The Ultimate Water-Only Hair Washing Routine – [No Shampoo!]
I finally got fed up with the damaging effects of shampoos and decided I wanted to take my hair to the next level by going shampoo-free. It was the greatest decision I ever made for my hair! If you’re curious as to why I would make such a crazy decision or if you aren’t familiar with the “no poo” movement, check out my other post about it. In the beginning, I did a lot of research on which “no poo” methods I should use in place of shampoo. I started with honey-washing and conditioner-only washing and had great results. I later transitioned to using the Water-Only hair washing method, where I use only warm water to wash my hair. I’ve been strictly water-only for over a month now and love it!! Update: I’m still going strong with this routine after 13 months!
When I first heard about using only water to wash hair, I assumed it’d be a pretty grungy ordeal, but it’s actually an incredibly effective, simple, and rewarding method if done right. There are a few essential techniques to follow that will help enormously in managing the oils on your head, getting the most out of your hair washes, and keeping your roots looking oil-free & your ends hydrated. Once you get the techniques down, (and your scalp’s oil production calms down), this hair care routine becomes almost effortless. I’ve included some easy & effective techniques below that can help give you the ultimate water-only hair, even if you are still going through the initial oily no poo phase (like I was in the pictures throughout this tutorial)– People didn’t even know I don’t use shampoo! And my hair has rewarded me with the best quality it’s ever been in. :)
To see what kind of long-term results you can expect from this method, check out my 3-Month Update! (No more oily hair, even after 10 days between water-washes!)
How does it work?
The Water-Only (WO) hair washing method simply uses warm water (in place of shampoo) to cleanse dirt and excess oils from our heads, while utilizing our hair’s natural oils (like a conditioner) to protect and nourish our hair, making it soft, silky, and hydrated. If you do it right, your hair can look just as clean as if you just used shampoo (which is where the following tips & techniques come in).
The best part about this method compared to other “no poo” or shampoo-free methods is that absolutely nothing about this method can cause damage, dry out your hair, or create lasting buildup. Nothing is messing with the pH of your scalp, so it can stay balanced, healthy, and calm. And the only product necessary is free of harsh chemicals, completely natural, totally free, and designed by nature specifically to nourish and protect our hair– our hair’s natural oils.
In my opinion, going water-only is the final step you can take in a shampoo-free journey. It’s self-sustaining, your scalp’s oil production will finally be completely under control, and it is a viable long-term method (unlike baking soda & apple cider vinegar which can be damaging over time). In my humble opinion, when you achieve a successful, water-only routine, your hair has reached its final form.
This isn’t to say that other “no poo” methods are wrong or aren’t as good. Many people have found other methods that work well for them, and that’s totally okay! But I do think that giving up all external products and achieving a successful water-only hair care routine is a gutsy thing to do– and the benefits are well worth it:
What is my hair like after one month? My hair has never been more hydrated, voluminous, soft, silky, bouncy (the elasticity is through the roof!), manageable, fast-drying, or breakage-free as it is now. It looks just as clean as if I used shampoo, without any of the negative shampoo side effects, and it smells fine. I can wash it way less often, because it doesn’t start to look oily until day 7, it no longer requires a boat load of products to look nice, and air-drying is a real life thing for my previously unmanageable hair. (And it only got better for me. Check out my 3-Month Update here.)
***If this is your first time quitting shampoo & switching to a no-shampoo method, I highly recommend checking out my other post on “How to transition to no poo without looking oily.” There can be an initial oily phase when you first switch over from shampoo to any “no poo” method, and there are a few tips in that post that can make the transition more manageable and help you get through it faster. Please keep in mind everybody produces hair oils at a different rate, and some of it depends on how often you currently wash your hair and how harsh your previous washing product was. If you switch cold turkey from shampoo to Water-Only and have a particularly oily transition, try alternating Water-Only with another “no poo” method until your scalp’s natural oil production gets used to not being harshly stripped by shampoo, and it can calm down.
The Ultimate Water-Only Hair Washing Routine
Let’s be honest, anyone can just stop using hair products and stand under a shower head and call that “water-only hair.” But let’s be real, you want hair that looks and feels great– not an oily mess sitting on top of your head! This tutorial can help you distribute & utilize the natural oils on your head to give you the look & feel of squeaky clean roots & delightfully hydrated ends.
What you’ll need:
- a boar bristle brush (BBB)
- wide-toothed comb
- very warm water
- cold water
- coconut oil, or any nourishing hair oil (completely optional — helpful if you have long hair & are just getting started!)
Step 1: Start with dirty hair!
