It sounds like kindergarten stuff, but experts say that many hair problems occur because people don’t know how to wash their hair properly. An estimated one in three people don’t use a shower attachment to wet and rinse their hair, relying instead on dunking it under the bathwater or pouring over a few jugs of water. To work effectively, most modern haircare formulations need plenty of water to remove the dirt and release the conditioning agents.
How often should you wash your hair? Expert advice differs between daily and twice a week. The sensible solution is that if it’s looking good, don’t change your routine. If it isn’t and you are washing it every three days or so, try washing it daily in a gentle shampoo and always follow with a suitable conditioner. If you wash it every day and are disappointed, first of all try different products, then less frequent washing, starting with alternate days.

Many people believe their hair gets used to one product and will benefit from frequent changes. This is, in fact, true, says trichologist and biochemist Dr Hugh Rushton – particularly with some of the newer polymer volumising products. So do switch every so often.

How to wash your hair

  • Wet hair in the warmest water your scalp can stand.
  • Apply about a dessertspoonful of shampoo – less for short hair, more for really long. Using more shampoo than you need won’t result in cleaner hair. Always apply from the palm of your hand, not the tube, so you can judge the amount. In soft water areas, or if you have a water softener, you won’t need so much.
  • Use the pads of your fingers, not your nails, to massage shampoo into the scalp, then work through to the ends of the hair – massaging, rather than rubbing, to avoid tangles.
  • Rinse thoroughly.
  • Repeat the whole process if you don’t wash it daily.
  • Squeeze out the extra moisture with your hands before you apply conditioner. Massage conditioner onto your hair (especially the ends, not your scalp) and leave on for the recommended time.
  • Blot hair dry with a fluffy towel – don’t rub or wring hair as it is at its weakest when wet. Use a second towel to wrap around your hair; leave it on for a few minutes to absorb excess moisture.
  • To prevent split ends, apply a dab of conditioner to the ends of the hair before using a hairdryer, curling iron or heated rollers. (Try to avoid using these last two too often.)

Coming clean

What’s in a shampoo? The main constituents are water, surfactant (soapless detergent) and perfume. Surfactant breaks down the natural sebum (oil) on your hair, so when you rinse it this goes down the plug-hole along with the dirt and grime that’s collected on your hair. Lathering, incidentally, has nothing to do with a product’s efficiency – it’s purely cosmetic. (Some of the more natural shampoos on the market hardly lather at all, but they work perfectly well.) Preservatives are added, to guard against contamination. Thickening agents bolster the texture. There may be other additives: keratin (Hair protein), amino acids and hydrolised protein, which is picked up by the hair and fills out gaps in the cuticle, boosting shine and making hair appear thicker. On the whole, manufacturers’ claims for hair products are a pretty accurate guide to what suits your hair type – whether fair, fine or dry, etc.

Will a shampoo with vitamins help my hair? Hair can’t absorb vitamins – with the exception of vitamin B5 (panthenol). Studies have shown that B5 penetrates the hair shaft, which is why it is increasingly used in shampoo formulations to improve condition.

Will a time-saving 2-in-1 product do the trick? These are fine when you’re in a hurry, but if you use them on a regular basis your hair may not be getting all the conditioning it needs.

What’s in a conditioner? When we say hair is ‘out of condition’, this refers to the state of the cuticles or surface scales on the hair shaft. If these are damaged through styling, drying, chemicals, etc., the result is lack of shine and bounce. Conditioners make hair shiny by depositing a lubricant on the hair, together with a ‘cationic agent’, techno-speak for an ingredient which delivers a positive electric charge to the lubricant, enabling it to cling to the hair. It also reduces static electricity, making styling easier and preventing flyaway hair.

Does greasy hair need a conditioner? First question is whether you really have greasy hair: try shampooing daily and see if it improves. If you still have a greasy scalp, use a very light conditioner, just scrunching it onto the ends, then rinse with head forward so the conditioner doesn’t run down onto the scalp.

