What to know about a buildup on the scalp
Hair products, oil, sweat, and dead skin cells can build up on the scalp and then flake off. Treatment often consists of at-home remedies and lifestyle changes that address and prevent further buildup from occurring.
Scalp buildup can occur at any point in a person’s life. However, infants often experience thick, yellow patches on their scalp, known as cradle cap, in the first few months of life, and adults between the ages of 30 and 60 may be more likely to experience scalp buildup due to seborrheic dermatitis.
In this article, we explain what scalp buildup is, its causes, and how to get rid of it.
What is scalp buildup?
Scalp buildup occurs when an oily secretion called sebum accumulates alongside sweat, hair products, and dead skin cells on the scalp. It can have symptoms similar to those of seborrheic dermatitis, scalp psoriasis, and eczema. For example, each of these conditions can cause flakes to appear in the hair and scalp.
In addition to flaking, scalp buildup can cause:
- oily or crusty skin
- redness of the skin
According to the National Eczema Association, seborrheic dermatitis can appear with other skin conditions, such as scalp psoriasis or atopic dermatitis.
A person living with scalp buildup can take steps to treat and prevent scalp buildup at home, but they often do not require a specific treatment.
What causes scalp buildup?
Scalp buildup is the result of one or more substances becoming stuck on the scalp and building up over time. Bits of the buildup can flake off and end up in a person’s hair or on their scalp.
Substances that can build up typically fall into one of two categories: products and natural substances.
Several hair products accumulate on the scalp and hair. Some examples include:
- styling creams or gels
Some substances that a person naturally produces can also become caught in their scalp and hair. These include:
- sebum, which the body makes to soften the skin and hair
- dead skin cells
How to get rid of scalp buildup
Home treatments and remedies are the primary way to get rid of and prevent scalp buildup. A person may need to try a few different options before they find an effective combination.
The following practices may help:
- brushing regularly to prevent tangled hair and help break apart buildup
- using an exfoliator on the scalp to break up the buildup
- selecting a shampoo and conditioner that work for the person’s hair type
- washing the hair regularly — typically daily for oily hair and every few days for drier hair
A person living with seborrheic dermatitis may need additional treatment. In some cases, dandruff may go away on its own or with an over-the-counter product. In severe cases, a doctor may need to prescribe a topical corticosteroid to manage it.
If a person is living with scalp buildup from psoriasis or eczema, they will need a specific treatment plan from their doctor.
Prevention involves proper hair care. A person should keep their hair clean, and they may need to change some habits, such as:
- reducing the amount of hair products that they use
- washing dry hair less often or washing oily hair more frequently
- washing the scalp thoroughly and rinsing it off well
- protecting the hair when swimming by wearing a swimming cap
A person should get advice from their dermatologist about what shampoos and conditioners are right for them.
According to an article in the , different shampoos and conditioners work well on different hair types. For example, shampoos containing lauryl sulfates are good to use on oily hair, while products containing laureth sulfates are good for dry-to-normal hair.
Learn about whether or not it is safe to put sulfates on the hair.
A person should talk to their dermatologist or hair care specialist about shampoos or conditioners that are good for their type of hair.
In some cases, scalp buildup may cause more severe problems. Scalp buildup can create an environment in which bacteria thrive.
The buildup of debris and bacteria on the scalp can cause the hair follicles to become inflamed. An infection of the follicles, which doctors call folliculitis, can also develop.
Without treatment, folliculitis can cause sores that never fully heal, and the resulting scabs can cause hair loss.
In most cases, a person can avoid these complications by limiting their use of unnecessary hair products, cleaning their hair regularly with shampoo and conditioner that is suitable for their hair type, and keeping the hair tangle-free.
When to see a doctor
A person should see their doctor if their scalp becomes inflamed or painful or if they cannot get rid of the flaking. A person should also talk to their doctor if they have psoriasis and have started to notice new or worsening patches forming on their scalp.
A doctor can determine the cause of flaking and work with the person to develop a treatment plan that can help remove the buildup and prevent it from reoccurring.
