Beyond ‘no-poo’ – a hairy (water only) adventure
This is what I learned by trying water-only hair care. You’ll find a summary at the top, followed by a day-by-day (ish) diary and answers to FAQs.
A little bit of background
As I’ve been becoming more environmentally conscious over the years, I’d been wanting to use fewer chemicals on my body and use something that had less impact on the environment.
In 2010, I discovered Rhassoul clay. It made sense; woolly mammals roll around in dirt, which gets rid of bugs and nourishes the skin and fur. So I tried it, and I’ve been playing with mud ever since 😉
Except for a handful of occasions, I’ve not touched shampoo since them. My hairdresser has been saying that she has seen my hair improve. My hair is very fine, and it has gotten thicker since using Rhassoul clay. The clay has also helped me in my journey of curing myself of psoriasis and it has been an important part of moving towards living a greener lifestyle.
Alongside the clay, I’ve been using a natural conditioner, but found it wasn’t actually necessary (I just like the smell of it). For the past several years, my routine involved washing my hair every third or fourth day, which worked well. By the fourth day it was usually pretty greasy.
So all this was working. But on May 21st, my Inner Wise Woman whispered to me that it was time to stop using clay as a hair wash.
It took me by surprise. After all, I’d been part of the ‘no poo’ movement in my own way for 10 years, doing my bit for the environment as well as my body. But I followed her guidance anyway.
I should have known (I did, really) that there was a good reason behind all this. Here’s what I learned.
What switching to water-only hair care taught me: a summary
1) “No poo” does not equal “no maintenance”.
Quite the opposite, in fact – especially at first, as you figure out what works for you. It will take experimenting with the method – how to keep your hair clean – and frequency – how often to rinse it. (I share the process of what works for me below.)
2) Your hair will need time to detox from whatever products you’ve been using. Be patient.
The ‘withdrawal’ time it takes for YOUR hair will be unique to you. It could be 3 weeks, or less; 3 months, or more. You may find it doesn’t really want to (and hat’s ok). Give it time, and be kind to yourself.
3) You’ll need to clean your combs and brushes all the time, and wash your (hair) towels and pillowcases more often.
The sebum takes some getting used to. It’s waxy, and it will rub off on everything your head touches. If you don’t clean these things regularly, you’re just spreading it around, like a vicious (waxy) cycle. No one wants that.
4) Last but most, this is a beautiful way to practice self-acceptance of your body and its processes.
We as people – and especially women – are completely conditioned (pun intended) by society to do things a specific way when it comes to our bodies (my thoughts on that here). And we perpetuate that by passing on the messages we are bombarded with in the media to our kids.
When we judge others for ‘breaking the rules’, we are really judging ourselves.
When we police others for not doing things the way we ‘should’, we are really policing ourselves.
Well I say FUCK THAT. It’s time to stop and realise how preposterous this really is.
Yes, I’m going grey.
No, I’m not dyeing my hair – yet (I MAY one day, IF I choose to).
If men can be silver foxes, women can be silver vixens!!
Be who you are. Do YOUR thing, YOUR way.
There are several ways to go shampoo-free, or “no-poo”. The most common is probably the bicarbonate of soda and apple cider vinegar combo. I’ve also heard of people using rye flour, corn starch, or clay (as I have) and I’m sure there’s many more creative ways to do this thing.
But my guidance was clear: WATER ONLY.
Ok, I thought. Should be easy since I’ve been doing this clay thing for 10 years.
I was wrong. And I had NO IDEA what was coming.
To my surprise, I found that my hair needed to detox from the clay just as much as it needed to detox from shampoo.
I learned the meaning of the word sebum, and I had to make friends with it. After all, it is your scalp’s built-in conditioner. Also, resistance is futile.
I’m sharing my day-by-day(ish) diary below, plus the method that is currently working for me. The lessons were great in hindsight, but I didn’t censor the shitty stuff 😉
The water-only hair care diaries – the good, the bad and the waxy
DAY 0 (17/5/20)
Last hair wash with Rhassoul clay. I did not know what was a-head… (see what I did there?)
DAY 4 (21/5/20)
Ok so I wanted to wash my hair yesterday but I didn’t. Now it’s really greasy. And for some bizarre reason, I want to see what will happen if I use water only. I must be losing my mind. I don’t like having greasy hair. AT ALL.
So, a quick water rinse. Feels like it’s getting greasier by the minute.
DAY 6 (23/5/20)
Quick water rinse. Deja vu: getting greasier by the minute.
