As you might recall with the very first Village Witch scenario, The Miller’s Daughter, I had counseled the fictional Eileen to try a hair rinse for her strawberry blond hair. She was to combine 1 cup of dried stinging nettle leaves and 2 cups of apple cider vinegar in a large bottle, let the herbs steep for at least 2 weeks, then strain them out of the vinegar. She was then to add 1 tablespoon of the vinegar to 1 cup of water and pour it through her hair after washing and rinsing.
When I had written that, part of me was rolling my eyes. The Village Witch series is just a little bit like being part of the Society for Creative Anachronism: nice to learn a smattering of what the ‘olden days’ were like, but rather impractical for modern day to day life. I could see the vinegar rinse as being useful in combating hard water back then, but that would hardly be necessary today with the prevalence of water softeners and municipal water treatment. Moreover, I thought the vinegar would probably be really harsh on the hair and lead to breakage if the pH wasn’t neutralized by the calcium and magnesium deposits in hard water, so I filed that information away in the “never going to use this in a million years” drawer in my mind.
But then I needed to get my hair cut, and seeing as I was in Pennsylvania and not Oregon, I went to Angelitto–the hair genius who’s been doing the hair of pretty much every woman and most of the men in my family for almost as long as I can remember. He’s also been in an on/off relationship with my aunt ever since she and her last husband split, but that’s besides the point. This incredibly charismatic Italian man knows hair better than anyone I’ve ever known. Not only is he amazing with his scissors, he can run his hands through your hair once and tell you exactly what type of products you use. No joke. When I sat down in his chair, all his assistants and other stylists were crooning over me, saying they couldn’t believe how healthy my hair was. Angelitto? Not so much.
“What is this! You shampoo every day? Breakage formula?”
“No. This is bad. The shampoo, it is detergent. It takes all the oils off your head, and your head makes even more to catch up. This is why you are flat, flat flat at your roots and your ends are dry. You cannot do this with your fine hair. You have no body! I will cut your hair to help, but you need to stop the shampoo!”
I think my mouth dropped, because I felt that my ends were wonderful. I kid you not–my hair felt better than silk. He was definitely right about my roots, though. I couldn’t go very long between shampoos, or my hair looked very oily. In fact, if I took a shower in the morning and had an event to go to in the evening, I might take a second shower. Angelitto recommended trying to train my head to accept a shampoo every other day. He promised that if I could do this for two weeks, I’d be fine.
I lasted five days. I just couldn’t take it. Not only was my hair abysmally oily, but it made my face oily, too and I started to get a little breakout.
At this point, I went back to my shampoo and conditioner, but I started poking around the Internet for other ways to wash my hair, but help maintain the natural oils. I soon discovered shampoo bars, which are basically bars of soap, but formulated to be kinder to your hair than your typical Irish Spring or Ivory. They also don’t strip your hair totally clean of sebum like detergents do.
My first thought was “how could you put soap on your head?!” but my second thought was “Duh.” After all, shampoos as we know them have really only been around since about WWII. Naturally people would have used soap to wash their hair before then. This also made the vinegar rinses I’d learned about in researching my answer to Eileen’s problem in the Village Witch series make a little more sense. Unlike commercial shampoos, which are largely pH balanced, soaps have a slightly basic pH: somewhere between 8 and 9. The higher pH raises the hair cuticle and can introduce breakage and tangles. However, if you finish up by rinsing in a weak acid–which vinegar is–the hair cuticle closes up. And here I was thinking the vinegar counteracted hard water (or maybe acted as a preservative for the different herbs)!
I continued to research shampoo bars and stumbled upon a forum for women trying to grow their hair very long, which requires that you keep your hair in very good health. As it turned out, many of these women were fans of shampoo bars! More specifically, many of them had fallen in love with the bars produced by Chagrin Valley Soap. Chagrin Valley is a really small Ohio company–I think it’s run entirely by one woman and her mother–and they create all natural products in small batches. They also eschew crazy packaging and all plastics: they wrap their soap in brown paper bags and mail them in space efficient Priority Mail Envelopes.
As I read over the ingredients for their soaps, I realized that I could pretty much get all of them at either my local grocery store or a nearby natural foods store. Given my cooking abilities and science background, I would probably have no major problems creating my own soaps.
At this point, something clicked. If I could make and use my own soaps and body products, I could do something really great for the world. I would be reducing my dependence upon chemicals and chemical production, upon plastics, and upon the transportation (or petroleum) needed to basically ship bottles of water from their production plant to a nearby store. After all, liquid soaps are actually mostly water, and I’ve got oodles of that right at home. I could also tweak my soap recipes for different magical purposes with great ease: after all, it’s not so difficult to incorporate an herbal tea instead of water or add some essential oils.
