A history of No-Poo is a history of the world! Commercial shampoo wasn’t invented until the twentieth century, so for the vast majority of human history people used either local concoctions or didn’t wash at all. The word for shampoo is derived from the from the Hindi chāmpo (चाँपो) and was brought into the English language during the colonial era.
Interesting note: The Hindi word chāmpo (चाँपो) is itself derived from the Sanskrit root chapati (चपति). So shampoo shares the same etymological origin as unleavened flatbread!
As for our ancestors, they had a number of different approaches to haircare. Ancient Egyptians found the very idea of hair unhygienic and shaved it all off! In the Indian subcontinent a very effective early shampoo was made by boiling Sapindus with dried Indian gooseberry (amla) and a selection of other herbs, using the strained extract.
Beginning in 1914 shampoo began to be commercialised. First by Kasey Hebert and then more famously under Hans Schwarzkopf. Originally, soap and shampoo were very similar products; both containing the same naturally derived surfactants, a type of detergent. These early commercialised shampoos were incredibly damaging, leading to the quip “I can’t go out; I’m washing my hair!”. As such, shampooing was limited to once a week.
Starting in the 1970’s several ad campaigns began to push the idea that it was necessary to shampoo daily. Commercials featuring hair icons Farrah Fawcett and Christie Brinkley confidently asserted that frequent shampooing was the future.
This coincided with an increased use of sulfates in shampoos. Sulfates are found in a variety of products, from shampoo to dish liquid and laundry detergent. When used in shampoo, ingredients like sodium lauryl sulfate essentially amplify the effects of the shampoo, allowing it to more effectively strip away the oil in your hair.
Sulfates are closely linked with damage to hair protein. In fact, one study from 2005 shows that hair immersed in a sodium dodecyl sulfate solution loses two times as much protein as hair immersed in water. This can lead to split ends, breakage and hair that is difficult to manage.
The 2020 coronavirus pandemic has led to surge of interest on google as to how to transition away from shampoo. Numerous forums exist discussing life without shampoo, with a reddit forum hosting over 40,000 members. A related movement called “low-poo” has also encouraged to move towards less damaging shampoos and more infrequent washing.
It is unlikely we’ll be seeing the end to commercial shampoo anytime soon. But the market for homemade formulas and more ethical cleaning products has grown massively. And that has to be a positive!