Okay, okay–so this isn’t the most exciting or dynamic blog post to come back into the flow. It is, however, extremely relevant for me right now.
During this time when staying at home is helpful to both myself and to everyone else, I’ve have a lot of time to reflect on the way I’m living. My friends and family are all going through their own levels of life changes, whether it be with job situations or just the realization that they are better made for a more extraverted lifestyle.
For myself–and living by myself–it has been an opportunity to look at how I live, how I have been living, and how I should be living. And yes–part of that includes how I take care of my hair.
Hair care will always be one of my favorite hobbies, but it can also be a bit of a bane. There are so many products that have done wonders for other naturalistas. Eagerly, I’ll check their ingredient lists, only to realize–this product won’t work for me.
Maybe there are certain popular products that aren’t working for you, and you don’t know why. If that is the case, read on as I relay my trials and tribulations with some of the most common natural hair ingredients out there.
Disclaimer: Throughout this post, I will be naming certain hair brands that I have used and how they worked (or didn’t work for me). I am not being paid or promoted to say one thing or another about any of these brands. My mentioning these brands is solely based on my personal experiences.
If using any of these products work for you, and your hair continues to feel amazing under their care, please continue to them as you see fit. Every hair type is different and thrives under different conditions. However, if you are uncertain as to why your hair and scalp no longer look or feel as healthy as they used to, these ingredients may be a possible culprit for you, too.
Why My Hair Hates It
The first time my mother introduced shea butter into our household, she was ecstatic by the raw lumps of pale, harder-than-butter chucks that came in thick, wax/plastic bags. She’d bought the butter from an African import store she’d found online (within only a couple of years of the internet existing yes, I’m dating myself 🤦🏾♀️).
“Here, B–try it!” she’d exclaimed, and demonstrated its moisturizing properties by massaging some into the back of my hand. “See how it melts into your skin?”
I eyed my skin curiously, noted the shiny, greasy patch as it remained on top. “Um…yeah.”
I didn’t want to disappoint my mother on her new purchase. What’s more, I noticed that her skin didn’t have the same response as mine did. For her, the butter obediently faded into the soft, even tone of her skin.
It wasn’t just the oily film that seemed inherent with my use of shea butter. I have been an adamant user of the hair and beauty brand, Shea Moisture, since I went natural in 2010. I’ve tested a lot of brands since then, and Shea Moisture was, at the very least, the most consistent in keeping my hair healthy.
My hair–yes. My scalp was another story.
I suffer from the very frustrating condition known as sebborheic dermatitis. Also known as sebborheic eczema, this condition can attack pretty much anywhere you have skin. However, it’s most prevalent on the scalp and causes the most agitating and even potentially embarrassing symptoms that an otherwise “healthy” person can experience:
- Crusting, scaly patches on the skin
- Redness and inflammation
- Huge skin flaking
- and itching. Oh, the itching.
One of the mantras I heard from my mother as a child was, “B, stop scratching!” She’d probably still say it if she was around me now, though goodness knows I’d like to think I’ve matured enough to just not bend my head down, dig my nails into my skull, and go to town. At least, not in public.
I say all of this to say, that my scalp condition has led me to be excessively sensitive to hair and beauty products in general. Add that I suffer from atopic dermatitis on the rest of my body, and I ultimately had to nix any artificial dyes and fragrances from my regimen.
But it gets even better.
When I was in college, I learned that I was allergic to latex.
How did I learn this?
Use your imagination.
The good news was, I wasn’t being punished by some divine being for…violating any moral policies. The bad news was, I was allergic to latex. Once again, I would have to be very careful of certain products that I used on my body.
So, you can imagine my surprise and chagrin when I learned that shea butter does, in fact, have natural latex.
Now, mind you, it does not contain a lot of latex. It’s only present in the protein of the shea nut, which is what makes up shea butter. However, if you have sensitivity upon sensitivity, you’re also more susceptible to whatever slight irritations every little item has.
According to Healthline.com, having an allergic reaction from the amount of natural latex in processed shea butter is extremely rare, if not entirely impossible.
Well, thanks for that, Healthline.
But can you tell me why my scalp continued to be an irritated mess when using Shea Moisture?
I know ya’ll’s next question.
If Shea Moisture was so bad, why did I keep using it?
That’s a great question.
