Last Updated on December 2, 2022 by Verna Meachum
We’ve all been there: You shampoo your hair and notice an unpleasant, waxy buildup left behind. So what’s causing it, and more importantly, how can you get rid of it?
In this post, we’ll explore the causes of waxy hair buildup on hair and share some tips for getting your locks back to their former glory. Keep reading to learn more!
What Exactly is Waxy Buildup on Hair?
“Waxy hair” is a technical term used to describe the physical hair fibers.
It refers to hair that looks and feels greasy, waxy, or has a sticky texture.
Hair fibers appear oily and clump together losing their natural shape and body.
Because fine curly hairs are easily affected, they often lose their curl pattern, bounce, and natural definition.
The real question is what makes hair waxy? What ingredients and circumstances make it happen?
How can you get rid of the waxiness and restore your hair’s natural texture?
Let’s take a closer look.
Reasons for Waxy Buildup on Hair
If you want to get rid of waxy hair, the first step is finding out the root cause. The culprit could be one of several factors.
Product build up
One of the primary reasons your hair may become waxy over time is product build up. This build-up is defined as “the increase in weight of hair fiber as a result of ingredient deposits”.
The hair surface is the first place where the active ingredient can be adsorbed or penetrate into the hair fiber.
Hair proteins on the surface tend to adsorb certain ingredients based on their chemical affinity, charge density, and molecular weight.
Scientific studies have established that large molecules cannot pass through the pore of hair cuticles.1-2 Instead, they bind to the hair surface and form a coating over the hair surface. This coating is good for healthy and conditioned hair.
However, constant use of the same formulation (having identical ingredients) can lead to higher deposits of active components on the hair shaft. This is build up.
Different ingredients have a different likelihood of causing product build up. Cationic conditioners are most likely to cause build up because they have a stronger electrostatic interaction.3
Oils and lipids can also cause build up as some are large molecules and unable to penetrate the hair.
When ingredients accumulate on the hair, they change its surface properties and make it difficult for water and other active ingredients to penetrate, thus causing the hair to suffer.
This situation leads to an unfavorable effect on hair quality, especially for formulations including a lot of oils, butter, and waxes, making the hair greasy and stiff.
The human body, including the scalp, is covered in sebaceous glands that secrete an oily liquid called sebum.4
Sebum is a mixture of water, inorganic minerals, and lipids that naturally conditions the skin and hair. It forms a barrier against environmental factors that can damage the outer surface.
However, when sebum is secreted in excess, it can make skin and scalp surfaces oily. The water content of sebum evaporates quickly, leaving behind lipids that make the surface greasy and waxy.
The type of hair you have affects the products you need to use. Picking the best hair care routine is necessary for any hairstyle you want and your overall appearance.
For example, naturally curly hair is different from straight or ethnic coily hair. Similarly, chemically processed hair fibers are very different from virgin natural hairs.
A frequent reason for we as consumers dismiss a particular brand or product is using an unsuitable (or wrong) product for our hair type. To achieve the best results for our hair, we need to determine our hair type (porosity, etc.) and use products that are compatible.
It is of the utmost importance that we are fully informed and educated about our hair’s needs.
Using the wrong products on your hair can result in a poor outcome. Your locks may become rough, dull, and lifeless. In addition, there could be an increase of product build up on your strands, making them appear greasy.
Too much of product applied
Ever heard the saying that too much of a good thing can be bad for you? The same goes for hair products.
For the best results, you’ll need to use just the right amount of product for your hair. This is especially true for lipophilic ingredients.
For instance, oils are amazing hair moisturizers, emollients, and conditioners. However if you use too much oil it will make your hair sticky and oily which also attracts dust particles.
Did you know that product build up can also be the result of health conditions? For example, skin conditions, hormonal imbalances, and dietary deficiencies can all contribute to product build up.
If you frequently suffer from product build up, it’s important to see a doctor or health care professional to rule out any underlying health issues.
Overproduction of testosterone
An overproduction of testosterone can lead to an increase in sebum secretion, which in turn can cause waxy buildup on the scalp.
Ingredients Contributing to Waxy Texture
Some ingredients commonly used in hair care products can cause a waxy build up on the hair.
Petrolatum, White Mineral Oil, and other Petroleum-derived Oils
Petroleum-derived ingredients are frequently used in hair care formulations because of their inert nature and cost-benefit.
Petrolatum has been an ingredients used for skin and hair conditioning because of its ability to retain moisture.
These ingredients are strongly occlusive, meaning they form a barrier on the surface of the skin or hair, to prevent water loss.
Their coating is water resistant, making it difficult to rinse off during cleansing. Also, repeated application will leave hair stiff, greasy, oily and waxy.
Silicones are high-tech functionalized polymers that are frequently added into hair care formulations because of their various benefits and multi functional results.5 However, silicones are highly lipophilic materials.
Consider dimethicone for example. Dimethicone is a viscous liquid that creates a water-resistant coating on the hair surface. They stay on hair even after washing as they are difficult to emulsify and dissolve during shampooing.
This gives hair a waxy texture, which is more common for those with fine, natural, and curly hair types.
Humectants are ingredients with the ability to attract and hold water molecules. They impart water molecules to hair and skin and thus work as hydrating ingredients. However, a certain humectant can make hair sticky.
Glycerin is particularly known for this behavior. Products with a high dosage of glycerin can make hair clump together and appear waxy.
Factors Accelerating Hair Becoming Waxy
There are many internal and external factors that can increase the likelihood of experiencing a waxy buildup on your hair strands.