It’s important that you allow your hair to get oily (even just a little bit) before washing it. It doesn’t have to get as ridiculous as mine looks in these pictures if you don’t want it to, but if your hair doesn’t look or feel like it needs to be washed, don’t wash it! The longer you wait between washes, the longer the natural oils can sit on your scalp & hair, which results in two awesome things:
- Your scalp will take the hint that it’s not being stripped of all of its oils anymore, so it can slow down oil production & stay cleaner longer. :)
- If you have distributed your natural hair oils down to the ends of your hair, the nourishing oils are coating your hair shafts keeping them conditioned and hydrated between washes. (Like a free hair mask, woohoo!).
**The key here is if you want to stop having excessively oily hair, try stretching the time between hair washes so it can learn to stay cleaner longer. This means you shouldn’t be doing a full on Water Only hair wash every single day. (FAQ: “What if I like to wet my hair every day?” or “How do keep my hair clean between washes if I workout every day?” See this post for the solution.) Need more help with oily hair? Read here.
Here’s a link to my before pics. Obviously, my before pics look really oily. But I promise my hair didn’t look this bad in real life; my camera is over-compensating because my hair is actually really dark, so it’s beefing up the contrast, making my hair look like it shines harder than it really does and making my skin glow like I’m an astral being or something. Thanks, camera. But don’t worry, I took every picture you see in this post on the same day, in the same lighting, with the same camera, to keep consistency throughout this tutorial (for science).
***Also keep in mind I was still going through the “oily transitional phase” when I took pictures for this post and it had been six days since my last wash. I also hadn’t even brushed it yet because I want you to see how well the brushing in Step 2 works. I think it’s okay though, because now you can compare these pictures to the end result to see how well water-only works, even if you still get routinely oily. I’m actually out of the oily phase now, so my hair never gets excessively oily anymore… not even on day 10! Check out my 3-Month Update post for more info!
I just wanted to clear that up so you don’t think you have to look this oily with the water-only method!
Step 2: (Pre-Shower) Distribute your natural oils!
The following are three very important techniques that you should do right before you wash your hair. These three techniques will help loosen up the natural oils on your scalp and will distribute them to the rest of your hair. The result will be less oily roots and added hydration for the length of your hair— and they’ll make cleaning your head in the shower with just water a whole lot easier!
You can also follow these three techniques on the night before you plan to wash your hair (like 8-12 hours or so). Sometimes you may think your hair looks oily and needs to be washed, but if you follow these techniques to pull the oils through your hair and then go to bed, you may find that your hair absorbs the oils overnight and doesn’t look as oily when you wake up. This can help you squeeze in another day or so before having to wash again! Or at least save you some time in the mornings if you do end up having to wash your hair.
On dry, detangled hair, rub your fingerpads (not nails) in relatively quick, yet gentle motions all over your scalp. It’s similar to scrubbing your head in the shower, but without water. We’re talking light pressure that shouldn’t hurt your scalp. This creates some friction to warm & loosen up oils and dead skin cells sitting on your scalp. (Added bonuses: Scritching also increases blood flow to your scalp which can promote hair growth, and it feels soo good!) Section or part your hair if necessary to reach all areas of your scalp. I scritch my scalp while I’m sitting at the computer for some bonus feel-good stress relief. :)
Once you’ve loosened up the oils on your scalp, you might notice that all the oils are sitting at your roots. The next two steps will help distribute the oils down your hair shafts to nourish the rest of your hair.
On dry, detangled hair, take small sections of hair (I like to take wide, yet thin sections), and place two fingers on either side of the section. Starting at the base of the roots, gently pinch your fingers together and slide your fingers down the section of hair to the ends. This “pulls” the oils from your roots down the section of hair. Be gentle. Preening shouldn’t actually pull at your scalp or be uncomfortable. If your hair is longer than 6 inches (mine is more than double that in these pictures), it might be hard to get the oils all the way down to the very ends, so just focus on getting the oils away from your roots and at least 6 inches down the length of your hair.
If you have long hair, this is the only time-consuming step to water-washing, but it works well for many people. Sometimes I’m naughty and skip this step and go straight from scritching to brushing, but I recommend you try it.
Pro Tip: I also found it’s easy to preen while brushing which saves a lot of time. (One hand to preen, one hand to brush.) I preen my fingers down the hair shaft (just like the gif above) and when I get almost down to my ends, I use my other hand holding the brush to start the brush stroke at the roots. Then as the brush stroke reaches the ends, I catch the hair with my two fingers at the roots and preen down, repeat.
