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!


    • Leave a Reply

      February 7, 2016

      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!!

    • Leave a Reply

      September 18, 2016

      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.

      • Leave a Reply

        Just Primal Things
        November 11, 2016

        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/

    • Leave a Reply

      Anne Vee
      October 30, 2016

      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!

    • Leave a Reply

      November 1, 2016

      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!!

    • Leave a Reply

      Jennifer Horne
      August 7, 2018

      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?

      • Leave a Reply

        Just Primal Things
        October 8, 2018

        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!

    • Leave a Reply

      November 1, 2018

      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. Leave a Reply

    September 9, 2015

    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 :-)

    • Leave a Reply

      Just Primal Things
      September 10, 2015

      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.

    • Leave a Reply

      September 19, 2015

      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. Leave a Reply

    September 19, 2015

    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!

    • Leave a Reply

      Just Primal Things
      September 20, 2015

      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. Leave a Reply

    September 20, 2015

    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!

    • Leave a Reply

      Just Primal Things
      September 20, 2015

      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. Leave a Reply

    October 4, 2015

    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?

    • Leave a Reply

      Just Primal Things
      November 19, 2015

      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!

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