How to Prevent (and Manage) Oily Hair

Woman of color washing her hair in the shower
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Oily hair can leave you feeling really gross. It can also cause acne at your hairline, tanking your self-esteem. You don't have to go around leaving oil slicks in your wake, but you can take some steps to control it. First, you have to understand it.

Sometimes, a greasy scalp is the result of a temporary hormonal problem that comes with puberty, thyroid complications, pregnancy, or even menopause (although the opposite is more often true). In these cases, the hormones coursing through your body are telling your scalp to produce too much oil, more than is necessary. If the problem comes on very suddenly, a chat with your doctor might be in order to check for underlying hormone concerns that can be treated medically. (You could also just be touching your hair way too much, a symptom of stress). Other times, the excess oil production is simply the way your body is.

The Oily Hair Cycle

Whatever the cause, your oily scalp is caught in a vicious cycle that some remedies actually make worse. For example, you might think that frequent hair washing is the way to zap the oil. As logical as that approach might seem, you're probably making your hair greasier. Here's what happens: You wake up with a greasy scalp, so you wash your hair to remove the grease. In the process, you strip your hair of its natural sebum. Your body's response is to replace the oil that it's lost. Sometimes, that response goes overboard, and you find yourself oily again by lunchtime. If the next time you wash your hair, you use a product to dry out your scalp further, like a clarifying shampoo, your body responds in a panic. Trying to rehydrate that lost moisture, it unleashes more oil. You can't win chasing this greasy cycle. The hard truth is that the more you wash your hair, the more oil your scalp produces.

how to manage oily hair
Jiaqi Zhou/Byrdie

Breaking the Cycle

The best way to stop this sebum over-secretion is to skip washing your hair. As counterintuitive as it sounds, skipping the occasional shampoo can help over time. Start slowly. Skip the shampoo one or two days a week, when you can wear a hat or when you'll be home all day. After a few weeks, increase the number. The eventual goal is to be able go two to three days between shampoos to get the oil production under control. Just don't expect to get there overnight—instead, give it a few months. Experiment with dry shampoos and hair powders like Playa's Soft Volume Power ($24,) which are designed to help soak up that oil without stripping your scalp of its necessary sebum.

The second tip for breaking the cycle of oil production might surprise you as much as the first: Change your shampoo and conditioner. You've likely been choosing products that have little in the way of moisturizing ingredients, or maybe you've been skipping the conditioner altogether. After all, you don't want to add more moisture to an already over-moisturized situation, right? Nope. You should use products meant to balance the moisture on your head. Any heavy duty product would be too much, but a lightweight moisturizing shampoo and conditioner can help maintain the balance of moisture on your scalp.

So don't skip the conditioner—just use it properly. Concentrate it on the ends of your hair, and rinse it thoroughly. A lightweight or leave-in formulation can work well. If conditioner still seems too much for your hair, try conditioning first and shampooing second to remove extra residue. Sometimes, what you think is grease is actually shampoo or conditioner that hasn't been rinsed completely.

Keep in mind that hot water can stimulate the glands that produce sebum, which is something you want to avoid. Plus, a cool-water rinse helps close the hair cuticle, preventing damage to your hair from hot styling tools. Whenever possible, though, let your hair air-dry, or at least, keep the heat to a minimum since hot air can stimulate oil production.

What Products to Use

Your greasy hair might also be the result of product and conditioner buildup, so use a clarifying shampoo or treatment twice per month (but no more, for the reasons previously discussed). These options are great:

Bb Sunday Shampoo
Bumble and bumble Sunday Shampoo $27
Scalp Revival Charcoal + Coconut Oil Micro-Exfoliating Shampoo
Briogeo Scalp Revival Charcoal + Coconut Oil Micro-Exfoliating Shampoo $42
Clarifying Shampoo
Christophe Robin Clarifying Shampoo with Camomile and Cornflower $34

Stay away from products with extra shine-enhancing ingredients; they're usually using some type of oil. Instead, look for hair products with volumizing properties.

Ultimately, if you have naturally curly or wavy hair, embrace it. Blowing it out or flat-ironing it every day makes your hair appear greasier. Straight hair gives grease and oil a direct path down your hair shaft, making it much more noticeable. If you have straight hair, curling it or going for a cut that brings out the wave will make it appear less oily.

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