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First, some background information: This question is explicit in the halakhah and only due to a personal minhagh of the Rosh brought down by the Tur (OH 166 - where he re-interprets the gemara to fit this personal custom of the Rosh - see Rabbenu Yoel there) has there been any confusion on the issue. Rambam, Rashi, and the Ba`alei Tosafoth all agree that ...


Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik (Reshimot Shiurim, Berakhot p. 202) suggests that whether one requires a vessel for hand washing prior to bread depends on a dispute between Rambam and Ra'avad in Hilchot She'ar Avot Ha-Tum'ot 8:8. Ra'avad there extends the law of washing hands for ritual purity to all hand washing, but Rambam implies that this reason extends only to ...


The Arukh Hashulhan discusses this issue in detail in Orah Haim 4. Your assumption is indeed correct; when clean hands are the only goal, such as when you scratch your head or the like, using a faucet or other flowing water would be fine, if not preferable to using a vessel. However, the netilah prior to eating bread and before shacharith involve other ...


To borrow from the answer of @Mefaresh here: Tzitz Eliezer, part 7, 2:14 concludes that if he washed his head and his hair is clean, even a person who scratches the roots of his hairs does not need to wash his hands.

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