Staying loyal to your workout regimen can do wonders for your health and body. Your hair? Not so much. The issue: sweat. While sweating has some benefits (including helping the body release toxins, as well as increasing circulation), what sweat does to hair is where the real damage can occur (think: clogged follicles, itchy scalp, and dryness). Not to mention, sweat just makes your hair feel dirty, whether you’re a dedicated gym buff or just naturally sweat a lot. That being said, over-washing your hair in an effort to get rid of said sweat can be even more damaging (if done frequently), creating quite the beauty catch-22.
The good news? You can still remain loyal to your workout regimen and have healthy, manageable hair. You simply have to know how to treat and protect your hair. The key is knowing how to prep your hair before your workout, what you can do to minimize damage during your sweat session, and how to prevent sweat from ruining your strands afterwards. Keep reading to learn the damaging effects sweat can have on your hair, as well as what you can do about it beyond just dry shampoo (spoiler alert: you won’t have to nix a workout).
How Sweat Damages Hair
Most people have experienced sweat-laden hair feeling “dirty,” but how is sweat bad for hair? Sweat is produced by sweat glands in our skin that live in close proximity to hair follicles in hair-bearing regions of the body such as the scalp, says board-certified facial plastic and hair surgeon, Dr. Gary Linkov. When there’s excess sweat on the scalp, it can cause irritation and clog the surrounding hair follicles. “Clogged follicles can harbor bacteria and fungus, leading to inflammation [on the scalp] and a possible impact on hair growth,” Dr. Linkov tells TZR.
Dealing with an already-oily scalp? According to Dr. Linkov, you’re even more at risk for the damaging effects of sweat. Since your scalp is more likely to accumulate sebum, this can mix with sweat and potentially clog your hair follicles.
Also, because sweat contains bacteria, an overgrowth of it (i.e., leaving a few days worth of workout sweat in your hair) can cause folliculitis, which appears as red pimples on the scalp with a hair in the center of each one. According to Dr. Linkov, the pimples may have pus or blood in them, and they may itch or burn. Not to mention, the bacteria present in sweat can lead to odor as it accumulates.
Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Sharleen St. Surin-Lord explains that because sweat also has a high salt content, it can be extremely drying to the hair. And while no hair type is immune to sweat-induced hair dryness (and no scientific studies actually prove this), this can ultimately be problematic for hair that’s been dyed or processed, as it can contribute to excess dehydration and brittleness.
Dr. Surin-Lord explains that sweat on dyed hair can also make strands more susceptible to breakage, and that the constant cycle of sweating and air-drying the hair can cause the shaft to swell, making it drier, and again, prone to breakage.
That being said, if you're a fitness fanatic who washes their hair on the reg, you should also be careful of over-shampooing as a result of trying to combat sweat damage. A healthy amount of oil on the scalp is important, and while over-shampooing can remove those oils and leave the hair too dry and frizzy, Dr. Linkov says this is more likely to happen over time. “Over-shampooing implies a chronic, long-standing issue occurring over months — not a one-time thing,” he says. “Hair is resilient and will not get damaged from one extra shampoo event.” As long as you’re not shampooing your hair an excessive amount (think: every single day for a long period of time), you should be fine.
How To Protect Hair From Sweat
Use Dry Shampoo
Before you reach for every shampoo you own, know that healthy hair and a solid fitness routine can coexist. Case in point: dry shampoo. Dry shampoos aren’t a replacement for washing your hair, as they don’t nix bacterial growth or other damaging side effects of sweat. That being said, they do disguise dirt and grease on your scalp, and using it before your workout can help prevent excess sweat from saturating your hair, according to Dr. Linkov. Look for natural ingredients such as clay, starch, cocoa, and rice flour in your dry shampoo to help absorb the oil and sweat without irritating your scalp.
Apply Leave-In Conditioner
Leave-in conditioners are another great way to reduce the damaging effects of sweat, as they “provide a barrier between the hair shaft and sweat, and will also protect the hair shaft from dryness caused by sweating,” says Dr. Surin-Lord. And since many leave-in conditioners target curls and coils — which tend to be dryer hair types — this has the added benefit of adding in necessary moisture to strands, especially before experiencing sweat-induced dryness. What’s more, many leave-in conditioners are made with frizz-fighting ingredients, which could help keep your topknot intact during grueling workouts.
Wear A Cotton Headband
The next time you hit the gym, sport a cotton headband — it can help absorb sweat at your hairline and prevent it from hitting the rest of your hair. Just be sure to wash it after each use so you get rid of dirt, sweat, and bacteria before you hit the gym again.
Use A Clarifying Shampoo
Ever wash your hair only to find that your scalp never feels completely clean? Between dry shampoo and leave-ins, hair styling products and sweat, chances are your scalp has a buildup of gunk on it, especially if you’re an avid member of the gym. This buildup can lead to brittle hair.
To help get rid of buildup, keep your hair clean, and to promote shine, try incorporating a clarifying shampoo into your routine. This works by deeply cleaning dirt, oil, and product on the hair and scalp — think of it like hitting the refresh button on your hair. Be sure to only use clarifying shampoos one to two times a month, though, as using them too often can strip your hair of its natural oils.
Finally, if you sweat profusely on your scalp, Dr. Surin-Lord suggests Botox, which is an FDA-approved treatment often used to treat hyperhidrosis (aka excessive sweating). Here’s how it works: Botox temporarily inhibits acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that regulates the nerve signals that trigger sweat glands. Typically when your body temperature rises, your nervous system will naturally signal to your sweat glands to activate in order to keep you cool. Those with hyperhidrosis have overactive sweat glands, and Botox can help regulate them.
Botox is completely safe to do, and is a great option when working out is part of your daily routine yet you don’t want to give your hair a daily wash. (FYI: some people use Botox to treat excessive underarm sweat.) If you can’t seem to find an option that works for you, this could be a great alternative to discuss with your dermatologist.
Sweat-Proof Hair Products
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Designed for wavy, curly, and coily hair, this is a silky-soft styling cream that doubles as a conditioning and repairing leave-in conditioner, perfect for post-gym or humid day showers.
If you love dry shampoo but hate the powdery residue some formulas leave behind, cop this pick from Davroe, which can be used in between washes or to preserve the life of your ‘do. Best part? It washes out like a breeze.
To get rid of all of the grime, sweat, and product buildup, you’ll need a heavy-duty clarifying shampoo post-gym sesh, and this one from Twist fits the bill. Designed specifically for those with curls, this shampoo will get your mane back to looking bouncy and fresh.
Coating your strands with a leave-in like this one from Gisou can help minimize the risk of sweat-induced damage. Fitness devotees will also appreciate that the formula includes nourishing ingredients that make for healthy hair including honey, baobab extract, and argan oil.
Devoted to your tennis lessons but not the grease that comes along with it? The charcoal in this dry shampoo formula draws out impurities and buildup from sweat, while the biotin supports healthy hair growth.
Washing the sweat out of your hair post-workout is important, but it’s equally as important to find products that won’t strip your hair of its natural oils in the process. Cue this shampoo from MONDAY Haircare rich with coconut oil, shea butter, and rice protein, all of which promote softness and hydration.
Tangles? Gone. Dryness? Non-existent. Instead, this all-natural leave-in conditioner uses ingredients you can pronounce to let your natural waves, curls, and coils shine, including strand-nourishing rice water and ultra-hydrating marshmallow root extract.
Made to combat oily scalps, this clarifying shampoo from OUAI deeply cleanses away dirt, oil, and product buildup with apple cider vinegar, while the keratin helps strengthen hair.
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