And here’s my answer:
Have you guys looked at the ingredients of nearly every “natural” hair product?
Shea Moisture was the first to capitalize on the shea butter name. Not only that, but it truly was the most natural product I could find 10 years ago. With essential oils instead of perfumes and no dyes to mar its color, my scalp was less irritated than if I’d used other brands.
What I Use Instead
While my mother continued to purchase her shea butter chunks, I switched to a hair-sealant blend of mango butter and cupuacu butter. Mango butter contains similar nutritional properties to shea butter without the greasy feel or the latex levels. Cupuacu butter does the same–while also promising anti-frizzing benefits, natural sun and environment defenses, and anti-inflammation. To this day, I still make my own hair sealant with these two butters and a blend of other oils–but that recipe is for another post.
Why My Hair Hates It
When was introduced to the coconut-loving hair brand As I Am, my older sister Tiki was tooting its praises. “I’m a lazy naturalista!” she boasted, “and I love that I can just wash with the Coconut CoWash and be done with it. No separate wash-and-condition steps!”
“Well, durn,” I thought, “I wanna get on this bandwagon.” It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the bentonite clay masks, the ayurvedic paste masks, and prepooing nights. There were, however, some days that I just really wanted my Sunday’s back. One can only indulge a hobby so often.
Gleefully, I stocked up on the As I am CoWash–after all, Tiki was a literal genius! Here was a one-step, shea butter-free, cleansing and conditioning product that would save me hours each week in washing my hair. What could possibly go wrong?
With first wash, nothing did go wrong. My hair felt clean, neat, and pretty shiny. Spiffy! I’d gained a holy grail!
However, but the next week, something was wrong. My hair didn’t feel like it did the first time. In fact, it didn’t feel like my hair ever had–and not in a good way. The best description I can give, is that it felt like wet hay. Thin strands of wet hay. If you’ve ever felt hay or straw after a rainstorm, you’ll know what I mean.
I hid my shame for a while, until I happened upon the topic of the CoWash with my mother, who had also been sold by my sister’s enticingly simplistic routine.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” she confessed hesitantly. “My hair has felt…dry and stringy lately. Like, it’s wet, but it’s not getting any moisture.”
My jaw dropped open as I listened to her, and when she finished, I blurted, “Me, too! That CoWash dried me out!” We compared more notes; like me, my mother’s first wash had been great. After that, it was a slow decline to mediocrity. We didn’t know it at the time, but coconut oil was extremely heavy in its protein content. Most wash routines recommend applying a protein treatment about once a month, to replenish the strength of hair strands. Unless your hair is constantly feeling mushy and ready to break with every tug, using something has protein-heavy as the As I Am Coconut CoWash is just…too much.
Another hair brand that relies heavily on coconut ingredients is DevaCurl. I tried using these products about two years ago; however, just like with As I Am products, it took me about two months (and way too much investment) to realize the brand did nothing for my 4a/4b hair.
Unfortunately for others, it took a little longer. I recently found the below video posted by YouTube and Instagram-famed curly girl Ayesha Malik in January 2020, as she detailed her use and promotion of coconut-rich DevaCurl–and the then-current state of her hair.
What I Use Instead
The main thing I have to keep in mind when using a different oil, is that I need to avoid oils that are protein heavy. However, I wanted to keep using an oil that, like coconut oil, had a molecular structure small enough to slip its nutrients under and within the hair cuticles. This is known as a “penetrating oil.” My oil of choice, thanks to its extensive list of nutrients and the fact that it strengthens the hair based on its fats, not its proteins, is avocado oil (you redeemed yourself, Healthline).
Science-y Hair Blog has an awesome chart listing some of the most popular hair oils and which are “coating” vs. which are “penetrating” oils. Not only that, but they drop a lovely amount of science (heh, guess that’s where they got their name, huh?) explaining the difference and benefits between the two.
Depending on what you need for your hair, finding the perfect mix of both oil types will help you manage your hair and the products you apply.
Why My Hair Hates It
Remember the thing I said above in the Shea Butter section about my scalp condition, sebborheic dermatitis? Well, what I didn’t mention was the elements and situations that can exacerbate it to a full-on flare.
