Sulphate + Silicone Free Hair Care: What I’ve Learnt

After baking, I probably spend more time thinking about my hair than anything else (sorry husband, child etc). This interest is fairly recent – since August 2014 to be exact, when I took the plunge and went from having the whitest, most platinum-blonde locks imaginable to deepest, darkest brunette. After seventeen years of blasting my hair several times a year with sessions involving not one, but two doses of high volume peroxide, my yearning for Debbie Harry-inspired hair had subsided. I no longer felt excited by my punky mane and I’d secretly hankered after mysterious, long dark locks for a while. My mind was finally made up during a summertime binge-watching session of Hemlock Grove with my best friend Matt, who casually remarked about the (ok, very slight) similarity between me and Famke Janssen, the lead of the show. Well, despite playing a blood-sucking vampire with fairly dubious morals, she had outrageously gorgeous hair and I needed no further pushing towards the hairdresser’s chair. (I’m getting somewhere with this, I promise). My lovely hairdressers warned me that there would be no turning back. I would never get my hair back to mega-blonde. I was ready. We did it. And I LOVED it. Instantly!

(Hair heroes! Left: Perfect hair / Right: Also perfect hair)

The problem was, I wanted long, high gloss waves. My newly brunette mane was shoulder length, my fringe needed growing out and many years of harsh chemicals had – how can I put this delicately? – utterly ravaged my hair. The ends were straw-like and thin from breakage and although the colour was glorious, I knew I needed to put in a lot of work to get advert-worthy swishy shiny hair.

(Left: Last days as a peroxide blonde / Right: Newly brunette!)

The following two years saw me using more hair products than you can shake a stick at. I used salon branded products, specialist products and ones which claimed miracle growth rates. I used pre-wash treatments, oil treatments, gloopy stuff between the shampooing and conditioning, finishing creams, balms and oils. I used so many products (all designed for fragile, depleted hair like mine) that I had to draw up a rota so I could monitor usage. It was ridiculous and I was like a woman possessed. New, baby-fine hair began to appear around my hairline, which was a good indication my scalp was recovering from years of self-inflicted blistering damage, but despite all the expense and effort, my hair wasn’t growing any faster and actually looked increasingly lank and dull. The day I ran out of space on my two bathroom shelves AND the cupboard under the sink was the final straw. I realised a dramatic change was required.

(Left: Growing! / Right: Female vs male summed up on shelves)

I started researching kinder options for my hair. My own hair is fine. I have quite a lot of it, but it is very fine. Weighing it down with product build-up was my first concern, so I decided to eliminate all the ‘extras’ and simply swap to a more natural shampoo and conditioner. I had always liked the look of the Dr Organic range at Holland and Barrett, and heard great things about their coconut oil products. Enthusiastically, I used the shampoo and conditioner but was fairly horrified by the initial results. After drying, my hair looked peculiarly waxy and greasy. I persevered, sticking with my Dr Organic set (because I’m a sucker for coconut!) although I also continued to use a commercial conditioning styling spray. Time and time again my hair looked heavy and frankly awful. I looked at other reviews of sulphate/silicone free products; it appeared I wasn’t alone, although I couldn’t find a good explanation.

Not to be disheartened, I researched and found the likely reason for this: silicone residue. Silicone coats the hair and weighs it down (and obviously more noticeably in thin/fine hair). It is found in most commercial conditioners and conditioning styling products, and the build-up means you must use a shampoo containing sulphates to get it off. The harsh sulphates strip the hair and you condition it again – the common cycle. So my gentle Dr Organic shampoo didn’t stand a chance of getting it off. Common sense told me to start from scratch; I used a clarifying shampoo to thoroughly remove all traces of previous products and I tried again with the Dr Organic shampoo and conditioner, avoiding all my extra conditioning styling products. I was overjoyed – my hair looked clean, shiny, bouncy and thicker! A one-off clarifying shampoo had worked wonders, and I haven’t needed to use it again as the kinder products do not appear to leave any residue. I’m sure silicones make sense for some hair types, but they absolutely weren’t working for me.

(Left: Bouncier hair! Right: Recovering and sl-o-o-o-wly thickening after regular trims)

Additionally, my hair fall has reduced considerably. I use a plughole strainer in the bath to monitor hair fall (not blocking pipes is a bonus) so I could see almost instantly that the breakage and shedding had at least halved. As I continue my silicone and sulphate free journey, my hair density is slowly – but very definitely – increasing. My fine locks will never be a lustrous mane like you see in magazines – but you know what? I’m 99.9% sure the vast majority of that hair has been boosted by extensions, something I have no real plans to dabble in. I’m quite content knowing my hair is healthy and steadily improving. I am also using sulphate, silicone and paraben-free products on my 6 year old daughter’s hair. She has fine, curly hair and they work excellently for her.

  • When using sulphate/silicone free products for the first time, use a clarifying shampoo first (or try an apple cider vinegar/ACV rinse) to remove all previous product build-up
  • Be aware of silicones in additional conditioning styling creams, spray, balms etc. Your sulphate-free shampoo will not be able to remove them and this will make your hair appear greasy after washing
  • Silicones contained in the ingredients are listed under a few different names. Anything ending in ‘-cone’ should be avoided
  • Try making a homemade conditioning cream! I like using pure aloe vera gel mixed with a few drops of organic sunflower oil. I use it sparingly on my dry ends – it smooths the hair and tidies it up between washes without weighing my hair down
  • Organic, unrefined coconut or sunflower oils make wonderful deep-conditioning, natural hair treatments suitable for all hair types. About once a month I gently warm a couple of tablespoons of oil and spread evenly over my (dampened) hair. I wrap it up and try to leave it for at least a few hours
  • When hair washing after an oil treatment, try using conditioner first, then shampoo, then conditioner again. The conditioner acts like a magnet and loosens the oil from the hair shaft, making shampoo more efficient (there’s a scientific reason for this but I’m not nearly clever enough to explain it – it does work though!)
  • Avoid washing your hair daily. There’s really no need. I wash my hair twice a week. A quick blast of dry shampoo keeps it bouncy and grease-free on the second or third day
  • If your hair is damaged (particularly the ends) you really will need to trim it regularly. In my case, I have been having 1-2 inches of hair cut off each time I see my hairdresser (about 3-4 times a year.) It has taken almost three years, but most of my old bleached hair has been removed and I have also managed to grow my hair considerably longer. With each trim, my hair feels quite a bit thicker, as the thin and damaged ends become less noticeable. Really, I should have had a huge chunk taken off at the start of this process, but I couldn’t face it – which is why it has taken many trims instead. It’s horrible cutting hair off when you’re trying to grow it – but it’s definitely necessary, and worth it in the end!

If you’re going down the sulphate/silicone free hair care route, let me know your experience below! I’d love to know how it’s worked for you and any products you’d recommend.

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