Earlier this month, I wrote two articles for Black Girl with Long Hair about safely using heat on hair, and UV protecting hair during the Summer. Although my articles on The Mane Objective and BGLH are generally well-received, I caught an unusual amount of flack for the product/ingredient recommendations I made. Not because they were expensive or it appeared that I was name-dropping for endorsements, but because the products weren’t “natural”. As a blogger sometimes comments from readers can rub me the wrong way. But the more experience I get under my belt, I find myself looking for teachable moments and opportunities in the feedback from readers. These articles got my wheels turning, no doubt.
The responses from these articles raised an important question for me: just because we are all natural or on the natural journey, does that mean EVERYTHING that touches our tresses has to be 137.6% natural? If oils, juices and berries, butters, and dry shrubs can’t get the job done, does that mean all other options are off the table?
The Case for All-Natural
There’s no doubt about it, in our society of side-effects and all artificial everything, cozying up to anything born in a beaker can be scary. Harmful side effects at certain concentrations (and what manufacturer discloses how much propylene glycol they use?) coupled with ingredients you need a PhD in Material Science to pronounce make seeking out natural solutions almost a no-brainer. If coconut oil can seal my curls and help prevent water loss in my hair, do I really need to spend money on a curl sealing product that likely contains mineral oil or petrolatum? If Tea Tree Oil or BAQ Henna can keep my scalp conditions in check, do I really need salicylic acid or zinc pyrithione shampoo? The short answer is, of course not. When it comes to natural hair, our tresses tend to thrive under minimalist conditions: low-manipulation, gentle handling, etc. Using natural alternatives to the products that badly burned us before falls right in that vein. Instead of costly shampoos, many naturals use apple cider vinegar or Indian Healing Clay to cleanse. To help retain moisture, leave-ins containing aloe vera juice, oils, butters and more can be mixed up at the bathroom sink.
Along with going the au-naturale route comes the holistic benefits that the ingredients bring. Omegas, vitamins, nutrients, strengthening, follicle and scalp stimulation, elasticity, moisture, and more. Many of our favorite oils and butters have amazing nutritive and healing properties that beat out the most expensive shelf products on any given day. On top of that, they tend to be scores cheaper. I can nab all of my pure, unrefined natural hair essentials (shea butter, coconut oil, aloe vera juice, apple cider vinegar) for around $20 or less — and each one will last me months. The final benefit to all natural? No crazy side effects or potential toxicity down the road (will speak to a caveat to this soon). In many cases, the natural products used on the hair are just as good for the body –outside and in. Coconut oil can be used for hair, skin, nails, cooking, smoothies and more. Apple cider vinegar and aloe vera are purported to have amazing healing and disease-fighting properties.
The Case for Chemicals
Of course, natural is almost always going to be preferred to anything chemical‑y. But what about your favorite conditioner? Chances are it contains ingredients like cetyl, stearyl, or cetaryl alcohol. Sure, these creamy, fatty alcohols that make our hair feel baby smooth and make detangling a breeze are a dream. But did you know that these fatty alcohols (derived from coconut or palm oil) are created by heating said oils with a strong base such as lye (sodium hydroxide)? Even knowing this, you aren’t going to throw away all your conditioner bottles, or stop cowashing, right? Sometimes, we just have to accept that things we’ve been led to believe are horrendous actually aren’t so bad. Maybe you’ve just been told that certain things were no-no’s, without any basis in fact.
Honestly speaking, sometimes the inability to pronounce ingredients (let alone decipher what they mean) is off-putting. How many times have you stood on the haircare aisle at Target and skimmed the back of a product bottle saying “Water, ok… shea butter, ok… 18-mlkfgnudbidsgnuigpf — what the heck?!” I understand, it can get confusing. And what’s worse is sometimes ingredients just sound bad. For example, behentrimonium methosulfate. Doesn’t that just sound like something that can’t do a thing for your hair but make it dry and crunchy? Well, you couldn’t be more wrong. Turns out, behentrimonium methosulfate is neither drying nor a sulfate (like SLS). Behentrimonium methosulfate is actually a super gentle surfectant made from non-GMO (imagine that!) rapeseed (canola oil), and is one of the mildest detangling ingredients out there. It doesn’t cause buildup, or irritation to the scalp. Sounds like a dream ingredient to have in your conditioner — gentle cleansing and detangling without drying. And technically, it’s made from something you probably have in your kitchen.
And sometimes, there are things that natural oils, butters, and extracts can’t do. Case and point: heat protection. If you’re serious about preserving your curls, coils, and kinks, you’ve likely invested in a heat protecting spray or serum of some sort. Even more likely, that spray contains silicones. Why? Because cones simply put, are better at delaying or mitigating the transfer of heat from combs and irons to hair. Not saying that oils can’t do this, but just that silicones are better at it, and heat protectants tend to be formulated to withstand direct heat up to specific temperatures. For more about why you shouldn’t fear the big bad ‘cones, click here.
Things to Consider
Before you decide which side of the fence to sit on (I personally kicked in a few planks so I can go back and forth), there are a few things to consider:
1. The processing and source of natural ingredients. If you’re truly concerned about the potential health-harming impacts of synthetic ingredients, then you need to apply that same level of scrutiny to your natural product choices. Organic, non-GMO produce, cold-pressed virgin oils and butters, and making sure everything is 100% pure is always best. More expensive (sometimes), but best.
2. Be informed. By all means, there are some outright BAD ingredients out there. Drying alcohols are drying alcohols, and no amount of other ingredients can change that. Parabens are still of concern. Some love mineral oil and petrolatum/petroleum, and believe products like Miss Jessie’s and Blue Magic can do no wrong. Others believe the ingredients to be carcinogenic and cause irritation. Research the facts, and decide for yourself.
3. Mixing your own products can be fun, but there are two major considerations. One, making sure your mixtures work. Water and oil don’t mix, so no matter how much you whip and stir, eventually without an emulsifying agent, your concoction will separate. Take it from me, my flaxseed shea custard looked GROSS after 1.5 days. Two, the shelf life of DIY products tends to be much shorter than those sold in stores. This is because store bought options contain anti-fungal and anti-microbial agents — necessary for preserving the product, and fighting against the critters you leave behind whenever you stick your fingers in the product jar. If you’re going to DIY, seek out natural preservatives like Rosemary Extract and Tea Tree Oil.
As with everything, at the end of the day you have to do what works for you. If you choose to go the all-natural route, then by all means do so. Just don’t knock those who don’t think silcones and multi-syllabic ingredients are that bad — and vice versa. All of our hair is different, and responds differently to products. Some folks like the self-starter/DIY nature of natural hair, others would just rather scoop some products off the shelf at Target or Sally’s. Neither is right or wrong. Like I said before, I straddle both sides of the fence depending upon how I’m feeling. I love my DIY fluffy styling cream, ACV rinses, and flaxseed gel. But at the same time, my hair responds well to silicones, and some of my favorite products have “laboratory” written all over them… and that’s okay for me. What about you?
Which side of the Natural Hair Product Fence do you fall on? Do you use purely natural products, or do some “natural no-no’s” find their way into your product stash?