In 2022, #ricewater and ‘putting rice water in my hair’ has racked up almost 87 million views on TikTok – and celebrities from Cardi B to Kim Kardashian are fans of this ancient beauty secret that stretches back more than 1200 years ago to China and Japan, where women would nourish and sustain thick, floor-length hair with it.
It is said to strengthen, boost thickness and hair growth… but should you join in for hair and scalp benefits of this easy-to-make ingredient? We explore the rich history of rice water in hair, and speak to Dr Fatima Zohra Rezgui, specialist dermatologist at Dubai-based Aesthetica clinic and Dr Wissam Addada, a consultant in hair restoration and aesthetic Medicine and founder at Proto Clinic, Dubai to find out.
The magic behind the ‘World’s Longest Haired Village’
If you venture deep into the Guangxi province in China, around a 1000 miles to the south-west of Beijing – you will find yourself at a little, hilly green village cut through by a gurgling river that houses an incredible beauty secret.
This is Huangluo, where women of the Red Yao tribe proudly bear hair that is an average of 4.5 feet long, black and lustrous even in their 80s – also termed the ‘World’s Longest Haired Village’ in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Their secret? A special shampoo made of fermented rice water, brewed in a mixture of herbs, fruits and tea that they soak and fondly spread through their hair with a wooden comb.
The Japanese court ladies of the Heian period (794 to 1185 AD) would also comb ‘Yu-Su-Ru’ or the water from rinsing rice to maintain their ankle-length hair, and ethnic Thai people by the Da river have a festive hair-washing ceremony on the last day of the lunar year with fermented rice water.
Rice water is full of nutrients
This cloudy, starchy water left from soaking or boiling rice has a range of beneficial nutrients – such as zinc, magnesium, manganese, Vitamin B, amino acids and antioxidants, that are sometimes separately used in hair products. Dr Addada says that Vitamin E, Vitamin B and zinc are especially important for hair health.
Dr Rezgui says, “Before it was mostly grandmothers’ recipes, but now more and more scientific studies are supporting the fact that rice water can help the hair.
“For the short answer – yes, definitely. Not every treatment suits everyone, but there are definitely benefits.”
Rice water is rich with antioxidants – some of them are vitamin E, inositol, these are strong antioxidants that we find in rice water that help prevent and reduces oxidative damage.
She explains some of these benefits that rice water may have for your hair:
1. Instantly more volume, thickness and shine - Dr Rezgui says, “It has a lot of starch and gives a coating on the hair, it immediately has an effect of thickness, volume and shine especially for thin hair – giving a nourishing and protective effect. ”
Dr Rezgui actually started on a rice water journey herself, as so many of her patients asked her about it. She says, “I felt the best testimonial is when you try it yourself – I definitely feel that my hair is fuller, stronger and thicker, but I fall under the dry hair category so to avoid breaking the hair, and avoid this brittle feeling, I had to moisturise more during the treatment and apply conditioner before.”
2. It may improve your hair elasticity and texture - Dr Rezgui references a 2010 study by Japanese researchers published in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science concluded that using rice water for hair, especially it’s extract, improved hair elasticity and texture.
3. Protecting your strands from oxidative stress – Remember reading about Vitamic C’s antioxidant benefits for skin? Our hair, it turns out, also needs such protection and rice water is full of it.
Dr Rezgui says, “Free radicals are known to weaken the hair – we know that oxidative stress is bad for the skin, but also for the hair. Factors like environmental pollution, sun damage, chemicals and even inflammation on the scalp can cause oxidative damage, which means thinning, hair loss and greying of the hair.”
“Rice water is rich with antioxidants – some of them are vitamin E, inositol, these are strong antioxidants that we find in rice water that help prevent and reduces oxidative damage.”
Dr Addada adds, “It has inositol, which is a very famous antioxidant – with the studies it shows, it is an anti-inflammatory, so it is one of the best things that you can use for anti-inflammation.”
And actually, this is where rice water has long-term impact on your hair health, Dr Addada explains – in stopping inflammation on the scalp.
