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Basic Haircare Routing That Works

This guide has been written based on results from scientific studies as well as HCS community feedback. It's an introduction to hair care that will help most people, but it may not give you all the results you want or may create atypical effects. If you want a more personalized haircare regimen, check out our guide on common problem troubleshooting, visit our product recommendations page, or post a question thread.

The basic process for caring for hair is cleansing, conditioning, drying, and then styling. In other words, it is the process of cleaning the hair, protecting it, drying it, and then getting it into the shape you want. Fulfilling you and your hair's needs in these four areas is the objective of a good haircare procedure.

Cleansing

Many commercial shampoos have harsh surfactants that degrade the cuticle through abrasion and excessive oil extraction and can even sever protein bonds in the cortex underneath. They function primarily as foamers, emulsifiers (so oils and water can exist in the same bottle without separating), and oil extractors. However, they are often used in excess because many people believe in the myth that shampoos with more foam and that leave the hair squeaky clean are better [1][6]. While these harsh surfactants do clean the hair better, our hair doesn't need to be cleaned that well that often. Because of the significant cuticle damage caused by frequent use of these surfactants over time, here are our alternate recommendations:

  • buy a sulfate-free shampoo and conditioner duo as a starting point. If you’re used to using harsh shampoos, it may take time to adjust to the gentler formula so be patient.

  • Try not to wash your hair every day. This strips the natural oils from your scalp that are produced to lubricate the hair shaft and exposes your hair to more damaging agents [6]. However, it is also possible to exacerbate any scalp conditions you have by not washing enough. Wash cycles will be a very personal thing, so experiment with different lengths of time in between washes for a couple of weeks to see what works for you. On off days you can keep your hair dry, wet, and massage it in the shower, or wash with conditioner.

  • If this still feels too harsh for your hair, check out co-washing. This is a method of cleaning and nourishing the hair only with conditioner and is helpful for people with excessively fragile and dry hair and sensitive scalps.

  • If you're co-washing or use any styling products, also use a stronger clarifying shampoo every few weeks

Conditioning

Conditioners protect the hair by smoothing down the cuticle, which reduces the chance for damage and makes the hair shaft softer, more combable, and more manageable. It also reduces moisture loss. Conditioners can be applied in the shower, after washing while hair is wet or dry, and in a concentrated amount as a deep conditioner before washing. You may find benefit by using one kind, or all three depending on your hair's susceptibility to damage (e.g. it's thinner, your heat style, you live at higher elevations with more UV exposure, etc.) and porosity.

  • In-shower conditioners are the most common and are often formulated as part of a pair with shampoo.

  • Leave-in conditioners, or conditioners you add after washing, are very helpful if you plan on doing any sort of styling. Look for something light if you have thin hair that is weighed down easily, like a thin liquid or a spray that doesn't have heavy silicones or other conditioners. Thicker hair can stand up to and may even require heavier conditioners like cremes or liquids with more viscosity.

  • Finally, deep conditioners typically have the strongest effect, hence their name. If your hair still feels dry or rough, try a commercial or natural deep conditioner formula once every one to two weeks. Depending on the amount of conditioning you're looking for and what ingredients you use, you can put it on for a few minutes in the shower, apply it all over your head a couple of hours before a wash, or apply it at night, sleep on it using a shower cap or old towel, and wash it out in the morning. Warming the deep conditioner before application increase penetrative abilities for those who have low-porosity hair (cuticle scales lay tight against the shaft). This is also a good chance to take care of the scalp too with antibacterial ingredients. A discussion of natural deep conditioners is here and here.

Drying

One of the most common sources of hair damage is heat styling such as hot irons, straighteners, and hot blow dryers [8]. Avoid these as much as possible to avoid the damage they cause (we like natural texture here!). While heat styling may seem like the only way to make your hair look good right now, over time as the condition improves it will most likely look better without the need for heat. However, there's some preliminary research that indicates complete air drying also damages the cell membrane complex between cuticle and cortex fibers[5], so here are some drying suggestions to minimize as much damage as possible:

  • Towel/shirt drying: Soak up some excess water first by wrapping your hair in a towel for a few minutes, or better yet use a fabric with a finer weave like a cotton t-shirt or satin/silk, as the rough fabric loops on towels can cause friction damage (curlies should visit curly hair or google "plopping" for curl-specific ways to do this).

  • air drying: This is best for smoothness and shine, but consider using a protein treatment and/or penetrative deep conditioner from time to time to conserve the integrity of your cell membrane complex and avoid fragility and breakage.

  • blow-drying: Or, blow dry your hair on a low heat setting after applying a heat protectant with non-volatile silicones, PVP/DMAPA acrylates copolymer, Quaternium 70, and/or hydrolyzed wheat protein as one of the top ingredients

Styling

Styling regimen is a very personal preference that people tailor to their own unique hair over time, so we won't presume to advise on any specific styling technique here. A few good rules though are:

  • avoid products with short-chain alcohols[7]. The short-chain alcohols (SD alcohol, alcohol denat., propanol, propyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol) are included in products to decrease drying time and make the product spread more easily, but they also dry out the hair by pulling out moisture. Dry hair is more susceptible to breakage, damage, and frizz.

  • "Good alcohols" on the other hand include lauryl alcohol, cetyl alcohol, myristyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, Cetearyl alcohol, and behenyl alcohol. These are long-chain molecules that act like conditioners by smoothing the hair cuticle. Just be careful not to use too much, as that can make the hair feel weighed down and greasy.

  • Silicones have the same conditioning effect, but can be more difficult to wash out and therefore can build up over time with undesirable consequences. Read this post for more information about silicones.

Again, these are tips to help you start out and aren't definitive rules. Some people may not see as much change as they'd like, or may even see negative effects from this routine. Just remember that change in hair quality is a slow process, so be patient for a couple of weeks if you don't see immediate improvement. If after a while your hair still hasn't changed or has taken a turn for the worse, look at our other care guides or post a question on our sub!