Debating Shampoo vs. No 'Poo: Things Experts Want You To Know

Before you skip the shampoo, here's what you need to know about the no 'poo movement.

The idea of shampooing less frequently may make you cringe. But according to certain hair experts and anti-shampoo advocates—some who follow what's known as the "no 'poo movement"—lathering up every day is unnecessary at best, and potentially harmful to your tresses (as well as the Earth) at worst.

Shampoo has been around for less than a century, after all, and only in the last few decades has it become a daily essential. But before you banish hair products, consider the facts behind this new fad. While no-'poo proponents claim less is always more, some stylists and health experts aren't convinced.

Shampoo Is Relatively New

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Modern hair shampoo has only been available since the 1930s, says Nicole Rogers, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Tulane University. "They evolved as an alternative to bar soap, which left the hair with the traditional scum when mixed with hard water that can be difficult to wash out," she says.

Until the modern-day blow-dryer made it fast and easy for people to style their hair every day, shampooing once a week (or less) was the norm, says New York City-based celebrity hair stylist Sarah Potempa. "Women would go to the salon and get their hair set, using products that were meant to hold their style for several days, because the act of drying and styling took so long," says Potempa.

Americans Shampoo More

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Procter & Gamble reports that people in the United States shampoo their hair between four and five times a week, on average. That's twice as much shampooing as people in Italy and Spain. Australians seem open to lathering up less, too.

In 2007, a radio host in Sydney got such a positive response to a story about a man who hadn't used shampoo in more than a decade, he challenged listeners to go without shampoo for six weeks, according to The New York Times. More than 500 people tried it, and 86% reported that their hair was either better or the same afterward.

How Often to Shampoo?

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So, how often should we wash our hair? That depends on several factors, including a person's unique physiology, says Dr. Rogers. "For those with more sebum production, the scalp and hair may appear more oily, and they may actually need to wash daily," says Dr. Rogers.

"Other people may have lower sebum production and may be better off washing every few days." As for the idea that daily washing can dry out the scalp or hair follicles, Dr. Rogers says that's usually not true. "For the average person with healthy, untreated hair, there is no evidence that the simple act of shampooing, so long as it is with the appropriate ingredients for your hair, will cause damage."

Different Hair Has Different Needs

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The type of hair a person has matters, as well, says Dr. Rogers: Dry or damaged hair may look better (and may actually be healthier) when it's not washed every day, since the scalp's natural oil will have more time to work its way through the hair.

"People who highlight or relax or color-treat their hair may be more prone to damage from repeat washings because the hair is already more porous," she says. Thick, curly, or wavy hair tends to look and feel better without regular washing than straight, thin tresses, adds Potempa, since oil can build up quickly (and much more visibly) and weigh down the latter.

How Shampoo Works

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Surprise! Potempa tells her clients not to overdo it with the shampoo, and to concentrate on the roots only. "People tell me they use a huge glob of shampoo and they literally scrub their hair, but that's not what shampoo is for," she says. "Shampoo is for your roots; it has nothing to do with your actual hair."

She advises dividing hair into sections: Use shampoo on the roots, then rinse. From mid-shaft to the tips, apply conditioner only. "This simple change can make a huge difference in the health of your hair, and you'll find that you're naturally using less shampoo—even if you still do wash it every day."

Shampoo and Greasy Hair

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One of the most reported claims of the no 'poo movement is that shampoo strips away the scalp's natural oils, causing sebaceous glands to overcompensate by producing excess. Once you stop using shampoo on a regular basis, as the theory goes, oil production slows down and you naturally produce less. (You may experience a few greasy days or weeks of "transition period," proponents say, but eventually, your body finds balance again.)

But this simply isn't true, says Dr. Rogers. "Our sebum production is affected by various things including hormones, diet, and genetics. But the simple act of washing your hair less is not going to slow it down," she says. "That's sort of like saying 'If you shave your legs less often, the hair will go slower;' there is no scientific basis for these statements."

You Should Still Wash Your Hair

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In most versions of the no 'poo movement, not using shampoo doesn't mean not washing your hair at all: Rinsing with water is generally acceptable (and encouraged), and some methods recommend natural alternatives like baking soda or apple cider vinegar.

In 2011, when W Magazine editor Christa D'Souza chronicled her experience of spending six weeks without hair washing, she wrote about a moment of panic three weeks into her experiment. She called Joseph Zelasko, co-owner of New York's Salon 74 and a prominent no-poo advocate, who asked her, "Who says you can't rinse your hair or even have it blow-dried?" A hot-water soak and vinegar rinse at her salon left her feeling (and looking) almost good as new for an upcoming black-tie event.

Baking Soda May Not Be Your Best Bet

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One of the most commonly suggested "natural" alternatives to commercial shampoo is a mixture of baking soda and water—but just because something is natural doesn't mean it's healthy for everyday use, warns D. Rogers.

