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Exxon Valdez Head: Oily Hair That Just Won’t Get Clean

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

Usually I’m pretty good at figuring out what my body needs–what my skin can handle, what kind of shampoo to buy, etc. After all, I’ve had it forever, right? But disaster has recently struck. In the last three weeks, my hair has gone crazy and it simply WON’T get clean. It’s not glamorous anyway, as I don’t have it colored or style it beyond blow-drying, but this is just grotesque. Please brace yourself for when you open the pictures.

Here are the basics of my head: every hairdresser has told me I have “very thin hair but a lot of it.” I shampoo the top and condition the bottom every morning (like you, I have to do everyday and I’ll never be able to do otherwise), then blow it dry. For the past few months I’ve been using Sunsilk Anti-Flat, followed by their Volumizing Creme at my roots before drying. For being so cheap, it was actually a great shampoo for me, but suddenly it got bad in the back. It would feel greasy and stringy like I was missing whole pieces of my head, especially underneath in the back, like the shampoo wasn’t getting there. Time for a switch, I told myself, and maybe even a professional shampoo! The hairdresser uses Bumble and bumble Thickening Shampoo and Conditioner on me, plus she recommended their Sunday Shampoo for once a week to get rid of all the products and have a fresh start. So, I gave the Sunday a go, and that day was a little flimsy and not so nice to touch, but I figured it would get better.

No. It has worsened. From the crown of my head and back, it is all just one nasty, unmanageable, unclean mess. I gave B&b a few more days with varying amounts of shampoo–from a quarter-sized dollop to the tip of my pinky, but it’s not happening. I tried switching back to Sunsilk, and it’s not happening. I tried using the Sunday as an everyday, and while that was the tiniest bit better, it was not enough. I’ve tried rinsing my hair out way longer than usual just to make sure I got every last drop, drying it with cold air rather than hot, letting it air dry, and no matter what, the back of my head is in the condition it would be if I had spent all this time just not washing my hair.

Nothing has changed in my life: same diet, same environment, same miserable weather. Is this just my usual gross morning hair and I’m not using enough to clean it, or is this build up that I’m not rinsing out enough? But I’ve been concentrating on distributing everything evenly, and it’s still only the back of my head. With a salon appointment a ghastly two weeks away, Amalah, please: What is going on with my head?


Okay, I have so much to say about this subject. Please hold while I try to figure out what to say first.

Fine! I will open with a confession. I HAD THE SAME PROBLEM ONCE. For weeks, I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I would shampoo and rinse and rinse and rinse and then when I went to blowdry my hair it looked like I had missed a huge chunk of hair in the back of my head. Oily, stringy, dirty. I blamed my layered haircut, I blamed my shampoo, I blamed the crappy city water pressure and the crappy city water.
Turns out there were a few things to blame, although the primary culprit was my own shampooing technique. I was rubbing and lathering and rinsing, but I was not SCRUBBING.
I think those of us with oily hair develop a bit of a complex when it comes to touching our hair and roots. And understandably so — you know what happens if you spend too much time flipping your hair around during the day. But it’s different in the shower. You really need to get in there. Think about the kind of washing you get at the salon — a nice deep scalp massage with maximum fingertip pressure. THAT’S how oily roots and scalps get clean. Exfoliate the dead skin cells away and work your shampoo (a nickel-sized amount for you, I’d say) into a furious lather.

Rinsing the shampoo out IS important, but what I’m seeing in your hair is most likely NOT shampoo residue. I’m seeing styling products and general everyday oil crap, which means rinsing is not the big problem here. (I’d try upgrading that volumizing cream, by the way. A light spray mousse might be better.) I just don’t think you’re really scrubbing the hair clean in the first place. And oil begets more oil, so I’m thinking your hair (like mine) has just hit the wall and had enough with being only sort-of cleaned each day.

(And don’t worry, unlike soooo many oily-hair advice columns and how-to’s, I won’t bother with the, “your scalp is overcompensating! try shampooing every other day!” thing. I know. I KNOW that doesn’t work for hair like ours. I’ve tried it. If anything, you might want to shampoo twice a day — I think “rinse and repeat” is a better tactic for our hair than anything else.)

When you rinse, try to separate your hair into horizontal layers (using the end of a rat-tail comb helps if your hair is prone to tangling and clumping when wet) and aim the water right in between the layer. A handheld shower attachment inches away is awesome, if you’ve got one, but using a cup to aid in rinsing is pretty good too.)

Now, all of this is not to say that technique is everything and your choice of shampoo is nothing. It obviously matters, and you know what? I kind of hate Bumble & Bumble shampoos. Even though every stylist I’ve gone to loves and recommends them. I never thought they were right for my hair. They’re just very heavy and conditioner-like. So if you’ve got thick hair that drinks up moisture by the bucketloads, B&B is great. But fine, oily hair like ours needs that perfect shampoo blend of nourishing and deep-cleaning, but ultimately needs to be very, very light and free of additives and fragrances. So I’m not really surprised that the B&B stuff didn’t help.

