What Causes Product Buildup in Hair According to Experts

Whenever I wear a protective style–like my current box braids–the first question that pops into my head after about the third or fourth week of wearing them is, “what causes product buildup and how do I get rid of it as soon as possible?” This is the inevitable downside of having hair, period. The gunky stuff that gets stuck under your fingernails when you go in for an itch (gross, I know) will happen at one point or another.

The obvious culprit behind this unfortunate reoccurrence is that we’re going in our products, layering way too much and forgetting that it piles up and hardens over time. And while a scalp rinse and scrub can feel like a godsend (here’s my current fave), I’d rather prevent the problem altogether than address it later through an exhausting amount of trial-and-error. As with most of my beauty conundrums, I saved myself a Google search and instead consulted with professionals who actually know what they’re talking about.

As it turns out, there are three very specific–and in my opinion, unexpected–things we continue to overlook when it comes to product buildup.

The Clarifying Shampoo Scam

Okay, so this one hurt to read. As someone who takes multiple hot yoga classes a week and almost always has her hair in a protective style, clarifying formulas have been a consistent part of my routine. But according to Dr. Jill Fichtel, founder of Nashville’s Transformative Dermatology and Dr. Matthew J Zirwas, clarifying shampoos are mostly a marketing claim designed to get you to buy an extra bottle of shampoo. One word: WOMP

“Even if they do have cleaning agents that are stronger than regular shampoo, the risk of irritating your scalp would outweigh the benefits,” they said. “If you really just can’t live without clarifying shampoo, try to use it to wash the hair that isn’t close to your scalp so that you can mostly avoid getting the shampoo on your scalp.” Phew, so I don’t have to go cold turkey. Noted. 


Skipping the Serum Step

On the other hand, another add-on product does the scalp plenty of good. According to Jennifer Yepez, Kérastase Consulting Hair Stylist, a serum, like the Kérastase Résistance Serum Extentioniste, promotes a healthy and balanced growth environment for hair. It’s especially effective when combined with an exfoliant and will curb or completely prevent icky buildup over time.

“I love Kérastase Gommage Chronologiste as a refresher. Not only does it really clean your scalp, but it’s also incredibly luxurious with its gold color and amazing smell. I recommend using it before every shampoo,” she said.

You’re Not Rinsing Enough

Yepez also makes another important point: when we don’t wash our skin every day, the buildup is bound to pop up. Think of it as you would your skincare regimen. When you don’t wash your face every day, the dead skin cells pile up and breakouts soon follow. While she doesn’t recommend washing every day, it’s still important to cleanse consistently and not let too many days go in between washes. 

At the same time, if you’re not washing every day, it’s imperative that you pay closer attention to other parts of your cleansing routine. Dr. Fichtel and Dr. Zirwas note that the more buildup, the more “rinse, lather, repeat” cycles you’ll need to enforce. “If you don’t wash your hair every day because you don’t want to strip out the natural oils (rather than not washing it just to save time), you can prevent buildup by simply rinsing your hair well with water in the shower,” they said. “Without the shampoo to dissolve it, most of the natural oil will stay on your scalp and hair, BUT most of the products you’ve used are water soluble (unlike the natural oils) and will be rinsed off by plain water.”

Alternatively, if you find that plain water doesn’t get the job done, you can cut the water with apple cider vinegar or lemon juice too. Mix either in a 1-to-1 ratio with water and use it as a rinse in the shower. “The slight acidity of these two products makes them work better at dissolving residue than water alone,” says Fichtel and Ziwas. 

To be honest, I’m still sad about the clarifying shampoo myth, but at least I can hold onto my serums and bi-weekly cleansing schedule.

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