The Goods

Self-Cleaning Hair Is a Myth. Just Shampoo It.

We’ve been told that if we stop washing our hair, it will get better. This works for almost no one.

Photo illustration of the shampoo bottle, some long blond hair, and the Well Actually logo
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Well, Actually is a column by Slate’s Shannon Palus. She tests health and wellness products to help readers figure out what they should try, what they should skip, and why.

I have spent a lot of my life adult life thinking about this tough and meaningful problem: How often am I supposed to wash my hair? I blame this anxiety in large part on the no-shampoo movement, and the steady rise of dry shampoo sales. These two trends are somewhat at odds with each other—”no-poo” efforts are centered around the idea that your body doesn’t need so many products, which are sold to us against our own interests, while dry shampoo offers yet another (more expensive) product to sometimes sub in for shampoo. But at the heart of both is the alluring claim that you can do less and look better. The idea that we are collectively lathering too much has seen plenty of mainstream, level-headed endorsements: “Chances are you’re washing your hair far too often,” the New York Times has warned. “Less is more,” said NPR. An article on the Hairpin is titled “how to quit shampoo without becoming disgusting.” So: Do you really need to stop suds-ing?

When I tried to quit shampoo per those instructions shortly after that Hairpin piece was published in 2011, I, in fact, became disgusting. I eased in gradually, first switching to baking soda, and then trying to ease off that to just water. The idea with fully forgoing shampoo is that your body somehow knows the right amount of oil to produce, but shampoo is tripping it up, so if you can just lay off commercial chemicals for long enough, nature will take care of everything for you. My hope was that I would go through the period of greasiness, and then emerge beautiful. I had the willpower to earn a physics degree, race in an uncountable number of 5Ks—surely, I thought, even as my scalp itched and my hair became stiff, this journey was doable. After all, most no-shampoo articles will tell you that you have to descend into hair hell before things get better. Things never got better. Instead, my hair remained in a permanent state of looking somehow dirty and dry at once.

So zero shampoo is not the answer for me—or most people. The idea that your hair will naturally rebalance after a period of not washing is “an old wives’ tale,” noted Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital to me via email. Moreover, it’s not good for your scalp, which does need to be cleansed now and then to stay healthy. “This no-shampoo movement has been a problem,” dermatologist Rebecca Baxt told me. She’s seen an uptick of people coming in with dead skin built up on their scalps, which itches and flakes, and ironically looks kind of dry, which can further feed the no-washing cycle. From a doctor’s perspective, the scalp skin is what you’re really caring for when you wash your hair.

After accepting that I did need to wash my hair sometimes, I cycled into what I now identify as the worst of both the too-much-product and not-enough-product worlds: trying to shampoo a minimal but technically bearable amount, which for me is every four days, using fancy shampoos when I did (you don’t need to do this, the biggest difference between shampoos is how they smell), and dry shampoo sometimes in between. For me, a painfully long time between shampoos unless I am in the woods, where I do not care, is three to five days. But your mileage will vary incredibly here based on how much oil your scalp produces and how it appears on your hair. Zeichner offered two weeks as an upper amount of time anyone can go between washes. But if you are blessed with a scalp that doesn’t protest, and you like the way your hair is behaving, there doesn’t seem to be a reason to adhere to that, either.

Even after the failed no-poo experiment, I held out hope that reduced washing could somehow provide benefits with less sacrifice. But trying to wait it out as long as possible between washes made me neurotic and miserable. I was constantly counting the days between hair washes, suffering through a solid day or sometimes two of just-barely-bearable greasiness, all while failing to meaningfully transform my hair in the long run. There might be some truth to the idea that washing and drying your hair regularly can hurt your hair—washing does remove oil, and even air-drying does a slight amount of damage.

But whatever small difference this makes is far outweighed by the fact that I prefer the way clean hair feels on my head. Plus: I have since surmised that the main reason my hair looks dull isn’t because shampoo is aggressively stripping out its natural oils. It is because the little scales that compose my hair, called cuticles, are wont to stick up all over the place instead of lying flat. While oil (from my own glands or from a bottle) can help a touch, the real way for me to get healthy-looking hair is to force those scales into a flat position by heat styling the living crap out of it. My dry-looking hair isn’t so much an issue of not being oily enough; it’s a result of the physical structure my hair naturally has. Trying to fundamentally change that is as maddening as trying to squeeze my size 10 feet into too-small shoes: It doesn’t really work, and it doesn’t feel good.

The answer to my own personal hair happiness lies in washing my hair almost daily, with dry shampoo serving in true pinches—say, when I am running out the door and feel a little greasy, rather than as a bona fide replacement. But even spendy dry shampoos make my hair rather stiff. That makes sense—dry shampoo is fundamentally starch in a spray can (it absorbs oil kind of like any other starch does). This week, I tried out what seems to be the most sophisticated dry shampoo technology currently known to our kind: Living Proof’s Perfect Hair Day Dry Shampoo. The stuff contains a molecule developed by bioengineers (who then went on to found Living Proof) called octafluoropentyl methacrylate. According to MIT Technology Review, the stuff reduces surface tension on hair, thus weakening the attachment of dirt and oil to the hair shaft. Rather than simply masking oil and dirt by absorbing it, it allows it to be brushed right out.

That fancy science claim hasn’t been written up and peer reviewed, of course. But based on reviews of the dry shampoo, it seems to pan out at least somewhat. Testers at Allure note that the resulting texture of hair is indeed less coated compared to other dry shampoos, though they found that leaving the stuff in for a full five minutes before brushing out (rather than the recommended 30 seconds) to be most effective. However, when testers at Reviewed tried out the formula, they noted “we had to use quite a bit of it to see grease-reducing impact,” and ultimately the stuff felt “like any other dry shampoo.”

My own experience was somewhere in the middle: Using the stuff left my hair feeling notably shinier compared to other dry shampoos, but it still absolutely felt like a dry shampoo. For experimentation purposes, I also used it on totally clean hair, just to make sure any texture I was noticing could be attributed to the spray and not to dirt that was already on my hair. Even in this scenario, it left my hair feeling a bit stiff, probably because one of the main ingredients is still starch (even if that proprietary molecule can pull oil-soaked starch out of one’s hair, it seems like a tall order for it to get all of it).

While Living Proof’s formula is worth trying, it can’t replace full-on hair washing any more than other dry shampoos. Through years of experimentation, I have concluded any dry shampoo can buy me personally about six more hours before I actually just want to wash my hair again. And if I start to spin out again about how often I’m shampooing my hair, I’ll keep in mind something Baxt told me: “Literally in 20 years I’ve never seen somebody who washes it too much.”

shampoo bottle
Living Proof

Perfect Hair Day Dry Shampoo

Time investment: 5 minutes
Value: Low
Effectiveness: Fair
Delightfulness: Low
Recommendation: Worth a shot for dry shampoo devotees