Water-Only Troubleshooting: Still Experiencing Oily Hair?

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Hair Care, No Shampoo, Water Only Hair Washing
Tips and troubleshooting for no poo and water only hair

Hi! I’ve received an overwhelming number of comments from readers asking questions and sharing water-only hair washing experiences. It is wonderful to hear such positive results 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 to help as many readers 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 simple fix. The issue could be caused by a few different reasons, so let’s figure out when and where the issue arises in the process.

First off, water-only hair washing should give clean results immediately after washing hair. If 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), hard water, or caused by Reason #2 listed below. 

However, if hair is getting clean immediately after water-washing it, but it later becomes excessively oily (like a day or two after washing), hair could still be in the initial oily transition phase, and in that case, I refer to the tips in my How to Transition to No-Poo Without Looking Oily post to get through the transition as quickly as possible. But if you feel you should be out of the oily transitional phase by now, then keep reading.

Reason #1: Oily hair may be caused by silicone buildup

Symptoms: Hair is clean after a water-only hair wash, but during the time between washes, scalp natural oils don’t seem to be soaking up into hair strands (even after boar-bristle brushing). Natural oils seem to just sit on top of the hair, making it look very oily.

Cause: This may be caused by silicone buildup on the hair from styling products that were never properly washed out of 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-shampoo do NOT mix.

Why silicones should be avoided on no-poo

Silicone-free hair products for no poo and sulfate-free hair care

Silicones can be found in most hair styling products, including heat protectants, conditioners, serums, pomades, gels, dry shampoos, hair sprays, etc. Silicones are added to hair products to hide the drying effects of sulfates. They creating a waterproof barrier around hair shafts, which gives hair a sleek, shiny, and frizz-free effect. Silicones don’t heal or nourish hair– hair is still dry, damaged, and tangly underneath the silicones from shampooing; the silicones just temporarily hide these symptoms until the next time silicones are washed out and reapplied. (Ever use shampoo and skip conditioner? Not a pretty sight.)

Here’s the bad part. Silicones stay stuck on hair shafts until they are washed out with a sulfate-shampoo. If silicones are not properly washed out, they will stay locked on hair and prevent water from penetrating the waterproof barrier they create. Over time, this will leave hair dry and brittle, and hair won’t be able to absorb natural oils (which actually DO hydrate, nourish, and make hair shiny, frizz-free, elastic, bouncy, sleek, and luscious). So silicones need to be washed out in order to have happy, nourished, and grease-free hair in the long-term. (More on silicones here.)

How to know if no poo hair has silicone buildup

Look at the ingredients list of products used, and compare it with this guide to see if it contains silicones. If any silicone-filled products were used since the last sulfate-shampoo hair wash, the issue is probably silicone buildup. And silicones can only be washed out with a sulfate shampoo. It’s also worth noting that some shampoos (low-poos or sulfate-free shampoos) don’t contain sulfate cleansers, so using these gentler shampoos in combination with silicones will most likely lead to silicone buildup, since the silicones aren’t getting washed out. The guide also lists common sulfate ingredient names, so you can check shampoo products for that info, too.

How to fix silicone buildup on no poo

Using sulfate shampoo to remove silicone buildup

It is widely recommended by natural hair care advocates to clarify hair with a sulfate-filled shampoo one last time (any cheap, sulfate-shampoo will do). And make sure to scrub it in really well through the length of hair, not just at the roots. Then completely stop using any hair products containing sulfates or silicones. I also recommend cleaning brushes and combs with sulfates and rinse them very well. Afterwards, hair should start absorbing natural oils a lot better.

If you are sad to part with a favorite silicone-filled hair product, I’d like to add that there are many natural & inexpensive alternatives that work just as great. But I found I no longer need styling products as my hair’s natural oils give even better results (shiny, sleek, manageable, hydrated, bouncy, natural hold, etc) than the silicones ever did. (Also see: How to properly start No Poo to avoid silicone buildup.)

Will washing with sulfates mess up no-poo progress? 

One sulfate-shampoo application shouldn’t reset all of the progress made so far with training the scalp’s oil production. It will strip all of the oils off the hair and scalp though, which is very drying, but hair will be clean and oil-free and ready to continue with no-poo or water-only. Use a clean boar-bristle-brush to distribute scalp natural oils through the hair every day for one week to coat it in hydrating oils and restore the hair back to its no-shampoo glory.

Reason #2: Waxy buildup from the no poo initial transition phase

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

Cause: Water only does a great job of washing away excess oils once the scalp’s oil production has normalized. If you went through a particularly oily initial transition phase when switching from shampoo to a no poo method, it’s possible there is leftover oily/waxy buildup that needs to be washed out. Once the buildup is washed out from the initial transition phase, water-only hair washing should be able to get hair clean and keep up with washing away the natural oil production.

