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A Guide to How a Dry Shampoo Works

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Image of girl spraying a dry shampoo at the root area of her hair.

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Dry shampoo has emerged as an essential tool for many seeking to keep their hair looking fresh on days when washing with water is not an option.

Essentially, dry shampoo is designed to absorb the excess oil that accumulates on the scalp and hair, offering a way to refresh your hair’s appearance without the need for a traditional shampoo and water. The key ingredients, typically starches and alcohols, work together to remove sebum (the natural oil produced by your scalp), enhance volume, and provide a fresh scent to the hair. This product is particularly useful for stretching the duration between regular hair washes.

To deepen our understanding of dry shampoos, we will discuss their ability to refresh, volumize, and cleanse hair without water and highlight their varied advantages.

Dry Shampoo: The Science Behind It

Image of the briogeo dry shampoo.

Dry shampoo is a distinctive hair care product designed specifically for dry hair application, unlike traditional shampoos that rely on water and lather for cleansing. This no-rinse, water-free formula efficiently soaks up excess oils and impurities, making it a go-to for those quick hair touch-ups or when a full wash isn’t feasible.

The innovation of dry shampoo bridges the gap between regular hair washes, ensuring your locks stay fresh and presentable, even on the busiest days. Its convenience is further highlighted by the fact that there’s no need for rinsing.

Available in powder or aerosol forms, it allows for precise application, leaving hair looking revitalized, feeling lighter, and appearing more voluminous. At its core, dry shampoo’s mission is to quickly refresh the hair by tackling excess oils and the day-to-day build-up.

Benefits Beyond the Basics

Image of the word, "benefits" written on a sticky note.
  1. Volumizing Effect: It can add volume to limp hair by creating space between strands.
  2. Added Texture: Provides added texture for your updo hairstyles.
  3. Fragrance: Many variants mask unpleasant odors, leaving hair smelling fresh.
  4. Hairstyle: Extends the longevity of your freshly styled hair.

Key Ingredients

Image of the word "ingredients" with a black chalkboard in the background.

Dry shampoo primarily consists of starches and alcohols. These ingredients work synergistically to achieve the primary function of the product: oil absorption.

  1. Starches: These are the primary absorbents in dry shampoos. They soak up the excess sebum (oil) produced by the scalp, giving hair a cleaner appearance. The choice of starch can vary, with rice and corn starches being popular options.
  2. Alcohols: These help in the quick drying of the product and can also aid in the dispersion of the absorbing agents. They ensure that the product doesn’t leave a wet or sticky residue.
  3. Propellant Ingredients: These are essential for the aerosol mechanism. Common propellants include:
    • Butane
    • Isobutane
    • Propane These propellants can make up 70-90% of the aerosol dry shampoo’s total composition.
  4. Micelle Formations: Surfactants, like detergents, often form micelles. These are small clusters where amphiphile molecules organize with their non-polar ends facing inwards. This structure is crucial for their cleansing action.
  5. Anionic Surfactants: These are molecules that don’t dissolve in water. They possess:
    • A hydrophilic (water-attracting) portion.
    • A hydrophobic (oil-attracting) portion This dual nature allows them to bind with both water and oils.

Natural Alternatives in Dry Shampoo

Image of the word, "alternative" from a dictionary.

1. Herbal Powder Shampoo: Herbal powder shampoos represent a green alternative in the world of dry shampoos. These are crafted from natural ingredients, ensuring minimal adverse reactions compared to their commercial counterparts. Key components often include:

  • Aloe vera powder: Known for its soothing properties.
  • Plant byproducts: These reduce potential irritations to the skin, eyes, and scalp, often caused by harsh surfactants in mainstream products.

2. Clay-Based Shampoo: Historically, clay has been a trusted ingredient for hair cleansing. One notable variant is:

  • Rhassoul Clay (or Red Clay): This clay is not just a cleanser but also doubles as a conditioner. Its ability to absorb excess sebum makes it a popular choice for tackling dandruff and seborrhea. The efficacy of clay can be attributed to its fine particle size and unique crystalline structure. However, a word of caution: while clay is natural and generally safe, it’s advisable to avoid storing it in metal containers due to its potential to absorb heavy metals.

