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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80 comments

  1. Molly

    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. Eclair

    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. Corissa

    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. jessica

    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. Christy

    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…

    1. 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!) :)