As you may have guessed from earlier posts*, I have been on an on-going mission to find simple hair care products. When I mean simple, I mean a shampoo and conditioner that contain only what is necessary to make them functional and effective. In the world of hair care, this is like finding a needle in a haystack.
The vast majority of hair care products on the market have long ingredient lists filled with fragrance, essential oils, waxes, and oils. This is true of both conventional products and green/eco-branded products, the main difference being that conventional products are heavy on silicones whereas green/eco products replace the silicones with plant oils and waxes.
There is a long backstory to this quest. For many years, I used various hair care products and although my hair looked fine, my scalp and the skin along the hairline around the back of my head told a different story: my scalp would begin to itch about 36 hours after shampooing, and I would constantly get infected/blocked pores that resembled cystic acne (horrible but true!). I blamed my own faulty DNA rather than the products I was using. In my late 20s, I began to use Kiehl's All-Sport Everyday Shampoo, which at the time, was one of the simplest shampoos I could find. It improved matters somewhat but I still got itchy scalp and the occasional infected/blocked pore along the hairline. Sadly for me, a few years after I started using it, Kiehl's was taken over by L'Oréal, and the formula was changed to a more conventional one with stronger surfactants that dried out my hair when I tried it out. I bought up the remaining stock of the Kiehl's old formulation left in the city, but in the meantime I started looking for alternatives.
When I had my first child and I started eliminating products with suspect chemicals from my cosmetic collection, I decided to give Neal's Yard Remedies Baseline Shampoo a try (see earlier review). My scalp problems disappeared very soon after I began using it and for the first time in decades, my hair and scalp felt completely healthy and comfortable. (As an aside, I tried going back to the Kiehl's old-formulation shampoo and found that it made my scalp itch like crazy. No more Kiehl's for me!)
Over the past few years, I have heard similar stories from other women about constantly itching scalp, and infected pores on the scalp and hairline. So, from my experience, and from anecdotal evidence from others, I have come to the conclusion that simple is most definitely best when it comes to hair care.
Up until the beginning of this year, I had been relying on my stockpile of Neal's Yard Remedies Baseline Shampoo. Sometime in 2011, Neal's Yard decided to replace the Baseline shampoo with something called Create Your Own Shampoo & Body Wash. As most of the NYR products I have tested in the past have been decent, I trusted that this new product would be okay. Boy, was I wrong. Whoever created this formulation obviously never tested it on hair. It is nearly impossible to use as a shampoo, refusing to spread easily even with water added (it felt like my hair was turning to concrete while I was trying to work it in) and it was next to impossible to lather up. My hair felt dull and dried out afterwards, and worse, it got dirty within a day of washing.
Next, I tried Nature Clean's Pure-Sensitive Shampoo, but found it was also too harsh. The corresponding Pure-Sensitive conditioner was far too light, and did little to make my hair feel softer. So, I was back on the hunt.
A few months ago, I was browsing the body care section of Noah's Natural Foods, a Toronto-based health food store, when I noticed a brand of hair products that I had never seen before. The first thing I automatically do when I spot a new brand is to take a look at the ingredient list. Green/eco shampoos usually contain at the very least, a dozen or more ingredients. However, all of these products had less than 10 ingredients in the list. None of them contained the usual cocktail of essential oils and plant extracts typically found in green/eco hair care products; all of them are unscented. Intrigued, I picked out a few things to try out and after initial tests were hugely successful, I went back for more. After a few months of testing, here are my reviews, in the order in which they were tested.
Curelle Hydra Shampoo and Energé Shampoo
Curelle Riche Conditioner
|Curelle Riche Conditioner;|
The descriptions on the shampoos and conditioners may be a little confusing for people used to the standard hair care categories, but I figured out that each of the shampoos and conditioners comes in two grades, regular and moisturizing/conditioning. The Hydra shampoo is for those with drier hair and scalp types, as it contains additional conditioning ingredients compared to Energé. The Energé shampoo is meant for those with normal to oily hair/scalp types. Likewise, Riche conditioner is a richer conditioner than the TrésLite.
