Water-Only Troubleshooting: Still Experiencing Oily Hair?

Hi! I’ve received an overwhelming number of comments from so many of you asking questions and sharing your water-only hair washing experiences. It is wonderful to hear such positive feedback about the water-only method from so many of you! I’ve been trying to answer every question that I can in the comments, however I noticed there are a few questions that keep popping up regularly that I haven’t covered in my posts yet, so I will start making posts answering the most frequently asked questions you have to help as many of you as possible. At the time of this post, it has been over 11 months since I switched from low-poo (sulfate-free shampoo) to water-only hair care, and I swear it is the best thing that has ever happened to my hair! I still practice water-only hair washing, and I am even more thrilled with the results I get now than when I started. I hope I can help you be as thrilled with your results as I am with mine.

FAQ: “I have been water-only for a while, but my hair still feels oily or waxy!”

This can be frustrating! But there may be a quick and simple fix to what you are experiencing. The issue could be caused by a few different reasons, so let’s figure out where you are experiencing issues in the process.

First off, you should be getting very clean results immediately after water-washing your hair if you have been following all of the tips in my Ultimate Water-Only Hair Washing Routine post. If your hair doesn’t seem to get clean immediately after water-washing it, the issue could stem from either the actual washing process (see this post for tips), or caused by Reason #2 listed below. However, if you are getting clean hair immediately after water-washing it, but your hair becomes excessively oily after a day or two between washes, your hair could still be in the initial oily transition phase, and in that case, I recommend you follow the tips in my How to Transition to No-Poo Without Looking Oily post to get through the transition as quickly as possible. However, if you feel you should be out of the oily transitional phase by now, and you aren’t sure what’s going on, then this post is for you. 

Reason #1: You may have silicone buildup

Symptoms: Water-washes give you clean hair, but your hair feels dry or brittle. Throughout the week, your hair’s natural oils don’t seem to be soaking up into your strands (even after boar-bristle brushing). Instead, your natural oils seem to just sit on top your hair, making it look very oily.

Cause: You may have silicone buildup from hair styling products that were never properly washed out of your hair before starting no-poo/water-only. Or you might still be using silicone-filled hair products without realizing it, which is a big no-no. Silicones and no-poo do NOT mix.

Why you should avoid silicones on no-poo: Silicones can be found in most hair styling products, including heat protectants, conditioners, serums, pomades, gels, dry shampoos, hair sprays, etc. The sulfates in shampoos dry out and damage your hair, making it prone to tangles, dullness, breakage, and frizz. So the silicones are put in conditioners and styling products to temporarily counteract how dry and damaged your hair really looks by creating a waterproof barrier around your hair shafts, which gives your hair a sleek, shiny, and frizz-free effect. Silicones don’t heal or nourish your hair– your hair is still completely dry, damaged, and unmanageably tangly from shampooing– the silicones just temporarily hide this until the next time they are washed out and reapplied. (Ever shampoo and skip conditioner? Not a pretty sight.) Here’s the bad part: Silicones stay stuck on your hair shafts until you wash them out with a sulfate-shampoo. If you do not properly wash out the silicones, they will stay locked on your hair and will prevent water from ever penetrating the waterproof barrier they create. Over time, this will leave you with dry, brittle hair that won’t absorb water and won’t be able to soak up your hair’s natural oils (which, by the way, your hair’s natural oils actually DO hydrate, nourish, and make your hair shiny, frizz-free, elastic, bouncy, sleek, and healthy… better than silicones ever could). So you need to wash out the silicones if you want to have healthy, nourished, and grease-free hair in the long-term. (More on silicones here.)

How to know if you have silicone buildup: Look at the ingredients list of every product you use on your hair, and compare it with this guide to see if it contains silicones. If you have used any silicone-filled products since your last sulfate-shampoo hair wash, you probably have silicone buildup. It’s also worth noting that some shampoos don’t contain sulfates, such as low-poos or sulfate-free shampoos, so if you had been using one of these gentler shampoos in combination with silicones, you will most likely have silicone buildup, since the silicones weren’t getting washed out when you were shampooing. The guide also lists common sulfate ingredient names, so you can check your shampoo for that info, too.