In looking at the SunSilk shampoo varieties, I’m not seeing one that is jumps out as the right choice for you. A clarifying shampoo would be good, but I also don’t want to solve the oil problem at the expense of your volume problem. I am about 75% sure I solved my own Phase of Ick by switching to Pureology’s Volumizing Shampoo and scrubbing the bejezus out of my head. Fewer additives, lovely lather, extremely clean-rinsing. The stuff is awesome for the health of your hair, but doesn’t have that heavy conditioner-like quality of the B&B. Conditioner only belongs on your ends, as you know, so…yeah.
Regular readers (I think we have a couple of those?) may remember that I put my foot down after Pureology’s latest price increase and now use Wella’s Volumizing Shampoo instead. I think it may be even lighter than the Pureology, so if you don’t want to spend that much money, go for the Wella.

Now, both the Wella and the Pureology are technically for colored hair, which brings me to my final bit of advice. If you’ve ever thought about getting some highlights, now might be the time. If your hair has truly hit some kind of hormonal or age-related chemical wall and the extra oil persists no matter what shampoo you use or how much you scrub, adding haircolor is a very real and very viable solution. My own fight with the oil? Came during a period where I stopped coloring my hair. I went back to my natural dirty blonde color and decided to let the sun give me some natural highlights. And then when the weather changed and there was no more sun, I went back to highlights and ta-da! I have NEVER had a problem with oil to that degree since.

So. Since I was not lying about having a lot to say about this topic, I will recap:

Step One: Improve your shampoo technique. Give equal focus and energy to scrubbing your roots and scalp as rinsing the shampoo out. Massage your scalp as hard as you can and rinse in small sections.

Step Two: Thick, goopy shampoos are not your friend. Ditch the B&B and try Pureology or Wella. If you think Step One is part of the problem, keep on with the SunSilk and consider adding one of the other two for every-other-day use. Hair like ours does seem to suffer from product fatigue and switching shampoos does help.

Step Three: Entirely up to you, but consider some highlights. (Just make sure your stylist applies highlights top to bottom and not just on the top layer of your hair.) Highlights slow down the oil production without significantly damaging thin hair (provided you care for them with a top-shelf shampoo, obviously).

Published March 10, 2008. Last updated August 30, 2017.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Cassandra

    March 10, 2008 at 10:34 am

    I had the same problem when I really started using product (particularly volumizing products). I could not get my hair clean, for the life of me. I worked at an Ulta at the time, and finally sucked it up and asked the salon manager what was up.
    She was snippy, and told me OBVIOUSLY my hair wasn’t clean enough, because I’m totally breaking a rule and not shampooing twice. EVERYONE knows you ALWAYS shampoo twice. That’s why the shampoo bottles are bigger. Duh.
    While I’d never heard this, and almost didn’t try it because she was such a bitch (I’ll just keep my dirty hair! Take that!) it really helped.
    Also, parting my hair during the second shampoo and working it in like crazy, like Amalah suggested, made it work even better.

  • appelsauce

    March 10, 2008 at 10:41 am

    Although I don’t share this hair type, I can still relate to the problem. I don’t know what it is about that spot at the back of my head (maybe it’s the spot getting matted down the most while I sleep?), but it’s always been stubborn about getting clean. What seems to help in my case is to start at the back of my head when shampooing, then using a lathering/massaging technique like Amalah suggested. The lather is more than enough to spread to the rest of my scalp, and by starting at the problem area, I make sure that the gunk back there gets the full power of my shampoo.

  • Alison

    March 10, 2008 at 11:05 am

    I won’t argue that this is about technique more than shampoo choice, but if you want to try a shampoo that will get you ridiculously clean: Lush’s Big shampoo gets you pretty much as clean as possible. It has salt in it. It’s insane and awesome and I love it. If you don’t have a Lush store near you, check out lush dot com.

  • mollyawesome

    March 10, 2008 at 11:21 am

    You. Are. Amazing. Not only am I wicked excited that you chose MY question, but this helps tons. You’re right, I definitely don’t scrub enough, I’ve always been afraid I’d rip my hair out or something. I had my salon appointment last week and mentioned it to them, and since it’s B&B Central there, they were all in denial and were sure it was my water pressure, but it just ain’t happening. Fortunately, I DID pluck up the courage to ask about highlights that would look natural and not streaky, and she highly recommended it. With her and your opinions combined, I am convinced: I will get highlights!
    Thanks Amalah!

