As a hairstylist, many of my clients (rightfully) voice their concerns over the slew of chemicals found in salon haircare products and are eager to learn how they can cut down on their own chemical consumption at home. Whether you have a sensitive scalp that's prone to irritation or you're simply trying to cut down on shampoo costs (we hear ya), the "no-poo" movement has gained traction, and for good reason. "Washing hair without shampoo has caught the attention of people wanting to avoid harsh chemicals and those looking for a more natural approach to hair, skin, and body care," says board-certified dermatologist Adam Mamelak.
That said, while water-only washing is a centuries-old method, it's not for everyone and your hair will likely go through a transition. With the help of Mamelak and board-certified trichologist Isfahan Chambers-Harris, we're giving you the scoop on how to wash hair without shampoo.
Meet the Expert
- Adam Mamelak is an Austin-based board-certified dermatologist who specializes in diagnosing and treating skin cancer.
- Isfahan Chambers-Harris is a board-certified trichologist and the founder of all-natural haircare line, Alodia Hair Care.
Ahead, learn how to transition to washing your hair with just water and the benefits.
How Water Only Washing Works
According to Mamelak, the scalp produces a natural oil called sebum that lubricates the hair. "Shampoo can strip these natural oils, leaving the hair dry, dull, and brittle, and while conditioner is made to hydrate and add moisture to post-shampooed hair, it can fall short compared to sebum." Hence, the interest in water-only hair washing.
When we use shampoo on our hair and make it squeaky clean, we're stripping the hair of it's natural oils. The idea is that our scalps then go into a continuous cycle of over-producing sebum, which can make the hair feel (and look) greasy. Water is effective at washing away dirt, dust, and other water-soluble debris from the hair and scalp without stripping the hair of this sebum. However, Mamelak notes that if there are other oils in the hair (from a haircare or styling product, for example), a good portion of these will be left behind as well. Both experts recommend using lukewarm water—not scalding hot—for this approach, and then following up with a cold rinse.
How often to wash hair only with water depends on a number of factors, including how much oil, sweat, dirt, and products are present in your hair along with your hair type.
Which Hair Types Benefit From Washing With Just Water?
Water-only washing works best with curly, coily, thick, and coarse textures that are prone to dryness. Chambers-Harris recommends following up with a deep conditioning mask or conditioner to seal in moisture after washing the hair with water. "This will help you keep the moisture in the cortex of the hair strand," she notes. "If you are doing the water and deep conditioner/conditioner combo, I suggest doing it one to two times a week in between your full wash day (which would consist of a non-sulfate shampoo and conditioner)." This method doesn't necessarily clean your hair, but it helps with keeping your hair moisturized and balanced in between full wash days.
The Benefits of Washing with Only Water
Both experts tout the water-only washing method for its multiple benefits. A clear-cut advantage? It's a natural alternative to chemical-laden shampoos. Chambers-Harris claims that over-washing hair with such shampoos can not only strip the hair of its natural oils, but can also cause product build-up and toxins to enter the bloodstream, leading to myriad health issues. Mamelak also notes that water-only washing eliminates the use of sulfates, a common additive in shampoos. "Sulfates are extremely effective in removing dirt and cleaning the hair and scalp, however, many claim that they leave the hair feeling dry and brittle," he says.
If your hair is tangle-prone, washing hair with just water plus a deep conditioning mask can be beneficial. "The hair shaft naturally has a rough surface that when rubbed against another hair, will lead to knots and tangles," explains Mamelak. "With more natural oils lubricating the hair [from water-only washing], the hair shafts glide over each other, leading to less tangles." Skipping shampoo also allows for the hair’s sebum to distribute throughout, and this may make hair appear more shiny and less frizzy. A quick note though, conditioner buildup may actually cause tangling, so avoid any heavy silicone-based conditioners.
Finally, the no-poo method is extremely cost-effective and can help you save money that you'd otherwise spend on daily haircare products.
How to Transition to Water Only Washing
Mamelak says that there is typically a transition period when moving from shampoo to no-poo. "The scalp tends to compensate for the oil removed with shampoo by producing more sebum. Initially, without shampoo, there is excessive sebum production and the hair and scalp will feel greasier than normal," he explains. "This will settle down over a few weeks as your scalp gets used to your new no-poo lifestyle." The best way to make the transition is to take it slow by decreasing the frequency of shampooing gradually versus stopping abruptly.
As the scalp normalizes, you'll notice that your hair will feel greasier. "Sebum production is high, as the skin and scalp are anticipating the shampoo to remove a good portion of it," notes Mamelak. "This sebum production stays high for a few weeks, and the scalp becomes accustomed to the new cleansing approach with a new sheen and body." To off-set this newfound greasiness, apply a few spritzes of the oil-absorbing Freshen Up Dry Shampoo ($12) from Eva NYC.
For best results, wean the scalp off shampoo by alternating between diluted shampoo washes and water-only washes. While this will make the transition period longer, it'll be less severe on the hair and scalp.
Natural Alternatives to Water Only Washing
There are several natural alternatives to water-only washing, including baking soda. "Baking soda neutralizes acid and odors in the hair and scalp—it's a gentle exfoliant that can help remove dirt and debris, as well as scale from the scalp," says Mamelak. "But use with care, as the high pH can cause dryness and frizziness in sensitive individuals, and the crystals can be abrasive if used too often." If you have color-treated hair, try apple cider vinegar—it's an antiseptic, (which means it kills bacteria and fungal microorganisms), and has a lower pH, which might help to balance the hair and make color last longer.
Some other natural alternatives to using only water include herbal teas, natural oils, butter, egg yolks, and yogurt. You can also try alternating between hot and cold water to try to break up sebum in the hair, or using a boar bristle brush on the hair before washing to distribute the natural oils in the hair.
What to Use After You've Washed With Water
Chambers-Harris suggests using the no-poo method in conjunction with an all-natural deep conditioning treatment. After you've washed your hair with water, try dousing it with the Suzanne Organics Wild Orange Vanilla Rescue Hair Mask ($45) for nourishment, hydration, and strength.
Once that's rinsed out, use a moisture-rich leave-in like John Freida's Daily Nourishment Leave-in Conditioner ($7) along with an oil like Drybar's 100 Proof Smoothing Oil for added moisture.
Yagnik D, Serafin V, J Shah A. Antimicrobial activity of apple cider vinegar against Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus and Candida albicans; downregulating cytokine and microbial protein expression. Sci Rep. 2018;8(1):1732. doi:10.1038/s41598-017-18618-x