If you want to have thick, healthy hair, you must have a healthy scalp! Scalp sebum build-up is a sign that your scalp is not healthy and this may lead to hair loss if not treated properly.
In this post, I’ll share all I know about sebum buildup and its connection to hair loss. I’ll outline the process and causes, as well as show you the two-step method of ridding your hair of sebum buildup once and for all.
What is Sebum?
Sebum is the medical term for skin oils that are produced from microscopic sebaceous glands found under the surface of the skin (1).
This guide will touch upon sebum found within the scalp, however it’s also produced in great quantity on the face, and is produced elsewhere on the body (except the palms of your hands and soles of your feet).
The production of sebum is natural and necessary, as it provides the scalp and hair with moisturization and keeps the scalp’s delicate pH in balance. Though, as you’ll see, too much of a good thing isn’t a good thing in and of itself.
Can Sebum Buildup Cause Hair Loss?
As with many functions of the human body, sebum production is a process that requires balance.
If too little sebum is produced, the hair becomes brittle and and the scalp becomes dry. If too much sebum is produced, the scalp becomes overwhelmed by oil and the hair follicles become clogged.
And even further, excess sebum can promote growth of the yeast that’s linked to dandruff which is another condition that may contribute to hair fall (2).
So, in short, yes; sebum buildup can cause hair loss. Now, let’s take a closer look.
Sebum Buildup and Hair Loss: Understanding the Process
Before we dig into the specifics, it’s important to understand how hair grows.
The growth of hair is a process that takes part in stages (3).
Stage 1: Anagen – The stage of active growth, wherein hair bulbs form and hair pushes through the scalp.
Stage 3: Telogen – The stage of rest, wherein hair begins to fall from the scalp to make room for new, anagen phase hair growth.
However, many things can disrupt the hair growth cycle and lead to premature thinning and hair loss. One such thing is sebum buildup, and here’s how:
Sebum, as mentioned above, is produced from sebaceous glands. These glands are connected to the hair follicles, and they release sebum from the same pores that produce hair.
When excess oil is produced, the sebum has nowhere to go. This leads to a buildup within the pore, known as a sebum ball or plug. When this happens on the face, this can lead to acne (5).
When this happens on the scalp, though, this buildup can impact the hair follicle and the hair growth cycle. If buildup is allowed to remain to the point of blockage, inflammation is common. This is because the pore and hair follicle become irritated.
Even if the current hair growth cycle continues to completion (telogen), a new cycle may be hindered from starting. This is because there is simply no room within the pore for new hair to form and grow.
What Causes Sebum Buildup on the Scalp?
While any number of medical conditions and environmental factors can contribute to the buildup of scalp sebum, the three causes listed below are the most common.
Androgenetic Alopecia (AGA) is the most common form of hair loss.
AGA is believed to be triggered by DHT, a natural hormone found within the body (6). Unfortunately, those with AGA are sensitive to the hormone, and this triggers a process known as hair follicle miniaturization (7).
As miniaturization occurs, the sebaceous gland grows (8). This means that more oil is produced and sebum buildup becomes more likely.
Unfortunately, this only continues the cycle of hair loss. As more sebum is present within the scalp, more DHT is trapped within the follicles. If untreated at the earliest signs, it can be difficult (even impossible) to reverse.
High-fat, greasy foods are a large part of the modern Western diet. This can contribute significantly to the overproduction of sebum, and can trigger irritation, inflammation, and blockage of the hair follicle.
Of course, the best way to combat this is to reduce (or completely cut out) greasy foods.
You can also add in a number of foods that are known to alkalize the bloodstream and, therefore, alkalize the scalp’s pH.
It’s commonly believed that washing your hair too little can lead to an oily scalp; actually, washing your hair too much is more likely to cause overproduction of sebum.
When you wash your hair with shop-bought products, you strip your hair and scalp of natural oils. These oils must then be replaced, and so the sebaceous gland activates.
Washing your hair too frequently leads to a constant production of sebum. This means you’ll need to wash your hair more often, and the cycle continues.
It makes sense, then, that you should you cut down on the frequency of hair washing. This will vary by individual, though I recommend four times per week at the most.
How to Reduce and Prevent Sebum Buildup: A Nutritional Approach
Let me be absolutely clear about this…
To get rid of scalp sebum (or, more accurately, reduce it to an acceptable level) you must improve your diet.
If your diet isn’t right, your body will continue to produce excessive amounts of oil and excrete them through the scalp causing a lot of scalp and hair issues.
Cleaning up your diet will lead to a drastically better and healthier scalp, and allow you to regrow your hair naturally.
Firstly, reduce unhealthy oil intake and replace them with natural, healthy oils.
This means you should stop eating fried foods and stop cooking with vegetable oils. Also cut down on your intake of processed meats as well as grilled or fried high fat meats.
Replace those unhealthy fats with fats from coconut, avocado, nuts, seeds, and cold water fish.
You should focus on increasing the variety of the foods you eat, and the more colorful your diet the better. This means more fresh produce, and less processed and packaged foods.
When to See a Doctor
In some cases, you may be dealing with a problem that requires more than just a change in habits and diet.
There are medical conditions that can trigger excess sebum production, such as sebaceous hyperplasia. But there are also medical conditions that can be worsened by the presence of increased sebum, including dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis (9, 10).
So, when should you see a doctor?
If you’re having trouble finding the cause of your excess sebum production, or if it’s causing hair loss at an alarming rate, it’s best to seek out a professional opinion.
There are a few things your doctor can do to help you figure out (and treat) the problem.
A physical examination will occur, and this may include biopsies of the affected areas. You can also accept blood tests (especially a thyroid panel), and perhaps even a referral to a dermatologist.
Once the problem has been found, you can then work alongside your doctor to solve it.
This may mean a short course of antibiotics, or the use of an anti-fungal cream or shampoo. Or it can also mean a closely-monitored plan that you’re able to carry out yourself at home.
The buildup of sebum on your scalp can be embarrassing; after all, it will leave your hair oily and lackluster. However, it can also lead to hair thinning and loss if allowed to continue.
Fortunately, the steps outlined above can get you started on treating the issue.
The main point here is that excessive sebum buildup can cause hair loss, but it can be reversed in the vast majority of causes.