Thick, healthy hair starts with a healthy scalp. Sebum buildup (also called scalp buildup) is a sign that your scalp is not healthy. Though not a direct cause of hair loss, eventually this may contribute to hair loss problems.
This post will outline information about sebum buildup and its connection to hair loss. It will explain exactly what sebum is and what it normally does for the skin.
We will also review the most common causes of sebum buildup and introduce a two-step method of removing sebum buildup effectively and permanently.
What is Sebum?
Sebum is the medical term for skin oils. These are produced from microscopic sebaceous glands under the surface of the skin (1). The glands are connected to the hair follicles, and release sebum from the same pores that produce hair.
The sebaceous glands are present over most of the human body (2). They are largest and most concentrated in the scalp and face. This makes these areas particularly susceptible to sebum overproduction.
Sebum is both natural and necessary for your body’s normal functioning. It moisturizes the skin and keeps its pH in balance. It also has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.
The levels of sebum vary during a person’s lifetime, as well as from person to person.
What Is Sebum Buildup (Scalp Buildup)?
As with many functions of the human body, sebum production is a process that requires balance.
An underproduction of sebum leads to brittle hair and a dry scalp.
On the other hand, too much sebum can overwhelm the scalp. This sebum buildup can lead to to uncomfortable itching, acne, blackheads and inflammation. Moreover, excess sebum can promote the growth of Malassezia, a yeast that’s linked to dandruff (3). This is another condition that may contribute to hair fall in the long run.
When sebum accumulates in the scalp, it mixes with sweat, dirt and dried hair products like styling creams, gels and ointments. This is what is referred to as scalp buildup.
The signs of scalp buildup are:
- oily or crusty skin
- flaking of the scalp
- unpleasant odor
Can It Contribute to Hair Loss?
In short, sebum buildup cannot directly cause hair loss. It can, however, contribute to an unhealthy scalp, dandruff and other problems. Some of these might eventually contribute to hair loss. One of the biggest such problems is inflammation.
Scalp Buildup and Inflammation
Sebum, as mentioned above, is produced from sebaceous glands. 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, it can lead to acne (5).
When it happens on the scalp, this buildup can impact the hair follicle. If buildup reaches the point of blockage, inflammation is common. This is because the pore and hair follicle become irritated.
In the extreme this can cause folliculitis, a potentially painful condition where the follicles become very inflamed.
What Causes Sebum Buildup on the Scalp?
Several 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.
As miniaturization occurs, the hair follicles literally shrink in size. The sebaceous glands move in to take over the space left by the shrinking follicles (8). This leads to the production of more oil, and makes sebum buildup more likely.
Unfortunately, this further deteriorates scalp hygiene and can indirectly aggravate further hair loss.
It is a common belief that shampooing too infrequently can lead to an oily scalp. This is true to an extent. However, washing your hair too much can also cause the same problem.
When you wash your hair with regular supermarket shampoos, you strip your hair and scalp of natural oils. The sebaceous glands then activate to replace these oils and restore the scalp’s balance. This leads to a constant production of sebum.
You will then need to wash your hair with increasing frequency, just to keep sebum under control. This can lead to a negative feedback cycle with unpleasant results for the scalp.
If you are shampooing once or more a day and are experiencing sebum buildup, a logical step is to cut down on the frequency of hair washing.
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.
The best way to combat this is to reduce or eliminate greasy foods. We discuss this below.
How to Reduce and Prevent Sebum Buildup
As with most health conditions, prevention is far easier than treatment. This is also true for excess sebum. Let’s look at some of the easiest, most efficient ways to prevent sebum buildup in the first place.
Improve Your Diet
According to research published in 2019, dietary patterns play a role in sebum content, skin hydration, and skin pH (9).
The study recruited 84 healthy adults, ages 19-37. The participants’ dietary intake was assessed with a food frequency questionnaire.
The researchers identified several dietary patterns. Their results suggest these patterns play a role in regulating sebum levels.
A dietary pattern rich in natural starches, seeds and nuts, fruits, and eggs was linked to lower sebum levels. On the other hand, a high intake of meats, dairy products, processed beverages (especially soft drinks) and alcohol were associated with higher sebum levels.
They suggest that, first and foremost, you should reduce your intake of meats, dairy products, and alcohol. These foods, especially dairy products and alcohol, can contribute to increased insulin and insulin-like growth factor (IGF). These may play a role in the abnormal growth of the sebaceous gland (hyperplasia).
You can replace the above foods with natural starches, seeds and nuts, fruits, and eggs. They will help to keep your sebum levels under control, as well as improve your skin’s pH.
