By Erin Jahns
Am I right, or am I wrong? Being a beauty consumer in the year 2020 (or in the 21st century, period) pretty much feels like a nonstop game of two truths and a lie, which, admittedly, makes my job as a beauty reporter pretty dang dynamic. When it comes to the best products, treatments, and protocols, everyone seems to have their own opinion—the plot twist being that these opinions are often contradictory (even among certified experts!).
The world of beauty is the furthest thing from one-size-fits-all, so it makes sense that we're inundated with a grab bag of opposing viewpoints. There is no such thing as a universally miraculous serum (although some might come close) or a fancy shampoo that can de-gunk every hair texture with fairy godmother–level finesse. Differing opinions and testimonials are important in the world of beauty, but all of the he-said-she-said can make shopping for new products or honing a new routine a tad overwhelming and confusing. Sometimes, there just is no right answer, a truth especially fitting when it comes to how often we should, or shouldn't, wash our strands.
The popularity of products like dry shampoo and conditioning sprays seems to grow exponentially, and personally, my girlfriends and I seem to have an unofficial-official competition running of who can go the longest without washing their hair. (Gross, but true.) So you can imagine my surprise when I tuned in to a brand-sponsored Zoom panel a couple of months ago wherein a well-known dermatologist confidently declared we should all be washing our hair way more often than many of us actually are. Her message: To achieve optimum scalp and hair health, it's best to shampoo as frequently as your scalp and hair type can handle. (Cue a resounding echo of beauty editor jaws dropping from coast to coast.)
World-rocked and mind-blown, I knew I needed more information. (To be honest, I felt like I did when I was five and my neighbor friend disclosed Santa Clause was not, in fact, real.) Did I and the rest of human existence have it wrong? Should we not be washing our hair as infrequently as possible in the name of healthy, beautiful hair? Turns out, kinda sorta. After consulting two experts, I was able to get some closure and an answer, albeit a slightly inconclusive one. Like most things relating to beauty, how often we should or shouldn't wash our hair is incredibly unique and personal, and below, I'm diving into everything you've ever wondered on the topic with help from some of the very best hair and scalp experts.
The resounding takeaway? Our hair's health destiny has more to do with tuning in to our body's needs and tuning out everyone else's. Our bodies are smart, and if, let's say, your scalp has become increasingly dry, itchy, or flaky since you began curbing your shampoo habit, that's likely a polite SOS from your body, communicating its craving for a few more washes here and there or, perhaps, certain types of products you've forgone in favor of oil-absorbing sprays and powders. Curious to know more? Keep scrolling!
Fact or fiction: The less often we shampoo our hair, the healthier our hair will be.
According to haircare expert and certified trichologist Bridgette Hill, this is fact. That said, shampoo frequency and how often we should or shouldn't be washing our hair is highly personal, and it's not as black and white as the beauty industry has led us to believe.
"How often we should wash our hair is really individual to each person, as we don’t all have the same pH balance. We don’t all use the same products. We don’t all have the same lifestyle nor are we all living in the same environment," points out celebrity hairstylist and Amika's global artistic director, Naeemah LaFond. "All of these factors impact how often we need to wash for optimum hair health."
Plus, it's important to distinguish the difference between washing our hair (aka shampooing) and cleansing our hair. Yes, there is a difference, and it matters.
"Cleansing and shampooing shouldn't be synonymous," Hill points out right off the bat. "Shampooing is the act of removing dirt and buildup with a product that acts as a detergent—similar to how we would wash our clothes—while cleansing removes dirt and debris by way of rinsing, toning, or co-washing."
How does overshampooing impact our scalp and hair health?
"Our bodies are intelligent and in charge, and they know how to maintain the proper balance of sebum production based on our genetic makeup and health," Hill explains. "When we constantly remove the sebum from our scalp by shampooing, we're inadvertently directing the scalp to replace its existing sebum production. Because of this, there may be periods of time when our scalp is not sufficiently coated or protected from harmful bacteria, which can instigate inflammation."
According to Hill, overwashing our hair and scalp strips natural oils, which, in turn, spikes sebum production. (You've probably heard a similar tale when it comes to overexfoliating our complexions.) Hill says this can lead to overly oily hair that traps the healthy bacteria our scalp needs and craves and can trigger retaliatory buildup and odor. Unblamingly, these types of symptoms tempt us to wash our hair more frequently, which perpetuates a vicious cycle of unnecessary shampooing.
Therefore, Hill advises us to expand our idea of cleansing. Instead of relying on shampoo alone to wash and cleanse, it's ideal to embrace a cleansing regimen where we might simply rinse our hair with water on a daily basis, use a scalp or hair tonic in lieu of our go-to shampoo, or apply an apple cider vinegar rinse instead. "These are all forms of scalp and hair cleansing that are just as effective and nourishing," explains Hill. "I suggest alternating these alternative cleansing methods with your shampoo ritual to achieve optimal hair and scalp health."
So how often should we shampoo?
As LaFond mentioned earlier, there isn't a straightforward answer to this question. How often we should or shouldn't shampoo depends on so many factors—from our environment to our genetics to the products we use and our body chemistry.
"There is no blanket shampoo statement for each hair type," LaFond tells us. "There is fine, coarse hair and thin, coarse hair, just as there is dry color-treated hair and oily color-treated hair. It all really depends on the person. Having a proper consultation with your haircare professional can help you determine what the best regimen is for you."
That said, if you're in need of general guidance until you can consult an expert, Hill typically recommends the following shampoo protocol: Those with fine to medium hair shouldn't shampoo more than three times a week, and those with thick, coarse, or curly hair should shampoo no more than once a week.