3. DIY Dry Shampoo: For those who prefer a hands-on approach, making dry shampoo at home is a viable option. Homemade versions typically include:

  • Starch base: This mirrors the primary ingredient in many store-bought dry shampoos.
  • Essential oils: These not only add a pleasant fragrance but also offer therapeutic benefits to the scalp and hair.

How to Use Dry Shampoo: A Detailed Step-by-Step Guide

Check out this YouTube video by Bastiste on how to use a dry shampoo:

YouTube video
Video credit: Batiste Hair
  1. Shake Well:
    • Before using, give the dry shampoo can a good shake. This ensures that the ingredients inside, which may have settled, are thoroughly mixed and evenly distributed. Note: Different brands have specific instructions. Always refer to the product label for guidance.
  2. Section Your Hair:
    • Divide your hair into sections to ensure thorough application. This is especially important for those with thick or long hair to make sure the product reaches all areas.
  3. Hold and Spray:
    • Position the can or bottle about 6-8 inches away from your head. This distance ensures an even mist without over-saturating any particular area.
    • Aim the nozzle at the roots and spray in short bursts. Remember, it’s easier to add more later than to deal with too much product at once.
  4. Wait:
    • After spraying, let the dry shampoo sit and work its magic for a couple of minutes. This waiting period allows the product to absorb excess oil and impurities effectively.
  5. Massage:
    • Using your fingertips, gently massage the scalp. This helps in further distributing the product and ensures that it reaches the base of the hair strands where oil accumulation is most prominent.
  6. Brush Through (Optional):
    • Using a natural bristle brush, comb through your hair from roots to tips. This step not only helps in distributing the product but also removes any excess, preventing residue build-up.
    • Brushing also revitalizes the hair, making it look more voluminous and refreshed.
  7. Style as Desired:
    • Now that your hair is refreshed and free of excess oil, you can style it as you usually would. Whether you’re leaving it down or putting it up, you’ll notice improved texture and volume.

Tip: Always remember, less is more; start with a small amount and add more if needed.

Dry Shampoo vs. Washing Hair: A Detailed Comparison

Image of the words, "dry shampoo vs. washing hair" on marbled white background.

Both dry shampoo and traditional washing aim to cleanse the hair, but they have distinct methods and outcomes. Here’s a deeper dive into their differences:

  1. Mechanism:
    • Dry Shampoo: This product primarily contains absorbent materials like starches and alcohols. When applied to the hair, these ingredients act like sponges, soaking up excess oil from the scalp and hair. It doesn’t require water and doesn’t remove dirt or sweat in the same way a wet shampoo does.
    • Traditional Shampoo: Traditional shampoos are formulated with surfactants that bind to oil, dirt, and residues. When combined with water, these impurities are emulsified and rinsed away, providing a thorough cleanse.
  2. Duration:
    • Dry Shampoo: One of the main advantages of dry shampoo is its convenience. It’s a rapid solution for those on-the-go moments, instantly refreshing the hair without the need for water or a blow dryer. It’s especially handy for travel, post-workouts, or unexpected outings.
    • Washing: Traditional washing is a more time-consuming process. It involves wetting the hair, applying shampoo, rinsing, and often following with a conditioner. Post-wash, hair needs time to dry, either naturally or with the aid of a hairdryer.
  3. Effects on Hair Health:
    • Dry Shampoo: While it’s a great tool for occasional use, over-reliance on dry shampoo can lead to product build-up on the scalp. However, its primary benefit is that it allows individuals to space out their wash days, which can be beneficial in retaining the hair’s natural oils and moisture.
    • Traditional Shampoo: Regular shampooing, especially with products containing harsh sulfates, can strip the hair of its natural oils. This can result in hair becoming dry, brittle, and more prone to breakage. It’s essential to choose a shampoo that aligns with your hair type and needs, and to complement it with a moisturizing conditioner.

When Should You Use Dry Shampoo?

