There are many schools of thought on the right way to care for natural hair. We have the no-poo method, the LOC method, the LCO method, the maximum hydration method, the no oils no butters method—I’ve tried them all with varying degrees of success but nothing compares to the results I got trying the water only hair washing method. I loved it but was it safe for my hair? Read on to find out.
(Image Source: Getty / Btihal Remli)
About the Expert
Tolu Alli is a trichologist who runs a hair consulting business called Fine Hair Coach and runs the Bloom Hair Atelier, a natural hair salon in Lagos, Nigeria.
Water Only Hair Washing, Explained
Water only hair washing (WOHW) is the process of deep cleansing your hair and scalp of all product residue. Once the hair is clean, the scalp is massaged daily to stimulate sebum production, using a scritching and preening routine plus daily water rinses to help the sebum travel down the hair shaft. With this method, there is no need for shampoo, conditioner, or a styler. It’s basically a lazy natural’s dream come true (I am the lazy natural).
Like so many other hair trends, videos of women trying out the WOHW started circulating on Youtube with the page WaterOnlyHairWash being the most popular. The vlogger behind the page started documenting her journey following a water only routine for her hair (her videos are still up and are a great source of information for people interested in trying WOHW for themselves). While hair influencers have helped the WOHW method gain popularity in the natural hair community, hair professionals are skeptical. Trichologist Tolu Alli advises against trying the WOHW method for a number of reasons. She says, “water alone cannot thoroughly or deeply cleanse the scalp and hair to sufficiently remove buildup. It’s like using only water to have a bath.” She adds, “shampoos should be used to wash the hair because they contain surface acting agents which are designed to attract dirt and buildup, which is then washed away during the rinsing process.”
Water Only Hair Washing Benefits
Personally, the biggest incentive for switching from conventional shampoos and conditioners was the amount of money I could potentially save. Natural hair products are expensive and the idea that natural hair can not only survive but thrive using water only was downright seductive.
Great for the Environment
WOHW is incredibly eco-friendly. Using water to cleanse, condition, and style natural hair means bottles and bottles of products aren’t being purchased, used, and then discarded.
Encourages Scalp Stimulation
One of the pillars of the WOHW is daily scalp massages to encourage the production of sebum, the oil that will be used to stretch and condition the hair. Scalp massages are great for increasing blood flow which is linked to hair growth, as well as reducing scalp tension and loosening dead skin.
With the WOHW method, it is recommended that hair is rinsed daily. Regularly wetting the hair prevents dryness, minimizing breakage and leaving the hair supple and manageable.
Hair Dries Quickly
Without layers of products on the hair, WOHW means the hair dries much faster than it would with products on the hair. This is especially beneficial for low porosity beauties who deal with natural hair that takes a day or two to dry.
What to Know Before Trying the WOHW Method
Your hair is going to feel dry before you reach full sebum coverage. During this time, it is recommended that you keep your hair in a protective style like medium twists so you can access your scalp and rinse easily. It can take up to a month to reach full sebum coverage. Starting the WOHW method is pretty easy but it’s nice to see how others have done it and modified it. Check out WaterOnlyHairWash.com for tips and tutorials.
Despite the rave reviews of some vloggers, most hair professionals do not recommend the water only hair washing method. “Sebum is naturally quite waxy (and smelly), and water alone may not be able to remove the buildup which can be problematic for people with scalp conditions or a predisposition to scalp conditions. Water also will not be able to help the sebum travel down the length of the hair, especially for curly hair,” says Alli.
My WOHW Experience
I tried the WOHW method in February 2021. While the traditional method recommends daily massages, followed by scritching (cleaning the scalp by lightly scratching), preening (using your fingertips to manually move the sebum down the hair shaft), and then rinsing the hair, I am a lazy natural and couldn’t be bothered. Once I read that other people found using a shower head was effective for moving the sebum down the length of the hair, I massaged my hair and then used warm water to help the sebum move, skipping the preening altogether.
During the first two weeks, my hair looked and felt so dry, I started to worry. Beanies and turbans were my best friends as I kept my hair in a shower cap to retain moisture. While I really enjoyed wetting my hair daily in the shower, I didn’t enjoy my product-free hair during this time.
I reached full sebum coverage after three weeks. During this time, I was constantly surprised that my hair didn’t smell and my scalp was clean. I checked daily and had my family sniff my head an alarming amount of times. So while that is often a concern hair professionals have, I and many others can confidently say your hair will not smell using this method.
By the time I reached full sebum coverage, I was experiencing the easiest hair maintenance of my entire life. Most days I would massage my scalp, rinse it, and style it in a bun. My hair dried in less than an hour and was defined without a drop of product. I was shocked. I could own a home with all the money I’ve spent on hair products.
Updos, twist-outs, and even heatless blowouts were easy to achieve with the WOHW method. Wearing my hair in a wash-n-go (my preferred style) proved to be a bit trickier which is why I eventually stopped. With the WOHW method, you technically can use botanical gels to style your hair if you want, but you’ll lose a lot of the sebum in the process. I tried DIY conditioners like banana baby food to enhance my curls because it kept my sebum intact and I was able to rinse it out and still enjoy my product-free hair. However, my hair never had the same amount of shine that it did with my products. After four months I decided to wash my hair with my usual conditioner and gel combo.
My experience with WOHW was definitely positive despite hair professionals’ concerns about the method. I would absolutely try this method out again in the future. If you’re looking for a hair routine that is inexpensive, eco-friendly, and minimalist, I definitely think the water only hair washing method may be for you.