How to Stop Build-Up & Gunk in Your Hairbrush

For many years I have been baffled, befuddled and just plain fed up with the gunk that accumulates in my hair brush. I scoured the internet for “how to clean a hairbrush,” how to get rid of scuzz in a hairbrush,” and information on how to stop it from accumulating in the first place.

The most confusing part was that not all of my friends got this stuff in their brushes. One of my roommates saw me cleaning my brush one day with baking soda and water and she wondered what I was doing. She never got any gunky, build-up scuzzies in her brush and only had to remove the shed hairs. I always assumed it was because those friends washed their hair every (other) day and used sulfate shampoos.

What Does NOT Cause Build-up in Your Brush

After stumbling on the solution for preventing build-up in my brush, I realized that there were several factors that ultimately did not cause the build-up.

  1. Silicones – I still use silicones on my hair. In fact, the period during which I was not using silicones and trying all natural hair remedies was when the build-up was at its worst.
  2. Oil & Sebum- I think that as long as you wash it when you feel you need to and it gets clean, the natural oils from your scalp aren’t going to be causing all that build-up.
  3. How often you wash your hair- I could wash my hair once a week (normal for me) or twice a week or every 2 days and still get the build up.
  4. Product- I don’t use any styling product or oils on my hair, not even leave-in conditioner, so I know that’s not why I was getting build up in my brush.

The time in my life when I was getting the most build up in my hair was when I was trying all-natural and “no-poo” hair washing techniques. I tried clay washes, soapnuts and a natural shampoo bar. I was even washing my hair in distilled water in a bowl so that I would not get any hard water build-up on my hair.

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It looks like I haven’t cleaned my brush in 100 million years but this was really just 1 week of build up. And this is also why I will never use clay to wash my hair again.

The build-up in my hair was BAD. I personally think that clay hair washes are the devil. My hair was so sticky and matted and the texture was so gross! The all-natural peeps out there would probably say that I was “detoxing” my hair from past build up but I know that to be false because I washed all of my hair (scalp and ends) thoroughly with a sulfate shampoo without any silicones before using the natural stuff so the sulfates would take out the silicones.

My theory is that the electronegative charges of hair (hair has a negative charge) and the clay (clay has a positive charge) was causing the build-up in my hair since opposites attract in chemistry. Some people can use clays on their hair no problem but it was not good for my hair. The more “damaged” your hair is, the more negatively charged your hair will be and the more positively charged molecules it will attract. And I put “damaged” in quotes because your hair may look and feel great, but if you’ve had any chemical process done to your hair (straighter, perm, keratin treatment, color, bleach/lightening) then technically your hair is damaged because it is not virgin unprocessed hair. My hair is “damaged” from a straightener which would make it more prone to build-up from positively charged clay molecules.

But no matter what shampoo or natural “no-poo” concoction I was using on my hair, I would still get the scuzzies in my brush. Granted, with the natural stuff, my hair never really got clean which is probably part of the reason why I had so much build-up during that time, along with the clay. However, I would still get build-up in my hair brush when I was using regular shampoo, with or without sulfates.

So What Actually DOES Cause the Hair Brush Build-up?

I’m not exactly sure what causes that gunk to build up in my hairbrush but, I can take a guess because I do know what got rid of it.

Since the worst build up I experienced was with the clay, I think that the build up I was getting in my brush was due to positively charged molecules from the water. All water has trace minerals and things in it, some of which are positively charged and can build up on the hair. That is why some people notice a difference in their hair when they move. “Hard water” is water with a higher concentration of minerals in it (this is usually from well water).

The harder the water, the more likely the build-up. However, I would still get build-up no matter where I was geographically and what kind of water I was using. I got build-up living in Buffalo, NY,  Boston, and in North Carolina with well-water. I don’t think any city has water that is completely free from these trace elements that can cause build up.

Solutions

One solution is to get a water softener for your house. Or try washing your hair in distilled water (been there, done that, it’s a hassle, not worth it). These aren’t great solutions. A proper water softening system is expensive and difficult to install. And on top of that, filters have to be replaced and the costs can add up. Many softeners use salt to soften the water and increase the amount of sodium in the water which can dry out your hair and strip hair color. Also, a softener is NOT a water filter. A proper water softener does not filter the water for certain things and vice versa so BOTH are needed. Softeners and filters are separate devices and most water softeners are whole-house systems. A whole house system can start at thousands of dollars and is not an option for people who rent their home. Even a showerhead attachment may not be allowed by the landlord.

The other solution, which I found by accident, is to use a hard water shampoo. Even if you don’t have well water or you don’t think your water is hard or you live in the city. If you have that gunk build-up in your hair brush and nothing else has worked, get a shampoo that is made for hard water. These are often called chelating (key-late-ing) shampoos.

Many chelating shampoos are made for swimmers but you can still get the benefits even if you don’t swim. I haven’t been swimming in over a year in a pool or natural body of water. Many of the elements found in swimming pools, like chlorine, are found at very low levels in tap water and can affect our hair when we shower.

The Miracle Product

The shampoo I switched to recently was the Ion Purifying Solutions Hard Water Shampoo. I hadn’t expected this shampoo to stop my brush from accumulating build-up. I had just assumed that the build-up on my hair brush was just something I had to deal with as the result of only washing my hair once a week and not using sulfates.

However, I haven’t washed my hairbrush in over a month and there is essentially no gunk or build-up or scuzzies on it! That’s when I made the connection to this new shampoo.

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Haven’t cleaned this brush in over a month (aside from removing shed hairs) and there’s only one tiny little scuzzy above the black arrow. The brush is a Tangle Teezer, by the way. I’ve run it through the dishwasher before to clean and since it’s all plastic it works great even though some water gets inside the brush (I usually can squeeze/ shake it out).

I picked it up at Sally’s (love that store) and it’s vegan and has no sulfates which are things I always look for and can be difficult to find. It can be especially hard to find a chelating shampoo without sulfates since sulfates are very good and getting all those positively charged molecules of build-up out of our hair.

The star ingredient in this shampoo, however, is not a sulfate. It is actually sodium C14-16 olefin sulfonate¹. Don’t worry, sulfonate and sulfates are not the same thing. However, both types of ingredients are negatively charged which can pull the positively charged molecules out of your hair.

I haven’t noticed any dryness with this shampoo and it lathers very nicely. I also do still use a conditioner with silicones and I don’t get any build-up in my brush. Even if you don’t want to use a chelating shampoo every time you wash your hair like I do, I think it is still important to incorporate a chelating shampoo to keep away the hairbrush scuzzies.


  1. This link: sodium C14-16 olefin sulfonate gives some more science-based info on the ingredient and was where I learned about the positive and negative charges of build up and the hair.

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