How Does Shampoo Clean Hair

You may take it for granted despite using it all the time, but shampoo is actually a rather new product. In fact, at one point it was advised to clean your hair with bar soap–consider the frizzy mess! We use it all the time, but how does shampoo clean hair? The first shampoo wasn’t introduced until the 1930s and contained synthetic surfactants–agents originally used to clean cars and carpets. And yes, these agents are still in shampoo.

How does shampoo clean hair? Shampoo strives to both clean hair as well as condition it. Surfactants are added to cleanse away sebum and other particles while other ingredients work to condition hair for manageability.

How does shampoo actually work?

Our skin has a nasty way of creating undesirable flaws and one of them is sebum. You know sebum. It creates clogged pores, pimples, and buildup on our scalp promoting greasy hair that attracts dirt. When sebum accumulates on your scalp, you reach for shampoo.

While the same agents (surfactants) remain from the first ever shampoo, many more ingredients are now added to not only clean hair, but increase manageability, shine, and smoothness. Generally speaking, it’s easy to formulate a cleansing agent that rids hair of sebum and grime, but without these other ingredients like dimethicone and panthenol your hair would be a wild, frizzy mess.

Why shampoo your hair?

We all want shiny, full hair that smells amazing. We want it look healthy and beautiful. But do you actually need to use shampoo to achieve these results?

Let’s go back to the early days. Before blow dryers became available, it was not uncommon for women to only wash their hair once a week, and many did so in a salon. Before modern technology, it was tedious to style hair and therefore women did so less often.

The truth is shampoo is not a major necessity, and many have joined the no “poo” movement claiming great results. But like anything, be wary. Remember that hair can be as unique as skin color. There’s no one-fits-all method, and no shampoo might not be a good choice depending on your hair.

The thought is that if you use shampoo, you are stripping away natural oil from your scalp which then overcompensates by creating even more gooey sebum. People who throw in the towel on shampoo say that once your scalp adjusts, you won’t need shampoo; however, there is a time period of adjustment, or ahem…greasy hair. The no “poo” movement may work for some, but it depends on your lifestyle and your hair.

How often should you shampoo your hair?

Remember that your hair is unique; therefore, it produces a unique amount of sebum. Your hair could also be thicker, thinner, or more coarse. These factors all play into washing frequency.

For example, if you have thin or oily hair, you will benefit from washing more often. Experts suggest daily or every other day to avoid visible oil.

On the other hand, slightly thicker hair means you can calm down the washes and go everyday two or even three days since sebum won’t show up as readily.

If you have very thick or curly hair, you can go with only one or two washes a week(just don’t tell anyone!). While sebum shows up easily in thin hair, it can actually tame frizz and keep curls coiled.

Finally, if you have dry/damaged hair, less washings are best; however, if you can’t skip the “poo”, you can reach for a gentle shampoo (more on shampoos and hair types in a minute!).

Ultimately, despite what experts suggest, you may have to experiment a little. Calm the washing and check your roots. If you like what you see, maybe you don’t need so much shampoo after all.

Which shampoos are good for which hairstyles?

Consider the uniqueness of hair. Not only are we born with a specific hair type that ranges in color, texture, and thickness, but we can modify it to be pretty much anything we want. With these factors at play, it can be hard to find the right shampoo for you.

Color-treated hair

If you opt for color, protect your investment. Color treatments are expensive. This means you should avoid regular shampoos which can strip the color from your hair and leave you paying more.

You also need to consider color. Going blonde? Consider buying shampoo that is formulated specifically for blonde hair. These shampoos prevent brassy or orange tones.

For other colors, you are simply trying to keep the color in your hair looking as good as when it was done. This means you want color protection that is gentle and doesn’t strip hair.

No matter the color, you may want to reach for gentle shampoos that boast “no sulfates” on the label. Sulfates tend to be harsh on color treated and over-styled hair.

Dry/Damaged hair

Reaching for the flat iron everyday? Styling tools, products, and environmental factors can contribute to brittle, dry, and damaged hair.

In order to combat damage, you need hydration. Many damage repair shampoos are naturally formulated with ingredients like coconut oil, argan oil, and sunflower oil to promote hydration.

If you’ve opted to chemically treat your hair to go straight or curly, you definitely need to reach for an even gentler shampoo specifically formulated for chemically-treated hair. Your hair stylist will thank you!

Frizzy or curly Hair

Course or curly hair is often more susceptible to lack moisture. Because these types of hair generally have a raised cuticle layer, moisture more easily escapes and does not stick around after washing.

Because ordinary shampoos can actually create more damage, you should reach for shampoos without sulfates and other harsh chemicals. Instead, look for ingredients like humectants, glycerin, or panthenol.

Oily Hair

While everyone’s scalp creates sebum, some are unlucky enough to create more. This can contribute to limp, greasy locks. Regular shampoos can both strip the hair too much and encourage more sebum production. Some even contain additional oils and silicons making your hair look even heavier. Yuck.

This is why you may opt for a clarifying shampoo. These shampoos are aimed at cleansing the scalp as well as going deep into the hair shaft itself. They do a great job ridding your hair of buildup; however, most stylists suggests using these shampoos only once or twice a week.

In addition to clarifying shampoos, you may also check out shampoos with ingredients like apple cider vinegar or even tea tree oil to zap that sebum.

Fine or thin hair

Are you finding yourself teasing your hair like it’s the 1980s? Do you need a hairspray intervention? Luckily, there’s help! One of the most popular shampoos is volumizing shampoo.

Volumizing shampoos are formulated to lift hair from the scalp creating the illusion of fuller, thicker hair. They also control sebum production to avoid heavy hair.

While many shampoos boast volumizing right on the bottle, there are some power-packed ingredients you may want to look for like polymers, starch, and talc. These ingredients help stiffen hair and provide lift.

What can I use to wash my hair instead of shampoo?

Sometimes there’s just no shampoo. Perhaps you’re on a trip and forgot it. Uh oh. Jams happen, but no shampoo is no problem.

One way to wash your hair is with pantry staples like baking soda. A baking soda rinse will definitely rid your hair of residue and leave it clean. In fact many no-”pooers” already use baking soda rinses frequently. Just wet hair, massage some baking soda on the scalp, and rinse.

Another staple is apple cider vinegar. Apple cider vinegar even reduces dandruff and promotes shine while cleaning. Just wet hair and rinse with vinegar. Yes, the smell is pretty strong, but the scent will dissipate as your hair dries.

So the next time you’re cleaning your carpets or going through the car wash, Consider how far shampoo has come. What was once simply used to clean hair now boasts everything from damage control to color protection and that is pretty amazing. Without it, you might still be using a bar of soap on your head wishing for a miracle as you struggle to run a comb through your hair or attempt to style it. No thanks!

Joy-Lee Founder and writer of


Hi, my name is Joy-Lee and I'm the owner of As you might've noticed, I'm a true beauty lover, and made it my passion, my work and my hobby. I love sharing my thoughts and feelings on a variety of beauty aspects and want to thank you for reading!