Revealed! The Truth About How Often You Should Wash Your Hair
Why it’s smart to give up the quest to be squeaky clean.
If cleanliness is next to godliness, my hair is in trouble — and yet, it has never looked healthier or felt softer. The likely reason: During the pandemic, I stopped washing it as often as I used to, shifting from every other day like clockwork to twice a week. This was partly because I was hunkered down at home and seeing very few people for many months. But the results surprised me, so I stuck with it. My once-parched tresses now look and feel silkier.
Like many people, I used to seek that squeaky-clean feeling in my hair, and I desperately wanted to avoid anything close to the flat, oily look of my middle school years. Apparently, I’m not the only one.
“In the United States, we are obsessed with being squeaky clean, eliminating all traces of dirt and microorganisms — this has become an exponentially greater concern since the COVID pandemic,” says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., an associate professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
And while many people equate clean hair with a shiny, silky appearance, this could actually be a sign of overwashing, which can be damaging to the hair itself, he says. “Most women wash their hair too often, and people like a good lather — it makes them feel like they’re really cleaning their hair,” agrees Doris Day, M.D., a clinical associate professor of dermatology at New York University and author of Beyond Beautiful.
But this suds obsession isn’t healthy for human hair for several reasons. For one thing, shampoo is meant for the scalp and should simply be rinsed through the hair, she says. For another, shampoo can be damaging to the strands because it essentially robs them of moisturizing oils from the scalp, which can leave the hair shaft brittle and prone to breakage. “I think of squeaky-clean hair as being stripped and dry,” Day says.
It turns out that overwashing your hair can also disrupt the scalp microbiome, the community of bacteria and other microbes that naturally live on the scalp. “This, in turn, contributes to skin barrier dysfunction, irritation and inflammation,” Zeichner says. “Significant inflammation may even lead to hair loss.”
So as far as hair-washing goes, how clean is clean enough?
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer because it depends on your hair type. “For drier hair, it may be necessary to wash only once per week,” Zeichner says. The same thing may be true for coarse or curly hair or hair that’s chemically treated or colored. On the other hand, oily hair may benefit from more frequent washing, he adds.
But if you fear letting your hair become greasy like an adolescent’s, the way I did, it might be time to reassess the quality of your hair as it is today. “Hair definitely gets drier as you get older, partly because your oil glands are less productive,” Day says. “That will change how often you wash your hair.”
This has certainly been true for me, now that I’m in my 50s. Even though I exercise every day, I don’t let this fact influence how frequently I wash my hair. Sometimes I’ll simply restyle my hair after a post-workout shower, using a protective serum or styling cream (on just the strands, not the scalp) and my fingers. Other times, I’ll rinse my hair with water, put conditioner on the ends and rinse off before combing or styling my hair.
Besides skipping the frequent shampooing, this regimen allows me to avoid subjecting my thick, wavy hair to frequent blow-drying. (If I let it air-dry, it takes four hours to dry fully — no exaggeration!) By ditching the every-other-day lather-rinse-repeat regimen, I’ve gained more good hair days and healthier strands. Even my hairstylist has noticed the difference.
So how often do you wash your hair? Let us know in the comments below.