Sunday, July 3, 2016

Shampoos Which Remove: Product Build-Up

This is essentially a recycled and updated post from 2011. Recycling is good, right!?

Build-up from hair products is usually 2 things:

- Oily residues like actual oils and butters, creamy ingredients like Cetyl alcohol and other emollient ingredients
- Cationic ingredients that bond to the hair. When they're good, they're very good and when there is too much, you feel "build-up."

Here I’m referring to 2 classes of chemicals: Quaternary cationic surfactants and cationic polymers. First off, cationic means something has a net positive charge (+). Hair has a net negative charge at the pH environment in which it usually exists (somewhere between pH 4.5 and 5 is average). Opposites attract (positive and negative) when it comes to hair and conditioner. More-damaged hair (the ends, heat-styled, sun-damaged, chemically relaxed, permed, highlighted) has more negative bonds and will bond with or "adsorb" more cationic ingredients. But it also loses them more quickly.

Low porosity hair has fewer negative charges to adsorb conditioners and cationic ingredients. It is also more likely for the owner of low-porosity hair to notice / experience "product build-up."

Quaternary cationic surfactants (and cationic polymers) are the real “conditioners” in hair and skin products. They bond to hair (and skin). Cationic polymers in styling products (Polyquaternium-4, for example) also bond to hair to form a film that provides hold and humidity resistance.

Build-up tends to look like you'd rubbed your hair with a balloon (static-y, flyaway, self-repellant). Or it can look sticky and stringy. Or dull and matted. Wavy, curly or coily hair might not pull together in it's proper curl pattern when you have build-up. Straight hair might get stringy or increase in volume (not necessarily in a good way).

Quaternary Cationic Surfactants:©Science-y Hair Blog 2013

Quaternary cationic surfactants include ingredients such as:

Behentrimonium chloride, Behentrimonium methosulfate, Cetrimonium bromide, Cetrimonium chloride, Stearalkonium chloride, Dicetyldimonium chloride, Guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride.

Most of these are not water soluble, but water-solubility doesn’t much matter because they’re bonding to your hair. Imagine magnets – the positive end of the quaternary cationic surfactant bonds to the negative hair. The thing is, it’s a pretty tight grip. Think giant magnets. Electromagnets that are used in scrap metal yards. This is known as “substantivity” in cosmetics chemistry.©Science-y Hair Blog 2013

Having these ingredients on your hair is not a problem in itself. Not unless you experience symptoms of build-up. Shampooing is not always a solution because most shampoos are based on anionic (negatively charged) surfactants. And now you’re saying, wait, that should mean that it should remove the cationic stuff because it has a negative charge and opposites attract. Yes! But the hair holds the cationics too tightly. The shampoo (anionic) may not be a big enough “magnet” to remove the cationic (conditioner or polymer).©Science-y Hair Blog 2013

Cationic Polymers:

Cationic Polymers include polyquaterniums (Polyquaternium-4, Polyquaternium-10, Polyquaternium-11, for example). These ingredients are very often water-soluble, but that’s not terribly relevant because they also get a tight grip on hair and so they don’t rinse off. Polyquaterniums are used in shampoos and conditioners to provide lightweight conditioning and frizz-prevention and used in hair styling products because they form stiff films over the hair to provide firm hold. They can add body to fine hair because of their hold/fixative-providing and film-forming behavior.©Science-y Hair Blog 2013

Polyquaternium 4 gives strong hold and may be easier to remove than Polyquaternium 10 or 11, in other words, it is more possible to pry it off with water and a detergent. Certain proteins and quaternary cationic surfactants can bond more firmly with hair than does polyquat-4. There are many other Polyquaterniums (with other numbers following them -7, 37, 44, 67…), all of which will bond more or less tenaciously to hair. Polyquaternium 10 may also be easier to remove than some of the others, there is even a “low residue” version of this polymer available, although it is doubtful that this distinction would be revealed in an ingredient list.

Concentration is important. The more polymer there is, the more the possibility for build up. If you are looking at a product with 20 ingredients and a Polyquaternium is ingredient #15 or #30, there isn’t much in there. But if it is ingredient number 3 or 4, there is more present. And even that is misleading because the actual percentage could be pretty low. So it’s best to judge by whether or not you get consistently good results from a product.©Science-y Hair Blog 201

How to Deal With Build-Up

There are 2 ingredients to look for in a shampoo to remove cationic build up most effectively:

Alkyl sulfates or alkyl sulfonates are anionic, but are better at removing cationic soils than other “sulfate” detergents (this has been demonstrated through controlled testing).