Scalp buildup occurs when natural oils, dead skin cells, and hair products accumulate on the scalp. Over time, this can create flakes very similar to those that form in other conditions, such as psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis.
A person can treat their scalp buildup at home by using shampoo and conditioner that is good for their hair, avoiding certain products, keeping the hair clean and groomed, and moisturizing the scalp.
A person should talk to their doctor if they cannot get rid of the scalp buildup on their own.
Unlike hair which makes up a big part of your appearance, the scalp may not actually affect how you look, until the problem becomes so serious, it causes hair fall and other major hair issues.
Dandruff, itching on the scalps and scalp skin peeling also causes embarrassment.
Credits: Zee Media
Before your scalp degenerates to that extent, nip the scalp problem in the bud by spotting these five warning signs!
1. Excess oil and oily scalp
Oil is not necessarily a bad thing. Your natural sebum protects your scalp from losing moisture and drying out too quickly. Too much oil however can cause greasiness, allowing fungi and bacteria to grow and resulting in dandruff and other scalp conditions.
Ken from 99 Percent Hair Studio shared with us that many people in Singapore suffer from oily scalp, probably because of our weather. Exposure to sun and heat trigger excessive sebum production on the crown of our heads. Many Singapore men and ladies also do not have the practice of blowdrying their hair / scalp after bathing. The moisture also promotes the buildup of excess oil.
We also found it interesting to note that oily scalp tends to affect men more than women since male scalps generate up to 50% more oil than female scalps!
The best way to diagnose oily scalps is to go for a scalp analysis as you may literally see oil oozing from your scalp and build up of greasy oily scales on these microscopic images!
Scalp scan of an oily scalp by 99 Percent Hair Studio
As a reference, this is how healthy scalp should look like:
Scalp scan of healthy scalp by 99 Percent Hair Studio
Once again oily scalps are common, especially in Singapore. However, it is best to get it treated as excessive buildup of grease can impair hair growth and lead to hair loss.
Oily greasy hair also weighs down on your hair, making your crown look unnaturally flat.
What you can do about it:
1) Change your shampoo
The focus is to find shampoos that help you clarify your scalp without stripping too much of your natural oils. If the shampoo is too harsh, the scalp may become even more oily as it tries to compensate for the dryness. Typical over-the-counter oily shampoos tend to be a little too harsh so we would recommend that you ask your stylist for advice!
2) Exfoliate your scalp
Massage your scalp thoroughly when shampooing! Consider going for a scalp treatment on a regular basis to clear up all the gunk that is built up!
Amount of Dead Skin Cells after Exfoliating Scalp Treatment at 99 Percent Hair Studio
We’re especially impressed with the 30 minute exfoliation process at 99 Percent Hair Studio as we can literally see the amount of dead skin that are being exfoliated!
3) Don’t apply hair products too close to your scalp
Whether it is conditioner or hair definer, apply your products after the ear to prevent the products from coming into contact with your scalp! The products can clog your scalp pores, causing oil to build up more easily!
If you’ve tried all that and your scalp is still as oily as ever, please do consult a dermatologist for advice!
2. Dry, ageing and itching scalp
The scalp contains hair roots, sebaceous glands, nerves and blood vessels. These provide fluid exchange, sensual perception and temperature regulation. If there is insufficient secretion of sebum to create the protective hydrolipid film due to impairment of the above processes, dry and itching scalp may result.
Credits: Dry ageing scalp of a customer from Salon Vim.
Can you see the wrinkles and the flakes due to an excessively dry scalp?
There are many possible factors causing dry itching scalp - harsh shampoos, age, sunburn and physical and emotional stress.
Although this condition is common, it is important to deal with the itch as the itching may develop into sensitive scalp and even dandruff and thinning hair later on!
Your scalp will also age faster, causing more wrinkles to form on your scalp!
Therefore, the first few things to try are:
1) Change to a gentler shampoo
Many over-the-counter shampoos are so harsh, they strip off your natural oils that protect the scalp, allowing harmful substances to irritate the scalp easily.
Try to find one that is sulfate free and alcohol free from your salon. If possible, the shampoo should contain soothing plant ingredients such as rosemary, aloe and other similar plant ingredients to soothe the scalp!
