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A Scientific Look at Whether Water-Only Washing is Hygienic for Natural Hair

• Mar 4, 2016

As far as hair washing trends go, the one currently catching fire for the last year or so is the water only wash. BGLH writers Portia and Chinwe of course have it covered! You can see their articles here for 4c hair and here as a review of Naptural85’s take on it.

In short if you have never heard of it, the method invariably involves the  two simple steps below
— rubbing the scalp with the soft pad of your fingers to dislodge sebum and any shed scalp cells
— rinsing hair with warm water and smoothing the natural oil (sebum) of the hair down the strand

Will this method get your scalp and hair clean?

In short, yes and no. Yes, if your scalp is naturally not very oily and you are generally not susceptible to dandruff. Yes too for your hair strands themselves, if you are generally not using any other products heavily. No, if you are a heavy oil user and if you generally get dandruff, then this method may or may not work.

Why would a heavy oil user not be able to clean their hair and scalp with this method?

Water mainly just distributes the oil further down the strand. It is strictly not really cleansing hair, certainly not anywhere to the capacity that a shampoo or even hair conditioner can. This is because water lacks the ability to actually force the oil to dissolve, which shampoo and hair conditioner can.

Microscopic view of oily hair washed with only water

Is water only washing going to make my hair smell?
There is a possibility that your hair/scalp may smell different but it should not really be a bad smell. A bad smell is likely to indicate that the natural bacterial population on your skin (scalp) in this case has changed. It is generally safe to correlate a bad smell to a bad effect as bad smells are intended to alert us to possible problems. If this does happen, do reconsider moving to a less strict water only washing (e.g as with cowashing, the odd shampoo session will help with preventing build up and equally for water only washing, throwing in some shampoo or a co-wash on occasion may help control bacterial levels).

What bacteria on my skin, should I get rid of it?
Yes we are all covered in millions of bacteria and certain types are normal, natural and even helpful. There is even research to say that perhaps we may be over-cleaning our skin (or scalps in this case) because products such as shampoos and soaps may unnecessarily change the types of bacteria and also partially remove helpful bacteria. Of course going to the opposite extreme of not using any cleansing product whatsoever will likely impact those bacterial levels too.

So, is water only washing unhygienic?
My answer would be no with a very strong stipulation that you should monitor the health of your scalp actively.

1. Emerging infectious diseases, pp 225 — 230, 2001 
2. Chemical and Physical Behavior of Human Hair by Clarence Robbins, pp 193–310

About The Natural Haven

Scientist on a hairy mission!

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6 years ago

Great read. I’ve seen plenty of women online who praise water only but I just can’t clean my hair like that.

T. Thomas
T. Thomas
6 years ago

Most naturals use products that need some sort of cleanser to remove. Also, sebum buildup can cause its own set of issues. Happy for anyone that finds this method helpful. Just not for me…

Francis Grimes
Francis Grimes
6 years ago

I agree with the conclusion you came too. While I may only shampoo typically once a month, I do cowash more frequently when I desire to hydrate and cleanse my hair a bit. I don’t think just water would work…

Younique by Girl Friday

I totally agree.. Ive not used shampoo for 3 years now, and have noticed a tremendous increase in the moisture and porosity my hair holds

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