What Scalp Buildup Looks Like and How to Treat It

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The natural oil in your skin and scalp is called sebum. It's produced in the hair follicles. Sebum's purpose is to lubricate the hair follicle and prevent moisture loss from the scalp.

If your follicles make too much sebum, your hair and skin get greasy. That can lead to problems like flakiness and acne. Untreated sebum buildup on the scalp can cause more serious symptoms, including hair loss. 

This article looks at sebum buildup, what causes it, possible complications, how to treat and prevent it, and when it's time to get medical help.

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. It's one of several causes of buildup on the scalp. Scalp buildup comes from accumulated:

  • Sebum
  • Sweat
  • Dead skin cells
  • Hair products

Symptoms of scalp buildup include:

Similar Scalp Conditions

Hyperseborrhea symptoms often mimic those of other scalp conditions such as eczema or psoriasis of the scalp.

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, a condition causing red patches with greasy, yellow scales

Recap

Scalp buildup involves sebum (natural oils), hair products, sweat, and dead cells. It can cause scalp problems like dandruff and itching as well as acne and other skin conditions if it's not treated.

Causes of Scalp Buildup

The reasons behind scalp buildup are unknown. But certain factors make it more likely that you'll have an increase in sebum production that can lead to scalp buildup. These include:

  • Hormone imbalances: Imbalances of thyroid and pituitary hormones may lead to an increase in sebum production.
  • Metabolic disorders: Unhealthy fats (e.g., saturated or trans fats) impact your metabolism and can spur an increase in sebum production. 
  • Digestive problems: Intestinal and liver problems can change the chemical makeup of sebum, making it ineffective at protecting the hair and scalp.
  • Poor scalp hygiene: Washing less than every 2-3 days, hair product types, and other hygiene-related factors can lead to scalp buildup and inflammation that may slow hair growth.
  • Microorganisms: Bacteria or fungi increases can cause inflammation and scalp buildup. A parasite called Demodex folliculorum (face mites) can trigger hyperseborrhea.

Home Remedies

You can try several home remedies for getting rid of scalp buildup.

Regular Shampooing and Brushing

Wash your hair every two to three days, or more often for very oily hair.

  • Use with a natural, gentle, sulfate- and chemical-free shampoo that's right for your hair type (oily, dry, etc.) 
  • Use warm—not hot—water. Hot water can aggravate and dry the scalp, which can increase flaking 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. That improves blood flow, which can help prevent dryness.

Regular brushing is important, too. It can stimulate blood flow, which encourages hair growth. It also improves hair health and shininess by distributing sebum along the entire strand.

As with shampooing, though, be gentle. Brushing too vigorously can make sebum buildup worse.

Exfoliate the Scalp

Get rid of dead cells and scalp buildup by exfoliating. You can do this once or twice a week with a commercial scalp exfoliant.

Or, if you want to make your own, combine:

  • Oatmeal
  • Brown sugar
  • Hair conditioner

Don't exfoliate your scalp more than twice a week. That 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 use it:

  • Add two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar to a 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 it out.

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

Use Lemongrass Essential Oil

In a small Asian study, a hair tonic with 10% lemongrass oil (Cymbopogon flexuosus) appeared to reduce dandruff. Participants used it twice a day.

You may be able to find commercially produced lemongrass hair products, or you can make your own tonic. Be sure not to use pure essential oils, as they're too concentrated and can be dangerous. Always dilute essential oils with appropriate carrier oils and be watchful for signs of allergies or irritation.

Recap

Causes of scalp buildup include poor hygiene, bacteria or fungus, and some health conditions. Home remedies include proper washing and brushing, exfoliating, and vinegar or lemongrass oil.

Prevention

A few simple steps can help you prevent scalp buildup from coming back.

  • Avoid excessive use of hair products
  • Avoid harsh chemicals on the scalp (e.g., perms, dyes, bleach)
  • Establish a healthy cleansing routine that includes exfoliating and vinegar rinses.
  • Always wash your hair after heavy sweating.

To catch buildup early, inspect your scalp regularly for redness, scaly flakes, and greasy patches.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

You should get medical attention if your scalp buildup:

  • Becomes painful
  • Forms a crusts
  • Has draining fluid or pus

You should also talk to your healthcare provider if scalp-buildup symptoms don't respond to home remedies.

Summary

The overproduction of sebum can cause scalp buildup. If left untreated, it can lead to symptoms and complications, including hair loss. 

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.

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. MedLine Plus. Dandruff, cradle cap, and other scalp conditions.

  3. DermNet NZ. Sebum.

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

  5. 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

  6. 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 

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.