Sebum Buildup: 3 Causes & 2 Steps To Get Rid Of It

  • Medically reviewed by: Debra Rose Wilson, PhD MSN RN IBCLC AHN-BC CHT
  • Written by: William Slator
  • Last updated: 09/08/2021

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 gland, as seen in a model of the hair follicle.

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
  • itchiness
  • redness
  • 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).

A diagram showing sebum production
While sebum buildup can commonly lead to acne, it can also cause inflammation of the hair follicles.

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

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). Men with AGA are sensitive to the hormone. This triggers a process known as hair follicle miniaturization (7).

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.

(Do you know the early signs of balding? Learn more here.)

Improper Hygiene

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.

Poor Diet

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.

These results mesh with previous research linking an unhealthy diet to various skin problems like acne and androgenetic alopecia (10, 11, 12).

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.

A man washing his hair with Regenepure DR shampoo

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.

Information contained on this website has not been evaluated by any medical body such as the Food & Drug Administration. All information is for educational purposes only. We do not aim to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease or illness. You must consult a medical professional before acting on any content on this website.

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  1. i lost most of my hair, and my head produce too much sebum.
    i wash my head and after 15minutes sebum is back. thats embarassing because im all day with people because its my job.. i want to stop the sebum 🙁
    my diet is okay, its not perfect but im avoiding already fried foods and sugar..

    what do you suggest ? please i need help !!

  2. I am 15 and have this thick waxy substance on my scalp which is most likely sebum there are many patches on head where the hair are very thin and in that place there is a large amount of sebum.My hair have become very thin and they grow. Very slow

    1. Curious: Having the same issue, have you found a solution? I don’t mean to worry you, but it causes patches if you don’t solve it fast enough. And I’m getting kinda’ worried.

      1. Hey I’ve been dealing with an extremely similar thing for the past 7 months and getting worried all hair will be gone soon since the patches are like lines that run throughout my hair. Any response would be appreciated

    2. A few months ago about 8 months my hair started to fall out I am a woman 49 and have an itchy scalp on scratching this greasy gunk is under my finger nails my hair continues to thin and upon washing my hair im still experiencing this gunk under my finger nails it’s getting me down what can I do?

  3. I have extremely healthy diet – I am kind of freak at this. I wont touch anything thats unhealthy. I eat alot of veggies (mostly green and raw), seeds (2 smoothies a day with 1 tbsp of each seed as a core: sunflower seeds, flax seeds and pumpkin seeds), nuts, organic fish, oatmeals on almond milk etc. I am on this diet for more than 3 years and fixed most of my problems… except sebum. I have extremely oily and itchy scalp and nothing seems to help. I even tried to wash my hair only with water for a month – couldnt last longer because of that itching and yet my sebum havent reduced. I am out of ideas. I am 100% sure its not diet related or allergy related as I made allergic tests and avoid foods that I dont tolerate. Doctors say its just how it is… some people have more sebum. What do you say?

  4. Two questions:
    1. As far as I understand, the salicylic acid must be applied 30 minutes after applying coconut oil, but with the coconut oil still in the hair, right? I mean, I have to rinse my hair only once, that is, after applying the salicylic acid for 10 minutes (with the coconut oil present in my hair, is that so?
    2. Must the salicylic acid thing be done only once or every time before washing my hair?

    1. Hi Dante,

      1. Yes, you want to apply the salicylic acid with the coconut oil still on the scalp.
      2. We recommend doing this just once every month (or even every two months). Doing it too often can cause excessive dryness.



  5. I am an elderly senior but had never encountered sebum buildup and hair loss till about 1 year ago. I shampoo about 4x a week but after the shampoo day, my hair is all clogged with sebum. I am afraid to wash my hair again because there is a lot of hair loss-so much that is has clogged my drain.

    1. Hi Ernie,

      We recommend reducing your shampooing frequency. It’s best to wash your hair no more than twice per week. You may also find a once-per-week apple cider vinegar rinse (1:1 ratio of water and ACV) to be helpful in reducing sebum production.

      – Steph

  6. Do not wash your hair, just cleanse your scalp skin. Make magnesium salt paste by adding a little bit of water or aloe gel, apply it only on scalp similar way like if you are trying to paint the hair roots. Instead of rubbing just massage the scalp skin (you want to improve circulation under the skin). Some magnesium will get absorbed into the hair roots and blood vessels which is good for all body and decrease calcification (by improving calcium to magnesium ratio). Rinse it with slightly warm water. Then apply apple cider vinegar with cotton ball only on scalp, then rinse with cool water (don’t worry if the hair gets wet when rinsing, it will get refreshed and cleansed enough just from rinsing). Apply hair conditioner only on brittle ends of the hair if they are too dry.

  7. My hair has been falling out for a year or so. My scalp is itchy and many of the hairs come out with a large thick root (or follicle or something) attached. I also have little bumps on my scalp in various places and sometimes they are sore. My scalp does not have scaly patches on it though and it is not very oily. Any ideas?

    1. Hi Danielle,

      The root may be the sebum plug, or it may be the part of the hair strand that’s closest to the root throughout the hair growth process. You can learn more about it here:

      For the bumps, I would recommend you seek a consultation with a dermatologist. It’s best to have them examined physically, and perhaps even biopsied. This way you can treat the problem most effectively.



  8. Drink lemonade with atleast half lemon daily, for sebum buildup. I see some change personally. Its been 4 days i started it.

  9. Hi, my hair was so bad it actually stuck together when I washed it & when I gently tried to separate it ~ it just fell out. I tried apple cider vinegar, but it made it worse. Please see what works for you, because everyone is different!
    I use natural shampoos. A clarifying shampoo once a week. I use a good quality of Cold-Pressed 100% argan oil, which has many antioxidants, reduces inflammation & moisturizes my hair & scalp for during the day. I made my own mix of great quality (WILD-CRAFTED) peppermint oil, rosemary oil, tea tree oil, jojoba oil & mixed with a dab of ULTRAX LABS Hair Plush Caffeine hair loss & hair growth serum. It lasts for quite awhile! I shake up the mixture & massage into scalp after every washing! My hair looks normal again. I also use an egg mask once a month to thicken my hair (1 Hr), BUT you need to rinse in sink using COLD WATER, so the egg does not cook into hair & make a mess! I also soak in warm bath with (1 tsp) baking soda to help cleanse the scalp, once a month. Good Luck!

  10. I started losing hair when I got diagnosed with Hypothyroidism but it soon stopped. My problem now is the itch I get with the sebum. Thick white grease under my fingernails, also on my face around the brow and nose. When you talk about the ACV in what order do you use it? Just in the rinse. What about the conditioner?

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