Queue Phoebe from Friends: Ew ew EW.
As a friend of mine so eloquently puts it when she hasn’t washed her hair for a day, “I look like I sleep in a doorway.” Next time she says that I will laugh at her SO HARD.
I remember being in the amazon in 2005 for several days without washing facilities. That wasn’t so bad. And it’s only day… 6.
PLEASE MAKE IT STOP.
DAY 8 (25/5/20)
Well thank fuck we are on lockdown…
EWWWWW. It’s a little itchy and very very greasy and it feels horrible.
Desperately trying to find some videos to reassure me that this will work out eventually.
Please let me find one.
DAY 9 (26/5/20)
Getting desperate for relief of the greasy mass (yes, ‘mass’, it’s gone beyond ‘mess’) that is my hair, so looking at some more videos.
It appears the people who are doing this successfully are using the bicarb of soda and apple cider vinegar thing. And allowing the hair to ‘recover’ or detox by not using anything can take longer than a month. I did find one video from someone who explained that you have to massage the scalp under the shower to work the oil out. That makes sense, and gives me a glimmer of hope. I will try that next time.
Just brushed my hair and it’s absolutely defying gravity. It’s static beyond belief! The bits that are not glued to my scalp by an ocean of sebum, that is. Lovely.
DAY 10 (27/5/20)
Finally, to my surprise, a better hair day. I’m seeing some improvement. It’s still greasy, but different greasy – a more… dry version of greasy – if that makes any sense at all because it sounds like an oxymoron.
So the scalp massage and scritches and working the sebum out with my hands before rinsing it for a bit longer seems to have helped. I also brushed it before rinsing – all helps move that sebum out.
I’ve also been changing my pillow cases every few days or so, and I cleaned my combs. Same with towel.
DAY 11 (28/5/20)
WAXY! That’s how it’s feeling. The dry oiliness. It’s waxy rather than oily.
Did another scalp massage/scritch thing and rinsed. Same as 2 days ago. But… waxy. It’s definitely shiny, though. (Clutching at straws here. SEND HELP)
DAY 13 (30/5/20)
Another scalp massage/scritch/wipe/brush before rinsing with water only. Gawd it’s weird. Hard to get my fingers through my hair. Plus, my hands get greasy/waxy I’m aware of touching my face. Don’t wanna clog up all the pores.
Washing towels, cleaning hair brushes and combs, changing pillow cases.
DAY 14 (31/5/20)
The skin on my face feels different, too. I’ve not been using the clay since last time I used it to wash my face and body in the bath about a week ago.
DAY 15 (1/6/20)
Did the ‘scritch & preen’, then brush, before water wash again. It was feeling really waxy. Gave my scalp a good rub while rinsing too. Looked into the bicarb & vinegar method and am tempted, but I’m sticking it out with water only.
Getting used to not touching my face while I rinse! Hands get full of sebum. Hard to get hands through hair. Washing face afterwards, when I’ve washed the sebum off my hands.
It’s only day 15, huh? Wow.
DAY 17 (3/6/20)
Finding more resources for water only hair long term maintenance.
I’m getting used to this a bit more now. My hair is heavier than when I washed it with clay, but it’s not greasy or oily. It’s just… different.
DAY 19 (5/6/20)
A good hair day. Hurrah! I left it 3 days and washed (rinsed) it yesterday. Did the scritch & preen, brush, warm water rinse and finished with cold water rinse. Yikes!!
My hair feels a little waxy but besides that, it’s happy, not heavy, and quite pleasant.
DAY 22 (8/6/20)
It’s been pretty much the same, but it was getting more sebum build up yesterday. Did the scritch & preen before bed. I repeated the last rinsing routine and it seems to have helped. It seems to be… stable. Keeping steady at slightly waxy, but not heavy or unpleasant.
I notice I have to clean my brush after every time I use it; my comb after every few times. I’m using the horn comb again. Still quite static too, but not as bad as it was.
DAY 28 (14/6/20)
Ugh. Today is not a good hair day. It feels greasy. Time for a scritch, preen, brush & rinse. Still doing the cold water finish.
DAY 29 (15/6/20)
A better hair day! Yay! It’s bouncy and light (but a bit heavier near the scalp) and quite wavy.
DAY 36 (22/6/20)
Ok, I seem to have found a balance that works. And I think my hair is actually more manageable now. It’s less light and bouncy than when you use shampoo, which means it doesn’t need to be calmed down.
