Wash Hair with Just Water?
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 aren’t familiar with the no-shampoo or “no poo” movement, check out my beginner post. In the beginning, I did a lot of reading 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 loved it so much that I’ve been strictly water-only for over a month now. Update: I’m still going strong with this routine after 13 months! — People didn’t even know I don’t use shampoo when I tell them! And my hair has rewarded me with the best quality it’s ever been in. :)
When I first heard about using only water to wash hair, I assumed it’d be a pretty grungy ordeal, but for me, it has been an incredibly effective, simple, and rewarding method – if done right. There are a few essential techniques that I follow that help enormously in managing the oils on my head, getting the most out of my hair washes, and keeping my roots looking oil-free and my ends hydrated. Once I got the techniques down, (and my scalp’s oil production calmed down), this hair care routine became almost effortless for me. If this is something you’re interested in trying, I’ve included some easy and effective techniques below that can help achieve the ultimate water-only hair, including while still going through the initial oily transition phase (like I was in the pictures throughout this tutorial).
To see the long-term results I got from this method, check out my 3-Month Update! (No more oily hair, even after 10 days between water-washes!) I get even better hair washing results now, but I’ve kept the original pictures on this tutorial from when I was still going through the “oily transitional phase” that many of us experience when starting a no shampoo method, just to show how clean my results are from the “before” and “after” pics.
What is the water only hair washing method?
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 the hair’s natural oils (like a conditioner) to protect and nourish the hair, making it soft, silky, and hydrated. When I do it right, my hair can look just as clean as if I only 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 there are no external chemicals that can damage, dry out hair, or wreak havoc on the natural scalp pH. The only “product” necessary is free of harsh chemicals, completely natural, totally free, and designed by nature specifically to nourish and protect our hair– the hair’s natural oils.
In my opinion, water-only is the final step to take in a shampoo-free journey. It’s self-sustaining, it can help get the scalp’s oil production under control, and it is a viable long-term method (unlike baking soda & apple cider vinegar which can be damaging over time). This isn’t to say that all other “no poo” methods aren’t as good. Many people have found other methods that work well for them, and that’s totally okay!
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 fresh. 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 styling 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. And after 13 months, I’m still loving this routine!)
Before starting the water only hair washing method
***For quitting shampoo for the first time and switching to a no-shampoo method I highly recommend checking out my other posts “How to start a no-shampoo method” and also “How to transition to no poo without looking oily.” There can be an initial oily phase when first switching from shampoo to any “no poo” method, and there are a few tips in that post that can make the transition more manageable and get through it faster. Please keep in mind everybody produces hair oils at a different rate, and some of it depends on how often hair is washed and how harsh the previous cleanser was. When switching cold turkey from shampoo to Water-Only and have a particularly oily transition, try alternating Water-Only with another “no poo” method until the scalp’s natural oil production gets used to not being harshly stripped by shampoo, and it can calm down. (More on choosing a method.)
***Important note before deciding whether to try this method: While myself and others have followed water-only and many other “no-shampoo” hair washing routines for years with positive experiences, I cannot encourage that anyone with a pre-existing scalp condition (like dandruff), follow this or any other “no shampoo” routine. I am not a doctor, and I have only had a positive experience with “no poo” methods, so I can only speak to my own situation. If any undesirable symptoms arise like scalp itching, dandruff, or discomfort, please take care of yourself and check with a professional. Thanks for listening — Now let’s jump into it!
The Ultimate Water-Only Hair Washing Routine
Let’s be honest, anyone can stop using hair products, stand under a shower head, and call that “water-only hair.” But let’s be real, we want hair that looks and feels great– not an oily mess sitting on top of the head! This tutorial is a guide for how to distribute & utilize the natural oils on the hair to give the look and feel of clean roots & delightfully hydrated ends.
What is needed to wash hair with just water:
- a boar bristle brush (BBB)
- wide-toothed comb
- very warm water
- cold water
- optional: a couple of drops of nourishing hair oil (e.g. coconut, argan, or olive oil) — helpful for dry ends on long hair
- ***Note: before starting this or any other “no shampoo” method, ensure all silicones are washed out of hair by using a sulfate-shampoo one last time, and then stop using any products with silicones (and sulfates). See this list (method 2, step 2) of common ingredient names for silicone. And see this link for why to avoid silicones.