We’ve got it wrong – it’s actually all about the scalp with rice water
“The most common thought is that people think it’s for the hair – they are very mistaken, because one part is fullness and thickness or hair – and the other, main part is the magnesium, zinc, vitamins and antioxidant inositol which works on the scalp and not on the hair – because at the end, the hair above the scalp is dead cells,” says Dr Addada.
So all the nutrient goodness is actually only reaching your scalp’s skin – and rice water is actually used in many skincare products in the market today too. However, this cannot replace any treatment for serious skin or hair problems. Dr Addada adds, “There is no evidence-based medical studies – or the studies are very poor and very qualitative or quantitative. We will not take it as a treatment, but it can be used at home as something that is beneficial for hair. If you have a disease, you need to see a specialist for proper treatment.”
The studies are very poor and very qualitative or quantitative. We will not take it as a treatment, but it can be used at home as something that is beneficial for hair. If you have a disease, you need to see a specialist for proper treatment.
The scalp benefits of rice water are proven:
• Anti-inflammatory effects, that can help stop hair loss
Dr Addada says, “The magnesium part is anti-inflammatory, and inositol is anti-oxidant – hand in hand they work together to make a happier scalp. The anti-inflammatory function helps out a lot – it decreases hair loss, which can give you the opposite effect - hair growth. This is what is so beneficial about the so-called rice water.”
In fact, A 2002 study by Belgium-based researchers at the University of Brussels published in the international journal Acta Dermato-Veneorologica found that taking bath in rice water-containing water twice daily for 15 minutes led to an improvement in healing capacity of damaged skin, and also boosted skin barrier function in patients with atopic dermatitis.
• Fighting dandruff
A 2011 study published in the Journal of Phytology showed that certain types of rice water solutions that cause inhibit or stop the growth of Malassezia, a dandruff-causing fungus – and this may be because of zinc or selenium.
• Potential anti-ageing
A more recent, 2018 study by Portugal-based researchers published in the international Cosmetics journal concluded that rice water can show anti-ageing effects, as when they applied it topically in a gel formula on participants for a month, their skin showed increased hydration, antioxidant activity and it inhibited the wrinkle-forming aging enzyme – elastase – that breaks down elastic fibres in your skin.
Dr Rezgui adds, “It is a natural cleanser, and also a natural barrier from UV and free radicals and very important, it also balances pH of the scalp.”
What cinched the deal for me was just how deliciously soothing applying the cool gel-like water was for my scalp – over time, any dandruff and inflammation has almost disappeared. But caution! Too much of it, or using it after another hair mask can make the hair brittle.
Safety: Can everyone use rice water?
Dr Addada says, “It is very safe for all except for those who have major inflammation or disease such psoriasis – then it might escalate the issue and more hair loss will happen. If it is extensive hair loss accompanied by disease or inflammation, it has to be seen by a specialist.”
If you have dry hair as well, Dr Rezgui recommends using rice water with caution, at most once a month as it can be more drying. She says, “Dry hair can be rapidly overloaded with protein or amino acid and it can damage the hair, cause more split ends and breakage - you also need to rinse profusely to prevent any protein overload.
“If they have very dry hair, they should improve the hydration and moisturisation of the hair and scalp first and then use maybe once a month. I do recommend it but it tends to work better for people who have normal to oily hair.” For normal and oily hair, she advises that it should be ideally once a week.
Finally, how to make and use rice water
“First if all, it is very important to rinse the rice – and preferably choose organic white rice if possible,” says Dr Rezgui.
“There is no evidence-based scientific recipe but half-cup of rice and two cups of water, and leave it to soak for 30 minutes or leave it to ferment for a day.” You can also boil the rice and use the water.
When applying, Dr Rezgui recommends massaging the scalp, detangling the hair, leaving it on for 15-30 minutes and rinsing it thoroughly afterwards.
Dr Addada emphasises, “The rice water has to be put on the scalp for it to work better.”