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.
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
The easiest way to combat sebum buildup is to prevent it in the first place. This may not seem so easy, but there are some lifestyle changes you can make to get started.
Change Up Your Diet
Can a diet change really have an effect on the health of your skin? The short answer is yes.
According to a research study published in 2019, dietary patterns can play a role in sebum content, skin hydration, and skin pH (9).
The study consisted of 84 healthy adults between the ages of 19 and 37. The participants’ dietary intake was assessed using a food frequency questionnaire.
So which group fared best?
As the results showed, dietary pattern and sex played a role in decreasing sebum content.
In females, for example, DP3 was shown to decrease sebum content. This dietary pattern consists of high intake of potatoes and starch, seeds and nuts, fruits, and eggs.
And what about the foods you should avoid?
According to the study results, DP4 had the greatest impact on increasing sebum content. This pattern includes a high intake of meats, dairy products, and alcohol. This is what we’d expect based on previous years of research on the topic (10, 11, 12).
What do these results mean for you?
The results seem to indicate that, first and foremost, you should reduce your intake of meats, dairy products, and alcohol. The ingestion of these products, especially dairy products and alcohol, can contribute to increased insulin and insulin-like growth factor (IGF). This may play a role in sebum production.
You should replace the above foods with starches, seeds and nuts, fruits, and eggs. While some of these foods may temporarily increase insulin (such as starches and fruits), they also tend to include fiber which will decrease insulin spikes. The other foods, such as seeds, nuts, and eggs, also lend themselves to stable insulin levels.
Follow a Healthy Hair Care Routine
A change in your diet can help to promote a healthy scalp environment from the inside. But what can you do on the outside to encourage strong and healthy hair growth? Follow a healthy hair care routine!
For many men and women, their daily hair care routine consists of brushing in the morning, perhaps styling for the day, and then shampooing at night. This may be fine for some people, though the majority of people don’t spend nearly enough time on hair care.
The scalp is a delicate environment that requires thoughtful attention. This is especially true if you constantly battle with an oily scalp.
This doesn’t mean you need to spend hours each day on your hair care. You do need to ensure you’re meeting all of its needs, though, including proper moisturization and hydration.
So, what does a healthy hair care routine look like? Let’s take a closer look!
Reduce How Often You Wash Your Hair
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.
The cycle of stripping and sebum overproduction will create a vicious cycle that must be broken. How?
The goal is to reduce the frequency you wash your hair. The exact frequency will depend on various factors, including hair and skin type and activity level.
Men and women with tight curls, for example, may only need to wash one or twice per week (or even every other week). Those with straight hair will likely have to wash more frequently as the sebum will more easily spread throughout the strands.
It will take some to find the right hair wash frequency.
Avoid Harsh Chemicals and Products
If you’ve ever taken a few moments to read the ingredients list of your favorite shampoos, conditioners, and styling products, you’ve likely found a long list of unpronounceable ingredients. While not all of these ingredients are “bad,” there are many hidden ingredients that can cause harm to delicate scalps.
A few such ingredients include Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), propylene glycol, and parabens.
Why are these ingredients so bad? They can interfere with the sebaceous glands’ natural oil production. As a result, the glands may under- or overproduce sebum, neither of which is beneficial to hair growth.
Avoid Heat Styling
Heat styling tools, including straighteners and curlers, are commonly used by both men and women. While occasional use may not pose too much risk, regular use can damage the hair and scalp. This is why I recommend you avoid heat styling altogether.
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.
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, though, including poor hair care practices, medical conditions, and the use of harsh chemicals.
While the ultimate goal is to get your scalp to balance hydration and moisturization itself, 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’s used to keep tissues (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.
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 (13, 14).
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.