Follow a Healthy Hair Care Routine
For many men and women, their daily hair care routine consists of brushing in the morning, styling for the day, and shampooing at night. This works fine for some people.
For others, however, this might not be the right approach. This is especially true when dealing with an oily scalp.
All this does not mean you need to spend hours each day on your hair. On the contrary, less is often more:
Shampoo Less Often
When you wash your hair too frequently, it strips the scalp of its natural oils. The sebaceous glands will then produce excess sebum to compensate.
This cycle of sebum depletion and overproduction generally gets worse with time.
The goal is to reduce how often you wash your hair. The exact frequency will depend on various factors, including hair and skin type as well as activity level.
For most people, two or – at most – three shampoos a week will be sufficient. This frequency will allow you to maintain a clean, healthy scalp and keep sebum levels under control.
It might take some time as well as trial and error to find the frequency that is right for you.
Avoid Harsh Shampoos and Hair Care Products
Supermarket shampoos often advertise one or two ingredients that give them their special qualities (against dry, greasy, brittle hair etc). The problem is typically the rest of the chemicals in the bottle. Many store-bought shampoos and hair care products contain ingredients that do not promote scalp health.
Some of these include Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), propylene glycol, and parabens. Many of these are harsh chemicals found in household cleaning products and industrial detergents.
These ingredients can irritate the scalp and interfere with the sebaceous glands’ natural oil production.
Fortunately, there are natural shampoos available. For example the Hairguard Caffeine Shampoo contains plant-based ingredients that gently clean the scalp without stripping away essential oils. The formulation is also free of harsh chemicals like sulfates and parabens.
Avoid Heat Styling
Heat styling tools like straighteners and curlers are commonly used by both men and women.
If you must use heat during your styling, be sure to invest in a high-quality heat protectant.
As the name suggests, heat protectants protect your hair from direct heat, such as that from a blow dryer, hair straightener, or curler. They do so by creating a barrier between the hair shaft and the styling tool. This locks in moisture.
A high-quality heat protectant will contain ingredients such as coconut oil, argan oil, and/or keratin. On a side note, even a heat protectant will not be able to protect your hair shaft from the direct damaging effects of the high heat (13).
Cut Down or Eliminate Hair Styling Products
Hair products like styling creams, oils, gels and foams are among the main culprits of scalp buildup. When these dry up they leave an oily residue on the scalp. The only way to remove them completely is to thoroughly scrub your scalp. Doing this on a daily basis is very likely to exacerbate any sebum overproduction problems.
The contribution of hair styling products to scalp buildup is therefore two-fold. Directly through leftover residue, and indirectly through the constant shampooing they typically necessitate.
Cutting down or eliminating them altogether is one of the simplest, most effective ways of reversing scalp buildup. The short-term downside to cutting them out will be more than compensated in the long-term through healthier scalp and hair.
Hydrate and Moisturize as Needed
In healthy scalps, hydration (water content) and moisturization (oil content) are naturally balanced. There are many things that can throw off this balance. These include poor hair care practices, medical conditions, and harsh chemicals.
While the ultimate goal is to get your scalp to balance hydration and moisturization on its own, you can give it a boost as needed.
To hydrate the scalp, you will want to use a humectant. These substances draw water towards the surface of the skin to keep it moist. One of the humectants you can use is hyaluronic acid.
Hyaluronic acid is a substance that the body naturally produces. It keep tissue (like skin and eyes) moist and lubricated. You can use hyaluronic acid as a standalone or as part of your other hair care products like shampoos and conditioners.
To moisturize the scalp, you will want a moisturizer. These substances create a lipid (oil) barrier that locks in hydration and keeps the skin smooth. There are plenty of moisturizers to choose from, including jojoba oil, coconut oil, and olive oil.
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. There are also medical conditions that can be worsened by the presence of increased sebum, including dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis (14, 15).
If you cannot find the cause of your excess sebum production, or if it is causing hair loss at an alarming rate, it is 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. After a physical examination they make take biopsies of the affected areas. They can also order blood tests (especially a thyroid panel), and perhaps even a referral to a dermatologist.
Once you find the problem, you can then work alongside your doctor to solve it.
This may mean a short course of antibiotics, or an anti-fungal cream or shampoo. It can also mean a closely-monitored plan that you are able to carry out yourself at home.
The buildup of sebum on your scalp can be aesthetically unpleasant, as it will leave your hair oily and lackluster. If left untreated, it will contribute to an unhealthy scalp environment. This might eventually aggravate hair loss (indirectly).
As common as sebum buildup is, it is equally treatable. Simple changes to your hair care routine and diet will typically be enough to restore your scalp’s homeostasis and optimize sebum levels.