The amount of water in the air greatly affects your hair’s style and how much body it has. When there is more humidity, your hair will absorb more water from the environment.
However, if the hair shaft is already loaded with emollients or polyol (e.g. glycerin), hair may appear waxy or greasy.
This happens because there is a higher concentration of water and oil, or water and humectant mixture on the surface of the hair. The result is that the surface becomes stickier and has an unpleasant texture.
Chemical processes (e.g. bleaching, straightening, or excessive exposure to the sun) makes hair damaged, porous, and with compromised tensile strength.
Damaged hair is more likely to absorb active ingredients due to the larger channel opening (gaps and holes) along the cuticle layers. This applies for proteins, cationic conditioners, and small molecular emollients.
Additionally, chemical processing creates more negative charges sites along the hair shaft. This then attracts more cationic molecules to adsorb on the upper layers of the hair shaft.
That’s why damaged hairs are easy to develop build up from conditioning ingredients. This then leads to having heavy hair that lacks definition, body, and texture.
To achieve the best results, consumers should take care to design and customize their hair care products specifically for damaged hair fibers.
Hard Water Build Up
If you live in an area with hard water, it’s likely that your hair is taking a beating.
Hard water minerals such as calcium and magnesium can deposit on the hair shaft and lead to a number of issues, including:
- Waxy build up
- Lack of manageability
- Tangles and knots
To combat hard water buildup, you’ll need to use a chelating shampoo on a monthly basis. This type of shampoo will help to remove mineral deposits and restore your hair’s natural shine and luster.
Also, consider installing a filtered showerhead. This will help to remove hard water minerals before they have a chance to deposit on your hair.
My favorite filtered showerhead is the one by AqvaPura. I love that this is a handheld ionic purifying shower head filter that comes with mineral stones that act as a water softener. It also has a 3-bead filtration system that helps to filter out any residual chemical impurities.
The softened and purified water will make your skin softer and hair smoother. Additionally, this shower head pressure booster has pinhole-sized nozzles that evenly disperse the water to maximize flow, and it comes with a 2 GPM water restrictor so you can enjoy a stronger water flow twice the rate of a standard shower head.
Dandruff is a common scalp condition that causes flaking, itchiness, and redness. It can be caused by a number of factors, including dry skin, oily skin, fungal infection, psoriasis, eczema, and seborrheic dermatitis.
Dandruff can also cause a waxy buildup on the hair shaft. This is because the flakes of skin that are shed from the scalp can adhere to the hair strands and lead to a buildup of oil and debris.
To combat dandruff and the waxy buildup it can cause, you’ll need to use a dandruff shampoo that contains active ingredients such as zinc pyrithione or selenium sulfide. These ingredients will help to control the overgrowth of yeast on the scalp and reduce the amount of skin shedding.
You should also make sure to regularly wash your hair and scalp with a mild cleanser. This will help to remove any build-up of oil and debris that can lead to dandruff.
How to Get Rid of Waxy Buildup on Hair
Now that we’ve identified some root causes of waxy buildup on hair, let’s explore some ways to get rid of it!
Hair cleansing is important to maintain hair and scalp health. A healthy scalp equals healthy hair. Washing removes dirt, sebum, sweat, product residue, and other unwanted build up on the scalp and hair.
Regularly cleansing your hair will restore hair’s natural body, and especially the bounce and curl definition.
Remove the build up
It is essential to remove product build up from the hair surface.
Clarifying or using an anti-residue shampoo contains surfactants and emulsifiers that dissolve or emulsify emollients, waxes, oils, butter, and cationic polymers from the hair surface.
This leaves the hair looking refreshed, and restore its natural appearance and body!
Those with curly hair should incorporate a clarifying shampoo into their regimen 1-2 times per month.
A sulfate-free formulation is preferred as it does not strip off natural hair lipids preserving its natural texture.
Be sure to follow up with a conditioner or deep conditioner to help replenish lost moisture.
Avoiding greasy ingredients
Petroleum-based ingredients like petrolatum should be avoided. They’re made of large molecules that act as a strong, water-repellent lubricant—which is hard to remove during cleaning.
Choose natural emollients and oils with a light texture, such as sesame seed oil, grapseed oil, baobab oil, or shea butter. These ingredients are beneficial due to their multifunctional benefits and sustainable green tech in the formulation.
Go Slow with Product Application
Apply the product in small sections of the hair, and only use enough to cover the hair. A small amount could be all you need for your conditioning needs.
This approach works effectively to minimize the buildup impact of conditioning ingredients.
Seek Professional Medical Advice
The best way to deal with waxy buildup that is caused by a medical condition, such as seborrheic dermatitis or psoriasis, is to speak with a qualified medical professional.
They can provide you with the best course of treatment to help get your scalp and hair back to health!
Waxy buildup on hair can be unsightly and frustrating. But by following the tips above, you can help prevent it from happening and keep your hair looking its best!
1. Zviak, C., The Science of Hair Care. Taylor & Francis: 1986.
2. Robbins, C. R., Chemical and physical behavior of human hair. 4th ed.; Springer-Verlag: New York, 2002.
3. Hössel; Dieing; Nörenberg; Pfau; Sander, Conditioning polymers in today’s shampoo formulations – efficacy, mechanism, and test methods. Inter. J. of Cosmet. Sci 2000, 22 (1), 1-10.
4. Harkey, M. R., Anatomy and physiology of hair. Forensic Sci.Int. 1993, 63 (1-3), 9-18.
5. O’Lenick, A. J., Silicones for personal care. Allured Pub. Carol Stream, IL: 2008.