Sunday, June 1, 2014

Creating a Hair Care Routine and Troubleshooting Your Routine

If you start researching how to best care for your hair, it may start to seem like confusing chore. So many treatments and possibilities and when to do them and how to do them and why…

There are people who like complexity in their everyday projects and there are those of us who find our complexity elsewhere. I like simple for hair. 

Starting from the very basics, what do you need?
1) To clean your hair
2) To lubricate your hair
3) To provide softness
4) Protect/provide hydration (moisturize) - hydration does everything from reduce breakage to define curls to add shine and weight. Hydration is good for all hair from straight to coily and from thin to thick. Hydration keeps your hair from being flyaway and unkempt-looking. We get hydration from using conditioners to prevent water loss, from hydrolyzed proteins in products (fine, medium and less often for coarse hair), from humectants (list on this page) and from oil pre-wash treatments in normal porosity to porous hair to prevent stress and dehydration during wetting and cleansing.
5) A haircut that creates a nice outline.

That absolutely covers it in the "hair care" department. Styling can further help accomplish these tasks. 

Clean the Hair
Shampoo? Cleansing conditioner? Conditioner only? Rinse with water? Choose a product that achieves what you want and need. Sometimes we need only light washing and can use water or conditioner. Sometimes you need shampoo to remove dust, dirt or excess oil or hair products.

Wash as often as you need, and as infrequently as you can. Your lifestyle has a lot to say about when you wash. If somebody with hair exactly like yours only washes it once per week but you live on a dusty road - you probably need to wash more often or your hair will start to feel stiff and gritty from the road dust.

Choose what works for you, not what somebody says should work for you and not what works for somebody else whose hair you admire. They don't have your hair and they don't live your life.

If you love your shampoo but fear it's too harsh, dilute it for a milder shampoo. Dilution works for hot sauce, it works for shampoo. Here is a post about how much to dilute your shampoo. It's fun to put a shampoo-distilled water mix in a foaming-pump bottle. And so much easier to apply!

Set a frequency for washing your hair ("x" times per week, "x" times per month, every "x" days) and stick to it. Every once in a while, see if you can go longer or if spacing your washing more closely is useful. Don't be afraid to change it up, just pay close attention to how your hair responds.

Hair that floats around in the air and acts weightless and shapeless after washing has been over-washed. The shampoo was too strong or too concentrated, or you shampooed sooner than your hair needed.

If your scalp demands more frequent washing than your hair, protect your hair by applying conditioner before washing, or doing an oil pre-wash treatment.

Conditioning the hair: Here is a post about deep conditioning. Conditioning the hair with rinse-out conditioner helps detangle while wet and most conditioners also help hair avoid tangles while dry (compared to un-conditioned hair).

Most of us need more conditioner on the ends of our hair and on the top-most layer. The ends are the oldest and most likely to rub on things and tangle. The top layer is exposed to the elements more than the under-layers.
How much conditioner you need depends on your hair, on the weather, on the season, on your activities. Some people need a lot, some need very little.

Use enough to the tangles are easy to deal with. Use enough conditioner so every section of your hair is covered.

Every once in a while, try using more or less - either in response to how your hair feels or just as an experiment.

Troubleshooting Your Routine
 Is your hair acting up, acting differently, just not cooperating, feeling dry or rough or inflexible? Set up a hierarchy of possibilities to discover the right solution. 
This little chart is an example - start at the top. Click the chart to enlarge!

At one stage is asks if you need a deep conditioning treatment or an oil pre-wash. The answer is probably "yes" if your hair is more tangly than usual, feeling rough or stiff or dry. These can also be signs of build-up, though - so you need to create your own hierarchy based on your hair's "personality." If build-up is a common problem for you, then rule that out first. If dryness is a more common problem than build-up, rule that out first. If your hair "likes" protein and you already avoid build-up provoking ingredients, then that might be one of the first things you try.

Learn to Respond to Your Hair
How often should you use a protein treatment or protein-containing products, or deep conditioning or oil pre-wash treatments?
  1. Observe! What are the benefits you get from these treatments? How long do those benefits last?
  2. Repeat the treatment when the benefits from the last one diminish.
  3. Observe again! Do you see the same benefits? Was it too much? Less benefit? If you're getting the same great result, you timed it just right. If you get a bad result, you may have repeated the treatment too soon. The same for no result.
  4. How about a half-treatment? Need the benefit of your favorite treatment, but not a big dose? Use a lower protein, protein product or leave a deep conditioner on for less time, do a lighter-than-usual application of pre-wash oil treatments.
  5. Observe the weather indoors and outdoors. More sun, hot weather, dry air,  wind, sitting under a heating or cooling vent may cause your hair to require more-frequent assistance from these treatments. Coloring your hair or highlighting it will change its needs for conditioning and protein. Using henna may increase your hair's need for lubrication.

Advanced Response to Your Hair
When you develop your own routine and learn to troubleshoot for your own hair, there are 2 steps to advanced responding to your hair - think of it as "hair enlightenment." 

1) Set aside what you've learned, read, or been told about hair care and only do what your hair shows you it needs. Don't ignore good ideas or be afraid to change what your'e doing when you need to. Just let your hair be your guide. If you've jumped on one hair-care bandwagon or another (no shampoo, no shampoo or conditioner, whatever), allow yourself the flexibility to walk away from that and do what works for you. Your hair will reward you when you give it what it needs and respond to it based on your own observation.

