How to Wash Dreadlocks: Step-by-Step

How to Wash Dreadlocks
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One of the questions I get asked the most is “How do you wash your hair?”

My answer seems to shock everyone for some reason: “I wash it with shampoo…” (insert eye-rolling emoji here). Haha, just kidding— I don’t roll my eyes at people. 😉  

The dreadlocked community has obtained a reputation for not washing their hair. Funny thing is, I have yet to meet one dreadlocked individual who doesn’t wash or take care of their locs. [I’m not going to defend all dreadheads here because surely there are the people who don’t, but if you’re reading this, I’m willing to bet that you’re not one of them.]

Personally, I have never been so particular with my haircare routine until the moment I began my loc journey. I don’t care if my locs are messy or wild. What I care about the most is keeping them clean. So far, I think I’ve succeeded hence why I’m excited to share with you my washing method. 

In this article, we’ll dive into the step-by-step dreadlock-washing process and I’ll take the opportunity to answer the most common related questions, such as: 

  • How often should you wash your dreads?
  • When can you wash your locs for the first time?
  • And which products should be used to wash dreadlocks?

Okay, let’s get to it!!

Can dreadlocks be washed?

Yes, dreads can and need to be washed! Contrary to popular belief, your hair has to be clean in order for it to knot. 

Imagine a bowl of spaghetti. If you don’t put oil in your noodles, they stick together, right? The minute you add oil or butter, they stop sticking to each other. The same thing goes for your hair. Oil and dirt accumulation on your hair will prevent it from dreading properly.

How to wash dreads without messing them up

The process of washing dreadlocks is essentially the same as washing loose hair, but there are a few adjustments I’ve made to my routine to ensure that I clean mine thoroughly while maximizing the use of my shampoo.

What you need:

What should you use to wash your dreads?

Five steps for washing locs:

Whether you have starter locs, freshly-maintained, or mature dreads, the method will be the same. 

  1. Prepare your shampoo and apple cider vinegar containers. Fill container ONE with approximately 3 tablespoons of shampoo and 10 drops of essential oil. You can use a bit more or less, depending on how many bubbles you want.

    Then, fill that container with about 1 cup of water. Then, fill container TWO with 1/2 cup of apple cider vinegar— I pour mine through a fine-mesh strainer to prevent any sediment or the mother from passing through. Add 2 cups of water to that container.

  2. Shampoo your scalp and dreads. Get your head completely wet in the shower, from the top of your scalp to the tips of your locs. Shake container ONE with the shampoo until you get lots of bubbles.

    Gently pour it all over the crown of your head and around the scalp. Be careful to not get it near your eyes since the essential oils can make them sting. Gently massage your head with your scalp brush or fingertips (not fingernails).

    Make sure to produce enough friction throughout the scalp to clean off any residue that has built up during the week. After five or so minutes, rinse thoroughly until there are no more bubbles in your hair.

  3. Condition your scalp. Pour the ACV mix from container TWO over the crown of your head. Make sure to get it deep into your scalp by massaging it (not the dreads themselves), then let it sit for at least 5 minutes before rinsing. Be careful not to get it near your eyes because it will burn!

    NOTE: You cannot use traditional hair conditioners on your dreadlocks because that would obviously be defeating the purpose.

    Apple cider vinegar is amazing in providing conditioning properties, while rebalancing your scalp’s pH, and reducing itchiness— talk about relief!!

    I will warn you, however. ACV can loosen your locs a little bit so use it sparingly. I recommend not using it for the first two weeks following installation or maintenance, and only using it once every two weeks thereafter. If you use it every week, it may be counterproductive to your loc formation.

    If you need itchiness relief ASAP, try this natural solution — it works like a charm!

  4. Rinse your dreads (again!) Make sure you get every bit of soap out of your hair. You’ll know they’re rinsed all the way when the water from your locs turns clear.

    If you leave some ACV, it’s not a problem, but I’ll warn you- your head will smell like vinegar until it dries completely. If it gets wet a second time (for instance after being in the rain or after a workout), then the smell of vinegar will come back. [I’m speaking from experience here, haha!]

