May 9, 2022

How To Tell If You Have Product Buildup In Hair: 12 Common Symptoms

The 12 most common signs of product buildup in hair

Reader Evelyn P. has a question about product buildup:

Hi there. I think there might be product built up in my hair, but I'm not sure. I just know that it's not good for your hair to have buildup in it, so I'd like to figure it out so I can change up my routine and fix it. How can you tell if you have buildup?

Thanks for writing, Evelyn! There are a lot of different symptoms of buildup. Typically, people who have buildup have multiple of the below symptoms. We hope this helps!

1. Your hair looks darker than normal

Hair that doesn't suffer from buildup has a smooth cuticle to reflect light. This creates the appearance of shine. If your hair is suffering from buildup, less light is evenly reflected - instead, it's bounced around in different directions, and more of it is absorbed by the pigment in your hair. The effect is similar to how your hair looks darker when it's wet - the buildup makes it more likely for the light to be reflected or refracted back into the hair fiber. So if you've noticed that your hair looks a smidge darker than normal, there's a chance it might be because of some pesky buildup. 

2. Your hair is piece-y

Think about when your hair is wet, straight out of the shower. It sticks together, forming distinct clumps of hair. Product buildup creates a similar, if less dramatic, effect. It won't feel wet or look shiny the way that wet hair does, but it will have that same stuck-together look.  Dry hair without buildup, meanwhile, isn't very difficult to separate strand by strand - sure, it'll stick together a little bit, but not to the same degree as wet, or even just damp, hair. 

3. Your hair is holding a curl suspiciously well...

Hey, product buildup isn't all bad. If you curl your hair and the curl holds way better than normal, it might be that the build up is doing some extra heavy lifting. Sometimes buildup provides a little extra glue to keep curls in shape.

4. Or your hair won't hold a curl at all

On the flip side, sometimes buildup will keep your hair stick-straight. The weight of the buildup can make it super tricky for your hair to keep a curl. And as nice as it'd be to be able to choose if your product build up makes your hair easy to curl or not, well, we just aren't that lucky. 

5. You mysteriously have zero frizz

If your hair is normally frizzy and it suddenly stays perfectly in place, it might be because of the weight and stickiness of buildup. 

6. Product is showing up on your hairbrush

If there's white-ish stuff showing up on your hair brush or comb, it's probably buildup. This kind of white stuff is different from dandruff - it won't be flakey, nor will it be oily like sebum. Product buildup typically resembles teeny tiny strands of white hair, and it sticks to the hairbrush quite stubbornly. 

7. Your hair is tough to brush through

Healthy, well-conditioned hair is usually easy to brush. If the cuticle lays flat, strands don't awkwardly rub up against one another. Instead, they glide smoothly against the brush. Hair that suffers from build up is more likely to tangle, causing resistance. 

8. Your hair feels waxy/product-y, even after you shower

This one is kind of obvious. You know what your hair should feel like when it's clean - it should feel light, bouncy, and, well, clean. What's a good way to really describe clean hair other than clean? Regardless, hair with buildup doesn't feel like that. It feels waxy and weighted down.

9. Your hair is flat

Buildup is heavy and weighs down individual strands. As a result, you won't have the bouncy, happy, clean hair that you're used to. If you have buildup on your strands, you'll find it to be a lot harder to get some good volume in your tresses. 

10. Your normally wavy hair is straighter than usual

Have you ever seen those products where you spray or massage them into your hair and they straighten it  without heat? Those products temporarily give your hair the same heavy, weighted quality that you get from buildup - the difference is that if you're using a product that does this intentionally, it's much easier to wash it off. Buildup coats and weights down your hair so that it is unable to form your typical curl pattern. 

11. Your hair gets oily faster than usual

Sebum is the oil created by the hair follicles on your scalp. It's your hair's natural conditioning system, and gets pushed out by your hair follicles to provide moisture to your strands. This is why your hair looks greasy at the roots if you haven't washed it for a bit - excess sebum makes the hair look oiled down and flat. Since product buildup adds weight to the hair, it causes it to be straighter than normal. This is helpful to the sebum, since straight hair is easier to travel down and coat than wavy hair. As a result, you'll notice that the lengths of your hair tend to look dirty faster, since sebum is able to move down it more easily.

12. Your hair isn't as shiny as usual

Remember what we said about how buildup prevents light from reflecting evenly off the cuticle of your hair fiber? Not only will this make your hair appear a little darker, it will also make it appear less shiny. The buildup on your hair will cause the light to be reflected in a multitude of directions, instead of in just one direction, the way it would be if your cuticle wasn't obscured by buildup. Then again, if your hair has a heck of a ton of buildup, it might actually make your hair look more shiny, since sebum will be able to travel down it more easily due to the hair being straightened and weighted down by buildup. This won't necessarily be a good shiny though - it will be an "oh gosh I need to wash my hair it's so oily" shiny.

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