water washing hair
I got fed up with the damaging effects of shampooing (aka stripping hair of its natural oils with harsh chemicals) 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, check out my other post about it. After deciding to stop using shampoo, I did a lot of research on which “no-poo” methods I should try. I tried honey-washing and co-washing with great results, and later transitioned into water-only. I’ve been water-only for over a month now and love it!! (Update: It’s been 3 months, and I’m still going strong!)
When I first heard about using just 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. I’ve included some easy & effective techniques below. Practicing these techniques will give you the ultimate water-only hair– People won’t even know you don’t use shampoo! And your hair will thank you heaps for it. :)
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. And there’s a way to do this without having oily-looking hair! (Follow tips below.)
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 chemical-free, natural, free, and created by our bodies 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. 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:
My hair has never been more hydrated, voluminous, soft, silky, bouncy (elasticity 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.
***If this is your first time stopping 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 things you can do to make the transition manageable and get through it faster in that post.
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 will 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’re 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 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 will sit on your scalp & hair which results in two awesome things:
- Your scalp will take the hint that it’s not missing all its oils anymore, so it can slow oil production down & normalize faster. :)
- 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!).
BEFORE PICS– Six days since last wash! (I haven’t brushed it yet today, because I want to you see how well Step 2 works):
Obviously, my before pics look really oily. But I promise it doesn’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. I just wanted to clear that up so you don’t think anyone has to look this oily when they use the water-only method!
***Also, I was still in the “oily transitional phase” when I made this post, which is great 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 oily anymore… even on day 10! Check out my 3-Month Update post for more info!
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 fingertips (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. This creates friction to warm & loosen up scalp oils and dead skin cells. (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.
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 pull the oils down the section of hair to the ends. If your hair is longer than 6 inches (mine is more than double that), 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.
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 shower!
You can see that just by scritching, preening, and brushing, my hair already is starting to look a bit better. 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: Washing – Scrub & Rinse with warm water
Time to shower. The temperature of the water that hits your hair is very important. Too hot can damage hair, 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.
Wet your hair, then use your fingertips (not nails) to gently scritch your scalp in relatively quick motions. Be sure 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, part it in sections while washing to easily access all areas of your scalp. 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.
Take your time!! Make sure you get all areas of your scalp. I honestly spend quite a bit of time doing this, but I also only have to do it about once per week, so it’s worth it for me. 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 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 rubbing your fingertips on your scalp and rinsing the water really well through all of your hair.
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. 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 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.
Step 5: T-Shirt Dry & Detangle
After you shower, pat your hair dry with a cotton t-shirt (instead of a bath towel) to reduce frizz and flyaways. The t-shirt 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’re new to water-only washing & have long hair, your hair’s natural oils probably haven’t been distributed down far enough to condition your ends yet. Until you’ve been doing this for a couple of weeks and the oils have been distributed down far enough, I highly recommend using coconut oil, shea butter, or any natural, hydrating oil on the ends of your hair. Especially if you have damaged ends.
Natural oils (like coconut oil or shea butter) can work as a good temporary substitute for your scalp’s natural oils. They can help smooth out your ends so they don’t look frizzy and so your combs/brushes don’t get snagged in them while detangling… plus it gives your hair some added hydration. You can stop using these oils after a while, as it eventually becomes unnecessary. :)
Coconut oil works great for me, (and the unrefined, cold-pressed version of coconut oil makes a world of a difference), but you can use any deeply hydrating, natural oil of your choice including shea butter, almond oil, argan oil, etc.
Be careful with how much oil you use and where you use it! If you slather a bunch of oil near your roots, you’ll have excessively oily hair and no way to shampoo it out. I just dab a few drops on the very ends of my hair while damp. My hair can look a bit oily if I apply coconut oil to dry hair, but using it on damp hair seems to fix that for me. Then I wash my hands thoroughly before touching any other part of my hair so I don’t spread 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. 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 through the roof. Thanks, natural hair oils.
Heat? When I used shampoo, I had to use heat on it 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 stupid to skip using one. If you do use heat/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-soluable 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). And that’s what you see in the pictures 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.
NATURAL LIGHT – These pics were taken on the same day:
Have you tried this method? Did it work for you? Leave a comment below! :)
Also, check out my 3-Month Water-Only Update to see what the future holds with water-only!