DAY… 53? (9/7/20)
Still going strong! I’ve changed it up to rinsing every other day. Going pretty well. I’ve realised that no, it will never be like using shampoo. But it doesn’t have to be. There will always be some waxiness present near the scalp. I don’t mind it. Definitely more maintenance required than your regular shampoo wash though!
DAY… I DON’T KNOW (9/8/23)
Over 3 years down! And still going. I’ve found my happy place with it. I had to replace the hair brush though, it was starting to look a bit sad after losing more and more bristles because of this intense use. I did buy it in 1994 so I guess it’s done a good job.
My hair is slowly going grey so I’m letting it do that, too. I may be brave and go visit a hairdresser soon…
- I do this every second or third day, but I’ve also done it several days in a row, and it’s all fine.
- I scritch & preen (a scalp massage to loosen the sebum and any dirt, and then working the sebum along the hair shaft to the roots). This is a lovely ritual actually – if you learn to embrace it. Takes about 10-15 minutes so I do it while watching a video or something else I can do hands-free. (I don’t do this every time any more.)
- I brush it out with the boar bristle brush, which I clean beforehand (every time!). This helps spread the sebum out even more.
- Warm water rinse to open the hair shaft, while doing scalp massage. Do this for a good 10 minutes.
- (I’ve given up on the cold water rinse to close the hair shaft because C O L D and no thank you. Doesn’t seem to have a negative effect on my hair)
- Let dry naturally. It tends to get a little wavy which I LOVE.
- I only comb lightly the morning of the next day, or if I’m going out, and only near the scalp to tidy it up, and near the ends. I use my horn comb, which seems to work best.
Hey, it’s not for everyone. No judgement here.
There are many ways to do alternative hair care; you may end up using a more gentle shampoo, or shampoo bars, or clay, or the bicarbonate/vinegar/corn starch method.
Do whatever works for you, and don’t feel bad about it.
If you want to be kinder to the planet, there are other ways. Everything counts. People who are doing this are not morally superior, but neither are those who use shampoo.
Remember: Question everything; do what you can.
Frequently Asked Questions
(Or rather, questions that people might ask if I were more public about this stuff)
Please note: this is MY experience. It will vary for everyone, so this doesn’t mean others will have the same experience.
Did you want to give up?
Absolutely, several times. There were days when it was very unpleasant, especially in the second week. On those days, I watched videos from people who have done this successfully to cheer me up and give me some hope! Isolation helped though; I didn’t see many people. Not that I usually do, come to think of it (#introvert)
What or when was the most difficult?
I’d say week two. Not just because that’s when your hair is probably at its worst, but also because you’re still figuring out what works for YOU. It’s confusing and can be overwhelming.
Are the ends dry? Or do they get dry?
Again, no. The ends feel soft, and they have ever since I started. That’s probably because the sebum works its way to the end of the hair shaft (using the ‘scritch & preen’ method) and nourishes it all the way down.
Does your hair get more static?
Yes – especially in the first few weeks. For some reason, I have found my hair very static since I started this water only regime. That could have various reasons, though. For one, my bathrobe is a synthetic one, so I have ordered a natural cotton one to see if it makes a difference (it did!). My slippers have rubber soles, which also means more static electricity stays in the body. Or on the body – however that works. In fact, one of the reasons I stopped using the boar bristle brush is that it made my hair very static, so I changed to a wooden comb, and then a horn comb, which seemed to help.
What does it feel like when the natural sebum is left on the scalp and hair?
Hair feels heavier than normal, but there is an unusual quality about it that’s hard to describe if you’ve not experienced it. It’s almost a dry slight greasiness, but not heavy or oily. ‘Waxy’ is the best term I’ve come up with. It feels almost like it doesn’t quite dry after you wash it.
Did your head get itchy?
It did in the second week, but that settles down. I get the occasional itch now, but nothing out of the ordinary 🙂
Does your hair stink, or smell bad?
Actually, no. My hair smells of… nothing. Or just of, well, hair. A neutral smell. Not unpleasant in any way. Like when you’ve washed and haven’t put any products on your body, you just smell of you, but neutral. Clean 🙂
Did you get (more) dandruff?
Strangely, no. I was expecting at least some. But nada.
How do you clean your brush and combs?
After removing as much of the hair and dirt, fluff etc with my fingers, I clean my brush and combs with an old toothbrush and some natural liquid soap. I really get in there and give it a good scrub! Rinse thoroughly, pat dry with towel and leave to dry naturally. A good way to clean your brush is with an old comb, actually.