How to remove waxy buildup on no poo

Bottle of sulfate free shampoo to remove waxy buildup

Use a gentle low-poo (sulfate-free shampoo) or co-wash (silicone-free conditioner) to clarify hair of the leftover buildup. Refer to this guide to determine which products are sulfate-free and silicone-free. Make sure to scrub it into roots and through the length of the 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). Looking at the ingredients, it contains only essential oils, flower extracts, and glycerin. It was very gentle on my hair, and left it feeling very soft and clean, and then I continued with No Poo. I recommend using a gentle, natural product if possible.

Will this mess up my no-poo progress?

One clarifying wash with a gentle (sulfate-free) cleanser won’t strip hair of its natural oils and likely won’t mess with 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 with buildup since. (Also see: using dry shampoo to remove oily / waxy buildup.)

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

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    1. Jennie

      Hi, I stumbled across your website this weekend and am so glad I did! I’ve been doing bicarb washing only for about 3 and a half months and my hair looks ok for about 2-3 days after washing then just looks greasy again! I also read a lot of negative experiences with extended use of bicarb and wanted to switch to water only. However when I water only wash I still have very waxy hair so I think I may have one of these problems! The only other thing I use on my hair is lightening spray and I’m not very au fait with silicones and their various names but the ingredients are here: http://m.boots.com/h5/cat_hub?unCountry=uk&path=%2Fen%2FJohn-Frieda-Sheer-Blonde-Go-Blonder-Controlled-Lightening-Spray-100ml_1162703%2F Do you think it’s worth clarifying and stopping using the spray? In which case do you have any suggestions for silicone free alternatives? And will it set back my progress to before I started doing no-poo? Thanks so much for your help and I am loving your blog!!

    2. Cecily worthy

      Cecily Worthy #
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      I have had the same situation with waxy scalp. I read it could be a side effect to my medication. This past weekend I thought I would try one more thing. I took liquid form of probiotics and sprayed my hair. I sprayed it all over and waited about 30 minutes, sprayed again and jumped in the shower for my regular routine. Dried my hair and was thrilled to see it was gone! Four days later and still no wax. Not only did this take away the wax, but made my hair so much softer. I also take the probiotics orially, which has stopped my digestive issues. I am now using the probiotics on everything I can. Life changing. Nextwaveprobiotics.com

    3. jasmin

      Hi, my no poo days began just two months back and i am experiencing dry hair with wo. Tried rubbing grapeseed oil or almond oil to the ends only… careful not touching the scalp. Pl advise what i can do to prevent dryness…. i used to use only low poo shampoos before no poo every 4 to 6 days with no washes in between.

      1. Hi Jasmin, It sounds like your scalp was pretty normalized before you started no poo which makes this process so much easier. Washing 4-6 days with a low poo is pretty good!!! If you are experiencing dry hair, definitely use your BBB to pull natural scalp oils down to your ends. Is the grapeseed/almond oil helping? Unrefined/raw coconut oil is much more moisturizing. Use oil whereever you need it to hydrate your hair, just be careful with how much you use so it doesn’t get -too- oily, because oil is hard to wash out. A very hydrating oil like coconut oil should 100% help. If it is not working, you may have silicone build up left over on your hair, preventing any moisture from saturating your strands. Check this link for info on how to fix that: https://justprimalthings.com/2015/08/24/still-experiencing-oily-hair-water-only-troubleshooting/

    4. Anne Vee

      It would be great if you could do a post on protein hair treatments and how to make them work on WO. Apparently some of the usual suspects (egg, yogurt) have proteins too big to enter the hair shaft. Gelatin seems to be the most DIY-able effective thing, but I’m wondering if it will mess with WO.
      Although, I’d like to add, a (small) bird pooed on my hair yesterday (way to go no poo), I thought it was game over for me but I finally got away with it, so I think gelatin wouldn’t be a big deal anyway.
      However I’d like to have an expert’s opinion on the protein thing!

    5. Elaina

      Hi. I was wondering if you should clean your hair with warm or cold water? Also, whats the difference between washing and rinsing? And how many times can you rinse your hair in between washes? Is it the same as weaning it off of regular shampoo so you want to lessen your washes?
      Thank you!!

    6. Jennifer Horne

      Hi! Thanks so much for this blog and all of your tips. I started water-only about one month ago and I did do a gentle poo wash since then but I’m still very oily! What can I do?

