Water-only hair washing (whilst traveling the world): A 4 month experiment

by Alejandra

If you would have told me some years ago that I would be ditching shampoo altogether and end up washing my hair with water only, I would have probably laughed, and imagined myself desperately surviving in the middle of the jungle. Because, why else would I go through that?

But here I am, after a four month experiment to tell you that, spoiler alert, I’m a fan!

I’m no innovator. In fact, water-only hair washing is pretty popular, specially in the zero waste community (also how I got introduced to it). What I think is unique about my experience, and the reason I am sharing this, is that we are currently on a world trip. Therefore, my hair is exposed to new water types constantly; a situation not many other bloggers seem to share.

Trying no-poo methods

Note: no-poo refers to washing your hair without shampoo. Water-only washing is just one of the varied no-poo possibilities. No-poo methods are a widely covered topic in the zero waste community, and there are enough options out there to suit anyone. You can read more about them here, here, and here.

There are many reasons to ditch conventional shampoo, but for me it was all about ditching plastic! Oh, and the chemicals, of course.

When transitioning to a more sustainable lifestyle, one of the first things I started to think about was how to substitute my shampoo and conditioner (even if I was already using a biodegradable and supposedly natural type). 

Knowing I don’t like wasting a lot of time on my “pampering” practices, I knew I needed something easy, readily accessible, and that wouldn’t require much of a change in my routine, if I was to be successful. So I went for the most obvious method I could think of: using a solid (natural) alternative. 

My transition to hair soap was pretty easy. I washed my hair every 5-7 days or so (had trained it for many months), and using a bar of hair soap, the only noticeable difference was that my hair felt a bit more coarse when washing. Otherwise, it worked just as well (or better, if you take into account that I was no longer lathering my hair with unnecessary chemicals and micro plastics).

I also stopped using conditioner altogether because the only solid alternative I could find was from Lush cosmetics, and I hated it (it left my hair so greasy and clumpy)! Instead I would put a bit of natural oil to my ends and go about my day. 

I also used DIY dry shampoo on the days my hair was a bit greasy. And once in a while made natural hair masks (normally involving oils) for extra hydration. 

My hair looked clean and healthy. Basically, I was set!

Why I wanted to try water-only hair washing?

When we started traveling full time, I worried about where we would be getting our solid shampoo in the future; It is not a common product all over the world. As an initial solution, we just stocked up and carried a couple of bars with us. But the hair oil, and other styling products I occasionally used, had to stay behind. 

The first months on the road, my hair was a bit more frizzy, and sometimes a bit less shiny, but still doing fine generally. However, our shampoo bars would not last us forever, and finding good natural options, that worked well with my hair type, wasn’t all that easy.

Around the same time, I came across a couple of bloggers who used only water to wash their hair. That got me wondering if transitioning to no products at all, would be easier for me too. 

But there were a couple important reasons I was specially intrigued:

1. The first and foremost, was that my hair had been falling drastically for a very long time. Some years ago it got to the point were I was genuinely scared I was balding. I had gone from having beautiful thick hair, to it thinning so much you could easily see my scalp.

I of course had freaked out and gone to the doctors. But I didn’t get any clear answers. My blood test results were fine, and most ended up suggesting it could just be stress, or the change of moving to the Netherlands.  

I tried every special shampoo and expensive serum I could get my hands across, but nothing really helped. I also took all sorts of supplements, thinking it could be because of deficiencies in my diet (again, my blood work was fine, but I wondered anyway), with no change. 

When I realised all the “specialised” chemicals couldn’t help me, I started to focus on just using healthy natural products, and not obsessing over it. It got a bit better with time, but mostly I just accepted that I was a person that lost a lot of hair.

When reading about water only hair washing, I came across some accounts mentioning how much healthier their hair was AND how it was a solution for hairfall. 

Could this be what I needed?

