Sebum Buildup on the Scalp: Causes and Treatment

How sebum build-up can lead to discomfort

Sebum is a natural, waxy oil produced by glands in hair follicles that keeps the skin moist and forms a barrier that helps protect the skin from infection. Some people produce more sebum than others, causing it to build up on the scalp. When combined with sweat, dead skin cells, and other debris, the buildup can cause flaking and make the hair look greasy.

If left untreated, the buildup of sebum on the scalp can lead to dandruff, acne, local skin infection, and even hair loss. 

This article describes the symptoms and causes of sebum buildup on the scalp. It also explains how to treat or prevent this common skin condition, including when it is time to see a healthcare provider.

Close up of a handle turned towards H but not all the way (for warm water), shampoo bottles (for natural, gentle,sulfate- and chemical-free shampoo), brush and shampoo (for brush and shampoo gently), head and a hand with arrows (massage scalp in gentle circular motion), apple cider vinegar and lemongrass essential oil, bottles of items that help exfoliate the scalp(Home Remedies for Scalp Buildup)

Verywell / Laura Porter

What Is Scalp Buildup?

When your follicles overproduce sebum, it's called hyperseborrhea. Scalp buildup develops when sebum is combined with sweat, dead skin cells, and residue from haircare products like hairsprays or hair gels.

Symptoms of hyperseborrhea are similar to other conditions that cause scalp itching and flaking, including scalp psoriasis and eczema.

Symptoms of scalp buildup include:

  • Flaky scalp
  • Oily or crusty skin
  • Scalp redness
  • Scalp itchiness

Complications

Complications of long-term sebum buildup can develop if you ignore the symptoms and leave them untreated. These include:

Causes of Scalp Buildup

The reasons behind scalp buildup are unknown. With that said, certain factors can increase sebum production and lead to accumulation on the scalp.

Causes of hyperseborrhea include:

  • Hormone imbalances: Imbalances of thyroid and pituitary hormones can increase in sebum production.
  • Metabolic disorders: Unhealthy fats (namely saturated or trans fats) can affect your metabolism and trigger an increase in sebum production. 
  • Digestive problems: Intestinal and liver problems can change the chemical makeup of sebum, making it less oily and more likely to flake.
  • Poor scalp hygiene: Shampooing less than every two to three days can lead to scalp buildup, particularly when combined with products like hairspray.
  • Microorganisms: Bacteria or fungi increases can cause scalp inflammation that promotes the production of sebum. A parasite called Demodex folliculorum (face mites) can also trigger hyperseborrhea.

Home Remedies

Scalp buildup due to hyperseborrhea can be aggravating, but it is usually not serious. There are several simple over-the-counter and home remedies that can help.

Regular Shampooing and Brushing

It is important to wash your hair every two to three days (or more if you have very oily hair).

Choose a shampoo that is sulfate-free and chemical-free. Rather than scrubbing your scalp, which can stimulate sebum production, massage it using a gentle, circular motion.

Use warm water to rinse your hair, as hot water can dry the scalp and increase flaking and itching.

Regular brushing is also important. It can stimulate blood flow and hair growth. It also improves hair moisture and shininess by distributing sebum along the entire strand.

Scalp Exfoliation

You can get rid of scalp buildup by exfoliating. Exfoliation is the removal of dead skin cells and built-up dirt and debris on the skin. The term comes from the Latin word exfoliare, meaning "to strip leaves."

You can exfoliate once or twice a week with a commercial scalp exfoliant, or you can make your own by combining:

  • 2 tablespoons of dry oatmeal
  • 1 tablespoon of brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons of hair conditioner

Don't exfoliate more than twice weekly. Anything more can increase sebum production.

Apple Cider Vinegar Rinse

Studies suggest apple cider vinegar has antibacterial and antifungal properties, meaning it can kill dandruff-causing yeast on the scalp.

To cleanse your scalp with an apple cider vinegar rinse:

  • Add two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar to an 8-ounce glass of warm water.
  • Shampoo and rinse your hair as usual.
  • Slowly pour the vinegar solution onto your head.
  • Let it sit for two or three minutes.
  • Rinse your hair with warm water, massaging the scalp gently.

Doing this once a week can also help remove excess residue from hair products.

Lemongrass Essential Oil

In a small study published in Complementary Medicine Research, a hair tonic made with 10% lemongrass oil (Cymbopogon flexuosus) appeared to reduce dandruff in people with hyperseborrhea. The twice-daily application also slowed sebum production.

You can find lemongrass haircare products online or in specialty retailers, Or, you can make your own by mixing the following ingredients:

  • 1 teaspoon of a neutral carrier oil (like hemp seed oil or almond oil)
  • 3 tablespoons of alcohol-free witch hazel
  • 10-12 drops of lemongrass essential oil

Prevention

After you have successfully treated scalp buildup, there are a few simple steps that can help prevent it from happening again:

  • Avoid the excessive use of haircare products, particularly hairspray and ultra-stiff hair gels.
  • Avoid harsh chemicals on the scalp, such as hair dyes, perms, or bleach.
  • Establish a healthy cleansing routine that includes exfoliation and apple cider vinegar rinses.
  • Always wash your hair after heavy sweating.

To catch buildup early, check your scalp regularly for signs of redness, dryness, or greasy patches.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

You should seek medical attention if your scalp buildup causes a secondary bacterial infection. A secondary skin infection occurs when the skin is cracked or broken, allowing bacteria to access deeper tissues:

See a healthcare provider if you experience signs of a secondary skin infection, including:

  • Increasingly painful, red, and swollen skin
  • Pus-filled blisters
  • Sores with crusting
  • Fever with chills

Summary

The overproduction of sebum can cause scalp buildup. If left untreated, it can lead to symptoms and complications.  Home remedies like regular hair washing, exfoliating, and avoiding harsh chemicals are key to preventing scalp buildup. If you have scalp buildup that won't go away, see your healthcare provider.

A Word From Verywell

Scalp buildup and the associated symptoms, like dandruff, can be embarrassing. Rest assured it's a normal process that just happens to some people.

Focus on home remedies and getting your scalp healthy. If that doesn't work, your healthcare provider may be able to help. Either way, you do have options for getting rid of the symptoms and keeping them from coming back.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the best shampoo for sebum buildup?

    There are commercial shampoos specially formulated to treat sebum buildup. These "clarifying" shampoos contain ingredients like clay, activated charcoal, argan oil, or salicylic acid that gently removes sebum without damaging your hair or the skin of your scalp.

  • Is sebum hair loss reversible?

    Sebum hair loss is most commonly the result of the infection of hair follicles, known as scalp folliculitis. When treated with topical antibiotics or other treatments, the hair loss can usually be reversed, although it may take time.

6 Sources
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.
  1. Makrantonaki E, Ganceviciene R, Zouboulis CC. An update on the role of the sebaceous gland in the pathogenesis of acneDermato-Endocrinology. 2011;3(1):41-49. doi:10.4161/derm.3.1.13900

  2. MedlinePlus. Dandruff, cradle cap, and other scalp conditions.

  3. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Hair loss: who gets and causes.

  4. 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

  5. Chaisripipat W, Lourith N, Kanlayavattanakul M. Anti-dandruff hair tonic containing lemongrass (Cymbopogon flexuosus) oilComplement Med Res. 2015;22(4):226-229. doi:10.1159/000432407 

  6. Sun KL, Chang JM. Special types of folliculitis which should be differentiated from acneDermatoendocrinol. 2017;9(1):e1356519. doi:10.1080/19381980.2017.1356519

By Sherry Christiansen
Sherry Christiansen is a medical writer with a healthcare background. She has worked in the hospital setting and collaborated on Alzheimer's research.