How to Clean Your Hairbrushes (and Why You *Really* Should)
Main image – Artempodrez/Stocksy
We use them every day- relying on them to tame, de-tangle and generally keep our hair on the right side of socially acceptable- but how much love do we really show our hairbrushes?
If you’re anything like me, the answer is ‘not much’.
And if you’re like me then your idea of brush maintenance will also pretty much involve removing excess hair every couple of uses and perhaps giving them a quick wash with some leftover shampoo once every few months (when feeling particularly fancy).
But as it turns out keeping your brushes clean is kind of a big deal (that grey fuzz at the base of your brush? Yeah, that’s a mixture of dead skin cells, product buildup and dust).
That’s why we asked hair expert Dr Jonathan Palmer, founder of HairKnowHow, to give us the down-low on exactly how, why and when to clean your brushes for glossier, healthier hair (you can thank us later).
This is new, up-to-date information. We updated this article in June 2023 to add expert quotes and further scientific info.
Why do you need to clean your hairbrushes?
Apart from wanting to get rid of the sebum cocktail living at the base of your brushes, there are some pretty sound health reasons for cleaning your combs, barrel and paddle brushes.
Everything from dry shampoo to natural scalp oils, dust mites, leave-in conditioner and loose hair strands end up in your brush, meaning something of a potential hotbed for issues like oily hair and scalp infections.
Healthline says that “no matter how often you use your hairbrush, it has the ability to act like a sponge. This means it can trap all sorts of residue in its bristles, both from your hair and from the environment.
“Hair care products like leave-in conditioners, gels, or hairsprays can build up on your hair and stick to the bristles of your brush. Your brush also contains dead skin cells which can transfer back to your hair every time you use your brush.”
Dr Palmer explains, “Before we get to the reasons why regular brush cleaning is necessary, let’s set the scene.
“Hair accumulates a lot of dirt, grease and cellular debris from the scalp and the environment. The rate of this build-up (detritus) depends on many factors such as hair length, hair type, exercise frequency, humidity etc.
“As a rule of thumb, we lose around 150 hair fibres each day. When we brush our hair many of these hair fibres become trapped within the bristles of the brush. The accompanying scraping of the scalp with the bristles removes additional dead skin which also can get caught up in the brush.”
Pretty gross, right? And it turns out there’s worse to come.
Dr Palmer adds, “There have been studies performed on dirty hairbrushes which found that they can effectively harbour bacteria and fungi (partly due to the moist environment on your scalp). Most are harmless to humans, but some could pose a danger to those individuals that suffer from a weakened immune system and have broken skin.
“Hair lice have also been known to be transferred to individuals using uncleaned brushes.”
Beyond the risk of harbouring a breeding ground for nasties in your brushes though, put simply; hairbrushes left uncleaned can transfer oils back to your hair, requiring more upkeep (just what everyone wants).
Dr Palmer tells us, “Using a dirty hairbrush transfers the gathered dirt and grease back onto your hair and scalp causing increased scalp irritation and the risk of dandruff which requires either additional and/or specialist shampooing to resolve.”
The good news though is that there’s a solution. Giving your brushes some love can actually improve hair health. “A healthy scalp is much more likely to synthesise healthy hair, with fuller texture, colour and lustre,” explains Dr Palmer.
How often should you clean your brush?
I think we can all agree it seems like a good idea to clean our brushes on a regular basis. But given that it can be a bit of a hassle, it may not exactly be top of your to-do list.
Therefore how often do you actually *need* to do it?
Dr Palmer recommends, removing excess hair and lint every time you use your brush before deep cleaning “every two weeks.”
If that seems like a lot though, fear not as we’ve set out the 5 really simple steps to clean your brushes, including your natural bristle or metal ones.
And much like cleaning your makeup brushes, save time by washing them all in one go.
What tools do you need?
Luckily, looking after your hair tools is neither expensive nor particularly complicated, and to get started you’ll only need:
- A large bowl
- Warm water
- Shampoo, baking soda or handwash
- Tweezers or nail scissors
- A toothbrush
How to clean your brushes
Now you have the tools ready, how do you actually clean your brushes?
Here we go through the best way to clean every type of brush.
Step 1: Remove excess hair
Just like my own panicked pre-bathing suit preparations, the first step involves removing any excess hair.
Dr Palmer tells us, “This is typically done by hand. If the brush becomes wet or damp, ensure that it is thoroughly dried.”
If you’re struggling to reach any hair fibres from your brush though (we’re looking at you, round brushes), use tweezers or nail scissors to help.
Step 2: Soak
In the next step, fully submerge plastic hairbrushes and combs in a bowl of warm water mixed with a few drops of shampoo or baking soda (or handwash, according to Dr Palmer) for 15 minutes. The same goes for synthetic bristles and boar bristles.
This will help to loosen any gunk and natural oils from your brush.
For wooden and metal tools (which are more delicate), don’t submerge them, however. Instead, just load up an old toothbrush with soapy water and dive right into step 3.
Step 3: Scrub
Next, you’ll get to work scrubbing the base of the brush.
Dunk a toothbrush in your soapy shampoo solution and clean between and below the bristles to remove any built-up gunk.
Just make sure to avoid getting the wooden handle of any brushes wet.
Step 4: Rinse and dry
Once you’re satisfied your brushes are back to their gleaming original glory, give them a final rinse in a bowl of clean water (or with a rinsed toothbrush for wooden or metal types).
Next, towel off any excess water and let them dry thoroughly by laying them flat on a clean towel with bristles facing downwards.
Step 5: Sanitise
If you’re concerned about hygiene at all- for example if you’ve had a fungal infection or other scalp conditions like seborrheic dermatitis- finish cleaning your synthetic brush or comb with this extra step.
Dip any plastic tools into a mixture of equal parts of isopropyl alcohol and water and leave to dry face down.
For natural bristles, gently spray with a household disinfectant and leave to dry.
If it sounds like the whole thing is just too much hassle though, check out this video on how to get the whole process done in just one minute- surely a good reason to get cleaning.
When should you just replace your brush?
And there you have it; cleaner brushes and healthier hair in just 5 quick steps!
But if after all that cleaning you find your brushes are still looking a little sad, how do you know when to simply replace them?
As a general rule, throw out any brushes which have missing or broken bristles (or rust in the case of metal types) as they can damage your scalp.
You should also invest in a new brush every year or so unless you’ve opted for a super high-quality tool (like a Mason Pearson or similar) in the first place (which can last for years).
Given how much time and money most of us put into styling and hair products, it seems a shame to actively put oil and dirt back into hair with a dirty brush. So while cleaning brushes may seem like something of a luxury, if it ultimately improves hair condition then I’m in.
And since good regular cleaning could also extend the life of tools it also means more money for more sensible things (like that 14th hair serum!).
Happy brush cleaning!
Meet the expert
Dr Jonathan Palmer is a molecular biologist and the founder of HairKnowHow, a company offering tailored hair testing to discover the porosity, type and health of hair so consumers can make informed choices over their products.