Where shall I start? Let me count the ways (in no particular order):
- Cold, dry weather
- Hormonal changes
- Certain perfumes and dyes
- Excessive oil/sebum
- Oleic acid
So, if your a Type-A personality who lives in Alaska and sweats a lot, you’re in trouble HAHAHAHA–
Honestly, I have no room to laugh. I was diagnosed with SD as a five-year-old and have lived with varying levels of itchiness ever since. It may not sound too bad, but when harsh winters and long hours at work combined, there were days I just wanted to cry.
Which brings me back to olive oil.
Sebborheic dermatitis is a more extreme level of dandruff–and the cheeky little bugger that causes the flaky, irritated scalp is a fungus known as malassezia globosa. According to WedMD, this fungus burrows itself into hair follicle roots, where it settles in and causes skin cells to freak out and shed four times faster than it should. Hence, the irritation. Hence the flakes. Hence, the itchy scalp.
(Are you fidgeting in your seat as you read this? Don’t worry–so am I.)
So, what does this have to do with olive oil?
Welp, guess which factor malassazia feeds off of and produces?
Guess what actually causes the excessive inflammation and irritability of the scalp?
Guess which oil is made up of up to 83% oleic acid??
What I Use Instead
While I can’t avoid all oils with a notable amount of oleic acid (avocado oil still averages around 50%), I can moderate my use of them with oils of much lower levels. Macadamia nut oil (~19%), jojoba oil (~8%), and, most wonderfully, castor oil (~6%), all serve as powerful coating oils that help protect hair strands against the drying elements. And, they don’t irritate the scalp. ‘Tis a happy day.
Why My Hair Hates It
Remember how we started this journey? Shea butter abounded, and latex allergies started? Well, we’re heading back down that lane.
However, this one is a little tricky. Out of all the products my hair hates, this is the only one I really wished it liked.
When natural hair guru Naptural85 shared an aloe vera prepoo how-to using a fresh aloe vera leaf, I was deep in the world of DIY natural hair care. I couldn’t wait to go to the nearest farmer’s market, buy an aloe vera leaf, and scrub that gooey inner fruit against my scalp!
I primed the video below to the end result that Naptural85 got after applying the fresh aloe vera and oils (or, just go to timestamp 11:21 if WordPress is being annoying):
She seems so happy, proud, and excited, doesn’t she? I’m glad. I’m very, very happy for her, honestly.
But you know what?
That’s not what happened with my hair.
First, there is the issue with the natural latex. Yes, that’s right: like shea butter, aloe vera also contains latex. Only this time, it’s latex you can see the moment you cut an aloe vera leaf.
Take a look at the image below. Look closely. See the tiny, dark yellow dribbles running down from the inner part of the top leaf? That, ladies and gentlemen, is natural latex–and my scalp can sense it coming from a mile away.
I went into my prepoo fully aware of all of this. I really wanted the plumping levels of moisture that Naptural got. I needed it.
I cleaned the aloe as best I could; with each section I cut, I rinsed the excess latex residue off and dabbed it with paper towels.
Nevertheless, the moment I ran the fillet along my scalp, I felt it–teeny tiny little prickles on my skin. It was minute, but it was there–I actually felt my skin seizing up from the latex I’d missed.
Could it be that my mind was just playing tricks on me? Had I psyched myself out?
Oh, it was very probable. It certain wasn’t the level of agony that olive oil had once put me through.
But, when all was applied and done, and I woke up the next morning to check my twists, I had a bigger problem:
My hair didn’t get moisturized none. So that was that.
What I Use Instead
As far as finding a substitute for the benefits that aloe vera allegedly provides for the hair and scalp, I haven’t been entirely successful. But that may also be because I haven’t needed to research that heavily for a direct replacement. I’ve found varying degrees of success with flaxseed gel and Irish moss gel, but age and other responsibilities have left me much less time and energy than I used to have in preparing these alternatives.
That being said, what has worked to give me more moisture in my hair are honey-based products, and raw honey added to DIY products. Honey is healing, conditioning, antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, pro-growth, and quite delicious (nice comeback, Healthline). So for now, that works.
With the restart of my hair growth journey, I’ve renewed my research to see what other hair brands I can use that will help me to steer clear of all these ingredients. I love performing haircare research, so it’s been kind of exciting to delve back into that mindset.
Now that we are more than a decade into the natural hair movement (and well into embracing the beauty of curly hair), I’m excited to find new pioneers that are making specialized products for my freakish, finicky, and fabulous head.