What to do: It is widely recommended by natural hair care advocates that you clarify your hair with a sulfate-filled shampoo one last time (any cheap, sulfate-shampoo will do), and make sure you scrub it really well through the length of your hair, not just at the roots. Then completely stop using any hair products containing sulfates or silicones. If you are sad to part with your favorite silicone-filled hair products, I’d like to add that there are many natural & inexpensive alternatives that work just as great, though you may not even need them, as your hair’s natural oils should give you even better results (shiny, sleek, manageable, hydrated, bouncy, natural hold, etc) than the silicones ever did. I plan to write more about that in the future, so I encourage you to do some googling in the meantime. ;)

Will this mess up your no-poo progress? One sulfate-shampoo application shouldn’t reset all of the progress you’ve made so far with training your scalp’s oil production. It will strip all of the oils off your hair, though, which is very drying to your hair, but your hair will be clean and oil-free and ready for you to continue with no-poo or water-only. You can rub a few drops of an oil of your choice (Argan is great) between your palms and run it through dry hair to sleek it out and moisturize your hair. (Avoid the roots and avoid using too much which will make your hair look oily again.) You should also clean your brushes and combs (with sulfates), rinse them very well, and then use a clean boar-bristle-brush to distribute your scalp’s natural oils through your hair every day for ~1 week to coat it in hydrating oils to restore your hair back to its no-poo glory. You should notice your hair absorbing your natural oils a lot better. Check your hair about 8-12 hours after you brush and see if you notice a difference!

Not sure if you have silicone buildup? Try following Reason #2 first.

Reason #2: You may have waxy/oily buildup from the inital oily transitional phase.

Symptoms: Your hair doesn’t get as clean as it should with water-only washes. It feels like there is a lot of oil or waxiness left on your hair even right after you water-wash it.

Cause: Water washing works amazingly well at washing away the excess oil that accumulates during the week from a scalp with a normalized oil production, but if you went through a particularly oily phase when you switched from shampoo to water-only, it’s possible that you just need to get rid of the leftover oily/waxy buildup. Once you do, your hair should feel clean again, and water-washing should give you the results you’ve been waiting for.

What to do: I recommend using a gentle low-poo (sulfate-free shampoo) or co-wash (silicone-free conditioner) one last time to clarify your hair of the leftover buildup. You can refer to this guide to determine which products are sulfate- and silicone-free. Make sure you scrub it into your roots and through the length of your hair and rinse it out really well.

*I’d like to add that I had to do this, and I had a great experience with Calia’s Organic Hydrating Shampoo and Conditioner (a Canadian brand but it can also be purchased online for ~10 USD). If you take a look at the ingredients, it contains only essential oils & flower extracts and glycerin (which is even safe to eat). It was very gentle on my hair, and left it feeling very soft and completely clean. I recommend using a gentle, natural product like that if you can find it. You could probably find an even cheaper, DIY/homemade option if you’re into that. ;)

Will this mess up my no-poo progress? One clarifying wash with a gentle (sulfate-free) cleanser won’t strip your hair of its natural oils or mess with your scalp’s oil production (but more than one application might). One wash should just get rid of the oily/waxy buildup and allow you to continue water-washing with a head of clean, buildup-free hair and finally allow you to get the most out of your water-washes! You may even be able to notice your scalp’s oil production has slowed way down, you just couldn’t notice it before with all of the buildup in the way. I hope this tip works for you! It worked for me (and a few commenters on this site). I haven’t had an issue since.

Leave a comment below to let me know which questions you would like me to address in the next FAQ post!

Comments

  1. Leave a Reply

    Anonymous
    November 28, 2015

    what if the shampoo has dimethicone? im trying to get rid of silicone buildup.

  2. Leave a Reply

    Hannah Forward
    November 28, 2015

    Hello, I have been shampoo free now for 5 weeks and my hair is still very greasy/waxy on the top of my head. I washed with bicarb in the first week and it definitely made my hair look better but have only washed with water from then on. I must still be in the transition phase but I feel like it will never improve. Whats the best thing for me to do?

