I wanted to see if water alone could keep my face, body, and hair clean. Here are the results of my two-month experiment.
In crunchy parlance, no-'poo refers to forgoing shampoo and conditioner to cleanse one's hair and instead using natural concoctions of baking soda, apple cider vinegar, coconut oil, and the like. I'd already been doing no-'poo or low-'poo for years in Curly Girl terms, which means, literally, no shampoo but still plenty of conditioner (known as co-washing).
I was happy with my current hair regimen, but I was curious to try the crunchier methods. I sort of figured that since I hadn't used harsh shampoos in my hair for years that I already had a good oil level in my hair, and I was skeptical that any other no-'poo routine would serve me better than the conditioner routine I already had set up. But I do love me an experiment (and potentially making myself miserable). And since I was going to experiment, I thought I'd start first with water-only, since that intrigued me even more. Nothing crunchier than plain water, right?
How to cleanse with water onlyHere's the thing: Soap and detergent have a purpose. Soap acts as an emulsifier, and detergent breaks the surface tension of water, both of which, essentially, allow water and oil to mix, and thereby let the dirty greasiness on your body be washed away. Or, as Beakman's World helpfully and catchily taught me, soap makes water wetter.
I point this out just to show that: (a) I don't have anything against cleaning agents. They do a job, and they make life easier. Because: (b) If you don't use soap or detergent, you'll want to use some other method of making the water get rid of the things you're trying to clean off your body. Namely: friction.
Here was my routine for water-only washing in the shower:
- Stand under warm water spray and get hair and body wet.
- Scrub scalp with pads of fingertips.
- Use wide-tooth comb to get off any extra dead skin and help pull scalp oils through hair.
- Use washcloth to scrub body, paying close attention to scrubbing and rinsing traditionally smell-prone areas (armpits, crotch, feet, yum) and anywhere dead skin tends to build up and get itchy (legs, for instance).
- For my face, I usually just rinsed. Honestly, I've been doing water-only washing of my face for a couple years now, so I already knew that worked fine. Sometimes I do a little oil cleansing, but I skipped it for this experiment. I have acne, and I'd already found that less is more when it comes to cleansing my face.
- For shaving … well, I'm fine with water-only shaving, actually. I usually do that, or shave dry. And by "often," I mean, I don't shave that frequently. And particularly not in the winter when I was doing this experiment. You'll have to decide what you're comfortable with there.
- Rinse well.
(I will point out that I continued to use whatever soap was available to wash my hands throughout the day. I know water-only plus friction can work to kill bacteria, but frankly, I didn't want to risk it.)
Pros of water-only cleansingThere was a freedom in stepping into the shower with absolutely no need for products. It felt almost gleeful, this complete divorce from our culture's obsession with Products to Make You Clean. I could scoff at all the commercials, because I had something no one had to sell me: water. Just tap water and elbow grease.
It alerted me to the possibilities for travel and camping. If you ever forget your toiletry bag or the airline loses your luggage, no worries. If you're out in the wilderness and don't want to pollute the stream, then don't. Just scrub, rinse, done. (Now, when you're traveling, you might actually care how you look, who's going to see you, and what pictures are being taken, so that could limit your insouciance about water-only cleansing unless it's a short trip.)
Water-only washing is very gentle on your skin and scalp. I didn't need any sort of moisturizing, because my natural oils were allowed to stay put.
My body and hair were clean. I want to add some sort of qualifier to "clean," like "technically" or "pretty much." More on that later, but here I'll just say that the basic standards of hygiene were being met. I had no visible dirt, my hair looked like hair (albeit a bit limper), I didn't get sick, I didn't get an invasion of fleas or anything. I was hygienically acceptable. Clean (ish).