Before I bought the cow and learned soapcraft, though, I thought maybe I should sample the milk first and see how I reacted to the soaps. After all, I’ve been a diehard liquid soap/detergent user my whole life. Proctor and Gamble might be able to fund entire divisions based upon my purchasing habits alone. (Incidentally, William Proctor was a candlemaker and James Gamble was a soapmaker.)
When I returned to Eugene, I placed an order with Chagrin Valley (because, in addition to being the source of my epiphany and so highly favored by the Long Hair Forum, they’re also cheap and offer cheaper samples. Full sized bars, which are huge, are about $7.35. Sample bars, which are maybe half the size of a bar of Ivory, are $2.30.). I ended up with samples of 5 shampoo bars: Carrot Milk & Honey, Herb Garden, Chamomile & Citrus, Nettle, and Rosemary Mint. I had also read a review written by a woman who had keratosis pilaris (KP), which is a mild, harmless skin condition wherein you get little bumps on your arms, legs, or other parts of your body. They can be white or red colored. KP is pretty much a genetic dry skin condition. This woman said that she used Chagrin Valley’s Castile Calendula soap, and then switched to using their Butter Bar Conditioner as a soap and followed her shower by using their whipped shea butter. Within a week, her skin was drastically smoother. This interested me since I have KP, too, and I’ve got the red kind. So I added the soaps and a sample of the whipped shea to my order, too.
I melted together the Castile Calendula and Butter Bars and started using them as both my face and body soap. This alone was a huge step, since I am paranoid about getting blemishes and have fully credited my switching my face soap to Skyn Iceland’s Glacial Face Wash as what cured my chronic acne problems. I did notice the KP becoming fainter after a couple weeks even after I ran out of the whipped shea (which was incredible–I bought another local brand after I ran out and was so disappointed with it). Better yet, my face is looking dang good! I think I’ll enjoy not spending $30 on a bottle shipped from Iceland. The slight tightness I feel on my face just after a shower also helps remind me to use my moisturizer (even if I forget, the tightness soon fades in 10 minutes and my face feels great all day!)
I’ve only used one of the shampoo bars–the Carrot Milk & Honey bar. It’s been maybe 3 weeks, and I think my hair’s adjusted to the new routine. It definitely took about a week to wash the silicones out of my hair, and there were a few days about a week in where I had to ponytail it. Even though I’d had a haircut a month prior, I was shocked at how much end damage and splits I was feeling. I really don’t think this damage was caused by the shampoo bar, especially since Angelito commented on how dry my ends were under the silicone. It also took awhile to learn how to wash my hair and focus more on the scalp rather than the length and to work out a decent vinegar ratio. I also ended up buying a boar bristle brush. I now brush my hair before bed to help work the sebum down to the tips, and I brush again in the morning before my shower for the same reason. About once a week I also brush jojoba oil into the ends at night.
All I do is run my hands over the shampoo bar until I get a bit of lather, and then I massage the soap into my scalp (and get a lot of lather!). I run my fingers through my hair in case I got tangles. Then I thoroughly rinse my hair in the hot shower water, and I follow that by squirting a vinegar solution of 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar to 1 cup water through my hair. I let the vinegar rinse on as I was my face and body, and then I rinse everything. (I think my showers are a lot shorter with this routine than they were previously.) There’s absolutely no conditioner in this routine–and that is what I’ve been madly addicted to since the fourth grade when I started washing my hair daily (I think puberty was beginning for me then; that was also when I started shaving my legs and wearing deodorant).
Conditionerless though I may be, I don’t have a problem with tangles. Yes, my hair is a little dry at the damaged ends, but the rest of the hair is just as soft, silky, and shiny as it was with my shampoo/conditioner routine. And now that I’ve adjusted, my head isn’t a grease slick by 9 pm. I still definitely need a shampoo by morning, but I’m starting to see how I could train my hair to go every-other-day or so. Maybe I’ll try that over the Christmas break when I don’t have to stand in front of a class or meet with teachers and students every day! The most remarkable thing, though, is that my scalp isn’t itching when my hair gets oily anymore! Sometimes it would get so bad I’d scratch a spot raw. I don’t think I’ve had scalp itch since I started using the Chagrin Valley soaps!
Do I plan to take up soapcraft any time soon? No…I’ve got bigger worries on my plate. Maybe by next summer I’ll try my hand at a batch. Until then, I think I’m going to be very happy with the Chagrin Valley soaps. And their range is so wide, I’m sure I could charge an appropriate bar for any magical need I have!