Step 1: Start with dirty hair!
When natural oils exist on the scalp & hair, it results in two awesome things:
- The scalp will take the hint that it’s not being stripped of all of its oils anymore, so it can slow down excess oil production.
- If natural hair oils have been distributed down to the ends of the hair, the nourishing oils are coating the hair shafts keeping them conditioned and hydrated between washes. (Like a free hair mask, woohoo!).
**The key to getting through the beginner’s initial oily transition phase and stop hair from getting excessively oily too quickly, is to try stretching the time between hair washes, so it can get used to not being stripped of oils. This means that a full water only hair wash likely doesn’t need to be performed 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.
Note, that when I took pictures for this post, I was still going through the initial oily transition phase, and I intentionally waited six days since my last wash, which at the time, was a long time for me. The initial oily phase lasted a couple of weeks for me, and then my hair stopped getting excessively oily between washes. Note that no one has to let their hair get super oily for water-only hair washing. If this method doesn’t get your hair clean or the transition takes longer for you, please try out another no-shampoo or low-poo hair washing method in combination with water only until you get this routine down, so that you are getting your hair clean on a regular basis!
Here’s a link to my excessively oily before pics – for science. I hadn’t even brushed it yet because I want to show how well the brushing in Step 2 works. I think it’s okay though, because now you can compare these super oily transition pictures to the end result to see how well water-only works, even for a beginner who still gets routinely oily. Check out my 3-Month Update post for more info. I just wanted to clear that up so you don’t think anyone ever has to look this oily with the water-only method!
Also in these pics, sometimes my camera brightness is over-compensating because my hair is quite dark, so it’s automatically 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 the pictures 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).
Step 2: (Pre-Shower) Distribute natural oils!
The following are three very important techniques that should be done right before hair washing. These three techniques will help loosen up the natural oils on the scalp and will distribute them to the rest of the hair. The result will be less oily roots and added hydration for the ends— and they’ll make water washing in the shower a whole lot easier!
On dry, detangled hair, rub fingerpads (not nails) in relatively quick, yet gentle motions all over the scalp. It’s similar to scrubbing the head in the shower, but without water. We’re talking light pressure that shouldn’t hurt the scalp. This creates some friction to warm & loosen up oils and dead skin cells sitting on the scalp. (Added bonuses: Scritching also increases blood flow to the scalp which can promote hair growth, and it feels soo good!) Section or part the hair if necessary to reach all areas of the scalp.
Once the oils have been loosened on the scalp, you might notice that all the oils are sitting at the roots. The next two steps will help distribute the oils down the hair shafts to nourish the rest of the 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 fingers together and slide fingers down the section of hair to the ends. This “pulls” the oils from the roots down the section of hair. Be gentle. Preening shouldn’t actually pull at the scalp or be uncomfortable. If 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 the roots and at least 6 inches down the length of the hair.
For long hair, this can be a time-consuming step to water-washing, but it still works well for many people. Pro Tip: I find it’s quicker to preen while brushing in the next step. (One hand to preen, one hand to brush.)
C. Brush – DON’T skip this!
A boar-bristle brush (BBB) is an essential tool for happy hair, and it is absolutely essential for practicing water-only washing. From my experience, a BBB is the BEST at pulling the natural oils down from the roots to the ends of hair, and it’s great to do after scritching and preening to pull the oils from the mid-shaft all the way down to the very ends of the hair.
After scritching and preening, brush a clean BBB through hair to reduce tangles and distribute the oils down to the very ends of hair before showering. Section or part the hair so the boar-bristle brush can reach all areas of the roots and hair. Once 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 the brush is clean before using it, otherwise it isn’t soaking up oils, just moving last week’s oils around on the head with this week’s oils. (How to clean a boar-bristle brush tutorial.)
In addition, a BBB can be used daily between washes! A boar-bristle brush can replace a regular, daily hair brush. Brushing oils through the hair is really the only upkeep needed between water-washes to keep hair looking clean and oil-free. Just a little brushing every day or every other day can really keep the oils from building up into a greasy mess at the roots. After my scalp’s oil production slowed, I noticed I don’t have to brush the oils through my hair as often anymore.
