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"Have we met before? I recognize your hair."
It's a question I have been asked more than once in my life and it probably sounds a bit odd to you. I have a massive amount of extremely curly hair which, until about eight months ago, was hip length. My hair has always been a bit of a mystery on how best to handle. Nobody else in my family has it. Coarse, dry, and bushy, it made me the subject of relentless taunts in school. It regularly ate hair brushes, snagged on any object within a two-foot radius, and consumed family-sized amounts of No-More-Tangles.
Internet access eventually allowed me to learn how better to care for it. In my teens, I experimented with the Curly Girl Method, Sulfate-Free, Conditioner-Only, stretching washes, protective styling, egg shampoos, the LOC method, and probably a hundred other things.
For the most part, though, I could honestly get away with using cheap shampoo and conditioner along with equally inexpensive leave-in conditioners targeted toward African American women.
When I moved to the central coast, all of that changed. The water in my town was beyond horrendous. Boasting three times mineral parts per million needed to qualify as "extremely hard" water, enough chlorine was dumped into it to regularly burn my very sensitive skin. While everyone else in the family was having a difficult time brushing out their hair and kept saying their skin was itchy, my hair was literally a solid mat in the first week and my skin itched with a mysterious rash.
When we figured out that it was the water, I bought a filtered shower head and scrubbed my hair with baking soda and dish soap. That meant I could at least de-tangle it.
The product experiments resumed. I desperately searched for something that could handle the constant mineral build-up while trying to keep my naturally parched hair moisturized. Everything seemed to fail.
When studying historical hygiene and gazing enviously at the long, healthy locks of our Victorian ancestors, I started to wonder what results their methods could produce. After all, they did not have access to sulfate-free washes containing a million over-hyped ingredients from all across the globe.
I started small with the purchase of a wide-tooth horn comb. I had never been able to get a comb through my wet hair and had instead relied on heavy-duty vent brushes for years. So, it was with a bit of trepidation that I tried the comb the first time.
I could not believe the result. Easily, it slid through my curls, taking out three days worth of knots in a relatively short amount of time. I shed/ripped out less than a quarter of what I usually lost. Excited, I went back online and purchased a finer-toothed comb. As these natural materials were meant to help distribute the natural sebum on dry hair, I supposed they may also help distribute leave-in conditioners and oils in my hair. I was right. I loved my combs.
Next came a boar bristle brush. For the most part, people with curly hair never, ever, ever brush it when dry. Not only will you end up breaking it, you will look like this:
So, why purchase the brush? At the time, I was wearing my hair mainly in braids and I hoped to be able to smooth out my fuzzies with the brush. It worked beautifully and I had another historical-inspired piece in my beauty kit.
Browsing the beauty section of my local health food store one day, I came across J.R. Liggett's Old Fashioned Bar Shampoo, Original Formula. The wrapper claimed that the recipe came from an old New England cookbook, that the ingredients were all-natural, and that because it did not strip the hair's natural oils most people did not need to use conditioner.
How could I resist?
I read a great deal of this mega thread over at The Long Hair Community Forum, studied up on historical hair care and devised an experiment:
I would first strip my hair off all chemical conditioners, then I would move to washing with the shampoo bar, conditioning with a vinegar rinse, and would use olive oil to further condition if need be. I would use only my horn combs to de-tangle. There was no way I was going to brush my hair one hundred strokes every day, but if my hair had dried in braids, I would oil it and brush it thoroughly with the boar bristle brush before washing it. I would work on stretching my washes to once per week.
For three weeks I shampooed with Prell because it does not have any silicone or other synthetic conditioners. I used no conditioner. I applied olive oil after each wash and kept my hair in two french braids. To my great surprise, my hair already looked and felt healthier. It tangled less and shined more. If there is one pearl of wisdom the internet will always give a curly girl, it is use conditioner. Use all the conditioner. It seemed with my horrible water, all that conditioner was just making an impenetrable gunk to coat my hair.
Then, I moved on to the rest of my new routine. I loved it. My hair was easier to de-tangle than it had been in my entire life. I could actually both comb and brush it dry. If I did do that and then braided it, the frizz ball would settle into decent looking waves. It looked shiny and healthy. I did not need any leave-in conditioner and certainly did not need to layer on multiple styling products. I still got frizz, but I think with my texture I may as well resign myself to always having somewhat frizzy hair.
So, can historical hair care work today? Absolutely! With some tweaking.
I never did manage to stretch my washes to once per week. Unlike in Victorian times, the modern expectation is to have extremely clean, fluffy hair at all times and that seems to be the problem for most people trying this. My scalp basically produces no oil, so that was not my issue. My hair dried out without getting a good soak every few days and if I tried to rinse without washing, I found it nearly impossible to comb, though it actually dried looking great. So, I ended up washing twice per week like I had for years.
My hard water forced me to strip with my hair with Prell every couple of weeks. A Victorian would probably have collected rain water to wash her hair in instead, thus avoiding all that mineral build-up.
I've stuck with this for close to a year now. I've tried shampoo bars from the famed soap-making company Chagrin Valley as well as a couple of regular bar soaps. Right now, my favorites are still the J.R. Liggett's original formula and Grandpa's Pine Tar Soap. I went back to using Blue Magic Conditioner Hair Dress on my braids which I used before the experiment. It is basically petroleum jelly and lanolin. I know, I know... Everyone who is into natural hair care will want to kill me right now for using petroleum jelly. I hate the scent, but nothing holds in the moisture and shine quite like it. The shampoo bars easily wash it out and I don't use it with every wash.
The worst part of the whole thing is that if you stay at someone's house, you look a bit nutty.
In case you are interested in trying a historically inspired hair care routine and don't want to click all the links, I did the math for you. To purchase the two combs and the J.R. Liggett's Shampoo bar would cost you $36.94. The Blue Magic is an addition $3.19. You probably won't need that unless you have dry, coarse, textured hair like me. I did not link to my boar bristle brush because I could not find it online. I purchased it in Walmart and I think it cost somewhere around $7-$8.
If anyone else has tried anything similar, please let me know in the comments!
Historical Hair Care, Part One, Introduction
Historical Hair Care, Part Two, The Vikings
Historical Hair Care, Part Three, The Medieval Era
Historical Hair Care, Part Four, The Renaissance
Historical Hair Care, Part Five, The Victorian Era