How Often Should You Wash Your Hair, Really?

·8 min read
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If you ask the five closest people next to you how often they wash their hair, chances are you're going get five different answers. Hair routines aren't one size fits all — not even when it comes to the essential steps such as shampooing. While there are general recommendations from experts about how often a person should wash their hair, many factors such as hair type, styling habits, and lifestyle can contribute to why that frequency may not look the same for everyone.

Here, experts lay out exactly how to find your sweet spot when it comes to the frequency that you should suds up your strands. (Related: The 2021 Shape Beauty Awards: Best Hair Products)

How Often Should You Wash Your Hair?

These days, there's no shortage of products intended to help prolong your time between washes, from scalp toners to dry shampoos. After all, sudsing up your strands too frequently (aka over-washing them) can dry out your hair and scalp. The same ingredients in shampoo that rid your hair of product build-up and dirt can also strip away your natural oils, leaving your locks brittle and vulnerable to breakage and your scalp parched and prone to flakiness. As a general rule of thumb, though, if you notice excess oil or product build-up on your scalp or are experiencing itchiness, it's time to wash your hair, says Anabel Kingsley, brand president and consultant trichologist for Philip Kingsley.

Otherwise, how often you need to wash to keep your locks — and scalp — healthy and clean will depend primarily on your hair type, according to Kingsley. But that's not all: Certain lifestyle factors may also impact your shampoo-ing frequency. For example, if you exercise a lot and tend to break quite the sweat (you go, Glen Coco!), then you might feel tempted to shampoo after every workout. And while, at the end of the day, you need to do what makes you feel best, you actually don't need to wash your hair following your daily workout — no matter how intense your routine, according to the Cleveland Clinic. On the flip side, if you color your hair, you might want to lather up your locks less frequently, as washing fades color.

All that said, the main determinant of your wash frequency is, as mentioned above, your hair type. Ahead, Kingsley breaks down how often you should wash your hair based on different locks. (Not sure about your strands? Check out this guide to figuring out your hair type.)

Fine/Straight Hair

ICYDK, your scalp is covered with hair follicles, each of which is attached to a sebaceous gland that produces oil (or sebum), which moisturizes your locks. "When you have finer hair, there's more room on your head for more follicles," Kingsley previously told Shape. And being that each follicle is attached to an oil gland, more follicles equals more sebum glands, and, as you probably guessed, more oil. As such, people with fine hair should wash their hair every two to three days (if not daily) to ensure sebum isn't accumulating on the scalp and strands, which — along with product build-up — can contribute to issues such as scalp acne and hair loss. (See: These Are the Best Products for Treating Scalp Acne)

Thick Hair

With less room for tons of follicles and, thus, oil-producing glands, thicker hair types tend to not get weighed down by oil as quickly as its finer counterparts. And when it comes to how often you should wash your hair, this can be a pro — especially for thicker-haired folks who don't love (or are in too much of a rush for) the lather-rinse-repeat routine as much as Ethan Craft. If this is you, then washing your hair at least once or twice a week should be enough to keep your head cleansed, according to Kingsley.

Coarse Hair Textures

If you have coarse or curly hair you may be able to get away with washing once per week, but you'll run a greater risk of developing scalp issues such as dandruff, says Kingsley. (You can thank the aforementioned oil build-up, which may also feed dandruff-causing yeast.) If you start experiencing itchiness or those pesky white flakes, it's best to wash no less than every three days, she says. Although your hair might not start to feel greasy as quickly as fine, straight strands, washing is still key for preventing build-up, especially of styling products, that can clog hair follicles, potentially impeding hair growth among other things.

Those with courser hair textures may be tempted to co-wash — aka conditioner-only washing— their hair exclusively or between shampoos. Licensed cosmetologist Crystle Jones-Bond of Classic Care Boutique is only a fan co-washing to revive curls between shampoos, not as a complete replacement for shampooing. (Using a refresh spray or cream-based styling product can also help keep curls moisturized between washes.) It's unlikely that co-washing alone provides an equally adequate cleansing as shampoo, says Jones-Bond. That's because the cleansing ingredients found in shampoos are more powerful than those in conditioners. (Related: Reviewers Swear By This 'Heavy Hitter' Shampoo for Scoring Longer, Stronger Strands)

When You Do Wash, Should You Use Sulfate-Free Shampoo?