Look for C14-16 olefin sulfonate. These are deep-cleaning detergents, but can be diluted with water for a milder product. However - this is not an especially mild detergent, it's a good de-greaser. Formulation matters!!! When there is more detergent (higher concentration), the product will be more "stripping." When there are fewer mildness-increasers like humectants, or ingredients to make the product look pearly and translucent, the formula will feel less pleasant to use.

Also look for Sodium polystyrene sulfonate. This ingredient helps remove 25% more cationic soil than rinsing alone or shampooing (even with a “sulfate” shampoo). It is not a detergent.

Shampoos with the ingredients mentioned:

Chi Infra Moisture Therapy Shampoo

Pure & Basic Clarifying Citrus Shampoo (C 14-16 olefin sulfonate and Sodium polystyrene sulfonate)
Nexxus Phyto Organics Kelate Purifying Shampoo (Sodium polystyrene sulfonate)

Pureology Safeguard Your Color Purify Shampoo (Sodium polystyrene sulfonate)

Pureology Pure Volume Shampoo (Sodium polystyrene sulfonate)

Ouidad Superfruit Renewal Clarifying Shampoo (C 14-16 olefin sulfonate and Sodium polystyrene sulfonate)
Warren Tricomi Style Smoothing Shampoo (Sodium polystyrene sulfonate)

Kinky Curly Come Clean (C 14-16 olefin sulfonate)

Kenra Volumizing Shampoo (C 14-16 olefin sulfonate)

Trader Joe's Refresh (Body Wash), (C 14-16 olefin sulfonate)

Trader Joe's Tea Tree Tingle Shampoo (C 14-16 olefin sulfonate)


J. Soc.Cosmetic Chem.,43, 259-273 (September/Octobber 1992)

J. Soc.Cosmetic Cthem.,40, 205-214 (July/Augus 1989)

Removal of Cationic Buildup From Keratin Surfaces By Sodium Polystyrene Sulfonate

Presented at PCIA Shanghai - March 2002


  1. I often eagerly await your posts. I was wondering if you could shed some light on high porosity hair in general and how these build ups affect hair at higher porosity.

    1. Hi Vonnluv!

      Higher-porosity hair, especially if it has some coloring or heat damage or relaxing or permanent wave damage tends to "grab" easily the things that sometimes create build-up thanks to their cationic charge (conditioners, proteins, "polyquats"). That's good because those ingredients also smooth over the cuticles, sealing in moisture, preventing friction. At least with some of those same ingredients, porous hair also "lets go" of them more readily too. So build-up might be less a problem unless one is using products that just really don't agree with their hair.
      It's like the more-porous (or damaged) hair is, the more accepting of conditioners and proteins and polyquats it is - but it has less ability to hang on to those things very long.
      And in porous hair, you might appreciate the feeling of smoothness that you get from those products or ingredients whereas lower-porosity hair might get a coated feeling instead that is unpleasant because the surface was already smooth to begin with.

      Build-up in more-porous hair might show up more as dullness or increased tangling or more "drag" between strands rather than a coated feeling. Or hair that wants to get big and stay big (not in a good way) and won't settle in with neighboring hairs in whatever way it usually does that. It really depends on the products you're using. A sudden change in hair's behavior can often indicate that a product is accumulating too much.

      I hope that helps!

  2. I heard vinegar is good to remove buildup if so how would I use it ?

    1. Hello Leo023,
      VInegar is usually used as a rinse. I have some pH-measured "recipes" on this page:

      If it's going to help remove anything, you'd need to leave it on for a few minutes, covered, with a little heat. Vinegar is an acid, but it's not a chelating ingredient, nor a detergent, so it's ability to remove build-up is pretty limited. It can have a negative effect on some people's hair, so it's ideal to treat a test-strand with a vinegar rinse before applying it to all your hair.

  3. Thank you for your posts, I was wondering what you think about "mud rinses" like Aztec clay as cleansers for product build up?

    1. Hello,
      Clay can remove some excess oils, and maybe some product residue that would easily shampoo out. But conditioner build-up and some of the really difficult-to-remove residues might not be removed by clay.

  4. Will these still effectively remove build up if I use the 1-2 tsp to 1 cup water dilution to make it milder?

    1. They may, but not quite as well. You'll have to experiment with the dilution, you may need the shampoo a little more concentrated to remove cationic build-up, but you don't necessarily need full-strength shampoo right out of the bottle.