2) Don't avoid using some treatment or technique on your hair because your perception has always been that it won't work in your hair - or in "hair like yours." This attitude will prevent you from discovering some really helpful things. Keep an open mind and always experiment, make observations, and experiment some more.


  1. I was convinced my hair was just "broken" that it always poofs and gets a weird, crispy reaction to coconut've explained SO much! I have two questions for your expertise... One, I take gelatin as a supplement. I have the kind that gels and a hydrolyzed kind that mixes easy and does not gel. Which do I use for your protein treatment? And two, CAN YOU DO A CERAMIDE POST?!?

  2. Hello Aubrey! The kind of gelatin that gels (Knox is a popular brand in the US) is partially hydrolyzed collagen and works very well for a protein treatment. Hydrolyzed gelatin is also hydrolyzed - probably partially or fully and should work for a protein treatment also. We have no way of knowing the molecular weight of the gelatin, so the two gelatins may perform differently in your hair. I'll put a ceramide post on my lift of future blog posts. There is a little about a hair-native ceramide in this post:

  3. Hi WS! First, thanks so much for your amazing blog. I truly appreciate all the science and 'whys' behind your recommendations. I wanted to get your take on the Max Hydration Method ( It's the only way I've been able to get my curling gel, Kinky Curly Curling Custard, to actually WORK on my hair instead of sitting on it. (Ingredients: Botanical Infusion of Water, horsetail, chamomile, nettle and marshmallow, organic aloe vera juice, agave nectar extract, tocopheryl acetate, pectin, citric acid, potassium sorbate, natural fragrance). I've modified the method to the point where I am in a protective style the majority of the week and just use the Cherry Lola treatment (full fat yogurt, baking soda, liquid aminos), deep condition, and clay wash (sometimes with acv, sometimes not) once a week, before a weekend wash n go with the gel. I would say I have low-po, low-density hair, with medium thickness 4c strands. I'd love to get your clinical take on why this treament seems to help the gel adsorb to my hair. Should I also consider omitting the Cherry Lola baking soda step? Thanks again for all your work!

    1. Hello Adi, I'm copying what I think is going on with baking soda from my "Low Porosity" hair post about baking soda below. Usually my focus is on avoiding hair damage because so many people are concerned with that. But there's another school of thought that says - hey, why not change the surface of your hair a little and it will hold a curl, curls will be more defined, and it will hold a style longer!? Now that I've been paying attention to that more - I hear people say the same thing about the Max. Hydration Method, about highlights, about some alkaline texturizing treatments, and (from way back) about permanent waves circa 1940s used as a base for doing wet sets. In each case, the surface of the hair is altered, (in different ways) but for people whose hair can tolerate those treatments, the result is hair that is much easier to "manage" in the way they want to manage it. So for the baking soda treatments - the surface of your hair is being altered in a way that makes it more hydrophilic (water-attracting) and also in a way that makes conditioners bond to it more readily. That is going to change how your hairs interact with each other, with conditioner, and with styling products. Water-attracting hair means the water-based gel won't be repelled.
      The clay washes have just a little bit of friction or "grip" (think of rubbing flannel between your fingers). That friction is really helpful in getting your curls to "cling" together and work as a team to have better definition.

      As you carry on with baking soda, it's probably a good idea to mix it with yogurt or conditioner because the ends probably need that protection (when I test hair in baking soda, conditioner buffers the baking soda a little and yogurt buffers it a lot because it helps being the pH down).
      You might try this in all sorts of variations - skip the weekly Cherry Lola treatment and see what result you get with a deep conditioning and clay wash. Or do the Cherry Lola and skip the clay wash - find out which steps are having which effect.

      Here is the information about the effect of baking soda on hair from the low porosity post:
      "The probable explanation for the positive result some people get with baking soda mixtures is related to surface chemistry as well as porosity. The alkaline baking soda solution likely disrupts or breaks down the "F layer" containing 18-MEA (the lipid-rich epicuticle - see the beginning of this post). Once this has happened, the hair is no longer as hydrophobic (water-repelling). Hair becomes more hydrophilic (water-attracting). It becomes wet more easily. There is a disrupted lipid barrier (the epicuticle is degraded or removed) that was slowing the movement of water in and out. As a result, the hair will bond with more of whichever cationic conditioner you apply. At least the first time you use conditioner after the alkaline treatment. This still isn't porosity, it's surface chemistry. You lose the natural lipid layer and replace it with commercial conditioner. Conditioners have different textural and aesthetic qualities from the oils that were on your hair before.
      Some people report a similar effect with bleached or highlighted hair - that it holds a curl better as a result of the treatment - and for very similar reasons. Sometimes alkaline solutions give hair a slippery feeling - alkaline solutions tend to feel slippery in general - they're dissolving the oils on your hair and skin, sort of turning them into soap. It's a similar chemical process. After repeated use, alkaline solutions may leave your hair more porous overall because there is exchange of solutes in the hair for alkaline solution while the alkaline solution is on your hair. Proceed with caution when using acids and alkaline ingredients on your hair and scalp. If you notice a problem, please consider taking a break from these ingredients.

    2. I'm glad you enjoy the blog! I hope that helps.

    3. Thank you so much for responding so quickly! It's true, my hair is a lot easier to handle after the treatments. I've tried both the clay and cherry lola separately and in my case it seems they work best in tandem. I'll pH test the Cherry Lola and let you where it ends up. I just got a trim and my hair is in the best shape it's been since I started this journey almost a decade ago. Thanks for helping my understand a bit of the 'why'! All the best! -A