If you've done any amount of research on how often to wash your hair, then you've probably stumbled upon the hotly-debated topic of sulfates and whether sulfate-free shampoos are a smarter choice for your strands. Over the years, sulfates — surfactants or detergents used to remove dirt and oil build-up — have gotten a bad reputation as hair drying agents and carcinogens that should be avoided. (Although, it's important to note that there isn't scientific data to back up the latter, according to Medical News Today.) That being said, Kingsley says that sulfates are safe and do a tremendous job at breaking down any yuck on the scalp that may be blocking your hair follicles.

"When a formula is 'sulfate-free' that doesn't always mean it is actually better," says Kingsley. "There are also many types of sulfates, from those that are very drying to those that are much gentler." Generally speaking, shampoos containing sulfates are fine so long as you follow the washing guidelines that the experts here provide and take care of your hair otherwise.

While many trichologists, including Kingsley, give sulfates the green light, if you suffer from conditions such as rosacea or eczema, it's probably best to consult with a dermatologist that can make recommendations based on your specific needs. (Sulfates are a common trigger for rosacea and since the cleansing agent can be drying, they can heighten eczema symptoms.) Those with curly or keratin-treated hair may also prefer sulfate-free formulas since their strands crave moisture and such products are often less drying — and the same is true for those with color-treated hair, as sulfates can strip away color.

Some people who caution against sulfates also encourage a less frequent hair washing schedule to avoid depleting your scalp of its natural oils. Some argue that less frequent washing can "train" your scalp to stop producing more oil. But that's not exactly accurate, according to Kingsley. "The sebaceous (oil) glands attached to each of your hair follicles continuously produce oils that coat your hair," regardless of how often you shampoo, she says. "Frequent shampooing washes old, bacteria-laden oil off your hair," explains Kinglsey. "This stops too much oil from building up and collecting dirt and dust." (Related: The Only Products You Need to Make Second-Day, Dirty Hair Look Freshly Shampooed)

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How to Wash Your Hair and Scalp

The real emphasis on wash day should be on your scalp and not your hair, says Kingsley, who prefers to refer to the ritual as "scalp cleansing." Maintaining a healthy scalp promotes healthy hair growth and retention, she says. Any suds created while cleansing your hair will naturally run through your hair, so you don't need to massage shampoo into the lengths of your hair unless your hair is extraordinarily dirty.

Though the products and number of washes may vary from person to person, the basic steps for reviving your hair and scalp on wash day pretty much remain the same, according to Kingsley and Jones-Bond.

  1. Detangle your hair with a wide-toothed comb or detangling brush before starting the washing process. You may want to wait to detangle your hair until after shampooing or conditioning if you have curly or coiled hair that feels impossible to untangle beforehand. Otherwise you can can brush it while dry before you get in the shower. This will prevent tangling due to massaging and manipulation while cleansing your hair and scalp.

  2. Thoroughly saturate your hair with warm water (this opens up the hair cuticle for optimal cleansing).

  3. Apply a quarter-sized amount of shampoo (more if your hair is super thick), gently massaging it into your scalp for around 30 seconds to get rid of dirt, product build-up, debris, and oil. This also stimulates the scalp, which creates the optimal environment for hair growth, says Kingsley. Make sure you're massaging your entire scalp, including at the nape of your neck. (Here are some scalp massagers to try if you're feeling ambitious.)

  4. If you notice that your scalp still seems oily or has product build-up after the first wash and rinse, go for another wash by repeating steps 2-3.

  5. Once you've fully rinsed the shampoo from your strands, follow up with conditioner (enough to coat the mid-length to ends) to nourish the strand and close the cuticle. Rinse again.