One of our readers, Joanne, wrote in with a question about waxy-feeling hair:
"My hair feels waxy after washing. What do I do about it? I just washed it, so this is really confusing to me. It feels like it's coated in something, and it looks dull. How do I fix it?"
Thanks for writing in, Joanne! We'll do our darndest to answer your question.
First, you have to figure out the cause - it might be something unexpected!
There are many reasons that hair can feel waxy after washing. Just a few include:
If your hair feels waxy, your first step is to figure out what's causing it. Accuracy is super important here, since an inaccurate treatment may make the problem worse.
To explain why an accurate diagnosis is important, let's consider one very common cause of icky, waxy feeling hair: damage to the hair cuticle. We'll have to go into the weeds with this example, so bear with us as we explain. It'll be worth it in the end!
The hair cuticle is the outermost layer of your hair, and it's made up of teeny-tiny little scales. The scales overlap one another, like tiles on a roof. If you look at a healthy strand of hair under a powerful microscope, you'll see the scales laying flat, all facing the same direction. If you run your fingers down a healthy strand of hair, it should feel smooth, like there's little to no resistance.
When the cuticle becomes damaged, some of the scales are raised so that they face the wrong direction. Others become ripped away entirely. The end result is that the scales no longer all face the same direction, so the surface of the hair is no longer smooth. Instead, it feels sticky and waxy, due to the resistance and friction from the raised and missing scales.
When most people encounter hair that feels sticky and waxy, they don't assume that their hair is damaged. Instead, they assume that there's something coating their hair that needs to be washed off. And, spoiler alert, when you rigorously scrub damaged hair, the damage gets worse, not better. The unfortunate individual is left with hair that feels even more waxy than before.
So yup, accurate understanding of the cause of waxy hair is essential before you jump into an intervention. And to get an idea of how to recognize and intervene with the different causes, we spoke with hairstylist Samuel Ashcroft of Josh Wood Colour.
"To determine if the hair is waxy due to product build-up, I take a section of the hair and run a hairpin or tail comb down the cuticle," shares Samuel. "If product residue comes off the hair, it's due to product build-up."
You'll also be more likely to experience waxy hair from buildup if you use a ton of styling products. Per Samuel: "Products that contribute to waxy hair are usually oils, waxes and shine sprays as they coat the hair in the product. They are great to use to achieve a style but you should always use a cleansing shampoo afterwards."
How to intervene if the cause is product buildup: You're in need of a more powerful shampoo than the one you're currently using, since product residue is getting left behind after you wash. This isn't permission to go for a sulfate based shampoo - sure, that would get rid of the buildup, but it also might damage your cuticle. Instead, find a shampoo (or formulate your own with us!) that can get the job done without harming your delicate strands.
Alternatively, you can also change up the products that you're using to style your hair. Take advantage of sample size products, and see which ones are easiest to wash out. Everyone's hair is unique, so sometimes the best thing you can do is experiment with different products and different ingredients to see what happens.
"You can determine if the hair is waxy at home by seeing how well you get a lather with your shampoo when washing," says Samuel. "If there aren't plenty of bubbles when washing, the hair is not getting a thorough clean."
How to intervene if the cause is product buildup: Same as with product buildup - you need a stronger shampoo. But remember, no sulfates allowed!
You can also change up your washing strategies. Don't just dump shampoo on your head, half-heartedly swish it around, and then rise. Really take the time to scrub your scalp, either with a silicone scalp scrubber or with your fingertips. Don't use your nails, since that can irritate the delicate skin on your scalp. Concentrate your scrubbing on your scalp, instead of your strands, and make sure you hit every inch with care. Also, wash twice: "the first shampoo breaks down build-up, and the second completely removes residue," says Samuel.
If you'd like to learn more about how to thoroughly cleanse your hair while using a sulfate free shampoo, we recommend this article!
Hard water won't only affect your hair. "Hard water will leave other clues in your home, such as leaving residue on dishes and in the bath/shower," says Samuel. So if you're constantly scrubbing soap scum off your shower and your hair is waxy, well, the two could very well be connected.
How to intervene: We have a whole article on this! Check it out here.
"Hair that is waxy from hard water and over-processed hair will both feel dry," says Samuel. "However, over-processed hair is more prone to having different varying textures throughout all the hair. Raised cuticles can be checked for feeling hair strands to see if they feel rough."
Fortunately, it's pretty easy to do a raised cuticle test.
Pinch two or three strands of hair between your pointer finger and thumb, and move them down the hair strands, towards your roots. You should feel no resistance. If you notice more resistance towards the ends of your strands, you likely have some damaged ends - you may want to book a trim.
Now, go the opposite way, towards your roots. You should experience a slight resistance, and, if you listen closely, even a small squeaking sound. If you experience a similar, if smaller, level of resistance while running your fingers down the waxy-feeling areas in your hair, you may be suffering from a damaged hair cuticle.
How to intervene: If you're chemically processing your hair with bleach and hair dye, it's time to stop. Same thing goes for heat styling - at the very least, you need to cut down on the amount of heat you use, and invest in a good heat protectant to apply to your hair before you style. You also may want to purchase heat styling tools that allow you to control the exact temperature, so you can expose it to the lowest amount of heat possible while still getting the results you want.
You would also do well to invest in a reparative conditioner, one that's been specifically formulated for damaged hair (and if you're interested, hi! We create those!) A conditioner that's formulated specifically for damaged hair will include ingredients that fill in the gaps of missing cuticle scales, and can temporarily "glue together" split ends.
Also, it's time to get hair masks in your hair care rotation! Look for masks that are formulated specifically for repair and damage prevention. You'll also want to keep an eye out for bond-building treatments, similar to those produced by Olaplex.
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