Any big plans in the next 30 days or so? No? Allow me to suggest skipping the shampoo. Marinate your scalp in its own natural oils, let it get good and greasy — because that grease is good for you, experts say.
The "natural oil" and "grease" I speak of is technically known as sebum, the same substance that comes out of your pores. "Sebum naturally moisturizes the skin and the hair," Devika Icecreamwala, a board-certified dermatologist based in San Francisco, tells ishonest. (The skin on the scalp is essentially an extension of the skin on your face, only hairier.)
Trichologist Bridgette Hill adds that this natural oil coats the scalp in the cholesterol, proteins, and fats it needs to thrive and protects it from unhealthy bacteria and fungi. As sebum makes its way down the hair shaft, on its own or from brushing, it even "moisturizes the hair fibers," she says.
How did sebum get such a bad reputation?
You can think of sebum as an all-in-one conditioner, strengthener, and shine treatment. But do you think of it that way? Probably not. Over the years, oil has become something to be avoided at all costs. Ironically, this vilification of sebum has sparked a vicious cycle: the more you strip it away with shampoo, the more the scalp makes, ad infinitum.
"When we constantly remove the sebum from our scalp, we direct the scalp to replace the existing sebum production," Hill explains, noting that the sebaceous glands operate on a sort of feedback loop. When the skin senses its barrier isn't sufficiently protected and moisturized, it tells glands to send more oil to the surface. (Of course, that's a gross simplification of an intricate and interdependent process that's not yet fully understood by science, but you get the gist.)
"Stripping natural oils can activate sebum production, resulting in overly oily hair that traps healthy bacteria and creates [the feeling of] 'dirty scalp and odor,' leading to a terrible habit over-shampooing," she says.
"When too much oil is secreted, we start to think it is a bad thing," agrees hairstylist Paul Labrecque, the founder of Paul Labrecque Salon and Skincare Spa in New York City. Really, it's nothing more than a communication from the body: Could you let me do my thing, please?
Over-cleansing causes other issues, too
It's not only sebum production that's impacted by over-cleansing. "The risks include dry, brittle hair; dry, flaky scalp; and an onslaught of unhealthy bacteria that trigger folliculitis," Hill says. "Over-shampooing can also lead to hair breakage, shedding, and thinning."
Hill and Labreque both caution against sulfate-based cleansers in particular, as do dermatologists. Sulfates are a class of detergents — you know, the stuff you use on laundry and dishes — that serve to make shampoo sudsy, but perhaps "strip the [scalp] of its natural oils" a little too well, says Aanand Geria, a board- certified dermatologist in Rutherford, New Jersey. "This can cause dryness and flaking."
Of course, what counts as "over-shampooing" differs from person to person. "On average, cleansing should be done two to three times per week," Labrecque says; while Hill advises "no more than once a week for very thick, coarse, curly hair."
Now's the time to break the cycle
"The only way to break a vicious cycle is to recognize you're in one, decide you want to make a change, and then stick with it until you generate a virtuous cycle," says Eli Halliwell, the founder of Hairstory, a brand best known for its anti-shampoo "hair cleanser," New Wash. (Let the record show that this is sound advice for life in general, too.)
Before you forgo shampoo, you should know that your sebaceous glands have probably gotten used to hyper-speed production. Production will continue at hyper-speed for a while, even as your wash day cycle slows — a case of oily inertia, if you will. Your roots will temporarily take up residence in Grease City. But hey, the majority of the country is self-isolating right now. No one will notice.
What to know about scalp training
"Scalp training" is the process of pulling back on shampoo and guiding your scalp back into balance, and there are two ways to go about it. You can go all- out or you can ease your way in.
Personally, I went all-out and ditched shampoo for two full weeks. After realizing the glorious gift of sebum, how could I not? I imagined my sebaceous glands breathing a metaphorical sigh of relief, and tried to see all that extra oil (and there was a lot of extra oil) as the easiest DIY deep conditioner ever: one ingredient, zero effort.
Fourteen days of luxuriating in its own sebum later, my scalp was hydrated and flake-free. My hair was unbelievably shiny; my frizz was non-existent. Things stayed that way once I started shampooing again. These days, I don't need to cleanse more than once a week and I don't need to use many styling products, either — not even dry shampoo. The oil is there, yes, but my hair isn't greasy- looking. I prefer glossy.
If you'd rather ease into it, Hill has a few tips. Daily washers with fine-to- medium hair should shampoo — with a sulfate-free formula every other day for the first three weeks, she says. "By week four, a shift should be noticeable in oil production on the scalp," at which point, you can decrease to three times a week.
Medium-to-thick hair types should be shampooing "a maximum of every two days," the trichologist elaborates, then work their way down. “The healthiest heads of thick hair typically have mastered the once a week shampoo.”
How to support your scalp while you wait
Shampooing is not the same as rinsing, and rinsing with water is encouraged during this "detox" phase to keep you feeling fresh, says Hill.
It's also a good idea to incorporate scalp massage and regular brushing to avoid buildup. "Before there were instant conditioners, we used our own sebum to promote shine, luster, and the overall health of hair by brushing it frequently to remove flakes, distribute oil, and increase hair health," Labrecque explains. "Remember the old saying '100 strokes a night?' That saying was likely introduced back when most women washed their hair once a week."
Hill recommends a soft, natural-bristle hairbrush for this rather than a comb, and cautions against over-brushing chemically-treated hair. "Natural oils distribute evenly and easily on hair fibers where the cuticle has not been overly altered," she says.
Other than that, brush away. "Dispersing the sebum throughout the head and the length of the hair fibers acts as an ideal natural lightweight leave-in conditioner." (Yes, lightweight leave-in conditioner literally grows out of your own head. Is your mind blown? Mine, too.)
Tempting as it may be, try to skip the dry shampoo. Labrecque says it gets rid of oil at your roots, but it also clogs the scalp's pores, which kind of defeats the purpose of scalp training. He also suggests avoiding "no-poo products," as they may "cause sebaceous pore-clogging, which leaves the scalp unhealthy and can lead to hair loss."
Why it's worth it
It can take weeks or even months for your sebum levels to get back on track, but what's waiting for you on the other side is worth it, the experts agree. Your scalp will be more hydrated, less greasy, and better protected. Your strands will be smoother, shinier, and overall healthier.
Not only that, but you'll go through way less shampoo — which is a plus for your schedule, your wallet, and the planet, too. (Less product means less packaging, which means less waste and pollution.)
Now, read more about ways to amp your hair's health:
Read more on: hair
Start your journey to healthy skin in 2 minutes