalp health. A deficiency in omega-3s can result in dry scalp and skin.  Foods such as salmon and flax seeds are high in omega-3 fatty acids.  Taking a supplement of fish oil (preferably in refrigerated liquid form) also provides an excellent source omega-3s.

3. Vitamins A and C: These vitamins are essential in the production of sebum that is produced by your hair follicles.  Sebum the scalp's natural lubricant and conditioner.  Inadequate sebum production leads to dry hair and scalp. Green, leafy vegetables are good sources of Vitamin A and C, as well as iron.  Supplements such as Chlorella are helpful if you have a hard time getting green leafy vegetables.

4. B Vitamins: B vitamins are essential for healthy blood circulation, which is necessary for nourishing your scalp.  Vitamins B-6, folic acid, biotin, and vitamin B-12 support healthy hemoglobin levels, which carry oxygen to tissues in the body.

5. Vitamin E: Vitamin E helps in improving the scalp circulation and helps with skin and hair dryness. Food sources rich in vitamin E are vegetable oils, wheat germ oil, soybeans, raw seeds and nuts, dried beans, and leafy green vegetables.

Every morning I make myself the following breakfast smoothie. It is packed with the nutrients listed above and is an easy and quick breakfast alternative.
Berry Protein Smoothie

3/4 cup frozen mixed berries (strawberries, raspberries, cherries, blackberries)
1-2 frozen ripe bananas
2 tablespoons rice protein powder
1 tablespoon ground flax seed
1 tablespoon flax oil
1 tablespoon nut butter (almond, cashew or macadamia nut)
1 cup water
Place all ingredients in a blender, and add water and ice for desired consistency and blend on high. You can adjust the amounts of berries, bananas, and nut butter to taste. For additional sweetness, allow the bananas to fully ripen before freezing and use frozen cherries.
Full nutritional information can be found at here at SparkRecipes.

I've been drinking this every morning for the past several months I've noticed a drastic improvement in my hair and nail growth.  My locs are softer and shiner, and my dry skin has greatly improved.  I've never been able to grow nails  but now my nails are about as long as I used to wear my acrylics and are very hard.  I have also improved my diet overall (you can't pair this with a McDonald's diet and expect miraculous results), but this smoothie definitely provides the nutrients essential for healthy hair growth.


Lessons from a (Reformed) Product Junkie

You don't need all this.

I have a confession to make:  I am a reformed product junkie.  When I started my first set of locs over 7 years ago, I, like many others new to locs and natural hair, was very excited and joined several online message boards about locs.  If someone suggested it, I wanted to try it, despite the warnings by my loctician that all I needed to twist my locs were water, oil, and maybe a little diluted setting lotion.  I also believed that if a product worked well, even MORE of a product would work better.

Um, not so much.... and here's what happened:

I'd had my locs for about 4 months.  They were starting to bud nicely, which is the beginning stages of loc formation so they were a bit uneven and slightly lumpy, which is normal.  I was using Organic Root Stimulator Lock 'n Twist Gel mixed with aloe vera gel (to "dilute" it) and was using LOTS of it, coating almost the entire loc with gel when retwisting, trying to smooth them out.  I was also using Dr. Bronners Peppermint Castile Soap, which is great as a soap but not so effective as a shampoo. My locs started to feel gooey, and I was reading on the message boards horror stories about "product buildup" and lint and the need to clarify.  I remember one woman blogging about going to the hardware store and getting some heavy duty orange degreaser (the kind my dad keeps in the garage to clean oil off his hands when he works on the car) and squeezing tons of goo out of her locs.  I was horrified.  I didn't want this to be me.

So, being the research queen I am, I looked up and put together a surefire clarifying treatment that would get all this built up gel out of my hair.  I read that lemon juice was good for breaking down greasy buildup, and that apple cider vinegar rinses were good for clarifying, so I put the two together.  I put this lemon/ACV rinse on my locs and let it sit for probably an hour.  Then I used Organic Root Stimulator Uplifting Shampoo because it said it was good for clarifying (and probably at the suggestion of a loc listserv member).

It was a complete and utter DISASTER.

What I neglected to take mental note of was the fact that the shampoo was also good for "manageability", i.e. it is a detangler. The result was a dry, clumpy mess, as I'd stripped not only the product out of my hair, but ALL the moisture. And the shampoo "managed" to make my newly forming buds loosen and begin to slide down the locs. As if this wasn't bad enough, I believe I then tried to use some conditioning product to add moisture back into the lumpy straw that was now my locs, thus making my loc buds unravel and slip even more.

I freaked out, then tried to stay calm, then panicked and called my loctician and made an appointment. I sat in his chair and just said "Please fix it." In hindsight I'm glad that he positions his chair away from the mirror so I couldn't see the expression on his face, but I could tell by the tone of his and his assistant's voice that I'd effed up royally, and had I seen his actual expression I probably would have cut them off right then and there. But he worked with them the best he could, gave me a free cornrow style so I couldn't see the damage, and sent me on my way.  At first I was pleased, thinking that he had indeed worked some sort of loctician magic, but when I unbraided it, the locs were still clumpy.  The only thing that could fix this mess was time and patience as I waited for my locs to fully mature.

For months after that I would try and twist my locs to smooth out the lumps, but they never fully went away. Over the years my hair grew and I got trims and eventually the lumpy locs became less and less noticeable as new hair grew and locked. But I still regretted that mishap every time I saw someone with a perfectly cylindrical set of locs, and though nobody else could tell the difference (or were just being nice), I knew I'd screwed my locs up.  I have a new set of locs now and have vowed NEVER to repeat those mistakes again.

The moral of this story: Less is more when it comes to products and locs. The more products you put on your locs, the more you have to worry about trying to get out later. Also, if you are unsure of what to do when you have a loc problem, don't be afraid to ask a licensed professional stylist who specializes in locs (i.e. a loctician). Other people with locs are great resources for ideas, but everyone is different. When you have problems it's good to have a professional on deck to tell you what is best to do for your hair texture and your stage of locking.  I visit my loctician maybe 2-3 times per year (I don't do my own cuts or color), but he's there when I need him.

So lay off the products, loved ones! Time & patience cultivate locs, not products.