  5. Dry your locs. Squeeze as much water out of your dreads as possible and then wrap them in a microfiber towel. Your locs may take 8 or more hours to dry completely so it’s important to wash them in the morning to give them enough time to dry all the way through by the evening.

    Do not go to bed with wet locs or you risk dread rot. Here you can find a few tips for drying your locs quickly!

    NOTE: Your dreads may become puffy after washing them. It’s completely normal! This happens because they’ve expanded after filling up with water. While they’re still damp, you can palm roll them gently to give them back their shape.
The Best Natural Recipes for Dreadlock Health: Get the Book Here!

How often should you wash dreadlocks?

Washing your dreadlocks once a week is ideal. Washing your dreads more often than you should (every day, for example) can cause them to stay damp for too long, thereby leading to the potential growth of mold in the inner parts of the loc—aka dread rot.

Washing your locs infrequently, on the other hand, can cause dirt, oils, and other particles from the environment to naturally buildup on your scalp thereby disrupting the matting process of your locs (as discussed with the spaghetti analogy above). 

The perfect mid-point between washing too often and not often enough is seven days. But, there are two exceptions to this unwritten rule!

– Washing dreads for the first time

If you just got your locs installed or got maintenance done, I recommend waiting ten to fourteen days before washing them. This may be super hard for most— it definitely was for me— but waiting the extra week will help keep the shape of your locs intact a little bit longer.

I will mention this — transitioning to dreadlocks is uncomfortable during the first few months because your scalp is in adjusting to a completely new care routine. Waiting seven days between washes and not brushing your scalp daily can really take a toll on your head. Not to mention that the dreads themselves, whether they’re made by natural or synthetic hair, can be uncomfortable to adjust to as well. You may experience severe itchiness, and if you do, try out the recipe in this article for quick relief!

Tip: To prevent your knots from loosening up in the first few washes, you can try this little trick. Put a stocking cap, nylon sock or pantyhose over your head (cover the entire scalp), put shampoo over the sock, and gently scrub your head. Remove the sock to rinse and wring them out gently. 

– Washing dreads if you’re an athlete 

If you exercise often, I recommend washing twice a week (but no more than that). Doing this helps to reduce the extra sweat, oil, and dirt buildup. For all my fellow sporty dreadheads, check out this article which focuses on the topic of keeping your dreadlocks fresh after workouts!

TIP: During the days I don’t wash my hair, I put my locs up in a bun to keep them dry while I’m in the shower. I don’t use a shower cap because the mist from the shower helps to moisturize the hair, but you can definitely use a cap if that makes you more comfortable.

What should you use to wash your locs?

It’s important that you wash your dreads with residue-free or clarifying shampoo. If you use regular shampoos, they will very likely leave buildup over time due to the ingredients.

Always read the labels prior to purchasing a shampoo. This article explains which ingredients to look out for in a bad shampoo! Use it as a guide to help you find your dreadlock shampoo of choice.

As for my personal preference, I love Trader Joe’s Tea Tree Shampoo! It leaves my hair feeling super clean and soft. I tried Shea Moisture’s Clarifying Shampoo in the past but I don’t recommend it. That shampoo always left my locs feeling dirty and sticky.  

If you’re looking for some other shampoo recommendations, you can check out this page!

Washing your dreads with only water is not recommended. You can find out why here.

How do you remove buildup in locs?

It’s inevitable for your locs to retain dirt and buildup over the months and years. That is why it’s highly recommended that you do a deep detox cleanse about twice a year. I usually do mine at the beginning of spring and again at the beginning of fall. I’ve always loved the results of the cleanse. My locs always feel light, squeaky clean, and easy to tame afterward!

Doing a deep dread cleanse too often can loosen up your locs, so limit yourself to no more than three times a year.

Learn how to do a cleanse here!

Washing dreadlocks is not too different from washing loose hair: just lather, rinse, & repeat! Ok, maybe it’s a teeny bit more complex than that but not complicated by any means. 😉

I hope this post helps you! If you have personal tips you’d like to share, or questions, please leave them in the comments below! 

Do your locs need a natural pick-me-up? Check out these 39 DIY recipes to revitalize your dreads!

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