2) Moisturize your scalp
To help the scalp regain its natural processes, it is important to do regular scalp massages and apply the right products to protect it. Going for an in-salon treatment on a regular basis also improves blood circulation on the scalp and give it the necessary nutrients.
A possible treatment to deal with dry and aging scalp is the Collagen Scalp Treatment from Salon Vim. We liked the treatment because they are able to customize their treatment gel according to whether it is Aging, Dry or Oily.
The Anti-Aging treatment gel contains Tangerine, Passionfruit and Water soluble collagen to help erase fine lines and wrinkles on your scalp and eliminate skin damage whereas the gel that helps alleviate dry scalp contains licorice, angelica hydrolyzed yeast to minimize dryness in scalp and provide elasticity.
Marine Hydrolyzed Collagen at Salon Vim
All three types of treatment gel are infused with Marine Hydrolyzed Collagen, a type of collagen that is especially effective in penetrating the scalp and providing it with moisture, making your scalp more moist and less dry!
3) Use a scalp serum
Just like how your face requires a moisturizer to replenish any lost moisture and nutrients, a scalp serum after your shampoo is also useful to help you moisturize your scalp and get rid of the scalp dryness!
If these tips don’t work, go for a dermatologist who may be able to help you come up with a treatment plan to combat the dryness and the itch!
3. Flaking and Dandruff
Did you know that up to 50 percent of the population experiences dandruff?
Dandruff occurs when your scalp’s cell renewal process shortens, leading to the rapid shedding of your scalp’s horny skin cells, which stick together to form visible flakes.
There are however two types of dandruff:
1) Dry Dandruff: White flakes that form on your scalp and fall from your head! This is often a cause of dry and itching scalp.
2) Greasy Dandruff (seborrhoeic dermatitis): Oily and yellow scales or flakes that stick onto your hair and head. Greasy dandruff is most associated with oily scalp and is often triggered by Malassezia, a microorganism that thrives on oils produced by your scalp and irritates it!
As this is often a bacterial infection, you may need to get a shampoo with ketaconazole or selenium sulfide to kill the bacteria and relieve the itch and flaking!
Once your scalp condition has progressed to having dandruff, your body is telling you that the scalp is getting worse! Therefore do something about it to deal with the underlying issue before it progresses to the next stage: thinning hair!
Note that excessive dandruff can also be a sign of more serious conditions such as Pityraisis Amiantacea, Seborroeic Dermatitis or Psoriasis that require special care by your dermatologist.
4. Reddish Painful Scalp
The three common causes for reddish scalp are sun damage, allergy and irritation. Excessive exposure to the sun, harsh hair products such as bleach, hair colour, minoxidil, hair products containing propylene glycol can cause your scalp to turn red or produce allergic reactions.
The 2 things you should do to alleviate the issue is to:
1) Cut out harsh hair products from your daily routine
Check the ingredients of your hair products to make sure that they do not contain much irritants and consider using organic brands such as O'Right or O'way as they tend to minimize use of irritants in their hair products!
When going for a hair colour, choose less toxic chemicals such as Redken Chromatics Hair Colour, L'Oreal INOA Hair Colour or Original & Minerals Hair Colour to minimize any possible sensitivity of the scalp.
2) Search for a salon treatment that provides your scalp with a protective layer
Other than exfoliation of dead skin, salon treatments can be useful in enacting a protective layer over your scalp. With this protective layer, your skin isn’t that vulnerable to harsh substances, making it less likely to become reddish! You may however have to go for regular treatments before the skin’s natural protective barrier is restored.
Salon Vim’s Collagen Scalp Treatment is one such treatment. It contains Fullerene, a Nobel Prize-winning compound that helps recover the natural skin barrier (on top of easing inflammation and controlling sebum).
Nobel Prize Winning Compound: Fullerene
3) Use scalp sunscreens and serums
Your scalp is actually also part of your skin and requires protection from the sun and other harmful substances.
After you’ve properly shampooed and massaged your hair to exfoliate your dead skin cells on a daily basis, it is always wise to follow up with a sunscreen to create a protective layer against the sun.
