If you’re finding dead-skin flakes in your hair or on your shoulders, you might think you have dandruff, a condition also known as seborrheic dermatitis.
It’s a common condition that can cause the skin on your scalp to flake. But it’s also possible you could be dealing with something else.
Other conditions, such as psoriasis, eczema, and scalp buildup have similar symptoms but different causes that require different treatments to resolve.
Scalp buildup can often cause a flaky scalp. It’s an easily treatable condition. It shares many of the same symptoms as dandruff.
Instead of flaking caused by inflammation, with scalp buildup, flaking is caused by a buildup of things that can cause flakes such as:
- hair-care products
- skin cells
- a combination of the previously listed substances
Can scalp buildup cause hair loss?
In short: yes. Scalp buildup can cause hair loss if left untreated and the dead skin, oil, and sweat clog your hair follicles. This can lead to an uncomfortable condition called folliculitis.
Folliculitis causes inflammation of the hair follicles that sometimes results in infection. Severe cases of folliculitis may cause crusty sores that don’t seem to heal. These sores can cause permanent hair loss and scarring.
If you’re wondering whether scalp buildup is causing your flaky scalp, here’s what you need to know.
There are different causes of scalp buildup. It’s important to know which one you’re dealing with.
This will help you find the right treatment. It will also give you the necessary information on how best to prevent scalp flaking in the future.
Natural buildup and product buildup are the two main causes of scalp buildup.
Natural buildup on the scalp involves several factors.
Dead skin cells
The skin cells covering your body are constantly dying and regrowing. When they die, they’re supposed to shed. New ones should grow to replace the old ones.
But for some people, the dead skin cells do not shed fast enough, and this can lead to a buildup on your scalp. A buildup of dead skin cells will usually cause a lot of flakes to fall from your scalp.
The scalp produces a natural, waxy oil called sebum from glands beneath the skin. Some people produce more of this oil than others.
Sebum plays an important role in protecting your skin from infection and helping keep it moist. However, when the body produces too much sebum, it can build up on your scalp.
In addition to sebum and dead skin, your scalp produces sweat. This can also add to your scalp buildup.
Some people naturally sweat more than others. If you’re especially active, you might also sweat more than most people. A sweaty scalp often causes greasy hair and may give off an unpleasant odor.
Residue from hair products is the other likely cause of scalp buildup.
Many hair products contain waxy substances that can stick to your hair and scalp if not thoroughly rinsed out when you wash it.
- styling creams, oils, gels, and foams
If you’re dealing with scalp buildup, there’s a number of things you can do at home to reduce the flakiness, discomfort, and odor that it can cause.
Some options include:
Finding the right shampoo and conditioner for your hair type
If you want to choose the shampoo that’s can help minimize scalp buildup, it’s important to consider your hair type. Shampoos are sold in numerous formulations:
- average hair
- dry and damaged hair
- oily hair
If you’re not sure which shampoo is best for your hair type, take a look at the ingredients list. The higher an ingredient is on the list, the more abundant it is in a shampoo.
Here’s a list of hair types and the primary shampoo ingredients you should look for in each:
- oily hair: shampoos with lauryl sulfates or sulfosuccinates, which work to remove sebum from the hair
- average-to-dry hair: shampoos with laureth sulfates, which remove some sebum from the hair
- dry or damaged hair: shampoos with sarcosines, ammonioesters, alkanolamides, sodium lauraminopropionate, ivy agave, and silicone, which cleanse the hair without removing a lot of sebum and won’t dry it out
If you have sensitive skin, you should avoid shampoos that contain:
Regular and thorough washing
If you use hair-care products, it’s also important to wash your hair regularly and thoroughly to get rid of buildup. You may want to wash it every day or every few days, depending on your hair type.
Some anecdotally suggest that average-to-oily hair can be washed every 1 to 2 days, while dry-to-damaged hair can be washed every 3 to 4 days.
What does a thorough wash look like?
Here are some tips to prevent buildup and keep your hair clean:
- Rinse your hair completely before adding shampoo. Shampoo lathers up better on wet hair and also spreads more easily, which allows you to use less product.
- Mix your shampoo with water first. Before rubbing shampoo on your hair and scalp, you might want to try adding a little water to it. This helps make it easier to spread and reduces the amount of shampoo you use.