Seeing as my hair was still a little fried from the Nature Clean and NYR shampoos, I tried the Hydra shampoo first. If you are used to conventional shampoos, this shampoo will take some getting used to: it appears as a clear, colourless gel with no scent. It lathers up readily but it does not build up to the thick foam you will get from a conventional shampoo. I noticed right away that it was much easier to apply and work through the hair than the NYR and Nature Clean shampoos, and that my hair, even while wet, felt softer and more relaxed.
The "hallelujah" moment came when I tried out the Riche conditioner - when I first applied it to the hair ends, I could literally feel my hair relaxing and going all soft under my hands. A small dollop, just enough to fit on a nickel, is all that is needed.
Afterwards, my hair felt very soft and healthy - not as glossy as it would be with a conventional silicone-based conditioner, but given that this does not contain silicones, I wasn't expecting that. After about a month of using this combination, my hair and scalp felt really healthy. The main downside was that I noticed that the roots would start looking dirty within 24 hours after washing, which meant having to use a dry shampoo to get through the second day.
Brian Curelle, the owner of Curelle, suggested I try Energé Shampoo, which does not contain the additional conditioning agent that the Hydra Shampoo contains (in the ingredient list, this is the hydrolysed oats). While washing with Energé, I could feel my hair swelling up with water. The addition of the Riche conditioner helps soften and smooth the hair, but afterwards, my hair did not look as shiny as with the Hydra shampoo. However, after one night of sleeping on it, my hair looked and felt as good as it did before. The major upside is that my hair can now go for 2-3 days without washing! I now only have to wash my hair about twice a week.
While testing these shampoos, I noticed that on humid days, my hair would puff up in a huge frizzy ball, especially while using Energé. This is because these products do not contain silicones, found in nearly all conventional hair products. Besides making hair very glossy and smooth, silicones also form a waterpoof seal that prevents water from entering the hair shaft and swelling it up (making it go all frizzy). The frizzy hair is something you should be prepared for if you have never used a silicone-free hair product. To guard against the frizzies, I apply a few drops of argan oil to the hair ends while hair is still damp.
When the weather turns dry this fall, I plan try out the combination of Hydra Shampoo with TrésLite conditioner.
So, what makes these shampoos and conditioner so special? Let's take a look at the ingredient lists:
Hydra Shampoo: Purified water, decyl polyglucose, sodium coco oat amino acids^, sucrose cocoate, hydrolysed oats (Avena sativa), xanthan gum, panthenol, Lonicera japonica, citric acid.
Energé Shampoo: Purified water, decyl polyglucose, sodium coco oat amino acids^, sucrose cocoate, xanthan gum, panthenol, Lonicera japonica, citric acid.
Riche Conditioner: Distilled water, behentrimonium methosulphate, hydrolysed oats (Avena sativa), cetearyl alcohol, Lonicera japonica.
^correct name is "sodium cocoyl oat amino acids"
It's what they lack that makes these products stand out from the crowd. None of these products contain the slew of fragrances, plant extracts, silicones, oils, and waxes typically found in hair products. They only contain what is necessary to make them do their job and nothing more. The shampoos contain water, surfactant, conditioning agents and preservative; the conditioner contains only water, conditioning agents and preservative. All contain panthenol, a provitamin of Vitamin B5, which is required for healthy hair growth and is known to boost hair volume.
Both shampoos contain decyl polyglucose as the main surfactant and cleansing agent; it is vegetable-derived and a very mild surfactant that provides a gentle level of cleansing. Sodium cocoyl oat amino acids is a surfactant with some conditioning properties (i.e. coating the hair and smoothing down the cuticle), and the Hydra shampoo contains an additional conditioning agent in the form of hydrolysed oat protein.
The Riche conditioner contains only three conditioning agents, behentrimonium methosulphate, hydrolysed oats and cetearyl alcohol. All three are vegetable-derived and provide mild conditioning and moisturizing.
All of the hair products as well as the body care products I will be featuring in part 2 of this review employ a highly unusual preservative, Lonicera japonica, better known as Japanese honeysuckle. Extracts of Japanese honeysuckle have been found to have a powerful antimicrobial function that make it an effective cosmetic preservative, yet so far it does not appear to have any of the drawbacks associated with parabens, phenoxyethanol or the formaldehyde-releasing preservatives that are commonly used in liquid hair care products. I will be discussing Lonicera japonica in more detail in Part 2.
