Ancient Hair Care: Rice-Water Shampoo

January 6, 2014 Updated: February 16, 2016

You have probably never considered washing your hair with fermented rice water—the milky-colored liquid left over from washing or boiling rice.

This idea may sound strange given that we have a plethora of commercial shampoos formulated to enhance our exact hair type. And to be sure, fermented-rice hair care is not for everyone, but fermented rice water has been the secret to beautiful hair for village women and imperial princesses in the East since ancient times.

The Yao minority ethnic women from Huangluo Village, in Guangxi Province, in southern China, have one striking feature in common—their extraordinarily long hair that stays black until they are around 80 years old.

The Yao women believe that having long hair is an auspicious sign of good health, good fortune, and longevity, and they cut their hair only once, when they are old enough to get married.

With their average hair length of about 6 feet, the Yao ethnic women made it to the Guinness Book of World Records as the “world’s longest hair village.” Part of their secret to having such long hair lies in washing it with fermented rice water.

Ancient Eastern Practice

For centuries, women in China, Japan, and Southeast Asia have used rice water to wash and rinse their hair.

Imperial court women in ancient China and Japan were believed to have adopted this traditional custom to maintain their crowning glory. During the golden age of the Tang Dynasty, Chinese women had beautiful long hair.

To match their exquisite handmade silk garments—known as Han couture—Tang women wore their crowning glory coiled in an elaborate, high bun that was often described with names such as “gazing-gods bun” or the “cloud bun.”

Likewise, in the Heian period, as early as the 9th century, women at the Japanese imperial court used fermented rice water to keep their hair long, healthy, and beautiful. The Heian era marked the peak of Buddhism, Taoism, and other Chinese influences in Japanese history.

Health Benefits

You can use rice water for your face, body, and hair. Washing your face with rice water helps soften the skin and improve your complexion by firming the skin and reducing the size of pores.

Fermented rice water is rice water that has gone slightly sour. It is rich in antioxidants, minerals, vitamin E, and traces of pitera, a substance produced during the fermentation process. These nutrients in the rice water help to heal scars and reduce wrinkles, fine lines, and inflammation, leaving the skin with a healthy glow.

Washing the hair with fermented rice water brings more than just the shine to your hair. It makes hair soft, strong, and healthy.

The Yao women believe that the fermented rice water helps to keep their hair black up past the age of 80. A Japanese study from 2010 on the effects of using rice water for hair showed many benefits, such as decreasing surface friction and improving hair elasticity.

I am not generously endowed with a thick mane of hair and am always interested in natural ways of preventing any hair loss. Since I began washing my hair with the fermented rice water, I notice that my hair feels softer, stronger, and more manageable.

I find that the fermented rice water hair treatment cleans my hair well without drying it out. My hair has gotten used to it, and I found that when I occasionally use a commercial-brand shampoo, my hair is stripped of its natural oils and becomes wispy and almost too fragile to brush. Then I have to use a hair-repairing product to moisturize it.

A Yao woman displays her long hair. The Yao women believe that having long hair is an auspicious sign of good health, good fortune, and longevity. (Felibrilu)
A Yao woman displays her long hair. The Yao women believe that having long hair is an auspicious sign of good health, good fortune, and longevity. (Felibrilu)

Making Fermented Rice Water

First, you will need to collect the rice water. One way is to save the water you use for washing rice when you cook rice. Throw out the water from the first rinse as it might contain dirt.

If you cook rice two to three times a week, you should be able to collect enough rice water for two to three rice-water hair washes. You can also use more water to boil your rice and collect some of this water as soon as the water boils. Then add it to the rice water you have collected.

Another way of getting rice water is to make friends with the staff at your favorite Chinese or Asian restaurant where they cook a lot of rice everyday. If you do this, consider bringing them a wide-mouth recycled plastic container, which is easier to pour the rice water into than a bottle.

Once you have collected your rice water, you are ready to start the fermentation process. Leave the rice water either in the same container or a pot and keep it at room temperature for a day or until it turns slightly sour and starts to ferment.

Then boil the fermented rice water over high heat to stop the fermentation process. Turn off the heat and wait for the rice water to cool down before adding two to three drops of tea tree essential oil. You can also use lavender or rosemary essential oils.

Your homemade fermented rice water hair wash is ready. Store it in the refrigerator to prevent further fermentation. A 60-fluid-ounce container of concentrated fermented rice water usually lasts about a week for me, and I use it for the hair wash and my daily morning and nightly face wash.

Finding the Right Ratio

If you collect the rice water from a restaurant, then your rice water will be very concentrated. Make sure to dilute it with plain water until it is just slightly cloudy. You do not want to make the same mistake as I did initially—having your hair stick together in clumps because your rice-water hair wash is too potent, and thinking, “This is not good at all.”

I find that 1 to 1 1/2 cups of fermented rice water to 10–12 cups of warm water is the best ratio for my long hair. Remember to shake the refrigerated rice water container vigorously before pouring out its contents.

Adjust the ratio to your individual needs. Use less if you have oily hair. The rule of thumb is to make your rice water shampoo more diluted than concentrated. Once you get this ratio right, you will find your hair responding positively to the fermented rice water wash.

Two ethnic Yao women comb their long hair. As part of their hair care, the Yao women wash with fermented rice water. (Patricia Markby)
Two ethnic Yao women comb their long hair. As part of their hair care, the Yao women wash with fermented rice water. (Patricia Markby)

Washing Tips

Use a plastic basin to hold the diluted rice water and a 16-ounce plastic container to scoop and pour the rice water on to your hair as you bend over the basin. This way the rice water stays in the basin.

Gently massage your scalp and continue to pour the rice water on your hair. You might consider doing your fermented-rice hair wash over the sink if you have a big kitchen or laundry sink, or in the shower with the basin placed on a stool.

Then rinse your hair with slightly cooler water until your hair feels clean. If you have long hair and wish to take a shower immediately, gently coil it in a high bun and use a big hair clip to hold it up.

Washing the hair with soured rice water is certainly not everybody’s cup of tea. But the elderly Chinese women at my workplace cafeteria took to it like ducks to water. One of them with a thinning-hair problem noticed that she is losing less hair since using the fermented rice water as shampoo.

To be honest, it took me a couple of weeks to adjust. Once I worked out the most expedient way, washing my hair with fermented rice water became part of my green and wellness lifestyle.

Dr. Margaret Trey holds a doctoral degree in counseling from The University of South Australia and was a natural health consultant and the director of Spirit Shiatsu and WellnessWorks Counseling in Australia for more than 10 years. Now based in New York, Dr. Trey writes and continues her research on the effects of meditation on health and wellness.