I don’t wash my hair: An Introduction to Water-Only Hair Washing

my simple hair supplies

My great grandmother used fermented rice water to wash her hair. On the occasion, she would boil up some soapnuts to deep cleanse. Times were hard, and she had in her possession only one pack of shampoo, sample-sized. There were special days, holidays mainly, when she would distribute it amongst the family. Her children would get a tiny drop each to wash their hair. She rarely used shampoo even then.

In spite of (or perhaps because of) that, my great grandmother had great hair all her life.

Shampoo, as we know it,  has only recently been made a necessity in daily hygiene. The product became used widely in the 1920s where the a new concoction of chemicals replaced a weekly or monthly wash with more natural products. Shampoo’s chemical nature was widely acknowledged back then. It was in response to the new use of shampoo, where the adage that women would refuse to go on dates because it was the day they had to wash their hair came about. Since then, shampoo has become less harsh and more moisturizing of which many brands advertise that products are safe for daily use. Nevertheless, women find that their haircare has only gotten more tedious, damaging and chemical-laden.

I will go into the science of shampoo’s damaging effects in a later post. Right now, I want to introduce you to an experiment that I, and many other people, have been testing out, and that is the water-only hair washing routine.

What is Water Only?

It is exactly what it says it is. I would try to wash my hair with water only for a few months to reverse my dependence on shampoos. The idea behind water only is that your scalp produces sebum based on how much oil is in your hair. Most shampoos are designed to strip the oils from your hair, hence that squeaky clean feeling that we all know and love. Once you remove the oil, your scalp is triggered to overproduce oil to replace the lost oil. The result is, oily, gross hair only days after you’ve washed your hair. By washing your hair with only water, the sebum in your hair is not completely washed away. Using techniques to evenly distribute the oils from your scalp to your ends, hair will be moisturized by its own means. In addition, the scalp will not be prompted to produce more oil. As time goes on, sebum production will slow down until you would be able to wash hair less often and still have grease-free, incredibly manageable hair. To those who wonder about the cleanliness of water only washing, hair’s natural sebum actually protects the scalp from bacteria and infections. So I guess when left to its own devices, the body truly is a weird type of wonderland.

The Basics

There are a few things to know before starting water only washing. They are the tools and techniques to ensure that WO washing can go as smoothly as possible.

No.1  W a t e r

The main ingredient is just plain ol’ H2O. Yes, this amazing compound has been mystifying scientists for as long as humans have been sentient. It is 100% chemical free, non damaging, safe for daily use, and allergen free. There are a few pointers about water to mention, however.

Hot vs Cold: When WO washing hair, or any body part for that matter, the temperature of water will dramatically change the way your hair responds. Hot water ensures that the grease is cut into and removed. Hot water opens hair follicles and often gives many people a rough, frizzy texture. To combat this (and the effects of astringent chemicals in shampoo) many products offer conditioner that seals the follicles with silicone. This method is often damaging and encourages buildup. WO washing usually advocates using cold water (as cold as you can get it) to do the same thing conditioners pretend to do. A blast of cold water will seal the follicles after the heat. Hair will inadvertently be shinier, smoother and healthier.

In my experience, hot water has been the best to remove sebum. Some people swear by cold water rinses to remove waxy buildup. I have yet to figure out the science behind that, but hey, if it works, stick to it since everyone’s hair is different.