((Side note: I’ve never fully figured out what causes my hair fall, but now I know it definitely has to do, at leats in part, with how much exposure to sun I get. The more time I spend in sunny hot countries, the better my hair and nails do.))

2. The second reason I was intrigued was frizziness. Depending on where I am, I can have slightly wavy to properly curly hair. But whilst traveling through very hot and humid countries, with no styling products whatsoever, my hair had just transitioned into a non-defined frizz ball. I hated it! Tying my hair up was my go to, and I just avoided looking at myself in the mirror most of the time. 

Again, water-only hair washing seemed like the perfect solution. Reading over and over, all about the miracles (including forgetting about frizz, breakage, split-ends, hair loss, dry scalp, and dandruff) of achieving well-balanced hair, convinced me. 

I had to try it!

My worries before starting?

My biggest worry was of course that my hair was going to be disgusting. I have never appreciated Malfoys’ greasy look (any other Harry Potter fans out there?), and had no intention on feeling gross and self-conscious all the time. 

I also worried that the steps it requires of brushing, scritching and preening (more on that below), were going to be too much work for me to bother going through with them. Talking about something that takes 5-10 mins in your day as too much work, may sound precious, but I know myself, and I don’t have the patience or the discipline necessary for any self-care rituals. 

((This is the reason I don’t regularly do exercise, have never had a skin care ritual, and am mostly unsuccessful at any prolonged medical care. It sucks, and it is something I really want to change of myself.)) 

Finally, I worried it wouldn’t work. I know having luscious shiny locks with water-only hair washing, is possible, because of all the successful accounts out there (I mean, look at Ariana from Paris to Go). 

But everyone that seems to successfully use this method, and blog about it, appears to have a very different living situation to mine. Their lives are stable (not traveling all over the world), with constant access to good quality water (many use special filters etc). And the talk about swimming in the ocean (or other natural sources of water), and how that can affect, is minimal. What is up with that?

I basically had to try it for myself to see what it would really be like. 

The technique 

Let me start by clarifying that I’m obviously not an expert. I have only been trying this method out for 4 months, and my technique is based off of a couple of other blogs I read beforehand.

Here is the basic gist of what is important:

Key to this no poo method is the transition period. The transition period is different for everyone, and can range from a couple of weeks to multiple months. Patience will be key to getting your though these weeks.

Massaging, scritching and preening, need to become part of your routine. 

Massaging your head increases blood circulation and encourages sebum creation. Scritching refers to the act of scrubbing, or scratching, you scalp (when dry) to remove settled sebum and junk that may be clogging your pores. And preening is the act of distributing excess scalp oil and sebum down to you roots to nourish and hydrate your hair. 

You should massage, scritch and preen for 5-10 minutes a day. Start the process with your fingers and then introduce a hairbrush to aid you.

Although many claim that a boar bristle brush is absolutely necessary, many animal lovers, including myself, will not feel comfortable purchasing one for obvious reasons. So worry not, because it seems like all natural brushes with vegan bristles work well too, although the quality apparently makes a difference. 

You will also have to adjust the brush style to your hair type. I personally use a wooden simple brush and comb, as this is what I already had, and I have no intention of buying new ones until they are completely destroyed. But in case you are looking to buy a new brush, perhaps this guide can help you.

Some people recommend doing this process daily, or even multiple times a day, specially in the beginning and when you have more dry hair. Others, mainly those further along the adaptation process, only feel the need to do it a couple times a week.

I would advise to do it as part of your night routine, so your sebum can settle whilst you sleep, before going out in public. Trust me, even if you go to bed with your hair feeling greasy, you will wake up looking much better.

If you have curly hair, you may want to only do these steps with you fingers, and leave the brush only for washing days, to avoid breaking your curls. And, for those of you with specially dry hair, or very long hair, and having difficulty spreading your sebum all the way to the ends, you may have to supplement your routine with some natural oils to keep your hair hydrated.

