Ah, washing your hair. There’s nothing quite like the steamy, warm rush of water as you lather up your scalp with soft suds. (Cue soothing music and water sounds…)
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It’s simple to keep hair clean, right? You just wash, condition, style and eventually repeat.
But how often should you really wash those lovely locks?
The amount of time between when someone should wash their hair is different for each person. Most people tend to wash their hair every other day or even every two to three days. But a variety of factors can impact how often you should shampoo.
- Ethnic background.
- Hair length
- Hair type.
- Activity level.
Dermatologist Shilpi Khetarpal, MD talks about how often might be right for you and how you can reduce the number of times you suds up.
Factors that impact your wash schedule
Everyone’s hair is different. These factors can affect when you should wash your hair.
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),” says Dr. Khetarpal. “This is why younger people typically have more active oil glands, since their hormones levels are higher.”
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, too.
Another 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.
In those situations, she suggests not washing your hair daily.
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 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.
Besides curly, straight, long or short, there’s chemical processing, which also tends to make hair more fragile.
If you exercise and sweat heavily, you might wonder if you should always wash your hair afterward.
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 usually experience.
“I typically advise patients to keep to a standard hair washing schedule, whether it is three times per week, weekly or once per month, regardless of activity level,” she says.
How long is too long?
Again, it all depends on your unique set of factors.
“Depending on your hair type, the length of time that is ‘too long’ to wash hair can vary,” says Dr. Khetarpal. “For African Americans, this population should wash their hair at least twice a month. For other groups, at least two to three times a week to minimize inflammation and the overgrowth of normal yeast that live on the scalp.”
Signs you’re washing too often
How do you know if you’re washing your hair too much? You may experience the following:
- Dry, brittle hair.
- Hair breakage.
- 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,” Dr. Khetarpal says.
Tips to shampoo less
So, how can you reduce the number of times you lather up? Here are a few tips.
- Use dry shampoo. Dry shampoos can help between washings to dampen the oils, though they aren’t a 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 explains.
- Focus on conditioning treatments. “For those with longer hair, it’s best to focus conditioning treatments on the ends, rather than the roots,” Dr. Khetarpal notes. “Some people also like to use natural oils, like coconut, olive or jojoba — but my recommendation is not to overdo it.”
- Evaluate your styling products. Gels, hairspray, creams and serums can build up on your hair and scalp, which can lead to irritation, damage and make your hair feel oily. “If you use a lot of styling products, consider using a clarifying shampoo one to two times per month to remove buildup,” says Dr. Khetarpal.
- Shampoo just your roots. If used too much, shampoo can damage your hair. Try just shampooing your roots to ensure you clean your scalp and remove excess oil. “This prevents the ends from getting too dry and breaking,” advises Dr. Khetarpal.
You’ve probably heard this argument: If you wash your hair less often, your oil glands respond by becoming less active (and producing less oil).
Not true, Dr. Khetarpal says. “The sebaceous glands and their oil production are controlled by hormones. Hair washing has no effect.”
If you’ve been thinking about scaling back how often you shampoo, give it a try. Try extending the time between washes by a day or try cutting out one wash per week. It may take some time for your scalp and hair to adjust.
Just remember that your hair has its own personality and needs based on different factors, which make it unique. What works for your friend might not work for you.
And the next time you need an excuse to stay home, you can now say, “Due to my hair type, texture and typical sebaceous gland oil production, I’m busy tonight, washing my hair.”