Last Updated on December 2, 2022 by Verna Meachum
If you’ve come to this page, you’ve likely had some itchy flakes or oily build-up on your scalp.
It is not uncommon for the scalp to accumulate a layer of oil, sweat, and other substances that can clog pores and cause scalp irritation.
This build up can also lead to scalp acne and dandruff. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it may be time to take action ASAP!
The good news is – it’s not so hard to clear up.
In this blog post, we will discuss the science behind scalp build up as well as some remedies that may help improve your scalp’s condition.
The Scalp and Its Function
The scalp is the outermost layer of the skull covering the brain. The scalp is designed to protect the vital inner brain tissues.
It is a very important part of the body. Not only does it protect our head and keep our hair healthy, but it also helps to regulate the temperature of our head.
It comprises millions of minute blood vessels supplying blood to upper cerebral areas. The scalp surface is covered by a large number of out-grown hair fibers which protects the scalp from the outer environment, heat, and physical injuries.
Hair is made up of protein and is a wonderful thermal insulator for our brain against heat exposure.
Furthermore, hair is a significant part of the human personality, personal grooming, and styling, Hence, scalp health is vital for healthy hair.
You’re well aware of the golden rule: “A healthy scalp equals healthy hair.” Therefore, it is critical to keep the scalp clean, hygienic, and healthy.
So, what is scalp build-up and what are the main functions of the scalp? And, how can we preserve and maintain a clean and healthy scalp?
Here are some basic points…
Biochemical Activity at the Scalp Surface
Hair emerges from specialized sites known as “Hair follicles” present at the scalp surface.1-2
The scalp surface contains thousands of follicles. The base of the hair follicle is approximately 4 millimeters below the surface.
T follicle cells undergo complex biochemical processing known as “keratinization” to produce hair. Nutrients, minerals, lipids, and proteins are all required for hair cell development and growth.
All of these essential nutrients are extracted from scalp cells to promote hair development, growth, and sustain its healthy life.
Once hair emerges from the hair follicles, it is considered dead, however, It still needs nutrients from the scalp to grow.
Root cells continue to push hair fiber with continuous keratinization and consequently need a continuous supply of nutrients.
This is the whole process for a healthy and normal hair cycle that can only be maintained and sustained by a healthy scalp.
The scalp surface contains a large number of sebaceous glands and hair follicles. Sebaceous glands continuously secrete fatty liquid known as “Sebum”.
The sebum is a lubricant and its chemical composition highlights the presence of lipids, fatty acid esters, and waxes which are responsible to lubricate and condition the scalp surface as well as the hair shaft.
The rate of sebum secretion is controlled by certain hormones.
Interestingly, insufficient levels of sebum lead to dryness while excessive secretion may lead to dandruff, microbial growth, and fatty material build-up at the scalp surface and hair shaft.
Scalp Build Up
Human skin cells undergo a cellular turn-over. It is part of a natural process where older cells die and new cells are formed. The dead cells eventually fall from the skin surface.
Exfoliation, which is the removal of dead cells, helps to speed up or accelerate this cell turnover.
However, under certain conditions, dead cells may accumulate on the surface and form a rigid layer on the top. This is what we call “scalp build up”.
This build up slows down the formation of new skin cells and may even be an obstacle in the normal hair cycle.
Sebum is a natural lubricant that is essential for hair and scalp conditioning. However, anything is bad.
Along with the dead cell’s layer, continuous sebum production results in a greasy and waxy substance on the scalp surface. These unwanted materials are the opportune place for microbial growth.
Fungal growth can cause dandruff leaving white tiny flakes on the scalp surface. Dandruff affects a large number of people (both male and female) and anti-dandruff treatments are commonly used.
Burning fossil fuels and rapid industrialization poses an immense threat to our environment. Recently, researchers have reported the impact of air pollution on hair quality.3-4
One good example of these air pollutants is around highways, freeways, etc. People who live or spend a lot of time near major highways are more exposed to these pollutants than those who live further away.