Feel free to adapt the frequency and specifics to what works best for you. Everyone’s hair is different, and there is no one right way of doing this. Read others’ experiences for inspiration, and experiment until you develop a routine that suits you. 

I personally only massage, scratch and preen on the 2 days prior to washing my hair. Otherwise I feel like it makes my clean hair greasy more easily. Also, I’m lazy and I find the process a bit boring (whilst other talk about it like a glorious moment of self-care).

What is key, is to ALWAYS massage, scritch and preen, before washing your hair with water. Once in the shower, scrub your scalp and run your fingers through your hair thoroughly. Basically act like you would with shampoo, but a bit more intentionally. Like they do it in saloons!

You may find that warmer water helps spread you sebum better. But it is advisable to finish off with cold water to seal the cuticles, and make you hair shinier (I have to admit I can’t always bring myself to do this).

The frequency of washes will also depend entirely on your hair and what you are used to. Especially at the beginning, you may find yourself having to wash your hair with water everyday for it to look decent. Don’t worry, as your hair adapts, you will totally be able to increase the days between washes. 

I only wash my hair once every 5-7 days. This is (presumably) mainly due to the fact that I’ve been training my hair to not need as much washing for many years. Also, I don’t care if my hair is a bit greasy for a couple of days, as I’d rather prolong the time in between as much as possible (part of my training, not because I’m gross). 

Many suggest only trying this method if you have access to good quality water, the reasoning being that bad or hard water can actually leave your hair with more residue, or feeling dry. In case of not having great water flowing naturally out of your tap, there is always the option of getting a shower filtration system, doing the the last rinse with filtered or boiled water, or trying to counteract the effects of hard water with acidity.

Traveling all the time, I have zero knowledge or control over the quality of my water. This may be the cause of my adaptation period taking a bit longer, and the process being more inconsistent (more on that below), than I wished for. But I have still managed to achieve the desired results. 

This is just to say, don’t let the exact recommended technique scare you off, or hold you back. If you want to try water-only hair washing, you can find a way that suits you for sure, even if may require some adjustments!

Note: remember to also clean your brushes regularly, so you’re not spreading the gunk you get out back into your hair.

My process 

I actually started water only hair washing in the beginning of December 2018. We were in Spain (where I’m originally from) for a couple of months, and I thought the ‘stability’s being there would be just perfect to start. I had long hair then and was used to washing my hair once a week. 

I lasted almost two months using only water, and then I decided I was going to cut my hair short before leaving on our world trip again. I went with my greasy head to the hairdresser, convinced I could explain what I was doing, but then embarrassment creeped in, and I couldn’t bring myself to ask him to use only water. So he washed my hair thoroughly with whatever chemical shampoo that saloon uses.

I felt like I had to start all over. Not only was my hair now short, which apparently makes a difference in the adaptation period, but also, I had “cheated”.

But we were very busy with leaving Spain again and thinking about my hair was not a priority. Also, having used chemicals on my hair, I felt like I had to detoxify my hair first before starting again. So I decided to wash my hair with natural hair soap again for a while.

I properly re-started water-only hair washing on the 1st of March of 2019. Below I’m going to depict my observations throughout the journey:

Month 1

The positives:

  • My hair didn’t look nearly as bad as I thought it would. It never looked full on shiny clean, but it was mostly fine. And whenever I was feeling a bit self-conscious, I would just wash it again with water, even if it meant washing my hair more times in a week than I would normally.
  • It didn’t stink. I know many people worry about their hair smelling bad, but it doesn’t. Even in peak dirty days, it just smelled like sebum if you put your nose directly on my scalp (yes, I made Warner do that). It’s not an unpleasant smell, just smells like ‘human’. 
  • The frizz was so much better! My hair mostly just stayed however it was last shaped, and the huge puff ball was no longer. 
  • My hair immediately stopped falling as much! This was the biggest change and one that shocked me. It was seriously instant! Only after a week I could see my scalp less. I know this doesn’t sound credible but my mum and Warner also pointed this out. If I would have known this earlier, I would have definitely tried it when I was in peak balding period some years ago. 
  • I didn’t depend on anything to wash my hair. We could travel wherever we want, and I didn’t have to worry about whether we had shampoo with us. All I needed was water. This freed up space in my toiletry bag, and in my head. And it was cheaper, and better for the environment (as no extra resources are needed at all).