C. Brush – DON’T skip this!
A boar-bristle brush (BBB) is an essential tool for healthy hair, and it is absolutely essential if you practice water-only washing. From my experience, a BBB is the BEST at pulling the natural oils down from your roots to the ends of your hair, and it’s great to do after preening to pull the oils from the mid-shaft all the way down to the very ends of your hair.
After scritching and preening, brush a clean BBB through your hair to reduce tangles and distribute the oils down to the very ends of your hair before you shower. You should section or part your hair so your boar-bristle brush can reach all areas of your roots and hair. When you’re done with each section, brush the ends for a while to get all the oils off the BBB and onto the ends. Ends need lovin’, too. ;) And make sure your brush is clean before you use it, otherwise it isn’t soaking up oils, just moving last week’s oils around on your head with this week’s oils. (How to clean a boar-bristle brush tutorial.)
In addition, you can use a BBB every day or two between washes! I recommend you replace your regular, daily hair brush with your boar-bristle brush. Brushing the oils through your hair is really the only upkeep you need to do between water-washes to keep your hair looking clean and oil-free. If you just do a little bit every day or every other day, it can really keep the oils from building up into a greasy mess at your roots. After your scalp’s oil production slows down / normalizes, you should notice that you don’t have to brush the oils through your hair as often anymore.
***If you have curly hair & want to rock your natural curls, brushing will probably un-define your curls, so here are your options:
- Curly hair has an advantage since curls hide oily roots a bit better than straight hair. If you are not having an issue with oily-looking roots, you may be able to skip daily brushing, and just wait to brush your hair right before you wash it. Note that if you aren’t pulling your natural oils down to the ends of your hair, your ends are at risk of getting dry. So be sure to follow Step 6 (below) for a while, which is to add a small amount of a natural oil (like coconut oil or shea butter) to your ends to give them some hydration throughout the week.
- However, if you do want to use a BBB to distribute your natural hair oils throughout the week, you could use a BBB and then dampen your hair with a spray bottle filled with water so you can squish, style & redefine your curls (without having to actually wash your hair). This might be a great thing to do until your scalp produces oils less frequently.
- Or, you can try a 100% wooden-bristled brush instead, since the bristles are typically much further apart, and wood is supposed to distribute your natural oils through your hair just as well as a BBB (though I’ve never tried it personally).
Okay, ready to water-wash it!
You can see that just by scritching, preening, and brushing, my hair already is starting to look a bit better compared to the way my hair looked when I started this tutorial. Usually on Day 3 or 4, I’ll think I need to wash my hair again, but after a brush/scritch/preen session, I realize I can wait a few more days. But it’s been SIX days since I last washed my hair, and let’s be real, it still looks oily… that’s why today is a washing day! The most important thing is that we distributed our natural oils down to the ends which conditions our hair, and we loosened up oils from our scalp to make washing with only water a lot easier.
Step 3: Time to water-wash it!
Temperature: Time to shower. The temperature of the water that hits your hair is very important. Too hot can damage your hair or be too drying on your scalp, and too cool won’t break up the excess oils on your head. While you’re scrubbing the oils off your head, you want the water to be very warm… a comfortable temperature between hot and lukewarm. You may find that you can lower the water temperature as your scalp’s oil production slows down since you’ll have much less oil to wash away (this happened for me).
Technique: Wet your hair, then use your fingerpads (not nails) to gently scritch your scalp in relatively quick motions (just like scritching before). You really want to focus the water stream directly on the area you’re scrubbing so it can wash away dirt and oils as you scritch. If you have long or thick hair, you should definitely part it in sections while washing to easily access all areas of your scalp/roots. I don’t really scrub the length of my hair, just the roots & scalp, as the water seems to rinse through the length of my hair well enough by itself. However, if you’re going through the oily transition phase and/or you notice your roots are getting clean but the next few inches aren’t, you may want to try preening the water through the length of your hair, just like we did earlier in Step 2B. The warm water loosens up your hair oils, and preening while the water runs through your hair will help the water break up your hair’s natural oils further down to give you an overall cleaner wash.
Be Patient: Take your time!! Make sure you get all areas of your scalp. I honestly had to spend quite a bit of time doing this when I was going through the initial oily phase, but I also only had to do it only about once per week, so it was worth it for me. (It takes me much less time to do it now.) If you notice your hair still looks oily after your shower (and you really won’t know until you get out and dry your hair, because it’s not going to feel as clean as shampoo makes it feel while it’s wet) you may just need to tweak your method a bit. The next time you wash, try using slightly warmer water, or spend more time gently rubbing your fingertips on your scalp, or try preening the water through your hair from root to tip. This routine only gets easier and requires less steps from you as time passes and your scalp’s oil production normalizes. I have confidence in you that you will get the hang of it! And you can always leave a comment with questions below, and I will try my best to help you.
