Of all the DIY beauty treatments out there, rice water is probably one of the easiest to make and apply. You just soak rice in water, then apply the resulting liquid to your hair. It’s supposed to make your hair stronger, shinier, and even even promote growth to make it longer. But does it actually work?
My first question was, why would it work? Hair growth isn’t usually affected by anything you apply from the outside. A given hair follicle spends between two and six years in what’s called the anagen stage of development, constantly growing a strand of hair. When that hair follicle finishes its growing stage, the resulting hair is as long as it’s going to get—12 inches would be typical if the follicle grew for two years at the rate of six inches a year. Some people’s follicles are longer-lived than others, which explains why some folks can grow knee-length hair while others can’t seem to grow theirs out at all. (This is also why you don’t need regular haircuts for your eyebrows; their growth cycle is much shorter.)
In all the hype around rice water for hair, I haven’t seen anybody present convincing evidence that it does anything for growth. Several articles point to a 2010 study, only publicly available as an abstract, that notes rice water was historically used by a group of women famed for their floor-length hair. That doesn’t mean that it was the reason their hair was floor-length, though.
The authors point out that rice water “exhibited hair care effects, such as reducing surface friction and increasing hair elasticity. However, when hair was treated with [rice water] alone, flaking was observed on the hair surface, and the direct application of [rice water] was considered difficult.” They recommend cosmetic chemists look into making rice water extracts that can be added to shampoo products—but, again, there is no evidence that it boosts hair growth. And as scientist Gaby Longsworth told MarthaStewart.com, rice water doesn’t seem to be absorbed into the hair or scalp, so it’s hard to imagine how it could affect growth at all.
That said, rice water may help to keep the hair and scalp healthier just by coating strands and preventing breakage; and by soothing an irritated scalp. If true, these hypotheses indicate that rice water won’t strengthen or lengthen healthy hair, but might be helpful for damaged hair or for skin conditions that affect the scalp.
Since rice water is easy to make, I tried it out. I have roughly waist-length, wavy hair that I’ve treated pretty well; it hasn’t been colored in recent memory and I don’t use heat or harsh chemicals on it.
I soaked a cup of dry basmati rice (because that’s what I had on hand) in a jar with about a cup of water. I shook the jar to mix everything, then left it in the fridge until the next day. When I was ready to shower, I strained the rice water into a spray bottle. (I put the rice back in the fridge, since it was not harmed in this process. I plan to cook it for dinner tomorrow.)
DIY instructions all say to use the rice water after washing your hair, but they don’t agree on whether to use it before, after, or instead of conditioner. I opted for after, since conditioner is a necessary part of my detangling routine.
So I washed and conditioned my hair, thoroughly rinsed it, and squeezed out any excess moisture. Then I sprayed the rice water onto half of my hair—leaving the other half as a control—and combed through it while continuing to spray and, when my spray bottle malfunctioned, pour it on. (I don’t know how much rice water you’re supposed to use, but I probably went through at least half a cup.) Then I sat around for ten minutes to let the rice water fully soak in, and finally rinsed out any excess.
When my hair was dry, I assembled my jury. It had two members: my husband, who is a grownup who can understand directions, and my 6-year-old daughter, who pays attention to fine details and has no problem being brutally honest.
My daughter wasted no time coming to a conclusion: “I don’t think it worked.” My husband hemmed and hawed for several minutes, ultimately deciding that the right side looks “1% shinier” but that the left side “feels 1% nicer.” The rice water treatment was on the left side.
So does it work? For growth, unlikely; for shininess and softness, maybe there’s a difference. (Some rice water aficionados say you need to use it for weeks on end before really seeing a difference.) In any case, it’s a simple treatment to make, and it feels kind of nice spraying or pouring the refrigerator-cool liquid through your hair. It also smells nice and doesn’t have any obvious dangers or downsides, which is more than we can say for a lot of other DIY beauty hacks.