If you listen to followers of the Church of the Non-Hair-Washers, you hear all sorts of benefits that come with going long intervals between shampoos — or with giving it up altogether. The shine! The bounce! The streamlining of your morning routine! And any stylist will tell you that not stripping your locks of their natural oils means good things for the state of your hair cuticles, so you're not going to hear here that shampoo is an absolute "must."
But whether you're a "no 'poo" type (meaning "no shampoo" and relying on baking soda, other natural rinses or just plain water), a co-washing devotee (aka someone who uses conditioning cleansers containing low or no sulfates) or you just go long stretches between washes, there are a few strange, weird and/or unexpected things that may happen along the way. Here's what really goes down when traditional shampoo is no longer a fixture in your daily life. Don't say we didn't warn you.
Your head starts to hurt
This is a common gripe that pops up after many suds-free days, and there are several theories as to what's going on. Dr. Hadley King, dermatologist at Skinney Med Spa and clinical instructor of dermatology at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University theorizes, "Perhaps the build-up of yeast and bacteria could cause enough inflammation to lead to some tenderness." And here's hairstylist and co-founder of R+Co Garren's thought: "When you go awhile without washing, you are not massaging and cleansing, which is what helps keep the hair follicles free of debris and not clogged."
The scientists at TheBeautyBrains.com think this sensation could be because of a fungus called Malassezia furfur, or because you've been wearing your hair up in an effort to hide grease. And Eric Spengler, senior vice president of research and development at Living Proof, suggests that fragrance or preservatives in the co-wash or other products you're using might be to blame, so you might want to switch to something new.
Whatever the reason, Garren has some pretty common-sense advice on the topic: "When it gets to the point of hurting, I think you've waited a bit too long to shampoo your hair."
"If you have too much product in your hair or too much oil, then your scalp will absolutely tingle," explains Garren, adding that cleansing helps release the sebum that's trapped within the follicle and leaving it there can create a tickling sort of sensation.
Your locks get… chunkier
If your hair is thick or coarse and you go a very long time without washing, the dirt and scalp grease can start to bunch together over time, leading to a texture Garren calls "chunky." (Ew.) Fine hair, on the other hand, will get flatter the further out from your last shampoo you get, as the oils will weigh down thin strands. A bit of dry shampoo might help, though too many days of that can lead to other complications. See below.
Brushing could get more difficult
This one happens when you have build-up of dry shampoo — the non-washer's go-to when hair is in need of sprucing up. As the layers accumulate, the particles mix with your scalp oils and debris and can start getting sticky; that lack of slip makes it harder to work a brush through your locks, says Garren. Switching from a powder to a spray product may help since you can get a lighter application.
Dandruff might rear its ugly head
Another common thing that pops up in the forums of no 'poo sites is the sudden appearance of flakes. The culprit, according to Dr. King: "Washing your hair helps to decrease the yeast that is naturally and normally found on your scalp, so when you stop, more of it is likely to build up and increase the occurrence of dandruff." And the itching that goes along with it? That's due to the resulting scalp inflammation.
A halo of acne can hit
During the initial adjustment phase, you might find yourself with more scalp oil to deal with since you're not stripping it away. According to Dr. King, that means the acne-prone can see more breakouts. The good news? "This may improve as a new homeostasis is reached," she says. In other words, when your scalp realizes it doesn't need to pump out as much oil, it could back off — but that really depends on your body's chemistry. In the meantime, being vigilant about your face-cleansing and pimple-prevention routine — without going overboard and freaking your skin out — might help.