Without further adieu, here’s what the experts think, a.k.a. those not embroiled in the debate, but dedicated to the daily pursuit of beautiful, nourished hair.
Your hair is a beautiful snowflake. That’s a delicate way of saying there is no single answer to this question. “Not only do we all have differences in hair texture, thickness and length, but differences in scalp health and oil production are major factors, too,” says Los Angeles hairstylist Clayton Hawkins. Commit to a process of a trial and error, but like, actually commit to it. “You won’t know after one single week on a new routine if it’s really working for you,” he adds. In general, a month or so on any new cleansing/not-cleansing/dry shampooing routine will be enough time to get a solid idea.
Lifestyle choices matter. Simply put: If you workout regularly, you’ll probably need to wash your hair more frequently. If you smoke cigarettes, you’ll likely want to rid it of the smell somehow. Likewise if you swim in pools, live in a grimy urban area, etc etc etc. And if you never exercise, don’t smoke, and live in a cryogenic chamber: You’re blessed! You’ll likely have to wash your hair a lot less frequently. And something we’ll all experience is a gradual drying of our hair as we age; at that point, regular washing is even less important, regular conditioning even more so.
Oil is really not the enemy. Raise your hand if you’ll spend a week’s salary on a product that promises to deposit natural/botanical/organic/essential oils on your hair, skin or body. Newsflash: “The oil your scalp naturally produces is the absolute best product you could ever put on your hair,” says Hawkins. It’s biologically targeted for you, so any shampoo or conditioner that’s formulated to get rid of that oil should be approached with caution. Which brings us to…
Sulfates are never a good idea. Sulfates—sodium laureth sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfate, ammonium laureth sulfate—are added to most shampoos and conditioners as surfactants that attract dirt and oil, pulling it away from your scalp and hair shaft and leaving both zones, well, cleansed. Of course, sulfates have no way of telling if they’re whisking away the good natural oils on your scalp, or cleaning up the bad boxing class grease you want gone, meaning they’re often too effective. And they’re especially harsh on color-treated hair, where they can work to suck up the dyes and pigments you so painstakingly paid to have deposited. Which is all to say looking for sulfate-free shampoos and conditioners is definitely worth your while.
There’s such a thing as faking it. So taking into account everything we’ve outlined above, let’s say you’re someone with fine hair, who works out often, and is prone to greasy strands. Rather than washing your hair with shampoo every. single. time. you shower, Hawkins advises a fake-out wash: That is, wetting your strands completely, massaging your scalp with your fingertips, and rinsing it through with water. “It’s the shampoo—not the water—that’s the most stripping and damaging to hair,” says Hawkins. Oftentimes, you’ll be able to whisk away most of the excess sweat, oil and grease—but not every molecule of good oil—with a rigorous rinse. And always feel free to condition from mid-shaft down, which will also help keep your hair clean-looking and smelling.
Here’s the bottom line. If your hair is fine and your scalp is oily, you probably will have to actually shampoo your hair at least three to four times a week. Dry shampoo and fake-out rinses can help get you through the other few days. If your hair is coarse, curly, dry or thick, you can probably get away with weekly washes; maybe two or three if you workout or smoke. In the Old Days, women paid to have their hair washed and set once a week. That being said, they also didn’t got to HIIT classes—but still. Maybe they were onto something.