8 Ways to Remove Scalp Buildup, According to Dermatologists

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While it's an annoying problem that feels difficult to remedy, scalp buildup can affect all of us—and it might be caused by something fairly innocent, like too much dry shampoo. Scalp buildup could also be caused by environmental factors or even excess oil in the scalp. Whatever the contributing factor, rest assured that it can be remedied.

It's often easy to see (and feel) scalp buildup when it occurs, but removing it isn't always that simple. If you have ever had the experience of washing your hair, but still not feeling like it's fully clean, scalp buildup was likely the culprit. Once formed, scalp buildup won't always wash away with your normal shampoo—especially if you are using one without sulfates. Understanding how scalp buildup can cause more serious damage than a bad hair day, we turned to three dermatologists for their expert opinion on how to remove scalp buildup.

Meet the Expert

Read on to learn our experts' advice for removing scalp buildup.

What Causes Scalp Buildup?

While the sources of scalp buildup can be both natural (scalp oil production and normal skin cell shedding) and environmental (hair products, airborne pollution, pollen, and tobacco), the consequences are the same. The covering of the scalp by hair creates a unique skin surface microenvironment that facilitates microbial growth, leading to a unique microbiome. These microbes use components of the buildup as food sources which fuel their metabolic activity, enhancing their impact on the underlying skin. This can lead to conditions such as dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis, and potentially even hair loss.

What is Scalp Buildup?

Scalp buildup is the accumulation of “dirt” on hair and scalp from multiple origins, including sebum (oil) production, skin cells, hair products, airborne pollution, pollen, and even tobacco smoke. This buildup can impact the appearance and health of the scalp and hair.

01 of 08

Wash More Frequently

All three of our experts say that regular cleansing is the best way to prevent scalp buildup. It's also the first step in removing it. "Scalp buildup is exactly what it sounds like: the accumulation of any kind of impurity like flakes—dead skin cells—or plaque on the scalp from natural or artificial sources, like haircare products," explains Karen. Luckily, she adds that both forms of buildup are very treatable—starting with more frequent cleansing.

If you’re noticing a lot of buildup, that could be your scalp’s way of telling you it’s gone too long without a cleanse, says Karen. "Depending on your hair type, your wash frequency will vary, but if you’re seeing buildup on a regular basis, it may be time to wash a bit more frequently," Karen shares.

Shirazi agrees and adds, "If you have an oily scalp, it’s best to cleanse the scalp every day or every other day. If you have dry, damaged, or colored hair, then once every three to five days works best." The way you're washing and even the products you're using (more on this later) can also impact the efficacy of your hair washing.

02 of 08

Physically Exfoliate the Scalp

Just like we exfoliate the skin on our face, introducing exfoliation to our scalp is an important tool in controlling and ridding the scalp of buildup, shares Karen. Using a scalp brush when shampooing will allow you to gently physically exfoliate the buildup away from the scalp so that the shampoo can then wash it out of your hair. If you are going to use a scalp brush, you should choose one with gentle bristles like the Jupiter Exfoliating Scalp Brush, which Karen recommends.

You can also use your fingers to massage the scalp with your shampoo to try and physically remove the buildup, but be sure to use your finger pads instead of your nails. While scratching the scalp with your nails may feel good, it can actually cause damage to the skin barrier of the scalp and lead to further problems.

03 of 08

Chemically Exfoliate the Scalp

Depending on your level of buildup, chemical exfoliation may be helpful as a complement to or in lieu of physical exfoliation. Shirazi recommends chemically exfoliating your scalp once to twice weekly. "I recommend using a glycolic and salicylic acid spray to prevent or reduce buildup," she explains. Her AziMD Skincare The One Spray contains both, which she says can help reduce scalp breakouts in addition to buildup.

Karen also recommends a combination of physical and chemical exfoliation, but both she and Shirazi caution that it is important to avoid over-exfoliation as this too can contribute to flaking.

04 of 08

Use a Clarifying Shampoo

Many hair care products are designed to bind to your hair in order to give you the desired results, whether frizz reduction, strand-smoothing, or heat protection, explains Rubin. She shares that those same hair care products can also leave a residue on your skin, including your scalp, in turn causing buildup. When this happens, your normal shampoo may not be enough to clear the buildup—especially if you use a sulfate-free shampoo.

Both Rubin and Shirazi recommend using a clarifying shampoo to tackle buildup. There are many kinds of formulations, with certain ingredients being better for curly or damaged hair. No matter which one you select, Shirazi says to use clarifying shampoo on wet hair focusing on the scalp. She advises that you rinse hair with water before adding shampoo for a more effective lather that spreads more evenly with less product and that the water should be warm to help loosen up dirt and debris.