The negatives:

  • Terrible texture. My hair may not have looked bad, but it didn’t feel nice at all! It was not soft and silky. It felt like the morning after a night of partying in my early 20s, when I used too much styling product, and the gross residues of cigarette smoke (yes, back then that was the norm BARF) and sweat had stuck. I know this is part of the process, but touching my hair made me feel gross. So I just didn’t. 
  • My hair had no shape or form. I wouldn’t just flow, get wavy or curly. It was just kinda meh, staying in whatever form it has last shaped into. It was more like straw. And after a couple of days of not washing it could literally take off my ponytail and it would just stay in the same angle. My cute short haircut, which has always resulted in my hair shaping nicely around my head, suddenly was not cute anymore.
  • On those days where the texture was specially off and it didn’t look as nice, I felt very self-conscious and downright ugly. I took it as an exercise to re-evaluate my sources of self-worth, as I truly don’t want to depend on my looks to feel okay with myself, but I totally would understand not wanting to feel this way at all. 
  • My scalp seemed to have a layer of buildup (maybe a ton of sebum? I don’t know, I’m not a biologist), that whenever I scratched would accumulate under my long nails. It was white and thick. Sounds worse than it actually was, but still, I did not enjoy the feeling. *This can be a normal part of the process, but can also be accentuated when not massaging, scritching and preening, enough, or by being exposed to bad quality water (guilty as charged..).
  • The whole routine of massaging my scalp etc, was, as I had predicted, tedious and boring for me. Whilst other bloggers talk about it being a moment of self-care they enjoyed, I did not appreciate it. And if I’m completely honest, it’s still something I wish I could skip.
  • My hair didn’t smell “fresh”. Now, this is not a negative for me, but it may be for you if you’re used to the smell of washing your hair with regular shampoo. Having focused on only using natural products for some years now (the chemicals in conventional products are terrible for your health and the environment), I’m used to not having the strong smell of artificial flowers/fruits etc. emanating from me.
Months 2 & 3

I hoped my transition period would only last a month, and that I would magically have gorgeous hair afterwards. But this wasn’t the case.

As I had expected, traveling affected the process. The positives and negatives stated above, continued for the most part, with some of the negatives dissipating once in a while. Some weeks I would wash my hair and it would feel pretty good for many days, and suddenly I would wash it again, and it would go back to gross immediately. One week my hair was bouncy and nicely shaped, the next it would go back to being straw.

It was a bit frustrating to not see clear linear progress. But, I can only assume, that these changes came because of the different waters I used to wash my hair wherever we were at the moment.

As stated above, some bloggers suggest, that if you for some reason have less-than-perfect quality water coming out of your taps, to rinse your hair with filtered/boiled water (many use a shower filter). There are also some other “solutions”, like using an apple cider vinegar rinse to help counteract the effects of hard water.

However, I had no way of knowing how the water quality was in the places we were visiting, didn’t always have access to water filtering systems, and was not about to be using bottled water for my hair (obviously). Also, we don’t carry apple cider vinegar with us. So I basically had to make do.

I did consider quitting on some bad hair days. But ultimately, I had hope that my hair would improve (remember, the transition period can be months-long for some!). And even with the frustration, the positives outweighed the negatives. 

Note: Towards the end of the second month, we spent 8 days in Koh Kood, bathing in the ocean everyday. My hair got especially texturally gross here with the salt, sand and crappy brown tap water. I ended up washing it with hair soap on our last day there because it just didn’t feel like I could get rid off all the gunk with just water. 

