Your scalp’s natural oils are a wonderful thing—they hydrate your strands, keep them shiny, and even improve overall scalp health. Although, if you’ve ever gone a day or two too long without correctly shampooing your hair (correctly being the operative word, here), chances are you’ve experienced some buildup—where those once glorious natural oils, mixed with dirt, dead skin, and bacteria, accumulate and wreak havoc on your tresses (more on that in a moment). And if you throw some stylers, dry shampoos, and hair care products into the mix? It’s all the easier to gather up grime.
If you’re dealing with scalp buildup, you’re certainly not alone. Here, we investigate everything you need to know about the issue: why it happens, what it looks like, and—here’s the kicker—how to get rid of it ASAP.
What causes scalp buildup?
Technically speaking, there are two types of scalp buildup: natural and product buildup. Natural buildup happens, well, naturally, when dead skin, dirt, and sebum accumulate on your scalp—especially if you go too long between washes. Product buildup, on the other hand, is exactly what its name suggests—your hair care products can build up and up on the scalp, which can cause its own type of flakes (they’re usually “stickier”; hair care products are made to adhere to the hair, after all).
And no matter which type of buildup you have, too much of it can lead to scalp inflammation, resulting in flakes, itching, sometimes even tenderness or pain. “When you have product, dirt, and oil building up around your follicle opening—which is where your hair grows out of—buildup around that starts to slowly suffocate your hair root, and it causes inflammation,” trained trichologist and hairstylist Shab Reslan once told us about the condition.
Can it lead to hair loss?
Short answer? Totally. Again, too much buildup can suffocate the follicle root, which is literally the source of hair growth. Too much inflammation can limit growth and eventually lead to shedding. Take it from Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and founder of Mudgil Dermatology: “If buildup is really extreme, it can even pull the hair down because there’s so much inflammation around the hair follicle,” he previously told us. That’s why many experts tout scalp-stimulating treatments for speedier hair growth—a clean, happy scalp leads to full, lush strands.
How to get rid of it.
If you’ve meandered on over here, chances are you’ve experienced some itchy flakes or oily buildup up top. Good news: It’s not so difficult to clear up! We’ve uncovered seven ways to rid your buildup, with expert tips below:
Make sure you’re washing your hair enough.
While there’s no clear-cut answer for how often you should wash your hair (read: it differs for everyone), your scalp can clue you in to when you need another wash. Do a check-in: “Literally go in there, part your hair at various points throughout your head, and look at your scalp,” Reslan once told mbg. If you notice telltale signs of buildup—that is, flakes, oil, and overall gunk—you may have to edit your shampoo schedule accordingly. Perhaps add in another wash day or two and see how you fare.
Sub in a clarifying shampoo.
While we generally prescribe sulfate-free options, sometimes those don’t lift up all the gunk, especially if you aren’t shampooing correctly. That’s why throwing a clarifying number into the rotation is necessary from time to time. Try subbing in one of these options biweekly, working your way up to once a week if need be. Friendly reminder: You shouldn’t use a clarifying shampoo on the regular, as the formulas are too stripping for your hair; use them too often, and they can cause brittleness, breakage, and even an irritated scalp.
Use a scalp scrub.
Or, you can fold an extra treatment step into your hair care routine. These typically come with two action plans: There are your physical scrubs, with granules (like sugar and salt) to physically exfoliate the skin and remove buildup; and there are your chemical formulas, with naturally exfoliating acids and enzymes to dissolve dead skin cells and lift up debris.
No matter which type you choose (here are 11 for your browsing pleasure), you’d apply them in sections pre-shampoo, massaging them into the skin and rinsing out thoroughly under the spray.
Try a DIY scalp oil treatment.
If you feel like throwing together your own concoction, hairstylist Anthony Dickey, founder of Hair Rules, has quite the DIY scalp treatment to try. It takes a bit of legwork, especially if you don’t have a collection of essential oils at your disposal, but the mixture is nothing short of dreamy:
Mix 3 to 4 Tbsp. grapeseed oil, 1 to 2 drops rosemary oil, 1 to 2 drops lavender oil, 1 to 2 drops tea tree oil, 1 drop peppermint oil, 1 to 2 drops basil oil, and 2 to 3 drops sweet orange oil in a glass jar until well combined. Apply it to the scalp in sections, massage it in with your fingertips, then shampoo right after. The rinse-out is important, as you want to remove all the lingering residue, lest you exacerbate the buildup. (See here for the full recipe and benefits.)
Use tea tree oil.
Don’t have all those EOs on hand? Just snag yourself a dropper of tea tree, and you’re golden. You’ll still want to dilute the solution with a carrier oil (jojoba, grapeseed, avocado, et al.), as tea tree oil is very potent. Simply mix the two together and rake it through your strands, massaging it into your scalp before shampooing. Your scalp will feel invigorated. Plus, it has a laundry list of benefits, which you can read all about here.
Do an apple cider vinegar rinse.
Your trusty ACV makes a lovely DIY scalp treatment as well: “Apple cider vinegar contains acetic acid and alpha-hydroxy acids, which can help degrease and cleanse the skin,” board-certified dermatologist Morgan Rabach, M.D., and co-founder of LM Medical NYC, once told us about ACVs hair benefits.
While you can find a number of apple cider vinegar hair products on the market (it’s a common ingredient in the previously mentioned clarifying shampoos), you can also DIY your way to buildup-free locks: Simply combine ½ tablespoon of apple cider vinegar and 1 cup of cold water, then mix it together to form your solution.
Application differs from person to person (some use it after shampooing, post-conditioner, or in place of shampoo—see here for how to use it depending on your hair type). Regardless, let it sit for up to five minutes before rinsing it out.
Try witch hazel.
Some swear by the solution; others run straight for the hills. But if it works for your skin, you might fare well with applying the solution on the scalp. “It’s a mild scalp refresher,” says texture specialist and artistic director at Matrix Michelle O’Connor about witch hazel for hair. Witch hazel can help relieve itchiness as well as control oil and flakes, which makes it an especially great cleansing option for protective styles, such as braids or twists, O’Connor adds. You can either apply the witch hazel directly onto your scalp (with a dropper or spray bottle) or rub a saturated cotton pad on the skin.
But, alas, it doesn’t work for everyone. While helpful for some, witch hazel can actually cause increased inflammation and flakes for some dry- and sensitive-skinned folk. Know your limits here.
Scalp buildup looks different on everyone—for some, it’s itchy scales, while other scalps may feel tender and sore. Nonetheless, it’s just as important to clear up, as you don’t want gunk lingering on your scalp for too long. Try one of these above methods, and surely your clean, invigorated scalp will thank you.
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