Rice Water: Past and Present
Rice water is the cloudy white liquid left over after soaking or cooking rice. The earliest record of its use dates back to Heian Japan (794 to 1185 CE), where women reportedly used it daily to comb their lengthy hair.
Kanji, as it’s also known, was thought to increase hair’s elasticity and limit surface friction. Some even bathed in the water for a full-body beauty treatment.
Historically, rice water has also been used in Indian Ayurvedic traditions to treat skin conditions like eczema. Ancient Koreans utilized it as well, for brighter, younger-looking skin.
Today, the women of Huangluo in southern China draw worldwide attention for their Rapunzel-length locks. The villagers maintain their hair with a fermented rice water solution. They credit it for the shiny, gray-free hair many retain through their 80s.
Now, Western beauty editors and Internet gurus count it among their must-have treatments for “extreme hair growth” and “visibly shrunken pores.”
But what is the science, if any, behind these observations?
The Benefits of Rice Water for Skin and Hair
To understand the health potential of rice water, you first have to examine rice (Oryza sativa). The tiny grain has a variety of nutrients, including:
- Starchy carbohydrates
- Amino acids
- B vitamins (B1, B3, and B6)
- Vitamin E
- Minerals (calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, copper, zinc)
Scientists believe many of these leech into the water after a soak or boil. When left for hours to sit, or ferment, rice water’s nutritional content increases.
Fermentation uses microorganisms, such as bacteria or yeast, to break down carbohydrates in food into new, simpler substances.
Research from 2018 shows fermented rice water contains one such substance called pitera. This byproduct of yeast fermentation features its own amino acids, vitamins and minerals, and organic acids.
Moreover, according to researchers, fermentation produces antimicrobial compounds that can extend rice water’s shelf life and enhance the strength of its natural components.
Another study highlights inositol, a carbohydrate in the milky blend thought to have protective effects on the hair.
Using an infrared microspectrometer, cosmetic scientists observed that the compound penetrates into the hair over time and stays there. Once inside, the inositol preserved elasticity and protected against friction-based damage.
Let’s review some potential rice water benefits for skin and hair in greater detail.
Rice Water Skin Benefits
A study published in the journal Cosmetics in 2018 found that rice water showed antioxidant and anti-aging activity.
Specifically, researchers found the rice water lowered oxidative stress caused by exposure to hydrogen peroxide and UV light in human skin cells. It also showed “very high anti-elastase activities.”
By blocking elastase activity, rice water may prevent a loss of elasticity in the skin, and therefore wrinkles and sagging.
Researchers said these antioxidant effects might come from phenolic compounds in the rice, including tocopherols, tocotrienols, and gamma-oryzanol.
The study further surveyed 12 volunteers (aged 21 to 46) who applied a rice water hydrogel to their skin for 28 days. Participants gave the gel high scores for hydration and freshness, as well as spreadability, ease of application, and stickiness, in the sensory survey.
Also, researchers noted skin hydration increased by 10% where the gel was applied.
Similarly, a 2013 study review reported that rice wine—a form of fermented rice water—protects against skin aging due to UV ray exposure. Per the study authors, rice wine may work to:
- Promote collagen production
- Decrease expression of MMP-1 and TNF-alpha (genes involved in photoaging)
- Increase production of laminin-5 (a protein critical to tissue homeostasis and wound healing)
- Reduce water loss, wrinkling, and thickening of the skin
Consider, however, that the studies under review were done in vitro and on animals. More research is needed to see if rice wine has the same effect on humans.
Skin Irritation Relief
In a 2002 study, researchers looked at the effects of rice starch-infused bathwater on irritated skin. Some participants had otherwise healthy skin irritated by sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), while others suffered from atopic dermatitis.
Atopic dermatitis is a form of eczema characterized by dry, red, and itchy skin.
After bathing in the starchy water twice daily for 15 minutes, the SLS group saw a 20% improvement in their skin’s healing capacity. The eczema patients showed improved skin barrier function following the same regimen.
Researchers concluded that rice starch could be recommended as a bathing additive to repair barrier-damaged skin, especially among atopic dermatitis patients.
Boiled rice water was found to be effective at inhibiting fungal growth in one 2013 study.
A scientist out of India compared the efficacy of four natural remedies, including rice water, against the fungus Malassezia furfur. Commonly found on human skin, M. furfur is linked with diseases like seborrheic dermatitis—better known as dandruff.
In a petri-dish setting, rice water extract was able to stop M. furfur growth at a steady rate. It was rated as 85% to 90% effective, besting all but one other remedy: cow’s urine extract.