- Use lukewarm water for your first rinse. Warm water helps open up the outer part of each hair (the cuticle) so shampoo can get inside and best remove dirt and oil. This also helps conditioners and products work better.
- Focus on your scalp. Your hair ends are more likely to dry out from shampooing and are usually the cleanest parts of your hair. Focus on shampooing your scalp, as this process will most effectively clean your hair without drying it out.
- Be gentle. Avoid harshly scrubbing your hair with a back-and-forth or circular motion, as this can cause breakage. Wash from the roots to the end of your hair gently with your fingers and palms. Do not scrub your scalp with your nails, as this can cause injuries that turn into uncomfortable scabs and sores.
- Put conditioner on your ends only. Your scalp doesn’t need more moisturizer. Adding conditioner to your scalp will only cause more buildup. Instead, focus on putting conditioner on your ends, which need the most moisture.
Apple cider vinegar
There’s no scientific evidence that apple cider vinegar can reduce scalp buildup. However, there’s research that shows it can kill bacteria.
There’s insufficient research to suggest that this can prevent scalp folliculitis, an infection of scalp hair follicles.
Some anecdotally suggest that rinsing your hair with apple cider vinegar diluted with water may help kill bacteria that can lead to this complication.
There’s some evidence that apple cider vinegar may also benefit your hair health in other ways.
Keep hair detangled
Brushing your hair daily can help keep your hair detangled. This may reduce and break up scalp buildup. A bristle brush is a great tool for keeping hair tangle-free.
Suitable for all hair types, bristle brushes are made from either natural (boar) or synthetic bristles that help distribute oils more evenly throughout your hair. This can also help reduce scalp buildup.
Many people with coarse hair prefer brushing their hair when it’s wet. This can be helpful, but be sure to wash your hair in lukewarm water and not cold water, which may contribute to frizzing and breakage.
When brushing your hair, be gentle. Brush from the ends up to your scalp in small sections, ending at the roots.
If you’re planning on styling your hair, you might want to look for a bristle brush that can help you achieve a certain look. Some options include:
- cushion-based or “flat” brush: best for fine hair, especially if you’re planning on straightening it.
- paddle brush: great for smoothing out hair, especially if you have thick hair
- round brush: can give your hair a curl if you use one while blow drying (for tighter curls, go with a smaller brush and for larger curls, go with a larger brush)
- vented brush: have holes, or vents, on their barrels, which more easily allows air from your blow-dryer to reach your hair while you’re brushing
Exfoliate your scalp
You’re probably familiar with how to exfoliate skin on your arms, legs, and other parts of your body. But have you ever thought about exfoliating your scalp?
Turns out exfoliation can help reduce your scalp buildup if done once or twice a week.
Numerous scalp exfoliants are available.
Research suggests that lemongrass oil may be an effective treatment for dandruff. Of the hair tonics used in the study, the solution containing 10 percent lemongrass was shown to work the best as a dandruff treatment.
The best way to treat scalp buildup is to stop it before it starts. If you’re prone to scalp buildup, here are some anecdotal preventive measures you can take:
- Avoid excessive use of products. Hair products can be a great tool for keeping hair healthy and styled. But it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. When using products, apply them sparingly and add as little to your scalp as possible.
- Keep your hair healthy. Protect your hair from drying out. This means avoiding the use of harsh chemicals like chemical straighteners.
- Maintain a healthy hair routine. Even if you don’t notice scalp buildup, regular brushing and washing can help prevent it from accumulating. Use a shampoo that works best for your hair type.
- Wash your hair after exercising. When you work out, you sweat through your scalp. This can contribute to scalp buildup if you let it sit. Prevent buildup by washing your hair after each workout.
If your scalp buildup is getting in the way of managing and enjoying your hair, and home treatments are not working, see a doctor. Describe your symptoms and the treatments you’ve tried.
They will determine the cause and create a treatment plan that best addresses your needs. If you have dandruff or scalp psoriasis, for example, they may recommend prescription shampoos and topicals.
Scalp buildup is caused by the accumulation of too many substances on the scalp. It can easily be confused with dandruff because both conditions share some of the same symptoms.
However, these conditions are different and require different treatment methods.
Maintaining healthy hair through good hygiene and a proper hair-care regimen can help prevent and treat scalp buildup.
Focus on reducing both natural natural and product buildup. Then use our tips for prevention to help maintain a healthy, flake-free scalp.