Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 12/12/2020
We often think about our hair to the detriment of our scalp. But scalp care is really skincare, and neglecting the surface from which your hair grows can lead to trouble down the road.
If you’re plagued by build-up — nasty, gunky crap on your scalp — getting rid of it isn’t only a matter of cleanliness, but could help keep your hair healthy for years to come.
We’ll start with the easy stuff. If your build-up is in fact build-up and not dead skin cells or scabs or something else slightly grosser, there’s a good chance it’s product build-up.
If you use hairspray, mousse, gel or other styling products, the gunk on your scalp could be leftovers from these.
The polymers from styling products get left on your hair and not only leave a layer of filth on your scalp, but can make your hair look rough and dull.
But styling aids aren’t the only thing that can build up on your scalp. If you use a deep conditioner, it could be leaving behind a residue too.
The concentrated, thick ingredients of deep conditioners are designed to resist rinsing — it’s really how your hair remains soft even once you’ve “rinsed” it all out.
Over time, these lipids can create a film or gunky build up on your head.
OK, but what if your buildup isn’t caused by hair products? There are numerous other possibilities.
Seborrhea or seborrheic dermatitis is a common cause of dandruff, or the flaking of skin on the scalp. It’s technically considered a form of eczema and is an inflammatory and immune response to a type of fungus known as Malassezia yeast.
It’s associated with overactive sebaceous glands (those that produce sebum or oil), which the Malassezia “feeds” on — bet you didn’t know dandruff was that gross.
The results? Yellow or white flakes, itchiness, and red, irritated skin.
Psoriasis is an immune disease that causes inflammation throughout the body and skin.
About half of all people with psoriasis have scalp psoriasis, according to the National psoriasis foundation.
Scalp psoriasis can resemble dandruff or appear as crusty, thick patches across the scalp.
Unlike seborrhea, scalp psoriasis will appear powdery with almost a silver sheen.
Tinea capitis, or ringworm of the scalp, is caused by a fungus (not a worm).
The fungi thrive in moist and warm areas, and this type of infection may be more common if you sweat a lot, have scalp injuries, or do not wash your hair often.
Ringworm on your scalp can cause round scaly patches that may be inflamed and cause an extremely itchy scalp.
You may also have pus-filled sores and tiny bald spots where hair has broken off at the hair follicles.
A less likely — but still plausible — culprit of your scalp buildup is a certain type of folliculitis known commonly as dissecting cellulitis of the scalp.
This condition results in large nodule lesions, or sores, and bald spots. It can resemble very severe acne on the scalp and the buildup could be a combination of pus and blood.
Because scalp buildup is often due to hair products, cleaning it up is merely a matter of time and using the products.
For instance, because hair products can leave behind residue resistant to shampooing and particularly shampoos that are “gentle”, using a clarifying shampoo can break down those polymers, leaving you with a cleaner scalp and hair strands.
When possible, keep your styling products off your scalp. Use them sparingly and focus on the length of your hair.
When using conditioner, skip your scalp entirely.
Because conditioners can leave behind polymers that resist rinsing and can aggravate an already oily scalp, focus the moisturizing formulas on your strands and leave your roots and scalp out of the equation.
If you suffer from oily hair, you can likely skip the conditioner altogether.
If your buildup is caused by dandruff, use a dandruff shampoo and follow the directions on the bottle carefully.
You may try alternating your regular shampoo with an anti-dandruff shampoo, being sure to wash everyday, in the beginning.
If dandruff shampoo doesn’t solve your dandruff problems, it could be that you’re dealing with something like scalp psoriasis or a fungal infection.
Chatting with a dermatology practitioner can help pinpoint what’s causing your scalp condition and recommend the right course of action.
When it comes to applying DIY home remedies to your scalp, be careful.
Research indicates shampoo pH should be around 4 to 5 (considered acidic) to cleanse the hair and scalp without causing irritation.
Alkaline hair products may lead to friction in the hair, which can cause breakage and cuticle damage.
The short answer to this question is yes. In some situations, scalp buildup is associated with hair loss, but that largely depends on the cause of your build up.
For instance, Malassexia, the yeast that causes dandruff, can cause oxidative stress which may play a role in premature hair loss. Likewise, scalp psoriasis, scalp ringworm and folliculitis can all cause bald spots.
If you're experiencing the symptoms of hair loss, it’s crucial to speak to a healthcare professional to find out potential causes.
When in doubt: seek medical advice.
Healthy hair comes from a healthy scalp. And just like you (hopefully) have something resembling a skincare routine, you need a hair care routine that involves caring for your scalp.
In most cases, scalp buildup is the result of hair care products, and is easily “cured” by better shampooing, conditioning, and styling practices.
But, if you have any suspicions that your scalp condition is something more serious, talking with a healthcare professional or certified dermatology practitioner can get you started on a path to long-term scalp and hair health.