  1. Best Use: Ideal for use between regular shampoo sessions as a waterless hair refresher. Effectively removes excess oil from hair. Acts as a quick hair revitalizer, transitioning hairstyles from day to night. Adds both texture and volume to hair.
  2. When: Ideal for post-workout, unexpected meetings, or extending a hairstyle.

How Often Should You Use a Dry Shampoo?

While dry shampoo is a convenient hair refresher, it shouldn’t replace regular washing. It’s tempting to over-rely on it, but it’s essential to maintain a balance. Ideally, limit dry shampoo use to two or three times a week. Overuse can lead to product build-up, even if it initially seems beneficial.

However, it’s crucial to use it judiciously to avoid excessive product accumulation. Remember, dry shampoo enhances hair flexibility, but it’s not a substitute for thorough cleaning.

Is Dry Shampoo Effective?

Yes, it effectively absorbs oil, refreshes hair, and extends the time between washes. However, its efficacy can vary based on the product’s formulation and hair type.

Potential Drawbacks and Risks

  1. Residue Build-up: Over-reliance can lead to product build-up, potentially clogging hair follicles.
  2. Possible Irritation: Some might experience scalp irritation or dryness.
  3. Not a Complete Clean: It absorbs oil but doesn’t remove dirt or sweat like traditional shampoo.
  4. Regular hair cleansing is essential for scalp health. While there’s no direct evidence tying dry shampoo to dandruff, maintaining an oily scalp can be a dandruff catalyst. Using dry shampoo means the oils it soaks up remain on your scalp. These oils can encourage the growth of the Malassezia fungus, which might result in conditions like seborrheic dermatitis characterized by a flaky, red scalp.

Is a Dry Shampoo Better for Hair Than Washing It?

Not necessarily. While it reduces the need for frequent washing, preserving natural oils, it doesn’t offer the deep cleanse that water and regular shampoo provide. It’s a balance between the two based on individual needs.

Is Dry Shampoo Bad for Your Hair and Scalp?

When used in moderation and combined with regular washing, dry shampoo is generally safe. However, using it frequently or over extended periods can result in the mentioned drawbacks, potentially damaging the hair and causing scalp problems.

Do Dry Shampoos Cause Cancer?

On October 18, 2022, Unilever proactively recalled several dry shampoo brands, including popular names like Dove, Nexxus, and Suave, all of which fall under its corporate umbrella. This decision was prompted by concerns that these products might contain benzene, a potentially carcinogenic substance.

Unilever took the proactive step of recalling specific lot codes of aerosol dry shampoo products from brands such as Dove, Nexxus, Suave, TIGI (Rockaholic and Bed Head), and TRESemmé. These products were manufactured before October 2021 and are being recalled due to the possibility of elevated levels of benzene.

The company clarified that it is recalling these products as a precautionary measure. Importantly, it has not received any reports of adverse events related to the recall up to this point. A comprehensive list detailing the recalled products is available here for your reference.

Our understanding of benzene as a carcinogen largely comes from industrial workers with prolonged exposure. While we encounter benzene daily, exposure from dry shampoos is low and unlikely to have significant effects. When in doubt, opt for non-aerosol options like powder dry shampoos.


While a convenient hair care option, dry shampoos should be approached with caution and moderation. Recent concerns about benzene contamination in some aerosolized dry shampoo products underline the importance of staying informed about the safety of cosmetic products. It’s crucial to heed recalls and product advisories issued by manufacturers and regulatory authorities.

While there’s no definitive link between dry shampoo and cancer, it’s wise to choose alternatives such as non-aerosol or powder dry shampoos to minimize potential risks.

Our understanding of the health implications of these products is evolving, emphasizing the importance of staying vigilant and making informed choices in our hair care routines.


I’m just a girl who transformed her severely damaged hair into healthy hair. I adore the simplicity of a simple hair care routine, the richness of diverse textures, and the joy of sharing my journey from the comfort of my space.

My mission? To empower others with the tools to restore, and maintain healthy hair, and celebrate the hair they were born with!

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