Hair is fickle, which means most of us have spent a decent amount of time figuring out a routine that keeps our manes healthy and looking like the best possible version of themselves. Usually, that routine involves a product or two — or five — to get the job done. But as it turns out, sometimes those products can actually be doing more harm than good. If you’re using the wrong products for your hair, layering on products in excess, or skipping exfoliation as part of your scalp and hair routine, you could start to deal with product buildup sooner or later (which can cause hair to look more limp, heavy, or oily). So to get to the bottom of product buildup, what causes it, and how to get rid of it for good, we tapped board-certified dermatologist and Surface Deep founder Dr. Alicia Zalka. Ahead, she shares everything you need to know — your hair will thank her.
What Is Product Buildup?
Product buildup is exactly what it sounds like — an accumulation of hair products that, when used too often or in excess, can create a waxy layer on top of the hair and scalp.
“Some of us see flaking and automatically stop our good scalp and hair care routines by not shampooing,” says Dr. Zalka. “Then, products used for styling layer on the [scalp and hair], creating buildup. Daily use of almost any kind of product can cause buildup if not rinsed out properly or if used in excess without routine cleansing.”
Common Signs You Might Have Product Buildup on Your Scalp and Hair
“The telltale signs that you need to exfoliate or reduce buildup include: noticing flakes that seem like dandruff, the hair looking oily or dull, and a faint odor of the scalp,” says Dr. Zalka. “Oftentimes, a scaly scalp is a sign that there is a buildup of either hair care product(s) or natural oils,” she continues. “The scalp is home to resident sebum oil, which maintains the skin barrier and prevents drying out of the surface skin layers. However, these skin layers combined with the sebum oils and remnants of hair products can result in a residue that may flake or appear scaly and dry.”
How to Get Rid of Product Buildup, For Good
“A common misconception I see in my practice is patients saying my scalp seems flaky so I stopped washing my hair so often,” says Dr. Zalka. “By shampooing less frequently or avoiding cleansing the scalp, the problem can get worse.” Be sure to wash your hair vigorously at least 1-2 times per week, and up to 4 times per week if your hair gets particularly oily in-between washes.
If you wear a protective style or other hairstyles that prevents you from regularly washing your hair, Dr. Zalka recommends using a spray applicator to apply cleanser and rinse, and then to dab the scalp with a makeup remover pad to remove buildup.
Try Hair Products Infused With Salicylic Acid
Dr. Zalka says that if your scalp is “very oily with noticeable dandruff-type flakes,” you should look for hair products that contain salicylic acid, like Sunday Riley’s Clean Rinse Clarifying Scalp Serum. This rinse-out treatment is loaded with glycolic acid, salicylic acid, rose clay, zinc, witch hazel, and more to draw oil, impurities, and product buildup away from the scalp and hair. Just use the pointed nozzle to apply Clean Rinse directly to your scalp, then massage the formula into your scalp and let it work for at least three minutes — then rinse out and follow up with your favorite shampoo and conditioner.
Alternate Your Washes With a Clarifying Shampoo
On the note of shampooing, Dr. Zalka also recommends adding a clarifying shampoo to your rotation. “Alternate brands and types of shampoos frequently, and look for clarifying shampoos to use once or twice a month (or more often if necessary),” she says. Think of clarifying shampoos like traditional shampoos with a boost. They contain extra-strength surfactants (cleaners) to cut through oil, grime, and — you guessed it — product buildup. It’s worth noting though that if you color your hair, you’ll notice faster fade if you choose to use a clarifying shampoo.
Try an Apple Cider Vinegar Rinse
Apple cider vinegar has a host of benefits, from aiding digestion to serving as a key ingredient in many balancing face masks. As such, it should come as no surprise that apple cider vinegar can benefit the hair and scalp in the product buildup department, as well. More specifically, Dr. Zalka recommends using some good old-fashioned ACV as a rinse to help balance pH levels. “Try using a small amount of apple cider vinegar on wet hair as a rinse after shampooing,” she says. “It acts as a ‘reset button’ for the scalp by neutralizing pH.”
Try a Targeted Application Technique
When it comes to eliminating product buildup (and the subsequent symptoms, like flakiness, that can occur), it’s important to think of the hair as having separate anatomy and treating those areas differently. Think of it as your arm is broken up into your shoulder, forearm, wrists, and hands. “Those with long hair can think of the scalp and the ends of the hair as completely separate,” says Dr. Zalka. “To avoid drying out the hair itself, shampoo the scalp normally, but avoid lathering the ends. Conditioners should then be used on the ends of the hair.”