Should you buy your shampoo and conditioner from your hairdresser? This depends on how much you trust your hairdresser. On the plus side, no one else knows your hair as well, and so he/she should be able to suggest a tailor-made haircare prescription. But remember you may pay more for salon products. (And if you don’t like them, you could be stuck with something expensive that seems to last forever because products tend to come in salon sizes.)

What about ‘designer haircare’? Most top hairdressers – from Vidal Sassoon onwards – have long been formulating their own ranges, partly because they are anxious not to splash their name across inferior products and partly because they may reap rich rewards. Unless you get to see the great man (or, less likely, woman), it’s pretty well pot luck if a product suits you, as with any other range whatever the source – supermarket, chemist or salon. The best advice is to ask your hairdresser what he/she suggests, have an expert hair analysis or, for real problems, consult a trichologist.

How quickly should you see results? Intensive conditioners/hair masks: Immediate improvements, but long-term results are cumulative, if used once or twice weekly. Dandruff shampoo: Two weeks for an improvement, six weeks to banish symptoms.

TIPWash your brush/comb frequently – at least once a week – with warm water and a little shampoo. Or dissolve a tablespoon of washing soda in warm water, add a little antiseptic and agitate your brush/comb briskly in the mixture.

Dealing with dandruff

Dandruff affects nearly everyone at some time in their lives. The word itself is used as an umbrella term to describe every kind of scalp condition which leads to visible flaking. Real dandruff, however, is caused by an increase in a natural yeast, Pityrosporum ovale, which results in a disturbance in the normal shedding of skin cells – and so leads to ‘shoulder snow’.

Dandruff is not the only reason behind flaking: skin cells shed all the time, but the process can be speeded up for a number of reasons. Stress is one trigger for an almost immediate downpour. Another common culprit is using a shampoo with too high a surfactant (detergent) content.

As a first line of attack, biochemist and trichologist Dr Hugh Rushton suggests washing hair every day or every other day with a mild shampoo (not a specifically formulated anti-dandruff shampoo). Most medium-priced products do a good job; choose one which leaves your hair feeling fresh and shiny. Soak your hair thoroughly, then apply a good blob of shampoo, about a dessertspoonful. Rub into the scalp well, then rinse very thoroughly. Flaking can also be the result of inadequate rinsing because the shampoo residue disturbs the inter-cellular cement, or ‘glue’, which binds the skin cells together. If you shampoo your hair every day, use one application; if you prefer to shampoo less frequently, use two applications, with a slightly smaller one to start with. You may notice some flaking at first but this should soon settle down. If you wish to use a conditioner, apply it to the hair ends only.

Try this washing regime for four weeks; if after this time the condition doesn’t improve, you may have real dandruff. Try using an anti-dandruff shampoo such as Head & Shoulders or Vosene twice a week, on alternate shampoos. (There are suggestions that high levels of coal tar in shampoos may be implicated in cancer; you may wish to check your anti-dandruff shampoo does not contain it.) Some sufferers have even found a ‘no-wash regime’ beneficial (see opposite). Dandruff can be triggered or made worse by stress, so take sufficient exercise, get enough sleep, eat a good diet and consider learning stress reduction techniques.

If, however, the flaking is associated with red patches on your scalp or eyebrows, or down the folds running from nose to mouth, possibly accompanied by itching, you don’t have dandruff but a mild form of eczema. Try cutting out all dairy products for a month. If the condition doesn’t improve, ask your doctor to refer you to a dermatologist or trichologist.

Trichologist Philip Kingsley suggests making your own anti-flaking tonic with equal quantities of any mouthwash and witch hazel. Shampoo, then apply conditioner to the ends of hair only. Rinse well, dry gently with a towel and, before styling, sprinkle the mixture all over your scalp.

TIPTo prevent hair product build-up, every few months actress Jaclyn Smith whips up a deep-cleanser: half a cup of white vinegar mixed into a quart of boiling water. Shampoo the cooled solution into just-washed hair, then rinse with ice-cold water.