The Most Common Mistakes People Make When Shampooing Their Hair

A young woman washing her hair
PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou/Getty Images

It probably won't be a shock to you that, odds are, you're not shampooing your hair correctly. In fact, most people make at least some mistakes every time we lather up. Sometimes we don't spend enough time scrubbing our scalps, sometimes we don't rinse thoroughly, and sometimes we skip the conditioner. And those are just a few things we're all doing wrong. 

Most people don't wet their hair thoroughly before applying shampoo.

Every strand needs to be soaking wet in order to truly get clean. The good news is, it just takes about a full minute standing under the shower stream to ensure every strand is drenched. The bad news is, it's different for everybody. If your hair is particularly dense—not even thick, just dense—you may want to run your fingers through to double check. It's easy for hair on the back of the head but close to the scalp to go untouched.

People also generally have no idea how much shampoo to use in the shower. And if you use a fancy shampoo, you could be washing a lot of money down the drain. At the same time, using too little shampoo won't get your hair clean enough. It won't even coat your strands. There's a way of gauging how much shampoo you need, though. For short hair, aim for the size of a nickel. For medium-length hair, aim for a quarter. If you have long hair, you'll want to use about a half-dollar.

Squeeze the shampoo in your palm, and then using your fingers, apply the product to your hair starting at the scalp and crown.

Starting at the scalp is crucial. If you've ever had a professional shampoo at a salon, you know how much time they spend on your scalp. It's not a head massage; scrubbing the scalp is a key step in an effective shampoo.

Most people rush through it, though. You're supposed to scrub for 3 minutes. That's the magic number: 3 minutes. No matter your hair length or hair type, the amount of time that you should be scrubbing your scalp with the pads of your fingers—not your nails—is 3 minutes. Three minutes seems like a really long time, so for those of you who can't make it too the three-minute mark, just do your best.

Focusing your initial shampooing efforts on the scalp helps remove dirt, sebum and build-up that collects there. Spending 30 seconds to a minute on your scalp scrub is like quickly running a mop over a dirty floor rather than scrubbing the surface of its grime.

We recommend using this initial shampoo to focus only on the scalp, not the actual hair. Turns out some of us actually should rinse and repeat, especially those with long hair. It's not just a way to get you to buy more shampoo, although if you have short or really fine hair, you can skip it. It's not meant to make you buy more shampoo, it's just accurate directions.

It all goes down this: After you've scrubbed your scalp for 3 minutes, it's time to rinse. A quick 15-second rinsing should suffice. Then it's part 2 of the shampoo, only this time you'll be focusing your efforts on your hair, not your scalp.

To do this, take about a dime-sized amount of shampoo and apply it to your hair. Focus on massaging the shampoo into your actual hair strands. You can spend as little as 20 seconds on this part, or longer if you are a product junkie and you use lots of things that can cause buildup.

If you can't wait to get over the work part of your morning showers and just want to stand there in a meditative state for a long time under the spray of water, you probably aim for fast and efficient when it comes down to the work part of scrubbing your hair. But if you typically whip through the rinse portion of your hair washing process, you're actually doing more harm than good. Turns out, it's shampoo that causes build-up on hair, not conditioners, according to the experts at NYC's Le Salon. This is why it's important to spend at least a full minute rinsing hair of shampoo before moving on to the next step.

It's important to, after you shampoo, thoroughly condition your hair. The trick is to use conditioner only on the bottom 2/3rds of your hair, and don't let the conditioner touch your scalp. Similarly, you should be removing excess water from your hair before you apply conditioner, because this allows it to soak in and do its job of keeping your hair moist. It's important to work it in, making sure to coat every strand. 

If you want to avoid tangles and hair breakage, brush conditioner through hair with a wide-toothed comb or a boar's bristle brush. A brush will work as long as you use it on hair before the conditioner is rinsed out—otherwise, use a wide-toothed comb. Make sure to rinse the conditioner out thoroughly, though. People with dry hair tend to mistake leaving a little bit of conditioner on for softer, easier to manage hair. In reality, conditioner will just sit on hair, making it look dull and flat. Women with dry, coarse hair are better off using a leave-in conditioner instead.

Finally, you should be giving your hair a cold water rinse. Turns out, that rumor repeated over the years in magazines and on websites that cold water will make it shinier is actually true. While hot water raises the cuticle, and therefore makes products more effective, you need to rinse it with cold hair to close the cuticle. A flatter cuticle has a smoother surface, one which reflects light and makes hair look shinier. It's ok not to if you're afraid of the cold shower, but if you're brave and committed to having shiny hair, then take a chance and move the tap to cold.