If we ever spend an extended period of time near the sea, I would love to fully experiment if water-only hair washing is possible whilst swimming regularly in the ocean. If you happen to know of anyone that already does this, please do send the info through. I’m very curious!

Note 2: On my third month, I acquired a boar bristle brush second hand. I had previously only used my wooden brush as I did not want to purchase something with animal hair, but seeing as it was free and second hand, I decided to give it a go.

I don’t think it is necessary, as some claim, and cannot really tell you how much of an impact it has had (again, not a scientist here). But I will say that it works marvels at spreading your sebum from scalp to roots and reaching Malfoy status greasiness in record time. Since that is one of the aims in this process, I’m guessing that it’s a mayor positive. 

However, on those days you’re not washing your hair after scritching and preening, it makes your hair look worse. I therefore only use it before washing my hair, as opposed to everyday.  

Month 4

Yesterday marked 4 months since I fully started again, and two weeks since we’ve been in Jeju Island, South Korea. I do water only hair washing and my hair looks fantastic. 

It feels soft and clean. It isn’t frizzy despite the humidity (currently at 87%), and it’s also shaped nicely, with waves forming naturally. And it doesn’t fall worrying amounts. 

I basically love my hair. And that’s without using any products on it whatsoever!

Would I recommend water only hair washing?

Having tried the water-only hair washing method for four months now, I can guarantee that this no poo method can totally be successful. Furthermore, it comes with multiple perks (like less hair fall) that make it totally worth it.

However, I will say that, although not as bad as I expected, the adaptation period can be frustrating and disheartening at times. I would totally understand that, on those days where your hair gets specially greasy and funky looking, it would make some too self-conscious to continue. 

Also, it is not at straightforward and easy to adapt to if you’re constantly traveling, because of the exposure to different waters.

My recommendation would be to transition slowly, specially if you still use conventional hair products. Your “normal”  shampoo, conditioner, etc. is filled with chemicals that will take a while to get rid off. 

Consider detoxing your hair by only using natural products for some months (I did this for more than a year), or even stimulate the process by trying DYI clarifying or detoxing recipes (I haven’t tried this but here, here, here and here, are some people who have).

Even if you have been using only natural products for years, you may want to take it slow and let your scalp adapt gradually. Other no-poo methods, like using rye flour, may help you in the process.

Whatever you do, be patient as it will likely take time for your hair to adapt. Also, don’t be scared of trying different variations. Everyone’s hair is different and what works for others, may not work for you.

So, if you are curious, I would totally encourage you to try it out and feel the process for yourself. Just remember to use your own judgement, listen to what your hair is telling you, and try different things out. Eventually you are bound to find something that is perfect for you.

Is the no poo method for me?

For me, the journey to sustainability is not linear and strict. It’s one filled with trials, errors, changes and fluctuations. So whilst I can safely say I LOVE this no poo method, and certainly plan on continuing with it for now, this may not always be the case.

Going forward, I am going to continue water-only hair washing and hope that it continues to work as well as it is here in South Korea.

I could consider going back to hair soap if I notice that whilst traveling continuously, my hair just can’t fully adapt to the different waters quickly enough. Or I may be less strict, and just use the shampoo bar in those places where the water leaves my hair feeling icky.

I’m also considering taking it a step further and trying the sebum only method.. we’ll see. 

What this trial has shown me, is that water-only hair washing would be IDEAL for me if we were living somewhere for longer; it WORKS and its perks are seriously amazing. It has also proven that, even if it may not be for everyone, anyone can try it (don’t let not finding examples like yours stop you). I’m certainly glad I did!

If you like this type of content, and want updates on water only hair washing, please let us know in the comments (your feedback is crucial for us to know what content we should create). And feel free to shoot any questions or observations you have for us!

Four months of water-only hair washing

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