Hard Water? I have moderately hard water and find water-only is successful for me. Some people have issues getting their hair to feel clean with very hard water. So hard water is something to check for if you aren’t getting a clean wash. You can test your water hardness or look it up on your city’s website. There are ways to soften your water at home. Many people have much better results after installing a shower head filter (which is also much cheaper than an entire water-softening system). I’ve actually even heard people say that their hair looks too clean and poofy with soft water so they prefer harder water– You’ll never know how it works for you until you try it!
Step 4: Rinse with cold water
This is my least favorite step, but rinsing with cold water helps your hair cuticles lay flat (after the warm water lifted them up), which helps your hair look shinier and retain moisture.
Need a Pro Shower Tip? As you fling the temperature handle to cold, take a giant step back out of the water stream. Bend over forward, flipping all of your hair over your head, and stick only your head & hair under the cold water. Try not to think about every tiny molecule of freezing water hitting the shower floor and jumping back up onto your legs. In fact, practice mentally checking out for a moment while the shock of 7 seconds of cold water attempts to ruin your perfectly zen shower moment. Just pretend you are an island native standing under a beautiful, crisp, cool waterfall, overlooking the greatest scenery ever. …I do.
Okay in all seriousness, don’t slip and hurt yourself. But that may or may not be what I actually do. (It is.)
Step 5: T-Shirt Dry & Detangle
After you shower, pat your hair dry with an old t-shirt or microfiber towel (instead of a bath towel) to reduce frizz and flyaways. Using a t-shirt/microfiber towel actually does reduce frizz for me (unlike a bath towel), and I wish I knew about this tip forever ago.
Comb through damp hair with a wide-toothed comb, starting at the ends and working your way up. Be gentle with your hair! It’s fragile while wet. If you’re new to water-washing & notice your hair is tangley at the ends, follow Step 6 before continuing to detangle.
Step 6: Hydrate Ends (Optional)
If you are new to water-only washing and have long hair, your hair’s natural oils might not be distributed down far enough to condition your ends yet. Until you’ve been doing this for a while, I highly recommend applying coconut oil or any deeply hydrating, natural oil to the ends (and only the ends) of your hair as a substitute for your hair’s natural oils. Especially if you have damaged or tangly ends. It will help smooth out your ends so they don’t dry frizzy and so your combs/brushes don’t get snagged in them while detangling… plus it gives your hair some added hydration. I prefer coconut oil, and the unrefined, cold-pressed version of coconut oil makes a world of a difference to me, but you can use any natural oil of your choice including jojoba and argan oil. You can stop using these oils after a while, as they eventually become unnecessary. :)
Caution! Be careful with how much oil you use and where you use it! If you slather a bunch of oil all over your hair or near your roots, you’ll have excessively oily hair and no way to shampoo it out. I just rub one or two drops of oil between my finger tips and glide it onto the very ends of my hair while damp. My hair seems to look a bit oily if I apply the coconut oil to dry hair, but using it on damp hair seems to fix that for me. Then I thoroughly wash the oil off my hands before touching any other part of my hair so I don’t spread any extra oil to my roots.
Step 7: Air dry! or style as usual
My hair actually air dries SO fast now (and many others report the same with water-only). It’s literally ridiculous how fast it dries, but it’s so wonderful. I just gently twist it to the side like this until I’m ready to style it.
Products? I actually stopped needing to use any styling products since switching to water-only. With shampoo, I HAD to use styling creams, waxes, smoothing serums, volumizers, hair spray… Now my hair just does whatever I want it to without any product. Manageability levels are through the roof. Thank you, natural hair oils.
Heat? When I used shampoo, I had to use heat to style my hair every day to get it to look presentable. But now I only use heat on it twice per month and just let it air dry the rest of the time. It’s incredibly low maintenance. I definitely do use a heat protectant on my hair before applying heat tools. I feel like it would be incredibly remiss and cavalier to skip using one. If you do use heat and a heat protectant on your hair, or any additional styling products for that matter, be sure to only use silicone-free products or ones containing water-soluble silicones to avoid silicones building up in your hair!! More on the importance of avoiding silicones here.
I didn’t use anything else in my hair for this tutorial. I just let it air dry & then lightly used a flat iron on it (without heat protectant this time, *gasp* but it was for science). And that’s what you see in the pictures below.
DONE! (Results below)
This is actually about 14 hours after I washed it :) Same lighting & angle as all of the above pics. So much volume! — NO styling products necessary. There is NOTHING in my hair except water, my hair’s natural oils, and a couple of drops of coconut oil on the very tips of my hair.