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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).

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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