Curelle Build-Up Remover
Ingredient list: Water, xanthan gum, inosositol^^, magnesium salicylate.
^^correct chemical name is "inositol"
In hair care products, there is a category known as "clarifying" shampoos, which are meant to rid your hair of the build-up of residues. Residue build-up causes hair to look dull and limp, and it is usually from conditioners, styling products, mineral residues from tap water, and chlorine from swimming pools. It is a particular problem if you happen to use silicone-based conditioners and styling products, especially those that contain non-volatile silicones like dimethicone. These are very difficult to wash off with regular shampoo. As a result, most clarifying shampoos contain a high concentration of strong detergent, typically sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate, to strip off the residue. I tried clarifying shampoos a few times in the past but my hair looked and felt awful afterwards, like straw.
Curelle's Build-Up Remover is a highly unusual product as it does not contain any detergent. Instead, it is a water-based gel of inositol and magnesium salicylate. According to Brian Curelle, this product can be used to remove build-up of copper, calcium, lead and iron from tap water and chlorine from pool water. He believes that these residues can act as oxidants that can damage hair.
Inositol is a poly alcohol (polyol) based on cyclohexane (see the 6 member carbon ring in the structure below). It is naturally occurring in both plants and animals.
the most common form of inositol found in nature.
With its multiple alcohol (-OH) groups in a fixed cyclic structure, inositol is capable of chelating metal ions, such as those found in tap water.
In this formulation, magnesium salicylate appears to be used as a keratolytic (a compound that softens keratin, which is the major structural protein of hair and the outer layer of the epidermis), as well as a preservative. By softening the keratin of the hair cuticle and the scalp, magnesium salicylate would theoretically help to remove residue build-up. However, as this is the magnesium salt of salicylic acid, it has the same medicinal properties as salicylic acid itself. In general, salicylates are not recommended for use during pregnancy and nursing and there is a strong warning against use in young children and babies. Brian** has advised that the concentration of magnesium salicylate is so low as to present minimal risk to the end user. However, I feel that pregnant/nursing women should be aware of its presence so that they can make the judgement call. With regards to young children, parents will need to weigh benefits versus any potential risk; if they choose to use it, parents may want to exercise caution, as there is the chance it may be ingested or get in the eyes while washing the hair. People who are sensitive or allergic to salicylates should also be aware of its presence.
I use this perhaps once a week. The most noticeable effect was when I first started using the Curelle products a few months ago, as it amped up the cleaning effect. At the moment, after 3 months of using only Curelle products, it doesn't produce such a noticeable effect - probably a good sign that my hair isn't as weighed down as it was before!
The Science of Hair
Before going on any further, let's talk a little bit about hair structure and how it grows. Hair grows from follicles found in the dermis.
The hair bulb contains actively dividing cells, which form the hair shaft. As these cells divide, the daughter cells form on top, so that each generation of new cells moves further up. As the cells migrate upwards, they transform, losing internal structure, filling with keratin protein, and eventually dying off as they move further away from the nourishment provided by the capillaries found in the papilla. The hair shaft itself is dead, composed of cell remnants filled with bundles of keratin.
The hair shaft is composed of two and sometimes three distinct regions: (1) the cuticle, (2) the cortex and (3) the medulla (which may or may not be present). The cortex makes up the bulk of the hair shaft and contains bundles of keratin fibres and packets of melanin pigment which provide hair colour. The most basic structure of these fibres is formed from three coiled alpha-helix polypeptide chains. Besides keratin, the cortex also contains lipids and water. The cuticle looks like overlapping fish scales, all pointing towards the hair end. In healthy hair, lipids secreted from the sebaceous gland attached to the hair follicle help lubricate the cortex, giving it pliancy. These lipids also help seal the cuticle so that all the "scales" lie flat against the hair shaft. When the scales of the cuticle lie flat, it helps to seal in the water and lipid content of the cortex. As a result, hair is pliant and shiny in appearance.