05 of 08

Evaluate Your Current Products

Some ingredients are bad build-up culprits. Take silicones for example. Silicones are found in a lot of hair styling products that are designed to treat frizz or protect from heat because they coat the hair. This coating has the potential to build up on the scalp and contribute to the hair looking and feeling dirty. Rubin explains that she took this into account when creating her brand SEEN, which is free of silicones. "All of SEEN’s products are specifically formulated to care for your hair and your skin, since hair care products can cause breakouts and irritation," Rubin says. "SEEN products are clinically proven to be non-irritating and non-comedogenic."

06 of 08

Lay Off the Dry Shampoo

Another serious culprit of buildup? Dry shampoo. "A dry shampoo’s core purpose is to soak up oil to 'extend a wash.' In most cases, dry shampoos end up blocking the surface of the skin where your skin cells shed and sebaceous glands secrete oil. The dry shampoo functions as a blockade thereby prohibiting the natural and healthy skin turnover lifecycle," explains Karen. Dry shampoo is okay for occasional use (one to two times per week), but you need to thoroughly cleanse after, to ensure it has been fully removed from your scalp.

07 of 08

Get a Scalp Treatment

For those who may want to take a more relaxing approach to tackling their scalp buildup, there are plenty of in-office and spa treatments designed to treat this problem. Shirazi recommends the Hydrafacial Keravive, saying it’s like a facial for your scalp. "It's a three-step, in-office treatment that uses a vacuum to extract buildup and debris from pores, exfoliate the scalp skin, and hydrate it with a solution with nourishing ingredients," Shirazi explains.

Many spas and salons also offer scalp facials, scrubs, and even steam treatments to combat scalp buildup and leave the hair feeling super clean.

08 of 08

Use a Medicated Shampoo

If you have already tried addressing your buildup at home or start experiencing symptoms like burning or itching, it's time to consult a dermatologist to determine the cause. "If you have tried washing regularly, using a clarifying shampoo, and minimizing products that can cause buildup, and you still experience buildup, seeing a dermatologist can help," says Rubin. "If you have what feels like 'patches' of buildup, areas of scalp redness, large 'flakes' or significant itching it is best to see a dermatologist to rule out seborrheic dermatitis or another skin condition."

One source of buildup (and in turn itching, redness, or irritation) is the overgrowth of a common-occurring fungus on your scalp called malassezia furfur, explains Karen. "In a healthy scalp with normal skin, dead skin cells shed constantly as new ones grow," she says. "The sloughing off of dead skin cells usually goes unnoticed, the particles are tiny and the process doesn’t cause any visible flakes or irritation. The lifecycle of skin cells on the scalp is usually around a month. In people with dandruff, for example, this process happens at an accelerated rate and with more destructive results. An overgrowth of malassezia is commonly thought to be fueling this rapid skin growth cycle which in turn leads to buildup."

In these cases, a dermatologist will be able to determine the cause of your discomfort, and ultimately the appropriate treatment. A medicated shampoo may be the best course of treatment for conditions such as dandruff. Your dermatologist may prescribe a specific one, typically with zinc pyrithione. Karen recommends the Jupiter Balancing Shampoo, which uses zinc pyrithione to get at the root of flaking and ultimately control oil production on the scalp.

  • What causes scalp buildup?

    The scalp is skin, so it naturally sheds dead skin cells. Oil produced by the scalp can build up as well. Together, dead cells and oil create a “natural” buildup. From there, hair care products can add to the buildup mix, explains Rubin.

  • What can I do to treat scalp buildup at home?

    The first step is to prevent the formation of buildup by washing regularly and using products that don't have buildup-causing ingredients. If you are looking to target existing buildup, start by using a clarifying shampoo or trying a combination of physical and chemical exfoliation.

  • When is scalp buildup something I need to consult a doctor about?

    Scalp buildup needs to be checked by a dermatologist if it persists, causes itching or inflammation, or starts to cause hair loss.

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
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  3. Punyani S, Tosti A, Hordinsky M, Yeomans D, Schwartz J. The impact of shampoo wash frequency on scalp and hair conditions. Skin Appendage Disord. 2021;7(3):183-193.

  4. Trüeb RM, Henry JP, Davis MG, Schwartz JR. Scalp condition impacts hair growth and retention via oxidative stress. Int J Trichology. 2018;10(6):262-270.

  5. Punyani S, Tosti A, Hordinsky M, Yeomans D, Schwartz J. The impact of shampoo wash frequency on scalp and hair conditions. Skin Appendage Disord. 2021;7(3):183-193.

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Your Complete Guide to Scalp Care

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