  5. Hi. Will the diluted shampoo (1-2tsp shampoo in a cup of water) remove buildup? Thanks

  6. Hello WS. Reading your blogs is my latest addiction. I was wondering could you give a recipe for a diy ph balanced clarifying shampoo using black soap or castile soap?

    1. I have not bought any black or castile soap to do this with yet. If you have pH strips, you might get a pretty close reading using castile soap diluted in distilled water and adding vinegar or citric acid.

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  8. I have recently used a gel with polyquat 4. My hair feels very dry, hard to detangle, as if I've had protein overload. I have high porosity and protein sensitive hair and recently converted to the Curly Girl method. Will 1 shampoo wash help or do I need to clarify a few times?

    1. Hello Mercedes,
      Usually it takes 1-2 washes to remove residue so your hair feels like it's back to its normal self.

  9. Also, how can I bring my hair back to healthy?? Deep condition??

  10. Hello,

    I was wondering about Apple Cider Vinegar for washing my scalp? Does this really work to remove build-up? I am currently using it (diluted with water) as a "final rinse" after co-washing and it makes my hair feel great, I really like it, the only think is co-washing has not been so great on my scalp but I don’t want to use shampoo on the regular so I was thinking I could clean my scalp with an ACV rinse. I am also wondering how often I can use ACV on my hair, or if it can cause problems down the road. Your advice would be appreciated.


    1. Hello Eve,
      Vinegar can help to reduce an oily look and feel in hair somewhat, and it can help with hard water minerals on your hair if you have hard water. It does seem to change the feel of conditioned hair when used as a final rinse. Vinegar is just an acid, it doesn't help remove dust and dirt and oil as well as detergents do.
      Everybody's hair and skin is different. Some scalps will break out in a bumpy rash from using vinegar rinses. Some hair will be damaged right away by using vinegar and some people can use vinegar rinses weekly with no trouble. A cautious approach would be to use a low concentration of vinegar - 1 teaspoon per cup of water - and see how that works. You can use more vinegar - 1 tablespoon per cup water, but you might want to try it on a test-strand first. If you notice any changes if you're using vinegar long-term that seem to indicate your hair is having trouble, cut back on the vinegar and assess what's needed. Does your hair need some protein? Oil treatments? Deep conditioning? Good luck! W

  11. I have low porosity hair and I was wondering what type of shampoo I can use to cleanse my scalp but doesn't contain a silicone I'm so confused because all the shampoos that I see that are clarifying shampoos contain silicones

  12. Hello!

    I have a question about the schampoo "Chi Infra Moisture Therapy Shampoo". One of the ingredients is Polyquaternium-10, but how would that work if the reason for using the schampoo would be to remove build-up caused by, for example, Polyquats?

    Regards Emma

    1. Hello Emma,
      Polyquaternium-10 is used in the shampoo as a conditioner/detangler. It will deposit on your hair. If you're using the shampoo to remove product residue and you are adamant about removing as much as possible, then you want a shampoo without Polyquaternium-10.
      But there is one huge caveat here - if you have used shampoos with Polyquaternium-10 and you have never, ever noticed anything like a residue in feel or in appearance - then don't worry about it. The only people who need to worry about "polyquat residue" are those people whose hair feels or looks weird when they use products with that ingredient.

  13. What do I use if I want to avoid build up from all potential build up from all things; conditioners, silicone, polyquats, guar hydroxy.. I want to cleanse my scalp and hair of all build up but looking to use one product instead of many. In various postings you list shampoos with different detergents/cleansing agents. Is there one product that would work for all? Thanks

    1. I don't know where you live or shop! So all I can say is to look at ingredient lists. Check the "Product by ingredient category" list in the tab at the top of the page, there are some products there. In some cases, like shampoos, I listed potential problem ingredients.
      But what's more important is to know that not all ingredients that can create build-up will do it for all people. And if you are somebody who gets build-up easily and you have hard water, the hard water is probably making the problem worse - a hard water shampoo or rinse might help manage that.

    2. Thank you. My hair is curlier when I co-wash and avoid sulfates but my scalp doesn't like it. It starts flaking so I retorted back to shampoo but my curls are stretched, -and much looser. I assume the flaking is from buildup of products. I will search for a clarifying shampoo I can use occasionally. Thanks