  • Nicole

    March 10, 2008 at 11:55 am

    Ohhhh, thank you for this post. I get greasy only on the top of my head from certain shampoos (and dry everywhere else). I usually solve the problem by scrubbing the holy hell out of that patch o’ greasiness for about a week, and never touching that shampoo again (Pantene is the culprit. And Garnier Fructis. And any other drugstore brand, it seems. Except Dove.) I’ll usually steal some of Darren’s Neutrogena clarifying for the mega scrub.
    The best shampoo I found was Kiehl’s – its nice, light, foams well and you don’t need a lot of it. It is, of course, quite expensive, especially north of the 49th parallel. And its not animal tested – shiny, happy bonus 🙂

  • Andrea

    March 10, 2008 at 12:06 pm

    As an emergency tactic, you also might want to try putting about a tablespoon of baking soda into a giant cup of warm water and rinsing your hair with that after you’ve shampooed. You can feel the grease slide right out of your hair. It’s dynamic.

  • LGraves65

    March 10, 2008 at 2:28 pm

    I agree with Angela. But I always add the baking soda to my first shampoo — just dump half a handful or so on top of your shampoo, make a paste, and wash away. Then wash again with just shampoo. Result: Clean, shiny, non-greasy hair!

  • LGraves65

    March 10, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    Andrea, not Angela. D’oh!

  • Chataine

    March 10, 2008 at 4:47 pm

    Aha! I had this problem a few weeks ago and yeah, just had to switch shampoo (no more thick moisturizing goopiness) AND start really scrubbing the hell out of the back of my head. (That sentence reads weirdly. Hmmm.) I am so glad it wasn’t just me! I hated feeling like a greasebucket all the time.

  • Gamma

    March 10, 2008 at 7:03 pm

    I always have to brush my hair really thoroughly right before showering. And I mean right before, the tiny micro tangles that my hair gets in two minutes just kill trying to get it clean.
    Oh, and my current shampoo, which I love, is Malibu Swim & Sport. Unfortunately you can only find it at swim stores.

  • Alice_R

    March 11, 2008 at 4:31 pm

    I agree with the baking soda tip. Once I started mixing some in with my regular shampoo, my greasy problem pretty much disappeared (and I have exactly the same type of hair as you guys). I also take the time to ensure that I give my scalp a really good scrub and cover my entire head with lather (not including the ends of my hair).
    My greasiness issues also got worse when I stopped coloring my hair (chemically, anyway – I use henna now and love it) – but I won’t go back to dye, so baking soda and scrubbing it is!

  • Mindy

    March 11, 2008 at 9:13 pm

    When you give your scalp a good massage, make sure your fingernails are not involved. They can do a lot of damage to a wet scalp. Just my two cents worth.

  • kathy

    January 25, 2009 at 5:56 am

    hi there,
    just reading all these comments with interest, but need to point out that while baking soda is FANTASTIC as a cleanser for oily hair, BE CAREFUL IF YOU HAVE COLOURED YOUR HAIR WITH A SEMI OR PERMENT COLOUR.
    I had fantastically clean air, but because the baking soda is basically a bleeach, i was stripping the colour out of my hair!!!
    Just so you realise…

  • Cindy

    March 8, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    I have had normal hair for all of my life, and about a month ago the crown of my scalp has been clumpy/oily/waxy and has recently spread to the right of my head of my bangs. it is DISGUSTING. Tried using vinegar and water, different shampoos, viguorusly scrubbing, nothing works 🙁 please help 🙁

  • alley

    September 12, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    I’ve had oily hair since I was in Middle School/Junior High. For 20+ years, I used the same over-the-counter oily hair formula shampoo. Then, about 2 years ago, I tried using a variety of regular shampoos, but my hair would get oily and stringy by the end of the day. I had to wash my hair every day.
    Then, my hair-stylist suggested the Tea + Protein Shampoo from the Made from Earth line. I was hesitant at first because I didnt think organic shampoos were anything special, but I decided to try it.
    It took a few tries, but now I only have to wash my hair every other day! Hooray! Its a thick shampoos so it doesnt run through my fingers and down the drain before I can even get it onto my hair!
    I saw a HUGE improvement on my oily hair – highly recommended if you are trying to have normal hair. To avoid overdrying, I use their conditioner also.

  • Carly

    December 9, 2009 at 1:22 am

    I also have fine hair but lots of it and have suffered relentlessly with the same gunk onmy hair after cleaning it. I have tried DOZENS of shampoos and acv rinses, etc. there is a shampoo made by a company called Neways and it’s called Ultimate Shampoo and it is very thin and pure with almost NO additives to it. they even have a demo on their website showing how it rinses clean better than other shampoos. it’s on the expensive side and can be a hassle to order but the website is hope this helps as i know how frustrating it can be.

  • Me

    March 12, 2014 at 4:49 pm

    BEST way to fix this…. go and get an oil treatment at a hair dresser. I believet that the reason I got really oily was because I washed my hair every day – and I obviously started to over produce oil. So I went to a hair dresser across from my work at lunch time and got an oil treatment – my hair was aaaamazing afterwards. I didn’t wash my hair again for a couple of days (I didn’t need to) and then started back with my normal routine again… it worked perfectly. Moral of the story – give your hair a break, I dont wash my hair one day a week, and I keep it product free when I can.