Based on the results, the pharmacologist determined rice water would effectively control dandruff-causing fungal growth without side effects. However, he did note that weekly use would be necessary to keep the scalp Malassezia-free.
It’s also worth noting that these results have not been replicated outside the lab. Large-scale randomized clinical trials will help to support the research.
Rice Water Hair Benefits
To date, evidence of rice water’s benefits for hair is mostly anecdotal. Among the benefits touted by enthusiasts are:
- Stronger, healthier hair
- Longer, faster-growing hair
- Fuller hair
- Less tangled hair
- Smoother, shinier hair
Though scientific proof is lacking, many dermatological experts suspect the nutrients in rice water are contributing factors.
For example, the starch in rice water can coat the hair shaft, helping to strengthen and thicken hair strands. B vitamins in the solution are thought to promote hair growth by creating red blood cells. These carry nutrient- and oxygen-rich blood to the scalp and hair follicles, which is ideal for growth.
Finally, antioxidants like vitamin E can protect against oxidative stress. Free radical damage from both internal and external sources is associated with hair loss and thinning.
Elasticity & Friction
The most-cited study of rice water benefits for hair, which we previously highlighted, demonstrated the activity of inositol.
Infrared imaging showed that this antioxidant enters the hair and nourishes it from within—even after rinsing. Not only did it prevent further elasticity loss in perm-damaged hair, but it also prevented damage from friction during rinsing.
Yet, the experiment was done by the research and development arm of a hair-care products company. So further independent research is needed in this area.
How to Make Rice Water
An undeniable benefit of rice water is that it is inexpensive and easy to make. You can follow the soaking method or the boiling method to create a batch of your own.
Here’s what you will need:
- 1/2 cup uncooked rice
- 2 cups water
- 2 bowls
- 1 strainer
- 1 funnel
- 1 spray bottle or Mason jar with lid
Directions for soaking:
Step 1: Rinse 1/2 cup rice under water to remove any debris, and drain.
Step 2: Place clean rice in a large bowl and cover with 2 cups water.
Step 3: Leave it to soak for at least 30 minutes.
Step 4: Strain the water into a clean bowl.
Step 5: Using the funnel, transfer water into a spray bottle or Mason jar.
Step 6: Refrigerate until use (for up to one week).
Directions for boiling:
Step 1: Rinse 1/2 cup rice under water to remove any debris, and drain.
Step 2: Place clean rice in a large pot and cover with 2 cups water.
Step 3: Bring water to a boil.
Step 4: Remove from heat and let cool.
Step 5: Strain cooled rice water into a clean bowl.
Step 6: Use the funnel to transfer water into a spray bottle or Mason jar.
Step 7: Refrigerate for up to a week.
How to Make Fermented Rice Water
Most advocates argue that fermented rice water offers the most health benefits. To ferment your rice water, simply follow the above directions for soaking, skipping Step 6. Instead, let the strained rice water rest in a sealed Mason jar for 24 hours before refrigerating.
If you find the natural scent of fermented rice water unpleasant, try adding a few drops of essential oil to the solution before applying.
Rice Water Uses
Any of the above methods will produce a gentle skin toner, cleanser, or moisturizer, or a post-shampoo and conditioner hair rinse.
Some say the type of rice used (white, brown, long-grain, short-grain, etc.) isn’t important—as long as it’s organic and pesticide-free. Others argue that white rice is preferable because its phenolic components may be more likely to pass into the water.
Rice Water Risks and Precautions
Rice water can be a gentle and effective home remedy, but there is some risk involved. Users should take note of the following potential issues:
Those with low-porosity hair (resistant to water and hair products) will want to limit their use of rice water to once or twice weekly. This is because the protein within tends to build up on the hair cuticle. The result can be dry and brittle hair prone to breakage.
If you already suffer from dry, itchy skin, including your scalp, rice water could exacerbate the issue. It tends to have a drying effect that can lead to flakiness. For this reason, it should not be used more than twice a week, if at all, in this group.
Arsenic, a toxic and carcinogenic metal, has been found in high concentrations in rice. Though oral ingestion seems to carry the greatest risk, there is evidence that arsenic can bind externally to the skin and hair.
If you’re concerned about arsenic exposure, you may want to opt for white rice.
According to the Environmental Working Group, white rice typically contains less arsenic than its brown counterpart because the chemical often accumulates in the bran. Likewise, rice from Southeast Asia and California is also known to have lower arsenic levels.
Final Thoughts on Rice Water Benefits
Rice water is a centuries-old home remedy for healthier skin and hair. Anecdotal evidence abounds, while the scientific evidence remains scarce. But the little research available is promising. Only time and more rigorous study will tell if rice water’s purported benefits are real.
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