      1. Hi Jennifer, Everyone’s transition period is different depending on a lot of factors, including how out of whack your scalp’s oil production has gotten. If you’re having issues with your scalp producing too many oils too often for water only, I recommend helping along your transition by using other no-poo washing methods (like co-washing: silicone-free conditioner as shampoo) in combination with water only. This will help you wash away excess oils so they don’t build up on your hair, but they’re gentle enough to allow your scalp to calm down with its oil production. You may find you really like one or more of these methods; co washing, honey washing, etc. are awesome!

    7. matilda

      hi. thank you for your guide. i was wondering if you have any idea approximately how long is the transition period? i have been water only washing ( i am not using any baking soda or anything else) for about 2 weeks and a half. i wonder how much longer it will last and when could i expect seeing results? thank you !

      1. Kelly

        I am kinda binge-reading your site… Love it! And I was thinking. .. What to do when you went swimming in a Pool or in the Sea? Is only water enough or should i do something more for my hair to protect it?

    8. barbara biggs

      Can you recommend a good sulfate shampoo brand to do the one time stripping the silicon off my hair? When I google sulfate shampoo, I get all these posts about ‘sulfate free shampoos!’

      1. Barbara, Many inexpensive commercial shampoos found in north America contain sulfates. When I clarified my hair, I used any generic inexpensive shampoo. Look for one that says “daily clarifying” and check the ingredients, as they may be less likely to also contain silicones.

  1. Bekka

    Thank you for a fantastic blog, I love it and I’ve been reading it all day! You make it sound so easy, and I’m definitely going to try it. I have some questions first though.
    I’ve been using “conditioner-only” on and off for a couple of years now, but I haven’t been entirely happy with the result, so I decided to stop washing it all-together. I went to the hairdresser to get rid of my split ends and then washed my hair one last time with shampoo, just to be sure I got all the silicones out. That was on July 25th. As I’m sure you can imagine it’s very very oily and waxy by now, but I keep it braided so it doesn’t bother me that much. Since my shampoo-wash I’ve only let the water run through my hair every now and then while taking a shower. And while it’s still damp I’ve also used “conditioner-only-approved” products on the length and ends, like a leave-in. Just to be clear though, I’ve rinsed it with water a couple times but I haven’t used the water-only method, all I did was stop washing it.

    On to my questions….. So now that I want to get started with your awesome routine, can I just start by using the steps that you describe so well, even though my hair is incredibly oily? And I also wonder about the leave-in that I’ve used, should I was that out with shampoo before I start? And should I wash my boar bristle brush with shampoo to get silicones out, just to be on the safe side, before I start to use it? Also, I loose a lot of hair right now, do you have any ideas why that is? Is it just the simple fact that it’s incredibly dirty?

    Thanks again :-)

    1. Hi Bekka! It sounds like you are off to a good start with a hair trim and one last clarifying sulfate-shampoo wash. If you want to get rid of oily/waxyness, you most definitely need to 1) Scritch, preen, and boar-bristle brush your hair (daily or every other day) to start breaking down the oils/wax that’s sitting on your hair. And 2) start following my tips in The Ultimate Water Only Hair Washing Routine tutorial to get the cleanest washes possible with WO. You should 100% try those techniques before following the tips in this troubleshooting post. So the answer to your first question is YES! You should absolutely start following those techniques because your hair is incredibly oily.

      I am assuming the reason why you have been using conditioner on your ends is because they are dry and prone to getting tangly (?) which can be solved if you scritch/preen/brush the oils all the way down to the ends of your hair. You are probably producing enough scalp oils (which are suuuuper nourishing for hair) to have a free mini hair-mask. You just have to utilize the oils as a conditioner by pulling them away from your roots and down to the ends of your hair (by brushing/scritching/preening). No poo approved conditioners are also able to nourish the ends of your hair, but they also wash away a lot of your hair’s natural oils (which are also nourishing). You probably won’t need the conditioner anymore if you just stop using it and let your natural oils do the job. You don’t need to shampoo out the leave-in conditioner. As long as it doesn’t have silicones in it, the product should wash away on its own over time.

      You should definitely wash your boar bristle brush with a sulfate-shampoo one last time just to make 100% sure you don’t transfer silicones to your hair. I have a BBB cleaning tutorial here.

      As for your last question, it’s hard to say what is causing it. Shedding hair can be caused by a number of things including stress, hormonal changes (including hormonal birth control pills), and diet (like eating a low-carb diet). Just be gentle with your hair while washing and brushing, and make sure you gently scritch the dead skill cells and excess oils off your scalp.

