Sunday, March 2, 2014

No Feels, Only Reals: Rye Flour on Trial


Sometimes I start to feel like a bit of a buzzkill at the Haircare Science and No-Poo parties.  I'd love to be sharing supportive, U-go-gurl advice and flipping my hair in the sun like a shampoo commercial with everybody else, but instead I'm crouched in my corner with notebooks of crabbed little calculations and "Don't do that!" as my mantra.

When I originally posted my explanation of baking soda and why dilution with water doesn't have much effect on its pH, a lot of people naturally asked, "So, if baking soda's no good, what can we use?"  I was embarrassed to realize that I didn't really have an answer to that.

So! Clearly the only thing to do is to get experimental.  Based on other people's comments, I've got a short list of shampoo alternatives that I'm planning to test.  I will use each of them for a month (unless they become unfeasible) and catalog their pros and cons using the following criteria:

  1. Ability to clean  (1 = poor cleaning, little to no difference after use; 5 = great cleaning, comparable to shampoo)
  2.  Ease of use (1 = extremely difficult or inconvenient; 5 = extremely convenient)
  3. Aesthetics (1 = extremely unpleasant to use; 5 = very pleasant to use)
  4. Hair condition (1 = extremely poor hair condition after use; 5 = excellent hair condition after use)
  5. Gentleness (1 = high potential for hair damage; 5 = little to no potential for hair damage)
For example, I would rate commercial sulfate shampoo like this:

Shampoo scores high in cleaning and ease: there's no arguing that shampoo removes oil from your hair extremely effectively, and it requires no preparation after purchasing.  It also rates high in terms of aesthetics: shampoos are formulated to lather and to have both a pleasant texture and scent.  However, shampoo fails in two areas: hair condition and gentleness.  Speaking personally, I cannot use a commercial shampoo without a conditioner follow-up, and even then my hair feels fried and dry.  Similarly, it is fairly stripping and damaging.  Condition and Gentleness may seems similar, but I'm treating condition as being a qualitative evaluation of my hair's softness and flexibility, and gentleness as the shampoo or shampoo alternative's inherent potential to cause damage.  For example, people swear up and down that baking soda leaves their hair soft and manageable (condition) even though it's high pH gives it a great deal of potential for damage.

I will also be providing more detailed notes on the experience, and a running commentary throughout the month.  So, who's up this month?

–Rye Flour: A Primer–

I've opted for Rye Flour as our first trial subject.  There are a few reasons: it's relatively inexpensive (especially compared to honey); it's got some buzz around it; and most importantly, I happened to see it in the import store near my home the other day, so I figured it was a calling.

Rye is a grain that belongs to the wheat family, and is the grain used in making pumpernickel bread as well as rye loaves.  You may see it sold in dark and light--or normal--varieties.  In essence, dark rye flour is generally "wholemeal" (though not always; read more about it here) and light rye flour has had most of the bran removed.  I don't see any reason why one type would work notably better than another: dark bran might be more abrasive if it contains more of the grain.  However, the shop where I can pick up rye only stocks one type, a rough-ground, light rye, so that's what we're going with.

You may hear about the vitamins contained in rye flour: while this is factually true, it doesn't have much bearing on our experiment.  Your hair won't do anything useful with vitamins applied topically; hair is dead, you can't "feed" it.  So, while rye flour may have a lot of nutrition, if you want that to get into your hair you're better off baking yourself a loaf and eating it rather than rubbing it all over your head.

The rye mixture for hair cleaning seems simple:
  1. Take about 3 tablespoons of flour in a cup or mug (you don't need that much)
  2. Stir in warm-ish water little by little, until you reach a fairly runny, shampoo-like texture.  
  3. Bring it in the shower with you, massage it onto your scalp, and rinse it out.
You'll see that in the course of the month, I discovered that there are a couple extra necessary steps, but you can read about that in the following section.

It should be noted that for the course of these experiments, I will be using chamomile tea rinses–for cosmetic reasons, they add a nice golden light over my henna–and a standard, silicone-free conditioner on the ends.  This is because the action of conditioner on the hair is important for protection and cannot be replaced by any other product or substance [note: for the final two washes in the month, I did actually stop using conditioner].