Hard water vs Soft water: WO washing involves primarily water and very few extra products. Therefore, type of water is very important. Hard water is water that contains high amounts of dissolved minerals and sometimes chemicals. This type of water usually forms limestone and chalk (made up of calcium and magnesium carbonates) deposits. If your bathroom usually gets a white film on the bathroom and sink hardware, then you may have hard water. I find that cities usually have very hard water. Areas that have well water seems to also have high amounts of minerals in their water. Hard water is incompliant with WO washing, because like your bathroom faucets, hair catches onto these mineral deposits. The result is constant buildup and difficulty washing out excess sebum. Chlorine is also a problem for many people. Chlorine kills bacteria and parasites in the water, however, high concentrations in water may dry out skin and hair or cause allergic reactions. The opposite of hard water is soft water, and that is water that has most minerals and chemicals removed. It is also known as distilled water. Some WO washers use distilled water from gallons to wash their hair. Others buy filters for their hard water. The general consensus is that silky water produces cleaner feeling, softer and shinier hair compared to hard water. Some people have “cured” hard water by using water filters. I realized that although house-wide systems actually do  soften water, they are expensive and difficult to maintain. Showerhead filters are a common way to filter water, however, it is almost impossible to filter minerals out of water completely using them. They do filter out chlorine. The one I have filters out 99% of chlorine in water. However, the effects on hard water is limited compared to what it claimed to do. When making rinses with natural ingredients, it is imperative to use soft water. That way, build-up will be avoided as much as possible.

No. 2 Boar Bristle Brush (BBB)

An essential to having manageable hair on WO is a boar bristle brush. The alternatives are wooden or horn combs. These are natural fibers and materials that will absorb the oils in your hair and distribute them evenly across the hair shaft.

No 3. A p p l e  C i d e r   V i n e g a r   ( A C V )

To cut the grease and to act as a conditioner, I use apple cider vinegar (applied in a spray bottle) to combat frizz and build-up. Some people use lemon, lime, and white vinegar. My mom used to use black vinegar that we use in Chinese cuisines. They all work. The most essential thing for all vinegar types is to dilute Dilute DILUTE. When I first started out, I poured ACV straight from the bottle onto my hair. Something stupid happened to my hair and it got all gunky and tough and frizzy at the same time. Lesson learned. Usually a one to one part ratio is good enough for me. Some hair types is fine with more vinegar, others go crazy. It is important to experiment to find what is right for your hair.

The smell: Some people hate the smell of ACV. I vividly remember Cassie from CloudyApples saying that it smells like feet. I personally really like the smell of ACV. No I do not like the smell of feet, I do however like that ACV smells a bit like apple cider. The great news is that the smell washes completely off in the water. To make the process a little better, I advise adding a couple drops of essential oils (rose, citrus, vanilla, etc.) to the mixture.Your hair will smell great afterwards!

N0. 4 Scritching, Massaging and Preening

These are the most important techniques in WO routines. Sebum tends to rest on the scalp after being produced. Scritching, massaging and Preening loosens up the oils and spreads the accumulated oils down the hair.

Scritching and massaging: This is gently scratching and massaging the scalp with the pads of the fingers. The goal is to loosen up the oils so that distribution will be easier. Doing this also reduces and prevents buildup. It is recommended to do this several times a day in conjunction with preening. The stimulation of the circulatory system is also good for hair growth. Many people have noticed an increase in thickness of hair and growth of baby hairs after WO.

Preening: This is the process of bringing the oils that you have just loosened up down the hair. Doing so will moisturize the whole hair from roots to tips. To do so, take two fingers or a BBB and drag down a thin section of hair several times. Move onto the next section after a few strokes. Like a duck or bird combing its feathers with its beak, this is the same idea. If birds can preen oil through their feathers for a healthy shine, we sure can take care of our hair as well.

Benefits of WO washing

  1. Hair growth in thickness and length
  2. Moisturized and healthy hair from roots to tip
  3. Reduced sebum production-reduced need to wash hair
  4. Healthier scalp
  5. Less wash time, save water and time
  6. Save money! No more spending an arm and a leg on products, shampoo and conditioner
  7. Natural and chemical free. All natural rinses and products are biodegradable
  8. Helps you learn about your hair (its porosity, protein levels, health, and deficiencies)
  9. More manageable hair (sebum acts as a natural product)
  10. It’s fun!


My journey begins in the next blog post where I will document my experiences. I will address problems, natural solutions and rinses, transition periods, changes to my routine, and much much more with the WO hair washing routine.


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