Do You Actually Need to Use Shampoo?

What kind of shampoo do you use? Volumizing? Hydrating? Texturizing? Clarifying? Smoothing? Strenghtening? Color-protectant? Baking soda and vinegar?

Like many beauty routines that we once deemed absolutely necessary, the art of washing your hair has recently come under fire. On one end of the spectrum, we have the hippies who forgo shampoo altogether, claiming that after a few weeks of greasiness, hair begins to self-regulate and actually cleanse itself. On the other extreme, we have the traditionalists, like trichologist Philip Kinsley, who sneers, "These people have just gotten used to their hair being greasy and dirty. They just don’t notice it anymore." Let's take the middle road and look at what really goes on with your hair when you suds it up.

Your hair consist of two parts: Your scalp (the living part) produces sebum and new hair growth, and your hair itself (the dead part) kind of just sits there and lets you style it. The juxtaposition between these two parts is what makes shampooing a little complicated. The ends of your hair really don't need to be washed; they're already the driest part of your hair, and shampooing just strips them of the little sebum they're able to access. Your scalp, however, does need to be kept reasonably clean and free of dead hair so that new hair growth can happen. (Those hairs that fall out when you're in the shower? They're just making room for new hair to grow; no need to freak out.)

Shampooing can turn into a vicious cycle of dehydrating, rehydrating, and product consumption. Sudsing shampoos strip your hair of all its natural oils, so your locks become dry and frizzy. You compensate with conditioners, shine serums, and various styling products, but then you have to shampoo away all that product buildup. As the cycle continues, your hair never gets a chance to condition itself the way it knows best — with sebum. Paradi Mirmirani, M.D., a specialist in hair research from Vallejo, Calif., tells WebMD, "Hair is a fiber. 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."

And plenty of brave people are reporting shinier, thicker, healthier hair after forgoing shampoo altogether. The "no-poo" movement is huge, with participants all over the internet touting the miracles of their baking-soda-wash, apple-cider-vinegar-condition method. Another benefit of forgoing commercial shampoo is the fact that most shampoos have sodium lauryl or laureth sulfate in them, along with other chemicals like parabens, fragrances, and potential carcinogens. No shampoo means no exposure to harmful chemicals. But it could also mean unintentional dreadlocks; George Costarellis, M.D. director of the University of Pennsylvania Hair and Scalp Clinic, has seen hair get so matted from lack of cleansing that it needs to be cut off.

No surprise, then, that the best thing for your hair is a compromise. You really shouldn't be shampooing daily, even if you swear your fine, limp hair gets disgustingly oily after 24 hours sans shower. Rub in a little dry shampoo or toss your hair into a textured updo and let the sebum work its conditioning magic for another 24 hours. The thicker and/or curlier your hair is, the longer you should be going without shampooing, as the sebum will take longer to travel from scalp to ends. If you want a shower, but don't want to shampoo, just condition the ends of your hair, or give yourself a scalp massage in the shower to loosen dead hairs and dirt. And switch to a natural shampoo that doesn't foam. You might feel like you're not getting clean, but sudsy shampoos merely give the illusion of cleanliness — the sudsing itself, which is caused by harsh sulfates, doesn't actually do anything for your hair other than dehydrate it. Use a mild shampoo 3-4 times a week — or less, if you can swing it — and let your hair come back to life.