–Five-Point Analysis and Notes–

1) Cleaning: Rye flour cleaned surprisingly well throughout the month.  There were two days, however, where it just did not work as well as I would have liked, and left my hair looking somewhat oily.  Once was the result of using a finely-sifting scrub on pretty dirty hair (the grittiness of the scrub is, I believe, a pretty major reason why it cleans), but once was just a total mystery crap-out.  There have also been comments from people who have had rye flour just totally fail.  I'd actually like to hear more from people who have problems, because it will help refine the technique, but based on my experience, I'm giving rye flour scrub a 4 for cleaning.
2) Ease: This is one of rye flour's big failings.  It's pretty time consuming, no matter what you do; it adds at least 20 extra minutes to my total preparation and shower time (more, if you include blow drying, which is basically a must for me when using this cleaning method).  There's one major reason why: flakes.  Rye flour does not make a smooth paste; it stays pretty grainy, though this is a feature not a bug.  Sifting is also a pretty essential step: if you sift using a usual kitchen sifter like I did for most of the month, you will still get a lot of flakes in your hair and in your shower, that will need to be cleaned up.  If you sift using a tea strainer (a tip courtesy of redditor /u/lifsglod), you will get fewer flakes, but less hair-cleaning ability, so it's a trade-off.  Rye flour scrub gets maybe a 2 for ease.
3) Aesthetics: This is a bit of a failing for rye flour too.  It goes on like a gloopy, grainy porridge that, if I wasn't careful with my planning, was unpleasantly cold.  The flakes are once again holding this cleaning method back too: except for the time I sifted with a tea strainer, I had flakes shaking out of my hair throughout the day, or was picking them out of my hair.  Over time, I started to like the scalp-massage aspect of the scrub, but overall it's not aesthetically very pleasing: 2.
4) Condition: This is a category where rye flour really gets to shine, though: my hair basically looked as good as it ever has while using this (any type of commercial shampoo, including sulfate-free, makes my hair look like ass).  It was, relatively for me, manageable and well-behaved: short layers on the side that are the result of me growing out a fringe, lay flat with the rest of my hair, more or less.  It felt soft and looked great: 5.
5) Gentleness: That being said, I do have some concerns about long term use of rye-flour.  First of all, it requires a pretty large about of hair manipulation in the shower, both for the scrubbing and the rinsing phase.  It's well known that hair is weaker and more prone to breakage while wet, so this gives me pause.  Furthermore, depending on how finely you sift, the larger pieces seem fairly abrasive, though this can be mitigated by letting this mix soak before use.  Finally, since all but a very fine sift will likely require blow-drying or at the least careful brushing, there is an additional source of mechanical damage to consider.  The actual cleaning is very gentle, though, and does not strip hair at all.  Overall, 3.

Thanks for reading, everyone!  Drop me a comment if there's a shampoo alternative you'd like to see tested, and I'll consider it!

