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Do I Have to Wash My Hair After Going in the Ocean?

There’s water. There’s salt. What can shampoo do that it can’t?

There are two camps of hair people: Those who regularly wash with shampoo, and those who swear that most Americans shampoo their hair too much and therefore strip their scalp of the necessary oils that keep their hair follicles healthy. I started out in the first camp, but now, on the advice of my girlfriend, a master hairstylist, I’ve veered into the second. That said, I’m not ready to bid farewell to shampoo completely and go the way of Ashton Kutcher and Jake Gyllenhaal, who are outright anti-bathers. 

I mention all of this because I spent the last week going in and out of the ocean, and didn’t wash my hair for four days straight — no shampoo, just pure saltwater and good vibes.

It didn’t seem that crazy of a thing not to do. First, I was going to wake up and go back into the ocean, so why bother shampooing my scalp? Second, unlike a pool that’s full of chlorine, which infamously dries and damages hair, the ocean is full of salt, and isn’t salt an exfoliant? As such, isn’t ocean water as good as, if not better than, shampoo?

There was no one better to pose this question to than Sunny Sepasi, the aforementioned master hairstylist (and my girlfriend). She tells me that before even having any discussion about whether to shampoo post-dip-in-the-ocean, I should first apply some sort of pre-ocean barrier product to my hair. Basically — and this applies to the pool, too — if you want to avoid constantly washing your hair on vacation use some sort of hair mask that contains SPF. “I recommend combing through a palm-size amount of any leave-in conditioner depending on the length of your hair,” she explains. Her current favorite is Suncare Ocean Salt & Sage Scalp & Hair Mist SPF 30.

That said, she’s somewhat agnostic about whether or not you have to wash your hair after you go into the ocean. “Obviously on vacation, you should do whatever you want,” she says. She adds that a significant benefit of saltwater is that it does indeed exfoliate your hair, and so, “any buildup of grease, oil or hair products will wash away.” Not to mention, there is some evidence that suggests saltwater can help reduce yeast that contributes to dandruff. 

But again, a hair mask with SPF is still key. Case in point: Per a report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, “acid levels of the [ocean] water can damage our hair’s protective seal,” and combined with “harsh UV rays from the sun, it can leave your hair looking and feeling dry,” which can cause your hair to break and shed more easily. Along those lines, a colleague of Sunny’s adds that if you have color-treated hair, you should definitely wash it with shampoo and conditioner after you’ve gone into the ocean. Once more, it’s a dryness thing. “Saltwater will deplete even more moisture from your hair, which is likely already damaged due to the color treatment,” she explains. 

So what then constitutes too many days of not washing your hair after swimming in the ocean? “I advise my clients to wash their hair once at least every three to four days whether they’re going swimming in the ocean or not,” Sunny says.

If that’s the case, you’ll have to excuse me. I’m at least two days past due.