    2. Liz

      I’ve read that normally, people shed around 150 hairs a day. If you feel like you’re shedding more than normal, it might actually just be because you’re not doing it go into your drain catcher, but instead letting it fall on the ground or your hands when you SMP (Scritch, Massage, Preen)! If it seems like more than 150 hairs or an excessive amount then there may be another underlying cause, which you can talk to your doc about. =)

  2. Rachel

    I’ve been reading your blog religiously for the past couple of weeks and I have decided to Do WO because of it. I used to wash my hair every day, and did a clarifying wash with neutrogena anti-residue shampoo and baking soda as my last shampoo before I started. I then went 5 days without washing and just did my first WO wash. My roots don’t feel oily at all, but the rest of my hair feels waxy and oily, almost as bad as it was before my shower. I am sure I am still in my transition period but my question is, you mentioned using a low poo shampoo to get rid of build up from the transition phase- when did you use this? Should I wait until I believe my transition phase is over to use it? Any help you could provide would be appreciated!

    Thanks again!

    1. Hi Rachel, You are definitely still going through the transition phase. This post is for people who should be out of the transition phase already and still can’t seem to get clean hair… maybe 3-6 weeks in… but that time varies for each person.

      Since you used to wash your hair every day with shampoo, your scalp is most likely reeeeeaalllly out of whack and produces tons of oils daily. You’re going to have an oily time if you switch cold turkey from shampoo to no poo, no matter which no poo method you choose. You can totally go straight to WO, but since your scalp oil production is so out of whack, you may want to switch to an intermediary method that clarifies a little easier than WO, like CO-washing (using conditioner only to wash your hair, make sure it’s silicone-free), raw honey-washing, or even using a low-poo (sulfate-free shampoo) for a few weeks. Just make sure you actively try to stretch the time between each hair wash. More info about that and tips for getting through the oily transition phase faster in this other post.

      HOWEVER, I don’t want to deter you from going WO. Water-Only can clean the oils off your head pretty well, as you can see I got a pretty clean wash in the pictures from my water-only washing tutorial, which were taken pretty early on in my oily transition. So if you want to start with WO, I say go for it, but I just want you to know there are other no poo methods out there that might be a bit easier to manage in the meantime while your scalp starts to calm down. If you do want to stick with WO, I think you can get good results now as you mentioned your roots get clean after a water-wash, which is a great sign. Follow the tips in my water-only hair washing post, and on top of that, you can get the length of your hair a lot cleaner by doing this: while you’re in the shower, grab a section your hair and let very warm water flow down the section, while preening your fingers down each section, gently pulling the oils down. This will help you get the length of your hair cleaner. It made a big difference for me when I noticed the same issue early on. Good luck!

  3. Jess

    Thanks for an amazing blog!
    I’ve been no poo for 2 month, low poo with Shea moisture 1 month before that.
    My first six weeks I washed my hair 2 times
    with either soap nut or egg.
    Now I started to wash once a week because I see no improvement in my oilyness ( oily on day 2).
    I did clarify I think.. I used fairy washing up liquid.. Didn’t want to buy a shampoo for one wash :). When I BBB my hair only gets greasier and after 6 days my hair is greasy from root to tip.. After a wash my ends are soooo dry.. Can I still have silicones on my hair? I don’t want to mess up all my hard work with a clarifying wash..
    Thanks for any advice!

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Jess! First off, I do not recommend washing your hair with dish washing soap.. yikes! If your BBB makes your hair greasier, try cleaning your BBB each time before you use it, or at least once per week. You could have silicone buildup if you have used any products containing silicones since your last sulfate-shampoo wash (like a heat protectant or styling products). If you think you have silicone buildup, you need to clarify with a sulfate-shampoo. If you are sure it’s not silicone buildup, it’s possible that you could have buildup from the egg on your hair, or you just have a lot of natural hair oils leftover from your oily transition.

      Overall, I recommend waiting as long as possible between washes, using a clean BBB to pull the oils from root to tip, and when your hair gets too oily for your tastes, try a co-wash (silicone-free conditioner) to get rid of any egg or oil buildup. Hopefully your hair will be clean and oil-free after that and will stay that way (if your scalp’s oil production has normalized). Good luck!

  4. Joanna

    Thank you so much for this post! I believe you’ve answered my concerns. I used to wash my hair with jonhson’s baby shampoo everyday. It contains Sodium laureth sulfate! I was poo-free for 4 months but my hair was still oily. I was so embarrassed at work! Now I know why my hair was still oily after that long time being poo-free.
    I’ve just bought calia organic hydrating shampoo. Are you saying to wash my hair only once with this shampoo and go water only after that? Will it be enough?

    1. Hi Joanna, Yes, clarifying your hair one time with a gentle product (sulfate-free, silicone-free) should remove any oily/waxy buildup left over from the oily transitional phase. Just make sure you keep up with scritching your roots, BB brushing, and preening (definitely preen while you’re in the shower doing a WO wash). I hope you like the Calia shampoo. I’ve only used it paired with the conditioner, but I hope you get the results you’re looking for!