Although sebum is required for healthy hair, it also collects dirt and contaminants from the environment. Cleansing is required every so often to remove build-up of dirt and residues from tap water, pool water (if you swim) and hair products. When hair is shampooed, the hair shaft swells with water and the scales of the cuticle curl up. As a result, hair that has only been shampooed but not treated with a conditioner, often feels rough to the touch. A good shampoo will contain surfactants that remove dirt and residues, but it should not strip hair of its naturally occurring lipid content, so it should also contain a conditioning agent that protects the hair while shampooing. (The NYR Create Your Own and Nature Clean Pure-Sensitive shampoos that I tested earlier don't have this conditioning agent, hence the crispy hair!)
|Scanning electron micrograph of hair cuticle of healthy hair compared with damaged hair.|
When hair has been subjected to environmental damage (e.g. chemical treatment, sun exposure), the scales of the cuticle will also curl up. When the cuticle is in this state, the cortex will be prone to drying out and damage to the integrity of the keratin fibers.
Because of the chemical composition of keratin, hair naturally has an overall negative charge; this negative charge is apparent after shampooing. Conditioners typically contain positively charged compounds that are attracted to negatively charged amino acid residues in keratin fibres.
Other popular ingredients in conditioners include silicones, oils and waxes, all of which coat the cuticle and smooth it down, as well as providing a measure of waterproofing. Silicones provide the highest coating level but are also the most difficult to wash off afterwards and there are environmental concerns about some of the silicones currently in use. Another commonly used conditioning agent is hydrolyzed vegetable proteins, which act as humectants and can also form transient bonds with the proteins that make up the hair shaft, thus increasing the volume of the hair shaft.
Finally, panthenol is a highly useful ingredient in hair products. Panthenol is a provitamin of Vitamin B5. It has been shown to increase hair volume when used in hair products: it binds to the hair shaft, and acts as an emollient and a humectant, thus helping to retain moisture in the hair shaft.
Simple is Best
Now that you know a little about the science of hair, I think you can appreciate why I think simple is best when it comes to hair care. I am convinced that the mainstream philosophy on hair care is completely wrong-headed. Conventional brands would have you douse your hair in silicones and synthetic fragrance. Meanwhile, green/eco brands would have you douse your hair in plant extracts and oils. Neither approach actually does much good for your hair and scalp. In most cases, all these products do is build up on the hair and scalp, and cause irritation, acne and allergic reactions. In that sense, Curelle products are revolutionary: they are truly simple and effective, and contain only what is needed to clean and condition the hair. Nothing more and nothing less is present in each formulation. If you have sensitive skin or allergies, Curelle is the brand to try. The shampoos and conditioners are also ideal for use on babies and young children. I can't recommend these products highly enough. These products are so good, I have started buying the economy 500 mL size bottles (excellent value at $17.50!).
I was so taken with this brand that I contacted the company via their Facebook page to find out more about the products and if I could have the chance to chat with the formulator(s). Brian Curelle, the owner/founder and creator of the products, responded to my message, and I asked him lots of questions about his brand. I will feature my email interview with him in Part 2. For now, I will say that he had mentioned that when developing the hair products, he gave them to hair stylists to test on their clients. He felt that it was important that products perform just as well as conventional hair care products that you would typically find in a salon. He noted that all of the stylists he gave the products to like them and continue to use them. Wanting to test this for myself, I took the Curelle products with me to Blo Bar and had the stylist use them instead of the house brand hair products. After the hair wash, she did a blow-out. Guess what? The Curelle products worked just as well as any salon product, and my hair looked great. Big plus: no scent! (One of my pet peeves with going to a salon is that my hair is enveloped in a cloud of perfume afterwards.) Although the stylist seemed doubtful at first (she wrinkled her nose and said, "is this a natural brand? I've never heard of it"), I think she was really impressed with the results too and asked quite a few questions about it afterwards.
Next up in Part 2: Curelle Body Lotion and Body Wash, and my email interview with Brian Curelle.
All of the above products are approximately $10 for 250 mL, and $17.50 for 500 mL. Curelle is available in health food stores across B.C. and Alberta, and in select health food stores across the rest of Canada. See the Curelle Facebook page for further information; leave a message to find retailers in your area.
All products purchased by me; all opinions are my own. Photos by M. H.
**Editorial note: The above statements regarding magnesium salicylate have been revised in light of Brian Curelle's comments regarding the working concentration of magnesium salicylate found in the Build-Up Remover.
*In case you are interested, see these earlier posts on hair care: