What Scalp Buildup Looks Like and How to Treat It

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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.

sebum buildup on scalp

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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:

  • Sebum
  • Dead skin cells
  • Sweat
  • 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

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

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 Doctor

Call your doctor 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

Summary

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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Article Sources
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