The No Shampoo Experiment, 2.0

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A woman combing her wet hair out with a wide tooth comb.

Chakrapong Worathat / EyeEm / Getty Images

Three years ago, I ditched shampoo for baking soda and apple cider vinegar. It started as a challenge from my editor at the time, and was supposed to last only a month. Much to my shock, I loved the results and stuck with it. My previously unmanageable hair became less frizzy, less greasy, and much easier to manage.

The funny thing, though, is that the more I simplify my beauty routine, the less patience I have with it. Now I want to take my hair care to an even more extreme level of simplification, to the point where I do almost nothing to maintain it. And so, I’ve embarked on a journey toward ‘water-only washing,’ which is exactly what it sounds like – washing with nothing but water!

Benefits of the Water-Only Method

A woman in the shower lathering her hair with shampoo.

southerlycourse / Getty Images

There’s actually nothing strange about washing with water only. The act of stripping our hair of its natural oils every few days, a.k.a. shampooing, often with harsh chemicals, is far more bizarre, but this has become normal practice over the past century. Our hair is not meant to be washed with shampoo because its oils are good for it, as counterintuitive as that may sound.

Ariana Schwarz, who has washed her hair with only water for the past two years, explains on her website, Paris To Go:

“Think about the way nature works. Everything from the surface of a leaf to feathers, guillemot eggs, butterfly wings, the scales of a fish, and the skin of a whale is self-cleaning. Other structures utilize various organisms to remove contaminants or allow droplet flow in a non-exploitative, non-toxic, non-polluting way. Take mycoremediation, for instance, or hydrocarbon-chewing microbes.”

When hair is not subjected to shampoo, it is given the chance to stabilize, to bring oil production under control, and to establish a self-sustaining routine that will not – cannot – destroy your hair in any way because it’s entirely natural.

Becca at Just Primal Things, another lifestyle blogger who’s an avid water-only hair washer, writes:

“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. In my opinion, when you achieve a successful, water-only routine, your hair has reached its final form.”

How Washing Without Shampoo Works

A woman massages her scalp with her hands in the shower.

triocean / Getty Images

In a nutshell, you use warm water in the shower or tub, massaging the scalp with your fingertips to release dirt and excess oil. The warmer the water, the more oil it will wash out. It’s important, however, to end with cold in order to close the hair cuticle and reduce frizz.

But there is more to the method than just that, as I’ve discovered while researching. During the transition period, which seems to average about a month, it’s important to massage the scalp frequently with fingertips (not nails), in order to loosen any dirt and to distribute the oil along the hair shaft.

Becca (quoted above) recommends a three-part process that includes “scritching” (the afore-mentioned scalp massage, to be done on dry hair, as if you were shampooing), “preening” (pulling the oil down by placing two fingers on either side of a small section of hair, as if using your fingers as a straightener), and brushing, preferably with a clean boar-bristle brush, every day between washes.

My Experience With Water-Only Washing

water-only washing, day 11

Katherine Martinko / Treehugger

As I write this, it’s been only 11 days since my last shampoo and so far, it’s surprisingly good! Keep in mind that I already didn’t use shampoo and only washed every 5-6 days, which means my hair isn’t that oily to begin with; but usually by now it would be pretty gross and itchy, especially considering that I do sweaty CrossFit workouts three times a week.

It feels weird to be constantly massaging my scalp since I’ve always tried not to touch my hair, in order not to make it oily; but it does seem to help, and looks less greasy after I’ve had my hands in it for a few minutes.

The two water washes I’ve done so far did a great job at resetting the natural curl structure of my hair, which usually gets ruined by shampoo (even baking soda and ACV, to some extent). Because there’s oil in it, the curls look shinier and more defined.

I’m really excited about this water-only adventure, and I suspect that it will be the next big trend in green beauty, just as baking soda was several years ago. Since this is my unofficial Lenten beauty challenge, I’ll report back at the 40 day mark to let you all know how it’s going.