Ah, washing your hair. There’s nothing quite like the steamy, warm rush of water as you lather your scalp with soft suds. (Cue in steam and sound.)
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It’s simple to keep hair clean, right? Follow the steps. 1. Wash (get oil + product out), 2. Condition (put some oil back in), 3. Style (put some product back in), 4. Live your life for a while. 5. Repeat process.
But how often should you wash those lovely locks? It depends.
“Every person’s hair is different in terms of their age, ethnic background, activity level, and hair type — which all determine how often to wash your hair,” says dermatologist Shilpi Khetarpal, MD.
Age and hair oil
It really begins with the oil glands.
Depending on your age, the oil glands in your scalp will be more or less active.
“The oil glands are under the control of the androgens (male sex hormones). This is why younger people typically have more active oil glands, since their hormones levels are higher,” Dr. Khetarpal says.
On the flip side, women after menopause have a decrease in androgens, which leads to less oil production. With time, men have less active glands also.
The role of ethnicity
A major determinant in how often you should wash your hair is your ethnicity.
“In particular, African Americans have extremely dry hair, and if they wash too often, their hair can become dry and brittle, which can lead to breakage,” Dr. Khetarpal says.
For these cases, she suggests limiting hair washing to one or two times every month.
Length, texture and color processing
Oil glands, also called sebaceous glands, are only present in your scalp. This oil (or sebum) needs to make it all the way down each hair strand to the ends in order to moisturize it.
This is why having longer hair often gets dry; it’s more challenging to keep the ends moisturized.
“Often, the longer your hair, the drier the ends,” Dr. Khetarpal says.
For similar reasons, curly, coarse hair tends to be much drier than straight silky hair. In the case of curly hair, the oil needs to travel along corkscrew-shaped strands to moisturize to the ends.
Of course, if you have drier hair, you should wash less often.
“For those with longer hair, it’s best to focus conditioning treatments on the ends, rather than the roots,” Dr. Khetarpal says.
“Some people also like to use natural oils, like coconut, olive or jojoba — but my recommendation is not to overdo it.”
Besides curly, straight, long or short, there’s chemical processing, which also tends to make hair more fragile.
Hair washing when you exercise daily
If you exercise and sweat heavily, you might wonder if you should always wash your hair afterwards.
Dr. Khetarpal says no. “Even with daily exercise, you don’t need to wash your hair daily.”
She says it’s more important to consider your hair type, texture and amount of oil production you typically experience.
“I typically advise patients to keep to a standard hair washing schedule, whether it is 3 times per week, weekly or once per month, regardless of activity level.”
Dry shampoo, anyone?
Dry shampoos can help between washings to dampen the oils, though they are no replacement for traditional shampoos.
“They contain powders that help absorb your hair’s oils, and these oils are further removed when you comb it through,” Dr. Khetarpal says.
Signs you’re washing too often
If you wash your hair too much, it becomes dry, brittle and eventually, it breaks. Another telltale sign of overzealous hair cleansing: a dry, irritated or itchy scalp.
“A dry scalp can lead to increased hair shedding,” Dr. Khetarpal says.
On the other hand, in certain cases, not washing often enough can lead to a problem with dandruff, also known as seborrheic dermatitis.
In these cases, people may need a medicated shampoo, whether over-the-counter or prescription.
“Using ingredients like ketoconazole, selenium sulfide, and zinc pyrithione decrease levels of yeast that live on the scalp and cause dryness, itching and scaling — or what is commonly referred to as dandruff.”
An enduring myth
Have you heard this argument? If you wash your hair less often, the oil glands respond by becoming less active (and produce less oil).
Not true, Dr. Khetarpal says. “The sebaceous glands and their oil production are controlled by hormones; hair washing has no effect.”
So the next time you need an excuse to stay home, you can say, “Due to my hair type, texture and typical sebaceous gland oil production, I’m busy tonight, washing my hair.”