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Are you overwashing your hair?

Maintaining daily hair hygiene in these times can actually lead to dullness, breakage and hair fall

The ingredient that makes your soap, shampoo and detergents lather is sulphate. They help clean the hair but if present in excess or used too much and too often, they damage it.

As lockdown restrictions ease and people begin moving out, the need for constant sanitization becomes more compelling. It may mean you are washing your hair more often too, and it may feel duller and more brittle. Skin experts confirm that while more people have been suffering from hair fall since the covid-19 outbreak due to stress and anxiety, overwashing has emerged as another reason for hair damage.

The sulphates conundrum

The ingredient that makes your soap, shampoo and detergents lather is sulphate. These detergent, foaming ingredients act as a cleanser and come in different types, with stronger, more abrasive ones used in fabric detergents. They can be found in most shampoos; an easy way to check is whether the shampoo lathers easily. “Sulphates are surfactants and are useful in cleaning dirt, dust and debris which gets created because of the natural oil secretion. Traditionally, anything which would have a foaming action (because it creates a negative-positive charge, and that’s how it takes it away) would be used as the main ingredient of the shampoo. Some of these common surfactants are sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES),” says Pradeep Kumari, consultant dermatologist, Apollo Clinic, Pune. Sulphates help clean the hair but if present in excess or used too much and too often, they damage it.

“Every hair follicle is attached to a sebaceous gland which secretes natural oils which keep the hair moist and shiny and protect it from grime. Using sulphate-containing shampoos daily without conditioning the hair can lead to stripping of the natural sebum, causing hair to become dull, frizzy, dry and breakable,” says Shraddha Deshpande, cosmetologist, consultant plastic and reconstructive surgeon, Wockhardt Hospital, Mumbai. People with sensitive skin, unable to tolerate such shampoos, may find themselves suffering from itchy scalp, erythema, excessive drying and flaking of the scalp, swelling and hives, adds Dr Deshpande. This is also something you may suffer when you wash your hair in a hurry, don’t wash off all the shampoo, and top it with a conditioner. In fact, if the product doesn’t suit the hair type, the effects of overwashing can be felt even if you shampoo just twice a week.

Signs of overwashing

If you have a greasy scalp and use too much shampoo in an effort to reduce the oiliness, you aren’t doing yourself a favour. You deprive the scalp of the natural protective oil when you overwash. This will make it dry and lead to over-secretion of oil as the body tries to compensate for the loss, leading to what is known as paradoxical greasiness. “So a person will have grease-free hair post-wash and see oiliness return within 3 hours. Similarly, if your scalp feels dry and itchy post wash, you are doing it wrong. In both skin types, if your scalp stays calm, it means that it needs that amount of washing,” says Dr Kumari.

If your hair colour is fading too soon, chances are you are using the wrong shampoo or overwashing. An aggravated dry and flaky scalp can also lead to an eczema kind of situation, making the scalp more prone to infections. Oiling the scalp with a gentle fingertip massage before shampooing preconditions the hair and scalp and creates a protective layer against dirt and shampoo damage. Do not apply oil on the hair shaft though, for you will end up using more shampoo to rinse it off. “The second type of damage is the shaft damage. The hair shaft is a dead organ, even if it is blowing in the wind it will get damaged. So once the shaft becomes dry due to overwashing, they are more prone to photo-damage, getting rough, and entanglement, which sometimes is irreversible,” explains Dr Kumari.

What should you do?

If you have to wash your hair every day, switch to milder, sulphate-free shampoos which will cause less damage and always use a conditioner. Also, use soft water instead of hard water, and do not use very hot water as it will dry the scalp and make your hair brittle. “Do not tie your hair or comb it immediately after washing as it is most vulnerable at this point. Air-dry as far as possible and use your fingers or a wide-toothed comb to de-tangle hair,” says Dr Deshpande. And, she adds, don’t forget to pay attention to your diet. Vitamin D, zinc, selenium, biotin and calcium are all essential nutrients for hair. So, “a balanced diet containing all essential vitamins and minerals will give you great-looking hair as a bonus.”

Dhara Vora Sabhnani is a Mumbai-based journalist.

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