We've all had it happen: You take extra time and effort to wash and style, hoping that your hard work will result in great hair for at least a day or two, only to find your strands heavy and greasy to the touch after just a few hours. Or perhaps you washed your hair in the shower, but it still feels waxy. You may find that it sometimes takes multiple shampoos to get hair feeling truly free of any wax or grease.
While there are many ways to combat buildup on the scalp and hair, we wanted to understand what causes that waxy buildup on the hair in the first place. There seems to be a lot of conflicting advice when it comes to what is and isn't good for hair, so we turned to the experts—board-certified dermatologist Rebecca Marcus, MD, and hairstylist Greg Starkman—to answer the question "why does my hair feel waxy?" once and for all.
Meet the Expert
Keep reading to learn the reasons that your hair feels waxy and what you can do about it.
You're Using the Wrong Ingredients
One of the most common causes of waxy-feeling hair is the ingredients in the products we use—including literal wax. "Waxes are primarily found in products such as conditioners and repair masks along with styling pomades, gels, and blow-out lotions," explains Starkman. "While a number of brands will claim that these ingredients are water soluble, they do require a shampoo or chelating treatment to remove them."
Starkman says that ingredients like resins, silicones, dimethicones, plasticizers, and polyquaterniums 7, 9, 12, 14 are potential waxy-feeling culprits, as they are designed to adhere to the hair shaft to create the illusion of shiny, smooth hair. "While these ingredients can enhance the initial appearance of hair, they ultimately build up on the shaft and compromise hair health over time," shares Starkman. Marcus adds that "ingredients such as dimethicone and beeswax can take a little extra effort to clean from the hair, and can accumulate on strands and in the scalp when used frequently and not removed entirely."
So are these ingredients something you should completely avoid? Not quite. Marcus says there is no need to avoid these ingredients if you love them and they work well for your hair, but you will have to put in that extra effort to cleanse them out. For this reason, Starkman recommends avoiding them altogether to optimize hair health.
You're Using Too Many Styling Products
This one might seem obvious, but sometimes hair feels waxy not because of what product you used but because of how much you applied. Every head of hair is different, and in the age of online hair tutorials, it's easy to find that the amount of styling product one creator uses for their hair leaves yours feeling heavy and greasy.
Unfortunately, it often takes trial and error to find the right ratio for you, but Marcus says it's important to start slow—especially with any products that are known to cause buildup. "With heavier ingredients, it’s generally best to use a small amount of product to avoid weighing hair down," she explains. You can always add more product later, but it's almost impossible to remove buildup without fully washing your hair.
You Didn't Follow the Instructions
In the same vein as knowing how much product to apply, it's also important to read product labels to understand their intended use. Product instructions often have recommendations on how much product to use, as well as where on your head the product should be applied.
The perfect example of this is conditioner. Many people automatically apply conditioner the same way that they apply shampoo—all over their scalp and hair. However, most conditioner bottles do not recommend all-over application. Marcus says conditioner should be applied from the ears down, not directly to the scalp. This is because it often contains heavier ingredients that help to make hair feel silky, but that can immediately cause the hair at your scalp to feel waxy and heavy. Applying products like conditioner incorrectly can often render them unhelpful as they create new problems like grease and buildup, so it's best to follow the guidelines provided by the hair product's label.
You Don't Wash Your Hair Enough
No matter what products you use on your hair, it's equally important to wash your hair often enough to prevent it from feeling waxy. According to Marcus, the hair and scalp should be washed thoroughly every day or every other day; however, she does offer the caveat that some people can get by with washing even less—everyone is different. It's important to consider your hair's natural oil production level and the amount of buildup-causing products you use in your routine when trying to determine the best frequency of shampooing for your hair.
In addition to the frequency of how often you wash your hair, Marcus also recommends considering the number of times that you cleanse each wash. "If hair is being washed less frequently, it may be helpful to wash, rinse, and repeat to ensure all products are removed," she explains. In fact, many salons double-shampoo hair before styling for this very reason. It can be difficult to remove all products and waxy buildup from hair in the first shampoo, so a second lather and rinse may help to remove any that is left behind.
You're Not Rinsing Well
Once you're in the shower and cleansing (or even double cleansing) your hair, it's important to allow enough time for the cleanser to rinse out. According to Marcus, failure to rinse hair completely can contribute to buildup on the scalp and hair, especially if your shampoo contains silicones or waxes. This can then be compounded by not rinsing your conditioner out properly either.
It may be worth sectioning your hair in the shower with a wide-toothed comb to ensure that the shampoo has been totally rinsed out. If you don't fully rinse the shampoo before applying conditioner remnants of the shampoo suds can prevent the conditioner from doing its job to soften your strands.
You Need to Up Your Cleansing Routine
While it's important to shampoo regularly, sometimes standard cleansers are not enough to tackle that waxy feeling on your hair. Depending on the types of products you use to style your hair, you may need to incorporate a more comprehensive cleansing into your routine, such as a detox or clarifying treatment. "Detoxing the hair is critical in removing buildup and impurities left behind by styling products as well as mineral and iron deposits that can be found in your shower water," explains Starkman. "We recommend a detox one to two times a month to maintain healthy hair." If you need more intense cleansing regularly, consider using a clarifying shampoo once a week.
When it comes to detoxing, Marcus recommends a diluted apple cider vinegar rinse: "Mix apple cider vinegar with water in a 1:5 ratio, spray onto the hair, and allow it to sit for two minutes. Rinse thoroughly with water and then follow with a light conditioner from the ears down. (Do not apply conditioner directly to the scalp.)"
Starkman suggests the Detox Hair Mask ($30) from Innersense, a charcoal and kaolin clay-based mask that helps to break down and remove buildup from the hair shaft without over stripping it of its natural oils.
You Need to Upgrade Your Shower Head
Finally, all your hard work to avoid waxy ingredients and cleanse as often as you need to to avoid buildup can be lost if you live in an area with "hard" water with waxy deposits. Starkman explains that mineral and iron deposits can be found in your shower water, which can then build up on your hair and result in rough- or waxy-feeling hair. Many shower heads on the market include a filter for these minerals and deposits to limit the amount that ends up in your hair, like the AquaBliss High Output Revitalizing Shower Filter ($36). This is a renter-friendly option to reduce the concentration of these minerals in the water you use to wash your hair.
There are a number of things that can cause hair to feel waxy, including heavy ingredients, infrequent washing, and improper rinsing. However, the degree to which these factors affect your hair may vary depending on your personal hair type and texture. It's important to monitor your hair and scalp health for any changes and if you notice waxy buildup, try implementing some of the solutions provided by our experts.