When It Comes To Shampoo, Less Is More Americans shampoo more than four times a week β€” twice as much as Italians and Spaniards. And it's not surprising, given all the shampoo ads promising beauty, body and bounce. But some dermatologists and hair stylists warn that too much lather can damage your locks.

When It Comes To Shampoo, Less Is More

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. In Your Health today we have team coverage of your hair. We'll explore the science of why some people go from curly locks to straight and back again without trying. First, we have some advice about healthy hair. You may be shampooing too often. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY: Maybe the current trend of shampooing frequently got started on May 10, 1908, when the New York Times published a column advising women that it was okay to wash their hair once every two weeks. At that time once a month was the norm.

Decades later, TV marketing campaigns began to convince us that daily washing was the thing to do. Take this ad featuring a 1970s beauty icon.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Man #1: Faberge introduces Farrah Fawcett shampoo.

Unidentified Man #2 (Singing) Farrah, light and shining hair.

Unidentified Man #1: Farrah Fawcett Shampoo. Something beautiful happens to your hair.

Mr. STEVE MELTZER (Former Ad Executive): All you have to do is watch her running in slow motion on a beach with her hair flopping gracefully in the wind.

AUBREY: Former ad exec Steve Meltzer says Madison Avenue sold people on the idea of shampooing their way to beauty. Ads also convinced us, perhaps erroneously - and we'll get to that - that daily hair washing is healthy.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Man #3: Do you have to use so much shampoo?

Unidentified Woman: Prell Concentrate. Just this much made all this great lather.

AUBREY: The ad cuts to later that evening, with the husband admiring his wife's hair.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Man #3: Honey, our budget's a disaster, but your hair looks like a million bucks.

AUBREY: Shampoo had become big business, and Americans easily took to the idea that we should shampoo frequently. Georgetown University students Jane Caudell-Feagan and Ashley Carlini say it's no mystery why: People like the results. When I told them about the century-old practice of shampooing just once a month, they just about gagged.

Ms. JANE CAUDELL-FEAGAN (Student): Oh, that is way, way too little hair shampooing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ASHLEY CARLINI (Student): I mean, if I don't shower every day, my hair gets really greasy, so I think that would be completely heinous.

AUBREY: In fact, it might be un-American. According to shampoo maker Proctor and Gamble, we Americans shampoo more than four times a week. By contrast, people in Spain and Italy shampoo just twice a week.

So give our propensity to wash, what I'm about to tell you next may come as a shock. Turns out in some eco-conscious circles of society there's a movement to stop shampooing.

Jeanne Haegele writes a blog called Life Less Plastic. She calls it the no-'poo movement.

Ms. JEANNE HAEGELE (Blogger): There's a lot of people doing this sort of no-shampoo experiment out there.

AUBREY: Haegele says she's trying to avoid buying things sold in plastic packaging, so she recently went three months without using any shampoo. Instead, she tried household cleaning products.

Ms. HAEGELE: Usually on Wednesdays and Saturdays I would actually rub a little bit of baking soda into my scalp or into my hair in order to clean it a little bit. And then I was also doing a vinegar rinse.

AUBREY: Did anyone comment on the smell?

Ms. HAEGELE: Actually, no one did. And I don't know if they were secretly wondering why I smelled a little bit like a jar of pickles. They didn't seem to notice.

AUBREY: Probably.

(Soundbite of laughter)

AUBREY: Jeanne told me the embarrassing part of her story is that she developed a terrible case of dandruff. So she ended the no-'poo, but she says she observed something really surprising during the process. That is…

Ms. HAEGELE: Ultimately, after several weeks, my hair wasn't that oily.

AUBREY: It's not a flaky observation, according to physician Michelle Hanjani. She's a professor of dermatology at Columbia University. She explains hair needs a little oil to be healthy. When the sebaceous glands in the scalp produce an oil known as sebum, it protects our hair and makes it shiny.

Dr. MICHELLE HANJANI (Columbia University): If you wash your hair every day, you're removing this sebum, and then the oil glands in your scalp actually compensate by producing more oil and more sebum. So your hair kind of compensates for the frequency that you wash your hair.

AUBREY: So in other words, if you stop shampooing so frequently, you make less oil. Hanjani says over-washing damages the hair by stripping it of oil.

Dr. HANJANI: So I usually recommend patients wash their hair no more than two to three times weekly.

AUBREY: Hanjani says there's lots of variation among hair types - African-Americans and folks with curly hair can go even longer between washes compared to people with straight hair. So it seems less is more. And maybe our grandmothers were onto something after all.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

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