Both shampoos and baking soda are alkaline, she explains, but baking soda is more so. It has a pH of 8 to 9 by itself, or 12 when dissolved in water. "Such an alkaline solution can be damaging for people with chemically treated hair; it may make it even more dry or brittle," she says. "Baking soda can also be used to scrub the plaque off teeth, whiten teeth, remove tarnish from silver, remove rust, and even be used as a drain cleaner," she adds. "I'm not sure that most people need anything that caustic to clean their hair—if anything, commercial shampoos would appear to be far gentler!"

Apple Cider Vinegar Can Add Shine

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Many no 'poo methods also suggest using apple cider vinegar—either instead of or in addition to baking soda—as a natural clarifier. According to Keith Shore, a colorist at Sally Hershberger Downtown Salon in New York City, an apple cider vinegar rinse (1/4 cup diluted in one cup water) can restore natural shine by wiping out chlorine build-up and mineral deposits.

In 2013, editor Winona Dimeo-Ediger tested apple cider vinegar head-to-head against Neutrogena anti-residue shampoo. Her verdict? The homemade mix (equal parts vinegar and water) made her hair feel soft, shiny, and clean, for half the price of the commercial formula. Be warned, though: This rinse will make your hair smell like vinegar—but most people report that the smell goes away once it dries.

Baby Powder or Dry Shampoo Can Help Tide You Over

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Like the thought of shampooing less, but can't stand the look of limp, greasy hair? "A little sprinkle with baby powder to an oily scalp can do a great job at mopping up sebum when you're in a rush to get out the door," says Dr. Rogers.

Dry shampoos (available in aerosol sprays and powders) work essentially the same way, she adds, and many formulas—like Garnier Fructis Volume Extend Instant Bodifier, winner of Health's 2013 Beauty Awards—have the added benefit of going on invisible, even on dark hair. "This can be a helpful option for people who only want to blow out their hair every week or so," Dr. Rogers says. "But remember that they can only absorb oils; things like dirt or dead skin cells will remain until the next hair washing."

Gentler Shampoos Are Available

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One reason people may choose to wash their hair less is to avoid sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate, ingredients found in many shampoos. "They are great cleaners and create a rich lather when applied to hair," says Dr. Rogers. "The tradeoff is that they are considered harsher—meaning they're anionic, or negatively charged—and can lift up cuticle scales on the scalp."

Also, known as SLS, these chemicals are generally safe, says Dr. Rogers. But with regular use, they may dry out color-treated hair, and on rare occasions may irritate people with eczema or sensitive skin. Luckily, SLS-free shampoos are available; just look for formulas specifically made for color-treated hair or those labeled "sulfate-free." (You may notice that shampoos without SLS don't get as sudsy, but don't worry; they're still working.)

Many Shampoos Contain Parabens

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Parabens is the name for a group of preservatives used in tens of thousands of personal-care products; they've been around since the 1950s, and are considered safe by the Food and Drug Administration. However, parabens may act as weak hormone disruptors when absorbed into the body, although no evidence has been found that they contribute to breast cancer as some have feared.

Using less shampoo (and less of other personal-care products, while you're at it) can reduce your daily exposure to parabens; so can avoiding formulas that contain methyl-, propyl-, butyl-, ethyl-, or isobutylparaben, and opting for natural or organic products, instead.

It's (Slightly) Better for the Environment

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There's no arguing that using less shampoo means fewer plastic bottles headed to landfills or recycling plants, and that's obviously a good thing. Making your own natural formulas means that you can reuse the same container over and over, and simply cutting back on shampooing means that what you do buy will last longer.

The idea that the chemicals in shampoo are bad for the environment, on the other hand, is unfounded, says Dr. Rogers. "For ingredients to be included in things like shampoos or laundry or dish detergents, they must be known not to cause irreversible damage to the environment."

You Can Still Sweat

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Regular exercise doesn't have to keep you from cutting back on shampoo—nor should cutting back on shampoo keep you from exercising, says Dr. Rogers. "Sweat is produced by eccrine and apocrine glands, which provide a natural air conditioning for the body," she explains. "There isn't a need to automatically wash the hair more unless the sweat is associated with an odor or residue that is bothersome to the person."

Headed to the gym but don't want to wash your hair afterward? Pull your tresses up in a high ponytail or headband to keep the hair off your neck. After your workout, flip your head upside-down and apply dry shampoo powder to your roots, then to your hairline and part, advises celebrity stylist Bobbi Brown.

Styling Hair After No 'Poo

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The key to making one shampoo last several days, says Potempa, is variety in your hairstyles. "On the first day, spend a little extra time and effort on your hair: Use a product on your roots that's going to give it a boost, and really blow-dry it all the way so it's got maximum volume.

On the second day, experiment with a cute way to wear it up in a braid or a bun." If your hair is long enough, sleep with it in a loose, high-top knot to avoid major bed-head the next morning, she adds.

To tame any kinks that do materialize, spritz hair with water or a leave-in conditioner spray and smooth it out with a round brush and blow-dryer.

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