    • Leave a Reply

      Just Primal Things
      January 20, 2016

      Hi Hannah, You could definitely still be in the transitional phase. I recommend following the tips from this post to get through the transition faster. If you aren’t making progress, you could follow tip #5 from that post and either ease into the transition with a low-poo (sulfate-free shampoo), or use honey or silicone-free conditioner to wash your hair. Then use those as an aid while actively trying to stretch the time between washes.

  3. Leave a Reply

    Hanna
    December 10, 2015

    Heey:)
    Your blog is fantastic. Have been following it since the beginning.
    I must say tho i have been doing my water only washes for about a year now. Sometimes i wash it with some sulphate free shampoos. But majority of time i wash it water only and then also sometimes use apple cider vinegar on it. Even after such a long time, my hair still gets oily. There is a great difference before WO and after. My hair is manageable and there is less fly aways and it is smoother. I wouldnt go back to wash it with anykind of shampoo. But the thing that is bothering me, is that i still get oily very fast at the back top of my head. All the shampoos i used throughout last year are natural and silicone and sulphate free. I dont think i have any silicones build up. And since i washed my hair with shampoos that are sulphate free they should have got rid of my transition phase oil shouldnt they? Now i always also detangle my hair with comb and then do the brushing with my BBB. Now here arises anither problem. My BBB rips my hair:(. And there is nothing more horrible than that for my hair. I am trying to grow longer hair but BBB rips them and splits them. I don’t know what to do. Should i get a more quality brush or …? Besides that my ends are quite dry. So maybe there could be a silicon problem. Do you happen to know any good brands of claryfing shampoos that are sold in Europe? I am eating omega 3 fish oil capsules daily and do the b- complex vitamins regulary.
    Please advise me.
    Thank you so much for your time and effort!:) I appreciate it!:)

    Best regards:)

    • Leave a Reply

      Just Primal Things
      January 21, 2016

      Hi Hanna, Thanks for the kind words, and congrats on being water-only for a year! Yes, using sulphate-free shampoos should have gotten rid of any oil buildup from the transition phase. And since you’ve gone a year without silicones, you most likely don’t have silicone buildup around the first several inches of your hair so I don’t think silicone buildup is the cause.

      I’m assuming your hair gets clean with the sulphate-free shampoos you use, but is your hair getting clean after water washes? If your hair isn’t coming out clean after water washes, then the issue is with either your water (hard-water is harder to clean with) or technique/temperature (I recommend gently scrubbing your roots and preening in the shower with the very warm water running through each section).

      But if your hair comes out clean after any kind of wash, then you don’t have oil buildup left on your hair, so the excess oil is coming from your scalp reproducing it too quickly. In that case, you may be washing it too often which encourages your scalp to replenish oils quickly… I had success washing my hair every 7-10 days. It just does not get excessively oily anymore if I wait that long between washes. However, if I wait 5 days between washes, it encourages my scalp to get oily by day 4-5. Everyone is different, you have to find your sweet spot. If that sounds like a lot of days between washes, remember, you can always rinse cool/lukewarm water through your hair if you prefer to shower it every day, just avoid warm water going through your hair and and avoid massaging your scalp/disturbing your oils. I would count that more like a “rinse” than a water-wash. Just make sure you keep up with scritching and BBBing with a CLEAN brush. (I have a post about how to clean it.)

      For your BBB issue, you could be using a BBB that has a lot of nylon bristles in it which is a bit harsher on your hair. You could try switching to a softer BBB, but you may want to just switch to a wooden bristled brush (pictured bottom right). These brushes still help distribute natural oils through your hair (though not as well as a BBB in my opinion), but they also massage your scalp (which feels amazing), don’t cause static, and the bristles are further apart and are much gentler on hair. I highly recommend it as an alternative/addition to a BBB; I actually use both and switch off depending on what I’m doing: BBB for when I’m going to distribute oils, and wooden bristled brush for every day styling / gentle detangling (I still detangle wet hair with a wide-toothed comb). Try it! You may also want to trim your split ends if you are trying to grow your hair.

