How Often Do You REALLY Have To Wash Your Hair?
You may be surprised by what the pros have to say.
If you had told me in my teens and 20s that when I turned 50 I’d be washing my hair every two weeks, I would have been shocked. Yet I’ve learned to extend time between shampoos by “training” my hair accordingly.
I’m not a hair expert or doctor, and can’t say my process would work for everyone because there are many factors affecting how often you can or should wash your hair. How oily your scalp is naturally; your age (scalps become drier as we grow older); your hair type, texture and length; and your race all can influence your hair-cleaning frequency needs. Not everyone needs to wash daily, despite the marketing in the often-homogeneous beauty industry.
For me, the amount of washing and blow-drying I was doing felt laborious and bad for my hair, my wallet and the environment.
The aspects to consider regarding how often you wash your hair mostly pertain to sebum, a substance that keeps your hair and scalp healthy and moisturized. It’s made and secreted by sebaceous glands attached to hair follicles. Some shampoos, styling products and heat appliances can strip your hair’s natural moisture (sebum) away. Sebaceous glands then rev up production of more sebum to compensate for that dryness, creating a hamster wheel of more washing to get rid of the oily feeling on your hair, but also drying out the needed moisture in the process. Sebum can trap dirt, dust and skin cell particles on your hair and scalp, adding to your hair’s need of washing more often.
So, how did so many of us get on this seemingly endless cycle?
A 2009 story on NPR shares how people in the early 1900s washed their hair only about once a month, until a 1908 column in the New York Times claimed it was OK to shampoo every two weeks. The NPR story goes on to explain the dawn of advertising for shampoo featuring models tossing shiny manes of long hair over their shoulders, giving us the subliminal message that if we used these products often enough, we also could have healthy and gorgeous hair.
I bought into this concept for decades, but eventually I’ve learned to feel as attractive with nicely styled, unwashed hair as I do with freshly cleaned tresses. Unwashed doesn’t always mean dirty.
That’s part of the process. Training your hair — and your ego — to bear through the days between washes. I was initially happy for years shampooing every other day, but my aversion to fussing with my shoulder-length curls pushed me to add two days between cleanings.
Yes, on the third day my hair was oily, and my scalp sometimes itched and even smelled a little. But I kept at it, and eventually that third day wasn’t as bad. Then I knew it was time to add another day … and over time a few more, until after two years I was washing my hair every two weeks.
Lifestyle blogger Andrea Traynor has done the same, and now shampoos every three to six weeks, depending on her social and work event schedule (prior to COVID-19.) She said she began the process in 2001 when she was a nanny to kids then-aged 5, 3 and 11 months, none of whom had ever had their hair washed with anything but water.
“It dawned on me that we’d all been fed a bit of a marketing lie and our hair was obviously more capable of self-regulation than we’d been taught,” recalled Traynor. An active mom of two, Traynor explained, “Keep in mind this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get your hair wet! You can absolutely shower as often as usual and whether your hair gets wet doesn’t matter one way or the other.”
I shower daily, sometimes wearing a plastic cap, sometimes not, but rarely getting my hair wet unless I’ve been sweating more than usual. Water can still rinse away surface dirt if you gently massage (never scratch) your scalp and hair. I’ve also used dry shampoo occasionally if meeting with other humans in person, and most often wear my hair in a top-knot or low bun.
I also use a curl-enhancing and volumizing product on my just-washed hair prior to diffuser-drying it, and apply an antifrizz cream and light humidity-fighting hairspray afterward. Many hair products contain alcohol (as do some shampoos), which can also impact hair and scalp moisture or dryness.
Emily Popek, a communications specialist in New York, washes her thick, curly hair weekly.
“I hate washing my hair,” Popek said, “so the less I have to do it, the better.” Initially she tried a baking soda scrub and vinegar rinse to avoid sulphates in shampoos. She then switched to waiting longer and longer between cleanings, which she says has also helped to control her seborrheic dermatitis along with the dandruff shampoo she still uses weekly.
Some dermatologists, however, are cautious in their support of infrequent hair washing. Palm Beach Gardens dermatologist and hair loss expert Steven Shapiro, M.D., said via email that he believes in washing hair daily or every other day.
“Less-often washing than every other day can lead to a scaly buildup on the scalp and skin inflammation,” advised Shapiro. “Inflammation in the skin can localize around hair follicles, triggering inflammation in the hair follicles, which can lead to hair falling out.”
However, Shapiro also acknowledges some people can’t wash their hair that often and frequency is a personal issue. (Incidentally, I don’t feel I’ve lost hair by shampooing less often, nor does Traynor, but that obviously doesn’t mean others won’t experience it.)
“What I have found through my research is that waiting more than a week is usually not advisable, only in unique situations. Waiting too much time in between hair washes may contribute to scalp conditions which sometimes are difficult to treat,” wrote dermatologist Anna Chacon, M.D., in an email. Chacon did, however, qualify that shampooing frequency depends on individual needs and the condition of the hair and scalp. She confirmed that for drier and more brittle hair, washing hair weekly is usually sufficient.
Christine Martey-Ochola, cofounder of an organic hair-care company, noted, "People want to reduce how often they wash their hair because of the stripping that sometimes occurs based on the shampoos they use (too much sulfate in the shampoo).
“A recommendation I’d give is to reduce the use of the products that have ingredients that are not good for overall health (for example, parabens, some alcohols, various synthetic substances such as phthalates, DEA, various fragrances, etc.) and shift to safer products which enhance both hair and physical health.”
A holistic approach to hair and health care should be how we all consider both our own beauty regimes as well as those of others.
Lydia Elle, a business consultant in Los Angeles, shared that as a child, her Black hair-care routines often left her feeling an outsider from the giggles and awkward silence of white friends when sharing personal hair-care methods, because she didn’t wash daily like they did. Now she washes her natural hair every two to three weeks, or every six to eight weeks if she has braids. Elle explained that wash day for her — and often for other Black women — is a time-consuming activity that sometimes can take hours to do properly with various steps required to protect hair and scalp health.
“When discussion of hair care is met in certain circles with a lack of inclusivity or diversity, it leads to bigger issues with beauty standards and self-acceptance,” said Elle.
She hopes people come to understand and embrace the concept that hair care is really about self-care, and I couldn’t agree more. Do what works for you — and support others doing the same.