The Myth of a Myth: Brushing Your Hair 100 Times

This is my favorite entry of The Pragmatic Costumer. The writer, Liz, makes excellent points about how the modern brushes and shampoos/conditioners/styling products simply do not reflect historic methods, and marketing has actually changed how we style our hair over the decades.

I’ve had my own odyssey with hair care as I’ve aged, and always hated styling products. Transforming myself into a reasonable facsimile of a woman in the 1890s goes far beyond getting a great dressmaker. Grooming takes center stage, and is very different than most 21st century women would find comfortable. I make some small compromises, but endeavor to be as authentic as possible.

When I was in the early stages of planning my first-person presentations, Meet Laura Ingalls Wilder, I began growing my hair. I was putting together many necessary elements for a portrayal that was as close to accurate as possible, considering that Laura herself left behind great descriptions of her clothing when she was a teenager, but little of her appearance as a married woman with a half-grown child, a farm full of hard work and a flock of chickens to tend. I wanted my wardrobe and grooming to be as close to what she and other women of her taste and means and practical needs might have done as possible, but also to maintain a level of practicality that would translate for travel and everyday life. I knew I had a challenge. I have always had very oily, straight but unevenly-textured, mostly fine (but tons of it) hair. So, with the help of a great hairdresser and some experimentation, I expanded upon my earlier commitment to reduce damaging habits and products.

I had first eliminated any products with alcohols or silicones and other plastics about 15 years ago, and rarely touch even gels or other styling products. But to get my hair to maintain a healthy apppearance and grow well without split ends, I had to commit to regularly scheduled trims. That is simply a fact for certain hair types like mine. I also had to put the hairdryer down. More often than I wanted to. And, I had to buy better tools. But, by also by following a few more of the “always” and “nevers” of hair care, I found I could grow it to be the healthiest it has ever been since I was about seven years old. Here are some basics:

-ALWAYS brush hair before going to sleep. NEVER sleep with clips, barrettes, braids, or hair ties in your hair (it tugs and tears at the hair as your head moves on the pillow).

-NEVER use shampoos or conditioners which contain sulfates. You don’t need a lather to get it clean! Sulfates dry your hair and encourage breakage.

-NEVER use a brush in wet hair. A wide-toothed comb is gentler.

-ALWAYS avoid a hair dryer when possible/practical. If you must use one, get one with a “cold shot” setting and only use that setting. It will lessen damage.

-NEVER let your hair loose if the weather is very windy. The tangled mess will be difficult to untangle without damage; not worth it!

It took me 5 years to get to a length that works for all aspects of my life and isn’t too impractical for everyday. I compromised by keeping the length at the lower middle of my back, and use a carefully-matched switch to add realistic (and historically-accurate!) volume to my 1890s hairstyle.

Photos to follow!

The Pragmatic Costumer

A Tiny Bit of Historical Hair Care for the Modern Woman

Young Teenage Girl with Sausage Curls, circa 1860

I have very greasy hair and always have. It’s also fine, but dry at the ends, so I have to cleanse it every day yet hydrate it with heavy creams. Recently, I’ve delved into the world of alternative haircare. In my case, I’ve taken up co-washing, which uses conditioner as a “shampoo” that doesn’t strip hair as badly as regular shampoo. It’s basically alternative hair care for casuals, but so far, it’s been working pretty well! A lot of alternative haircare methods remind me a lot of pre-20th century haircare methods. Before the great hygiene shift created by 20th century marketing, women didn’t just style their hair differently than we do; they cared for their hair differently, too.

Lotta Crabtree, an American Actress
One of her defining physical features was…

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4 comments on “The Myth of a Myth: Brushing Your Hair 100 Times

  1. Sheryl says:

    Great advice–This post reminds me that my mother used to say that if I washed my hair every day that my scalp would provide more oil and I’d need to continue to wash it every day–and that if I’d wash it less frequently that my scalp would produce less oil.


    • Melanie S. says:

      Yes! But, there is also a major difference between using the standard sulfate-based shampoos and the much gentler formulas. When I switched to high-quality sulfate-free, alcohol-free, petroleum-free shampoos and conditioners I noticed within days that my hair was far more manageable. I experience virtually zero static all through the dry winter season, and have much softer, shinier hair than ever. I still wash daily, but whereas I used to need to wash it a second time if I was going out in the evening, because it looked dirty after 8 or 10 hours, now I can get through an entire work day and evening event without the second wash before dinner like I used to! It still is dirty by the next morning, but this is a huge improvement.

      Incidentally, skin care works the same way. Using a super-gentle creamy cleanser with no harsh ingredients, and limiting acne care to applying a spot treatment only on individual pimples will do wonders to repair damaged skin and prevent new breakouts. Back in my corporate days, I managed at a skin care company and we trained customers to try this approach for both hair and skin and they routinely had excellent results. I had several people come in after about a month of abandoning harsh products and implementing the new habits to show us how much better their skin/hair/both was. And it definitely worked for me, personally, as well.


  2. So no braiding hair at night? I’ve been braiding my hair as it gets longer so it doesn’t get all tangled at night. I thought it seemed gentler. I guess I should rethink that…


    • Melanie S. says:

      I used to do that, too, but my hairdresser advised against it. Sure enough, by brushing it out just before bed but leaving it unfettered, it seems to be less damaged. On the other hand, i find it is absolutley necessary to put it up or braid it if i am going to be outdoors in any sort of wind. And, if it does get tangled, the best remedy I’ve found is to use a wide – tooth comb with a ton of conditioner before trying to wash it. And of course, as always, NO alcohols, plastics, or other harsh ingredients in the conditioner. I’m regularly disappointed to see how many allegedly “professional” products are loaded with the same counter-productive junk ingredients as the $2 drugstore varieties. The best brands seem to be hiding out in the “natural foods” section of the grocery store! My favorite conditioner only costs about $6 for a 24-oz bottle, and it works wonders.


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