      For dry ends, I would say yes, your ends could have silicones leftover on them. The best way to keep your ends hydrated throughout the week is to brush all of the oils from your scalp into your BBB and then use the BBB on your ends to get the oils on your ends. Utilize those excess oils! Something I do that’s super weird because I have long hair is I take my ends if they’re dry and rub them into my scalp and it reallllly hydrates them and can take away some excess oils on your scalp. You can also try taking the TINIEST bit of coconut oil (we’re talking 1-2 drops), massage it into your fingers and apply it to the very tiniest tips of your hair. Avoid your roots/anywhere that isn’t completely dry. It’ll hydrate your ends, but I really think if your scalp is getting oily, you can just use those scalp oils on your ends.

      To clarify silicone buildup, you can use anything that has sodium lauryl sulfate in it. Anything cheap will work.

  4. Leave a Reply

    Kristie
    December 11, 2015

    I am just beginning the WO no poo method and my hair is not as oily as I expected. I know this is the trouble shoot blog, but I was wondering is preening really necessary? Can I replace preening with brushing with a boar bristle brush before, during and after my shower? The reason I ask is because today is the first day I did a WO wash and the preening gave me the biggest headache. I have had it all day and it is 7:00 PM now. I am hoping sleep will take care of it. Thanks, so much for all your info!

    • Leave a Reply

      Just Primal Things
      January 21, 2016

      If you don’t need to preen, don’t do it! Preening helps people with especially oily hair or people who need to move their oils down the length of their hair to hydrate their ends. It shouldn’t give you a headache though… try to preen gentler / not pull on your hair if you’re going to do it. I do recommend preening in the shower while the warm water washes down each section, though. It really helps break up the oils. But be gentle with your preening! :)

  5. Leave a Reply

    Marc
    December 16, 2015

    Hey. I’m about a month and a half into WO. I had heard a lot about it from a friend when I was in university, and since I’ve been transition workplaces lately I’ve been free to try this out. In any case, I’m a boy, with boyishly short hair, so I find a lot of your advice difficult to take into account. For example, my hair is about double the width of my fingers — which means there’s not much if anything to brush/preen.

    Would this mean that I’d have to water wash more frequently (whether the oil production is slowed down or not, there’s less area to spread it through)?

    I also still have relatively oily hair. The content of the oil seems to dissipate (but not disappear) significantly after a wash, but by the second day it’s back at being fairly oily. Should I baking soda it once to cleanse it, and try a quick reboot from there?

    I always brush my hair before/after I shower, and scritch it abundantly throughout the shower (I’ve sort of always done this because I find it soothing).

    • Leave a Reply

      Just Primal Things
      January 21, 2016

      Hi Marc, Having short hair doesn’t mean you need to water wash more or less frequently. The same overall principles still apply to train your scalp.

      Yes, you could skip preening on dry hair because it’s really meant to get oils down to the ends of long hair, but you don’t have that issue with short hair. Definitely continue scritching because it gives you volume and lifts dead skin cells off your scalp between washes, and definitely continue BBBing because it can help soak up some of the oils off your hair to make it look less oily and give you a softer (less stringy) style. You may need to wash your brush more often if your hair keeps getting oily too soon. I wrote a full post about cleaning brushes: Here. If you don’t clean your brush regularly, you are just wiping yesterdays hair oils back onto clean hair. Try cleaning it daily or every other day while you are still in the oily transition.

      I do, however, recommend preening in the shower if you can, just gently grab sections of your hair and pull your fingers through your hair to help pull some of the oils off your hair while the warm water washes through it and dissolves it. Be gentle while preening.

      You also may be washing too often. Every time you water wash, you are washing away scalp oils off your hair which encourages your scalp to replenish. That’s why I recommend washing as least often as possible while training your scalp. If you want to wet your hair daily, try doing cool water rinses in between “water-washes” (cool water, not much scrubbing, just run it through your hair) so you aren’t “water-washing” it daily. and experiment with dry shampoo (which soaks up oils without having to wash your hair).

      However, if you are sure you are not washing too often and your hair still feels oily all the time, you could do one wash with a sulfate-free shampoo, or HONEY! (which is super easy and cheap and amazing for your hair). These will not “reboot” your hair, because they don’t strip the natural oils off your hair. They just do a great job of dissolving a lot of the excess oils off your hair making your hair clean without stripping. This will reset any oily buildup from the transition and let you continue with clean hair. But you may still be going through the transition, so save this as a last resort.

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