***For wearing hair naturally curly, brushing will un-define curls, so below are some options for managing oils:
- Curly hair has an advantage since curls hide oily roots better than straight hair. So if roots don’t look oily, scritch regularly, but wait to preen and brush the hair until right before washing it. Note that if natural oils aren’t being moved down to the ends of hair regularly, the ends are at risk of getting dry. Follow step 6 (below), which is to add a small amount of a natural oil (like coconut oil or shea butter) to the ends to give them some hydration between washes.
- If roots look oily and skipping daily brushing isn’t an option, try using the BBB daily to distribute natural hair oils throughout the week. Then dampen hair with a spray bottle filled with water to squish, style, and redefine curls.
- Or try a wooden-bristled brush instead, since wooden bristles are typically much further apart, and wood distributes natural oils through hair similar to a BBB.
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. 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 hair!
Temperature: Time to shower. The temperature of the water is very important. Too hot can damage hair or be too drying on the scalp, and too cool won’t break up the excess oils on the head. While scrubbing oils off the head, the water should be very warm… a comfortable temperature between hot and lukewarm. The water temperature can be lowered over time as the scalp’s oil production slows down since there will be much less oil to wash away (this happened for me).
Technique: Wet hair, then use fingerpads (not nails) to gently scritch the scalp in relatively quick motions (just like scritching before). Focus the water stream directly on the area being scrubbed so it can wash away dirt and oils while scritching. For long or thick hair, part the hair in sections while washing to easily access all areas of the scalp/roots. While going through the oily transition phase and/or noticing roots are getting clean but the next few inches aren’t, try preening the water through the length of the hair, just like we did earlier in Step 2B. The warm water loosens up hair oils, and preening while the water runs through the hair will help the water break up the hair’s natural oils further down to give an overall cleaner wash.
Be Patient: Make sure to get all areas of the 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 hair still looks oily after showering, try tweaking the method a bit. For the next wash, try using slightly warmer water, or spend more time gently rubbing fingertips on the scalp, or try preening the water through the hair from root to tip. This routine only gets easier and requires less steps as time passes and the scalp’s oil production normalizes. It took me a few washes to get the hang of it. Feel free to leave a comment with questions below, and I will try my best to help.
Hard Water? I have low to moderate water hardness 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 hair isn’t get clean. Test water hardness or look it up on the city’s website. There are ways to soften 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.
Step 4: Rinse hair with cold water
This is my least favorite step, but rinsing with cool water helps the hair cuticles lay flat (after the warm water lifted them up), which helps hair look smoother.
Pro rinsing tip: After flinging the shower temperature handle to cold, take a giant step back out of the water stream. Bend over forward, flipping hair over the head, and stick only the 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 legs. In fact, practice mentally checking out for a moment while the shock of 7 seconds of cold water attempts to ruin a perfectly zen shower moment. Just visualize being on an island standing under a beautiful, crisp, cool waterfall, overlooking the greatest scenery ever. …I do.
Okay in all seriousness, don’t slip and get hurt. But that may or may not be what I actually visualize. (It is.)
Step 5: Dry with a T-Shirt and Detangle
After showering, pat the hair dry with an old t-shirt or microfiber towel (instead of a bath towel) to reduce frizz and flyaways. Using a t-shirt or microfiber towel for this step 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 up. Be gentle as hair is fragile while wet.
Step 6: Hydrate Ends (Optional)
If hair is long, it may take some time for the natural oils to be distributed down far enough to condition the ends. Until then, I recommend applying coconut oil or any deeply hydrating, natural oil to the ends (and only the ends) of the hair as a substitute for the hair’s natural oils. Especially if ends are damaged or tangly. It will help smooth out the ends so they don’t dry frizzy and so combs/brushes don’t get snagged in them while detangling… plus it gives hair some added hydration. I prefer coconut oil, and unrefined, cold-pressed version of coconut oil makes a world of a difference to me, but any natural oil will worko including jojoba and argan oil. I stopped having to use oils after a few weeks, as they eventually became unnecessary. :)
Caution! Be careful with the amount of oil and where it being applied! Slathering a bunch of oil on the hair or roots will lead to excessively oily hair. 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 hair! 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 maybe twice per month and just let it air dry the rest of the time. It’s incredibly low maintenance. any additional styling products for that matter,
If using any products, ensure they are silicone-free products or ones containing water-soluble silicones to avoid silicones building up on 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 And that’s what you see in the pictures below.
DONE! Water Only Hair Washing 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.