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!


  1. Leave a Reply

    October 8, 2015

    Is silicone buildup reversible only with sulfate shampoo no matter how much time has passed? I think I may have used a conditioner with silicone several years ago – I’ve been low/no poo for the last 3 or so years. I’m aiming for WO at this point, but my hair gets oily pretty quickly no matter how long I’ve spaced washes out in the past. I’ve never been faithful with brushing and s/p, but I’ve started being very dedicated with it this past week. I just wonder if I should do a sulfate wash now, rather than try to power through for 6 weeks and find that I need to do one after all.

  2. Leave a Reply

    November 17, 2015

    This is a brilliant website, thanks so much for doing it! Wonder if you can help me?

    I’ve been doing water-only washing for four months and still have greasy hair. Here’s what I did:

    Before starting, I used a sulphate-free shampoo for two months. It is possible that at some point in this period I used a wee bit of hairspray or conditioner.
    I then went completely water-only, and spent 15mins every day brushing with my BBB, which I cleaned with soap after every use. I washed my hair once a week with warm-hot water. Washing it made barely any difference to the grease-factor!
    After four months of WO, I found this post (thanks!) and thought Reason #2 might be the problem, so I washed it with honey and egg yolks, which left my hair beautiful. But it then got all greasy again, once I brushed it. I’ve since washed it with water, and once again the water has failed to clean it. The roots are fairly clean but the lengths are greasy.
    I even bought a new BBB brush in case my first one was too old at fifteen (!) but that hasn’t helped either!

    Is it possible that I still have silicones on my hair from 5-6 months ago? Surely they’d be gone by now! If not silicones, any idea what the problem might be? Surely I can’t STILL be transitioning!

    Thank you so much if you have time to give me any advice!

  3. Leave a Reply

    November 19, 2015

    I have been doing water only for almost two months. I have very long hair and it is fine, but there is a lot of it! My hair was very oily at first, which was expected. About two years ago, I transitioned my hair from commercial to a homemade shampoo. It randomly turned oily and waxy right before I left on a backpacking trip and never recovered, so I went back to commercial shampoos for about 7 months before discovering water only washing. In the two months I have been water only washing, my hair has gone from oily to waxy and it always looks dirty and gross. What am I doing wrong? Should I start over and use a natural shampoo on my hair? Will a boar bristle brush fix this? Help!! I want my beautiful hair back by Christmas!!

  4. Leave a Reply

    November 21, 2015

    Hi awesome post I’m going to be starting the water only regimen soon. I had one question I like having my natural hair blown out I know I need heat protectant what can I do about that if I am using no products also how can I do twist out and other styles that require a type of gel or butter thanks so much!!

  5. Leave a Reply

    November 25, 2015

    Hey :) For the Sulfate free shampoo, is there an alternative for that? because I don’t have any silicone or sulfate free shampoo’s at my house and my parents don’t really like buying another bottle of shampoo (we already have a lot). Im only 2 days into the Water Only Washing routine, but each time I finish washing my hair, it feels oily and waxy. so… yeah…

    • Leave a Reply

      Just Primal Things
      January 20, 2016

      You can use raw honey diluted in water! Recipe: 1-2 tablespoons of raw honey, diluted in 1/2 cup of warm water. Scrub it into your scalp like shampoo, then rinse out. Should give you clean, non-greasy hair that smells amazing! Perfect for in-between water-only washes if you want to get rid of excess grease. (P.S. Make sure you dilute the honey in water just before using it, do -not- make a big batch and let it sit for a week or the honey can get gross. Mix it right before you shower!) :)

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