It had been eight weeks since I had washed my hair in the traditional way. And no one seemed to notice. It wasn’t odiferous, and there were no knots or bugs. I continued to go to work in an office each day and my boyfriend hadn’t left me. In fact, my hair didn’t look much different than it had when I was using shampoo and conditioner. The entire experiment was pretty uneventful.
I had been reading about water-only washing for some time. The people who make up this movement swear that using only water on their hair makes it shinier, fuller, and easier to manage. Without the harsh chemicals and artificial ingredients in commercial hair care products, hair takes care of itself and balances out. It’s friendlier to the environment and costs nothing. There are various ways to approach water-only washing. You can do an internet search for “water-only washing” to delve more deeply into this strange world.
Using only water to wash my hair appealed to me. I was already pretty low maintenance in the personal hygiene department and I wasn’t using hair product other than shampoo and conditioner. Water-only washing made sense to me. After all, commercial shampoo was born around a century ago and even then, women only washed their hair once a month or so. And what did our caveman ancestors do? What did people who lived more naturally and closer to the land do with their hair? A bit of research told me that hair care varied by culture and region, but water-only washing was the “original” way to wash one’s hair.
I decided to jump into water-only washing and it was a bumpy ride, but not for the reasons you may think. Like other experiments in personal hygiene, it forced me to examine the benefits and risks of stepping outside society’s definitions, and allowed me to see my body as it really functions. My hair is prone to dryness and has some curl on the ends. I had been washing my hair weekly with a so-called organic shampoo and conditioner (which I later found wasn’t as environmentally friendly as I thought). I started by just not washing my hair to see what would happen.
7 days passed, and then 10 without anything interesting happening. By day 12 my scalp was getting itchy. I decided to wash with water. This helped the itching but prompted a dreaded flaking issue. This flakiness got progressively worse through day 28. Though I was aware that my hair was prone to dryness, I’d never had a big problem with dry scalp so the flakes sent me into a panic. Should I just wash with shampoo? I was very self-conscious and began questioning my commitment to this experiment. I had wanted to stick to water-only washing for at least 6 weeks because I had read that hair generally needs time to get worse before it gets better. Washing with commercial shampoo strips the hair of natural oils, therefore prompting the scalp to overproduce oils. It’s a vicious cycle. The internet says that the only way to get out of this cycle is to let your hair do its thing so that it backs off the over production. This means a period of greasiness or flakiness or other not so happy conditions.
My experience with water-only washing was definitely the worst between week 2 and 4. I had to wash with water every other day or I wouldn’t be able to stand the itching. The greasiness also increased and then subsided during this time, and my hair changed. It became heavier and there was a kind of build-up near the roots that never completely went away. My hair felt different. I followed some recommendations that I found on the internet to try to combat the weird build-up.
- I combed with my wood comb multiple times a day, trying to move the oils to the ends as is recommended. I even bought a natural boar’s bristle brush, which many people swear by. Brushes never seemed to work on my hair and this one was no different. Brushing made my hair frizzy and unmanageable. So, I kept combing. I also put my hair up every night and during much of my time at work.
- I installed a shower filter to eliminate the hard water and chlorine. Supposedly, hard water can cause a build-up on the hair so I was hopeful this would help. I didn’t notice any difference but kept the filter because it removed the chlorine smell in the shower.
- I used a rinse of white vinegar and distilled water which I had read would remove any build-up that may be interfering with the transition. I only did this once, but it seemed to do nothing for the build-up. It did make my hair soft and super curly, and it brought out my red highlights as you can see in the photo below.
And then it started to get better. By day 42, the greasiness and flakes disappeared completely and I was able to cut back the water-only washing to about once a week. My hair seemed to have a lot of body and I liked the way it looked. It still felt like there was some kind of build-up at the roots, but it wasn’t visible. My ends looked healthier. My hair remained like this through the end of my experiment on day 56.
At the time I ended my experiment I felt as though I could have easily continued water-only washing if I had to. My hair looked good and felt pretty good. My hair care routine was fast and simple, and I wasn’t spending any money on products.
The Pleasant Surprises of Water-only Washing
- No unpleasant smell: This was my biggest concern when I started. I was worried about stinking to high heaven. In fact, there wasn’t any odor at all. Initially, this lack of scent was more concerning than you’d think. We who have used hair care products for our entire lives expect that our hair will have a scent. Flowers or rain or whatever. It was a bit unsettling to find that my hair actually smelled like… hair. But there was no offending odor. The boyfriend verified this.
- Less stuff: There was an empty shelf in the shower where the shampoo and conditioner had lived and I didn’t have to pack those bottles when I traveled. It was freeing.
- More volume: My hair had more volume than I’d had in many years and I was very happy about that. Previously, I had battled to make my hair less flat on top.
In fact, only two things bothered me about water-only washing, the way my hair felt weird near the roots and the strange greyish-white build-up on my comb. Both of these mysteries began around day 14 and continued throughout the experiment. I would clean the comb but then notice the re-accumulation of this build-up every few days. And my roots continued to feel… weird. Not greasy or oily, but strange. Perhaps it was a build-up of natural oils that would have dissipated had I taken the experiment another couple of months, or perhaps that was the natural state of my hair. Why was the build-up occurring? Was it a natural phenomenon? Ultimately, this build-up was the reason that I returned to shampoo. I struggled with the decision. No, humans don’t need to use hair care products. However, I’m used to a certain level of “clean” that I learned from family and that I am encouraged by culture to maintain. It was difficult to reconcile actual need with personal desire and cultural expectation.
The First Wash After
As soon as the shampoo touched my scalp, a feeling of regret washed over me. My hair felt squeaky, and not in a good way. While combing, it felt thin and I lost a lot more hair in the comb that I had during the experiment. As my hair dried, I was quickly reminded of my old struggle with the flatness on top. I felt like my hair looked terrible and I wanted to cry.
Over the next few days, as my hair started to get “dirtier” and looked better, I evaluated my options. Should I return to water-only washing? Ultimately, I decided to continue to use shampoo but only when it was actually needed, usually once every 7-10 days. I also decided to seek out a truly natural shampoo that was gentle on my hair and environmentally friendly. This was a difficult process, but I eventually found one that I like.
I encourage you to eliminate hair care products and stop shampooing for a while. It will allow you to get to know your hair and see what it’s really like. It will also reduce any reliance you have on products. I think you’ll find that you can not only survive, but continue to go about your normal life, without them. And you’ll probably start to re-evaluate what you really want to be using on your body.