I stopped using shampoo and conditioner for a while when I was studying abroad and then permanently on my most recent trip to the UK. Over time, the “water-only” method trains your hair to produce less oil and stay clean longer. I already wanted to try it, and traveling provided a good opportunity because I was spending extended time alone; I wanted to be more flexible with where and when I showered as I bounced around to new towns and hostels almost every day; and my top priority was packing light.
How (and why) to use the water-only method
Ditch the shampoo
I haven’t done tons of in-depth research into shampoo and carcinogens, but I was alarmed to see the rating for toxins when I checked the ingredients of my shampoo on GoodGuide. Around the same time, I started reading about the natural oils in your hair and how shampoo removes them, making your hair get greasy faster. As a result, I began to cut shampoo and conditioner out of my shower routine.
Avoid hostel showers
Another major reason I stopped washing my hair when I travel is that I really hate showering in hostels. Sometimes hostel bathrooms are gross or cold, and you never know who’s been in there before you. If you don’t shower in hostels, you don’t have to pack shower shoes, so that’s one less thing to lug around in your bag. When I traveled, it made the most sense to me to wait to shower until I was staying in a hotel for a night. Timing-wise, this usually worked out since I stayed in either a hotel or a private room at least once a week. Alternatively, you can use the sink to rinse your hair instead of the shower.
Buy a boar bristle brush
This is the magic wand of the water-only movement and an absolute must-have when traveling. You can buy boar bristle brushes anywhere—I bought mine from T.K. Maxx when I was in the UK, and I’ve seen them at Target in the US.
The bristles redistribute natural oils, bringing them from your roots down to the bottom of your hair. In my experience, your hair might still feel a little greasy, but it will look much less so, at least for a few days.
I’ve also heard dry shampoo helps minimize the greasy hair look, though I haven’t tried it, and I would recommend finding one with mostly natural ingredients.
Give your brush a bath
Here’s the catch with boar bristle brushes. They collect all those natural oils, called sebrum, and they build up on the brush after a few days. When I was studying abroad, I just ignored that and kept using the brush anyway. Since then, I’ve learned how to wash the brush so it helps your hair stay clean longer.
You will want to clean your brush once a week. You’ll need a container large enough to submerge your brush in or access to a sink and a plug. Fill the container with warm water and add shampoo (I usually just use the soap from whatever hostel or hotel I’m staying in), and let the brush soak for 8 to 10 minutes. I’ve used sulfate-free soap for this task before, and it really doesn’t clean the brush that well. So much for avoiding carcinogens. That’s something I’m still working on figuring out.
Doesn’t your hair look gross?
It does, for a while. I had the idea that after a while your hair will take on a new texture! It will be shiny and voluminous! I didn’t find this to be the case to quite the extent that I imagined. After not washing my hair for four months, I can go around four days between showers. For those four days, it pretty much looks normal, and then it starts to look pretty dirty. I used to shower every other day, so it’s not that huge of a difference. I can sometimes stretch it to five to seven days if I wear a ponytail and don’t have anywhere important to go.
Your hair will probably smell a little different when it’s wet, especially at first. When it’s dry, it smells fine and more natural than lavender or eucalyptus or whatever scent your shampoo is, which I like.
Dandruff hasn’t been as big an issue as I expected, since I think shampoo tends to play a part in drying out your scalp, but it does make an appearance from time to time. I usually just try to brush it out as well as possible.
How long does the process take?
My hair was fully adapted to no shampoo after about a month and a half. Around the one month and one week mark, I did one last shower with sulfate-free shampoo to get the excess oils out of my hair. It had been pretty greasy up to that point, still looking and feeling gross even after showering, and that final shampoo helped a lot.
Most of my friends are impressed that my hair can go as long as it does without looking greasy, but they don’t want to spend that length of time with dirty hair. In my opinion, that’s why travel is the perfect time to do it. You have less access to showers, and you are running around all day not paying attention to what your hair looks like. When I’m traveling, I barely notice my hair looking dirty at all. It’s only when I’m at home that I start worrying about it.
The day that I shower, my hair dries looking greasy. That’s when you need to use your brush to distribute the oils. I keep my brush close at hand throughout the day, and whenever it starts looking dry and stringy, I brush it out again. If that seems like too much of a hassle, just throw it in a braid for the day.
On the second day though about the fourth day, it really doesn’t look greasy at all unless I’ve been touching it a lot. It looks full and feels soft. That’s why I keep using this method—because it honestly looks really good.
The picture below was taken on the third or fourth day, so you can see that it looks normal and clean.
Put your hair up
I usually wear my hair down when I am at home, but when I travel, it is up almost every day. If it’s dirty, it’s much less noticeable—to you and to everyone else—when it’s up.
Other travel hygiene tips
Wipes are my main tool for staying clean while traveling. In the UK, I buy a pack of exfoliating wipes from Poundland or Superdrug for 75p to £1. I use them for everything: makeup removal, freshening up before bed. If I have access to a washcloth, I use that with soap and water as an alternative.
When I travel, I usually bring a few staple makeup items like concealer, one tube of lipstick, mascara, and maybe some eyeshadow. These really only come out when I’m going out for the evening or something. I go makeup-free almost 100% of the time when I travel, because really, who is going to see you that cares? It’s less stuff to carry and potentially lose.
I don’t like antiperspirant deodorant—I use this kind—so the trade-off is that my clothes get dirty kind of quickly. When I can, I wash them in the sink with soap and hang them out to dry. A lot of hostels also let you do laundry for a small fee.