There are many brands out there but a recommended one is the Redken Solar Sunscreen that is great for the scalp!
If the above two actions do not help, seek treatment from a dermatologist as reddish scalp can be a sign of something serious:
1) Seborrheic dermatitis
This is an inflammatory scalp condition where red, itchy and flaky skin as well as yellow, white or grey scales are observed. This tends to be more greasy.
Psoriasis is complex immune-based disease which can affect the skin, nails and joints. Patients have scalp redness, scaling, and flaking. You are more likely to get Scalp Psoriasis if you have psoriasis somewhere else on your body.
Bacterial, viral and fungal infections may cause redness in the scalp. Bacteria, such as staphylococci, may cause scalp infections. Bacteria may also contribute to infection of the hair follicle, which is a condition called “bacterial folliculitis.” A variety of viral infections cause scalp redness. Chicken pox and shingles are two such examples. Scalp ringworm or “tinea capitis” refers to infection of the scalp by certain types of fungi. Scalp redness and scaling may be seen in these cases.
A variety of skin pre cancers and cancers, including non melanoma skin cancers, can also cause redness in localized areas of the scalp. Therefore, it is best to get it looked at if you find that the redness is persistent!
5. Hair Loss
It is not easy dealing with scalp conditions once they have deteriorated to this stage. Oily scalp built up over many years can block hair follicles from growing. Even if you deal with the issue immediately, it will take time before hair will grow naturally.
Therefore, it is best to deal with the problem once you see signs of it!
While some of the above conditions may cause hair loss, we also note that hormonal changes, genetics and sudden infections may also play a part. An example is Alopecia Areata which is spot baldness. It usually happens when the scalp tissue is treated like an invader and the body is unable to recognize the body cells. As your own cells cluster around the hair follicle and suppress hair growth, small patches of hair loss is resulted.
In such cases, we would highly recommend you to go get your dermatologist to take a look at it to see what can be done to stop the advance of the problem!
Have you suffered from any the above scalp issues before?
Share with us your experiences below!
Visit www.beautyundercover.sg for more hair tips!
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What Scalp Buildup Looks Like and How to Treat It
Human sebum is a combination of lipids (including triglycerides, fatty acids, cholesterol, and more). Sebum is produced in the hair follicle; it functions to lubricate the hair follicle, and it disperses over the surface of the scalp (and skin) to help prevent moisture loss.
The overproduction of sebum causes the hair and skin to become greasy and can lead to various complications such as dandruff and acne. If left untreated, sebum buildup on the scalp can cause more serious symptoms and complications, including hair loss.
Learn more about the causes of sebum buildup and how to treat it.
What Is Scalp Buildup?
Hyperseborrhea (an increase in sebum production) is one of several causes of buildup on the scalp. Scalp buildup is an accumulation of:
- Dead skin cells
- Hair products
Similarity to Other Scalp Conditions
The symptoms of hyperseborrhea often mimic those of other scalp conditions—such as dandruff, scalp eczema, and psoriasis on the scalp.
Symptoms of scalp buildup include:
- Flaking of the scalp
- Oily or crusty skin (called cradle cap in infants)
- Redness of the sin on the scalp
- Itchiness of the scalp
Causes of Scalp Buildup
The exact cause of the underlying factors that lead to scalp buildup—such as hyperseborrhea—are unknown, but certain factors can increase the likelihood that a person will have an increase in sebum production and scalp buildup, such as:
- Hormone imbalances:Imbalances of the thyroid and pituitary hormone production are thought to lead to an increase in sebum production.
- Metabolic disorders:A diet high in unhealthy fat (such as saturated fat) impacts the overall metabolic activity in the body. This results in an increase in the production of sebum, which causes hyperseborrhea. In turn, hyperseborrhea is a major contributing factor in scalp buildup.
- Digestive problems: Intestinal and liver problems can change the chemical makeup of sebum, making it ineffective in its function to protect the hair and scalp.
- Poor scalp hygiene: This can lead to various scalp problems. How often the hair is washed, what type of products are used, and other factors can lead to an imbalance of sebum and scalp buildup.