–A Month of Rye Flour: Hair Journal–
  • March 1st: First ever use of rye flour mixture.  Though people call it a "shampoo" I think it would more accurately be termed a scrub.  Preparing the mixture took some time: water has to be added slowly for consistency control.  Even when it looks watery and well-mixed in the cup, I found that it swiftly separates in your hands and on your head, leaving rather chunky flour grains.  These do not come out of wet hair easily: they require a good deal of finger-scrubbing, and even then I was shaking a lot of flakes out.  After blow-drying and brushing, most of the flakes came out, though a few resilient ones dried on the scalp and had to be scraped off.  However, hair came out far cleaner than I expected: it looked more or less the same as after a sulfate-free shampoo, though there was a slightly heavy feel to the hair (similar to if I had used a styling product).  I consider this a feature not a bug of any no-poo method, but those who need squeaky-cleanliness should be advised that rye flour will not provide that.
  • March 2nd: Disappointing.  Hair already felt and looked oily at the crown and around the bangs(for context, when using a sulfate-free shampoo or a Castile soap, I don't have any visible oil until the 3rd day at the earliest, 4th or 5th is more usual).  If today had been a workday, I doubt if I would have gone without washing it again, which is obviously not ideal from an avoiding-damage standpoint.  However, as it was a Sunday, I toughed it out.
  • March 3rd: Had to wash this morning, as it is a workday.  As with first use, hair came out acceptably clean and de-oiled, as well as manageable.  Rye is still slow to use and requires a lot of manipulation of the hair to get it out.  It remains to be seen if this washing will last more than one day
  •  March 4th: Huge relief!  Hair is still feasible for work on the second day.  Was worried based on the weekend, but rye flour pulled through.
  • March 6th: Thursday wash for work.  In an effort to see if I could reduce the abrasiveness, today I sifted and then ground my flour in an electric coffee mill (I was planning to use my suribachi, but it was dirty).  This made the flour visibly finer–think ground espresso–but had little effect on the overall use.  The bran parts are still rather scratchy and abrasive (perhaps a little less so), and because rye flour does not dissolve into the water or form a paste the flakes will get stuck in your hair regardless.  In fact, the finer milled flour requires considerably more manipulation to get out: you can't feel it in your hair as easily.  There is another drawback to rye flour: it will wreck your bathroom.  This is particularly troublesome if you live with people: they are extremely unlikely to appreciate having little dollops of rye porridge flung around in the bathroom.  I have to get down on my knees and use the shower head to push every...last...bit to the drain, and then clean out the hair-catcher (because the rye flour WILL clog it.  If this isn't something that you want to do every time you shower, you might want to find a different method.  All this being said, I do like the way the rye flour cleans (so far), but if I weren't taking a blow-dryer to my hair, it would be out of the question for work due to the flakes.  It's also proving to be exceptionally time-consuming.
  • March 9th: Was hoping to let it go until Monday the 10th, but woke up feeling ill and wanted to take a shower, and since my hair looked bad (stringy, oily at the crown), I decided to wash it instead of forcing myself to go another day.  Time constraints meant that I was not able to sift nor grind my flour today (I will be posting photos of sifted, ground, and regular flour so people can see the difference at some point...also to show how much flour you lose by sifting.  It's a lot), and just mixed it with hot water.  I  found that leaving the flour mix for 10 minutes dramatically reduces the scratchiness.  I hope to test exactly how long is needed to get this softening effect in the future.  In terms of clean, though, today was disappointing.  My hair feels waxy and looks as though I put a styling product in.  As with many natural hair cleaning methods, rye flour may have diminishing returns over time and require the occasional use of a clarifying wash.  I doubt my hair will be acceptable for work tomorrow, and unfortunately will probably have to use Castile soap. 
  • March 10th: Well, as expected I needed to wash my hair again today.  My instinct was to clarify, but decided not to for a few reasons: the sake of the experiment; the fact that the stringy appearance of my hair is at least partially due to the fact that I haven't had a haircut in a while, and the layers are looking a bit ratty on their own; and the memory of how rad my hair looked on March 6th stopped me.  I decided to give the flour one more whirl before clarifying.  I sifted it without grinding, and let the mixture sit for about five minutes.  Hair came out acceptably clean today.  I decided to forgo conditioner for the first time ever, since I wonder if that was the cause of the oiliness yesterday.  While my hair is no longer dirty-looking, several of the back parts do look a bit dry and fly-away (as they typically do without conditioner).  Camellia-oiled them.
  • March 12th: Didn't "need" to wash my hair today, but wanted to use the day off to touch up my henna, and ended up deciding to just go ahead and wash today instead of tomorrow.  Sifted flour, let it sit, used it with a fair amount of conditioner follow-up (henna makes my hair kind of dry at first).  Looks great.  Henna turned out amazing too, the only problem is I wish it wouldn't oxidize; the Boudicca-red I've got now is my dream color.
  • March 15th: Some St. Patrick's Day events this weekend, so I wanted to wash and style.  Rye worked as normal; hair looks good and smooth.  Especially pleased that my bangs, which are growing out, are lying with the rest of my hair, and not curling off and looking frizzy like they have in the past.  Thumbs up, rye flour.  I can't tell if sifting it actually helps, or if I'm just getting used to it.  Still not loving the flakes, though.
  • March 17th: Happy St. Patrick's Day!  Did a standard, Monday work-wash.  Went as usual, hair looks as good as possible, given my jacked-up non-cut.
  • March 18th: Hmm, looking a liiiiiitle oily today.  Nothing terrible.  Went to work with it anyway.
  • March 19th: Threw it back in braids to make it through one more day without washing.
  • March 20th: Standard mid-week workday wash.  As usual.
  • March 21st: ...well, this is not ideal.  Hair is starting to look third-day-ish already, and it's only day two.  We'll see how the weekend goes.
  • March 22nd: Attempted to salvage the wash with cornstarch, but sweaty spring cleaning meant I ended up washing in the end.  Looks like usual.
  • March 23rd: ...aaaaand it's already looking wet around the underside roots again (the top parts of my hair look like normal, but the underside parts look and feel a bit stiff and oily if I try to part my hair on the other side).  It was definitely salvageable, but not what I'm used to seeing only 24 hours after washing, and I had to resort to my boar bristle brush, which I haven't had to use in months.
  • March 24th: It's a workday, but I am determined to get one more day out of this wash.  On the upside, this has gotten me back in touch with cornstarch, which works amazingly.  I absolutely doused the underside root areas and crown in cornstarch, and it worked perfectly.  Hair is back to looking dry and light, and I'd forgotten that cornstarch is a one-way ticket to Volumetown.  I love you cornstarch!
  • March 25th: Today was an experiment, and to be honest I was kind of nervous about how it would go; I decided to see if rye flour scrub was enough to remove coconut oil, since this is a pretty commonly-used conditioner among no-poo or natural shampoo people, and because, since I have relatively dry, non-oily hair, I felt like I wasn't really putting rye flour through its paces on my own.  Last night, I applied a light coating of coconut oil to the lengths of my hair–basically anywhere that didn't come into contact with my scalp–then wrapped it in a scarf and slept on it.  This morning I made my usual rye scrub.  The only thing I did differently was actually applying the scrub to the lengths; usually I just do my scalp.  All of the excess coconut oil appears to have been removed!  I'm actually mildly surprised.  I don't think my hair feels like it's in any better condition than when I just use a regular conditioner after rinsing, but I will probably stick with the coconut oil at least a few more washes to see. 
  • March 27th: Rainy Wednesday meant frizzy hair, so had to wash Thursday for work.  As usual.
  • March 31st: We made it to the end of the month with nothing but rye flour scrub!  Just in time, a tip came in from a redditor, /u/lifsglod, to use a tea strainer for sifting.  I've been using a standard kitchen sifter, but I tried the tea strainer out today, and it makes a huge, positive difference in terms of flakes and consistency.  The flip side is that the scrub simply didn't work as well: my hair looks second- or third-day.  That being said, my hair was already pretty janky, having not been washed all weekend; the finer sift might be fine on less oily hair.  I don't know if I'll be able to make it to Thursday on this wash: cornstarch might pull me through tomorrow, but I expect it to be gross by Wednesday.