I already knew it was theoretically possible to be clean with water-only washing, because it's how we've washed our kids. Mikko and Alrik are both water-only washers for their bodies, and though I had to graduate Mikko early on to conditioner-washing with his mop o' hair, Alrik's hair (such as it is) still just gets a rinse in the tub. They're both clean (right after a bath, anyway!) and non-smelly (barring obvious reasons they might periodically become smelly again). Their skin is soft and healthy. We never need to put moisturizer or other creams on them, and they never complain of itchiness or the like. In short, I already had a great experiment in them to show me that water-only washing is a win … for those of us who have not hit puberty and/or don't care what their hair looks like.
Those last two points were the rub, and why I eventually stopped.
Downsides, and why I stoppedAs for puberty, even though, as I've said, Mikko and Alrik are never smelly despite a weekly or so water-only bath, I found that I was. Not just after I showered, but soon thereafter. I'm not used to smelling body odor on myself and my clothes, so I'm guessing that usually soap holds that at bay for me. Water-only washing was just not as effective at long-term cleanliness — or, I guess, technically, long-term unsmelliness.
|Presentable, but not inspiring.|
The biggest blow to water-only washing was how ungreen it was. I know — that was the big reason I wanted to try it! And my conclusions were that it was worse for the environment (for me). I typically shower every 3-4 days, and my showers last presumably a short to normal amount of time. I have my routine down pretty well, and I have people waiting for me, so I don't dally. With conditioner washing my hair and using organic soap to wash my body, taking brief showers twice a week or so is perfect for me. I'm clean, my hair is manageable, I'm unsmelly.
With water-only, I found myself getting antsy to shower again after just a day. After all, I smelled. My hair was limp. My legs were itchy. And when I'd get in the shower, I'd stay in much longer than you'd think necessary for water-only ablutions, trying to make sure I scrubbed and rinsed as much of the grease, smell, and dead skin away as I could to make the shower's effects last longer. I couldn't help but realize I was using much more water than before, and how could using several times more water be better for the environment than using dabs of organic conditioner and shampoo?
I'll point out, too, that if you've been using conventional shampoos and switch cold turkey to water-only, you'll likely have a detox-type period where your scalp will be pumping out oils (as it's been taught to by the harsh shampoos, to replenish what they've been stripping), and only several weeks in will the production level out.
I'm guessing everyone's experience of water-only washing will be different. I've read from people with thick or unruly hair that they like the extra weight the grease gives. I'd imagine that a short haircut such as on a typical Western male might do just fine, or likewise, very long and thick hair, whereas with my hair, being of a normal weight and at a middling length, it simply pulled out the wave and made it look pretty blah.
I'd imagine other people have different tolerance levels, too, for (a) how often they shower (if you already shower every day, you'd probably not notice much of a difference switching to water-only) and (b) how much they smell (I was surprised that I smelled as much as I did, though Sam said he didn't notice it; I was too embarrassed to ask anyone else!).
Conclusions and recommendationsOk, these are my opinions, based on my experience with the experiment.
For kids, absolutely give water-only washing a go. It makes things easy and keeps their skin healthy and soft. It works perfectly well, for now, for our kiddos. Mikko does sometimes luxuriate in a bubble bath now, just because he discovered the fun of bubbles, but I appreciate that their skin isn't regularly being stripped of harmless oils at their age. Depending on your kids' hair type (thickness, cut, style), you can try water-only there as well, or you could do some gentle conditioner washing.
For face, definitely try a gentle water-only wash, particularly if you're acne-prone or have other skin conditions. Despite having greasy skin, I find not using cleansers doesn't increase the grease level — quite the opposite. If you use makeup, try to switch to all-natural brands that won't clog pores or hurt your skin if it doesn't all get rinsed off, such as a natural mineral makeup. (I like Everyday Minerals.)
For hair, I next tried the crunchy no-'poo of baking soda and vinegar, which I hope to write about. But (spoiler alert), I still prefer my conditioner-washing method or using Jessicurl's curl-friendly shampoo and other products (giveaway coming soon, I swear; I love this line!).
For body, well, there's a reason soap was invented! I'm back to cleansing with actual cleansers, and I no longer smell. Woo!
Have you ever experimented with water-only washing or other alternative cleansing methods? What do you recommend?
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