- Washing the hair infrequently (less than every two to three days): This can cause scalp buildup and result in inflammation. That can slow the hair's normal growth process.
- Microorganisms:An accumulation of bacteria or fungi can cause inflammation of the scalp, which can lend itself to the underlying cause of scalp buildup. A pathogenic (disease-causing) organism called Demodex folliculorum is found in hair follicles that are infested with a type of parasite; this alters the composition of sebum, leading to hyperseborrhea.
Complications from long-term sebum buildup on the scalp may include:
- Hair loss (from a condition called folliculitis, which damages hair follicles)
- Acne (around the hairline)
- Pityriasis steatoides (oily dandruff)
- Seborrheic dermatitis
How to Get Rid of Scalp Buildup
There are several home remedies for getting rid of scalp buildup. These include:
- Regular and thorough shampooing: This should be done every two to three days (more often for very oily hair)with a natural, gentle, sulfate- and chemical-free shampoo that is right for your hair type (such as oily, dry, etc.). Use warm (not hot) water when shampooing, as hot water can aggravate the scalp and worsen symptoms by drying the scalp and increasing flakes and itchiness. Avoid excessive scratching and vigorously scrubbing the scalp in a back-and-forth motion. Rather, massage the scalp in a gentle, circular motion to help improve blood flow, which can help prevent a dry scalp.
- Apple cider vinegar rinse: Apple cider vinegar was found to have antimicrobial (antibacterial and antifungal) properties, killing and preventing dandruff-causing yeast on the scalp. An apple cider vinegar rinse once a week can also help remove buildup from hair products.
- Keep hair brushed: It's important to maintain hair grooming, but avoid vigorous extensive brushing, which can worsen sebum buildup on the scalp.
- Use lemongrass essential oil (Cymbopogon flexuosus):A hair tonic formulation with 10% lemongrass oil was found to be effective in the reduction of dandruff.
- Exfoliate the scalp:Do this once or twice each week with a commercial scalp exfoliant (or a homemade natural exfoliant made of oatmeal, brown sugar, and hair conditioner) to help remove flakes of dead skin and scalp buildup. Note that scalp exfoliation performed more often (than once or twice each week) can cause an increase in sebum production. So it’s important not to exfoliate too often.
Prevention of sebum and scalp buildup includes home remedies such as:
- Avoiding the excessive use of hair products (such as styling products) to keep buildup at bay
- Avoiding the use of harsh chemicals on the scalp (including perms and haircoloring dyes or bleaches)
- Inspecting your scalp regularly for symptoms such as reddened skin, scaly flakes, and greasy patches
- Maintaining a regular hair cleansing routine (including exfoliating and using a vinegar rinse) and making sure to wash your hair after sweating excessively (such as after running or working out)
When to See a Healthcare Provider
Call your practitioner if symptoms of scalp buildup do not respond to self-treatment (such as exfoliating, using a vinegar rinse, or using dandruff shampoo for complications of scalp buildup). Consult with your healthcare provider when the area of the scalp that is affected by scalp buildup and excessive sebum begins to:
- Become painful
- Form crusts
- Drain fluid or pus
The overproduction of sebum can cause scalp buildup. If left untreated, it can cause more serious symptoms and complications, including hair loss.
Regular hair washing and the avoidance of irritants—like hair dyes—are key in preventing scalp buildup. If you have scalp buildup that won't go away, visit your healthcare provider.
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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
DermNet NZ. Sebum. Updated June 2014.
American Academy of Dermatology Association. Hair loss: who gets and causes.
Budak NH, Aykin E, Seydim AC, Greene AK, Guzel-Seydim ZB. Functional properties of vinegar. Journal of Food Science. 2014;79(5):R757-R764. doi:10.1111/1750-3841.12434
Chaisripipat W, Lourith N, Kanlayavattanakul M. Anti-dandruff hair tonic containing lemongrass (Cymbopogon flexuosus) oil. Complement Med Res. 2015;22(4):226-229. doi:10.1159/000432407
Cleveland Clinic. Seborrheic dermatitis. Updated May 29, 2020.
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