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How Often Should You Wash Your Hair?

WebMD provides opinions from dermatologists and other experts about how often you need to shampoo and wash your hair.

Lorraine Massey hasn't shampooed her hair since the late 1980s. She's no hippie, and she doesn't have dreadlocks, either. The New York-based stylist, businesswoman, and author has long, soft curls that are "frizz-free and all lay in place," she says.

Massey keeps her scalp clean and her hair fresh with products from her shampoo-free line of cleansing conditioners. But she says a number of natural homemade cleansers including baking soda, lemon juice, and apple cider vinegar solutions, can also get the job done.

"There's so many ways around shampoo," she says.

But before you get into a lather, even if you're not ready to stop shampooing all together, chances are you can stand to lather up a little less.

So how often do you really need to shampoo?

Daily?

Dermatologists and stylists agree that there's little reason to shampoo every day. "Hair is a fiber," says Paradi Mirmirani, MD, a Vallejo, Calif., dermatologist and specialist in hair research. "Think of a wool fiber: The more you wash it, the worse it's going to look. There's no need to wash your hair every day either."

The longer, thicker, curlier, and more processed the hair, the longer it can go between washes. "This is because the oils from the scalp do not travel down the hair shaft as quickly, so the hair tends to be dry and requires less frequent shampooing," says Heather Woolery-Lloyd, MD, who is the director of ethnic skin care at the University of Miami.   

But even most unprocessed, short, thin, straight hair can skip a day.

"I hear so many people obsess about shampooing their hair every day," says Nick Arrojo, owner of New York's Arrojo Studio and former stylist on TLC's reality makeover show What Not to Wear. "They get freaked out because they think anything less will result in dirty, smelly hair, but shampooing three or four times weekly is plenty."

Arrojo says that the only reason to shampoo daily would be for the fragrance, and that if you must, you should use a lightweight shampoo.

Lightweight shampoos, also labeled "everyday shampoos," contain milder detergents than others.

Mirmirani tells WebMD that labels are, indeed, meaningful. "There are five or six different detergents, and for each hair type, you're going to get a different mix of those. The key to protecting your hair is choosing the shampoo that suits your hair type," she says.

Sometimes?

Laura Saunders, a stay-at-home mom in Raleigh, N.C., has very straight hair. "It gets oily fast," she says. "I only wash it every other day, and I put some baby powder on it if I need to absorb some of the oil on the other days," she tells WebMD.

Arrojo says that powders and dry shampoos do work for absorbing oils between washes. "An old wives' trick is to use talcum powder in the hair in lieu of shampoo," he says. 

The powders shouldn't, however, replace shampoo all together, Woolery-Lloyd says.

Many women shampoo their hair far less frequently than Saunders. Melissa Capasso, an artist in Brooklyn, N.Y., shampoos her long, thick curls once a week. "If I shampoo more than that, my hair dries out, it loses its natural curl, and it gets frizzy and unmanageable."

Capasso relies on daily conditioning and scalp massage to break up oils, loosen dirt, and keep her hair manageable between shampoos.

"Some people with curly hair actually only shampoo monthly and use just conditioner in between to maintain moisture and healthy curls," Woolery-Lloyd tells WebMD.

As hair types and textures vary by ethnicity, so too does the need to shampoo. "As an African-American, I grew up being told that shampooing any more than once a week would cause my hair to dry and break off," says Lori Pindar, a university administrator in Clemson, S.C. Like Capasso, Pindar's daily routine includes conditioner, not shampoo.

No matter what your ethnicity or your hair texture, we may all do better to shampoo less.

Daily shampooing is only necessary if oil production on the scalp is high, Zoe Draelos, MD, writes in the International Journal of Trichology. "Shampooing is actually more damaging to the hair shaft than beneficial."

Shampoo's bubbles, which people often associate with cleanness, are actually created by the harshest ingredients, sulfates, and are not even necessary for cleansing the scalp. Experts say these foaming agents, which dehydrate the hair, are only in cleansing products because consumers expect bubbles. "That's what we've gotten used to because we see the commercials with big white foam," Mirmirani says.

Excessive shampooing can require excessive styling. "Hair washed every day with shampoo tends to need more styling product. Because it's so clean, it's also soft, loose, and floppy and therefore harder to style," Arrojo says. All these products in turn lead to more shampooing as they build up and make hair look dull, Mirmirani says.

"Shampoo removes oil and excess skin cells from the scalp. It's not doing any favors for the hair, unless you have a lot of product in it that is making your hair look dull. But in general, shampoo is not good for fiber," Mirmirani says.

Never?

Massey learned that shampoo wasn't doing her hair any favors when she was working in a salon in the humidity of Hong Kong.

"My hair was floating out like a helium balloon," she recalls. When a friend suggested she drop shampoo and just condition, Massey was hooked. Her hair behaved for the first time in her life.

After keeping her shampoo-free lifestyle secret for more than 10 years, Massey eventually coined the phrase "No 'Poo," opened the Devachan salons in New York, co-wrote a book, launched a line of shampoo-free cleansers, and has become something of a hero to many women with wild curls like hers once were.

But Massey says every hair type would be better off without shampoo. "You wouldn't put shampoo on your face. You wouldn't shampoo your clothes. Any head can benefit from this," she says.

People of all hair types have told Massey their hair has more body and no longer looks limp after giving up shampoo. Many say they can go as long as a year without a trim because split-ends become less common.

Those who give up shampoo say their hair benefits from the body's natural oils. "Hair devoid of all sebum is harsh, rough, subject to static electricity, dull, and needs detangling," Draelos says.

Dropping shampoo doesn't require new expensive products. Massey recommends a simple paste of one tablespoon baking soda and one cup water to cleanse the scalp. The juice of one lemon in your daily dose of conditioner also works, she says. Or simply switching to nonfoaming, sulfate-free cleansers will also go a long way.

"Natural ingredients produce less suds, but they still have plenty of cleaning power -- with the added benefit of less residue," Arrojo says. 

The Internet is rife with recipes for natural alternatives to shampoo. That's how Bogna McAndrew, an entrepreneur in London, learned she could quit shampooing her long, straight hair. She says her hair always looked best when it was a little dirty and she wished it could look that way when it was clean. Six weeks after giving up shampoo, she told WebMD, "I love my hair now. I just didn't know there was any alternative to shampoo. I thought you just had to be a dirty hippie. I didn't know you could clean your hair any other way."

McAndrew uses baking soda once a week, and since she started a "No 'Poo" community on Facebook, she's learned about a variety of shampoo alternatives including lemon juice and even beer. Beer was found in many shampoos in the 1970s, Draelos says.

"It has really opened my eyes," McAndrew says.

Before you poo-poo the "No 'Poo" movement, Mirmirani reminds her patients, "Shampoo is for the scalp and conditioner is for the hair." She says that shampooing the scalp and letting it run down over the hair is enough for most people, but how often you shampoo is a matter of personal preference. There are no hygienic or sanitary reasons to shampoo daily, she says. "It really depends on the scalp and hair type and what you do to the hair."

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