The deposits of these black carbon particles stick to the sebum and form another greasy material.
Hair care products contain a wide range of chemical ingredients, such as surfactants, conditioning agents, oils, and waxes. These materials are supposed to be rinsed off, but they can also build up over time, leading to scalp residue.
Some chemical ingredients have large molecules that are difficult to penetrate the hair cuticles, so they stay on the hair shaft and scalp surface.
If you notice that your scalp feels oily or heavy, it may be due to scalp residue from your hair products.
Polymers are all cationic (positively charged) in nature. They are quite popular to use in most hair care products such as shampoos, conditioners, hair masks, and styling products. The more polymer there is, the more likely build up occurs.
If you’ve been in the curly hair community for a while, you’ve probably heard about the silicone build up potential on your hair. However, most are unaware that conditioning agents used in conditioners and hair masks can also produce build-up on the hair.
Hair is negatively-charged and these polymers are positively charged and thus, they attract to each other.
The Negative Impact of Hair and Scalp Build Up
The build up on the scalp’s surface or hair shaft has a significant influence on hair and scalp health.
When the scalp has residue on it, the pores close and stop active ingredients from penetrating or getting in.
The build up of dead cells and products on the surface can also impede blood circulation and oxygen exposure. As a result, white flakes form over time and when mixed with oil or sebum can become greasy.
The scalp’s natural ability to produce sebum and shed old cells is also disrupted, which may lead to scalp odor, hair thinning, and scalp acne.
Polymeric build up
The physical and chemical characteristics of the hair surface are affected by polymeric build up from various formulations. In other words, the surface of your hair can be affected by build up from the various stuff that you use.
The penetration of smaller molecules and their surface deposits are both impeded by the deposits of cationic polymer or silicones.
Furthermore, polymeric build up prevents hair from absorbing solar radiation due to its low interaction with sunlight. The deposit accumulation deflects the light’s trajectory, causing hairs to look dull and lackluster.
This all explains how these build up occurrences can have a negative influence on your scalp and hair health.
So, how do we remove scalp and hair build up?
How to Remove Scalp Build Up
The key points are:
- Maintain your scalp hygiene. Make sure you’re washing your scalp enough. Your scalp will clue you into when it needs another wash. Literally, part various sections of your hair and check out your scalp. If you notice telltale signs of build up, you may have to modify your shampoo schedule accordingly. Try adding in another wash or two to see how you do.
- Wash your scalp and hair with a gentle clarifying shampoo. Sometimes regular shampoos don’t get rid of all the grime and gunk. That’s why adding a clarifying shampoo into the rotation is necessary from time to time.
- At least once a week – massage your scalp with natural oils. Olive Oil, and Coconut Oil are highly recommended for the job. Add a drop of tea tree oil to the concoction and you’re good to go. Just make sure you use a carrier oil to dilute the tea tree oil as it’s very potent on its own. Tea tree oil is a natural antiseptic and has antimicrobial, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties. Note: those with sensitive scalp should use it cautiously.
- To minimize scaling and flake formation, check your scalp condition on a regular basis.
- In the case of dandruff, use anti-dandruff treatment that contains sulfur, zinc pyrithione, or other anti-fungal topical application prescribed by your dermatologist.
Here are a few gentle clarifying shampoos with clean ingredients you can use to remove scalp build up:
- The cleansing purifying scrub with sea salt is ideal as a detox treatment as it cleanses, purifies, and restores balance to sensitive or oily scalps.
- Formulated with Sea Salt and Sweet Almond Oil, which will help soothe the scalp, refresh the hair, and restore optimal hydration levels.
- Sea salt is an effective natural exfoliator that cleanses, removes impurities, and restores balance to the scalp.
- This EWG VERIFIED, certified organic shampoo is made with non-GMO ingredients and no parabens, harsh preservatives, synthetic colors or fragrances, or phthalates. It is also vegan and not tested on animals.
- Gently cleanses hair and relieves scalp discomfort.
- pH balanced formula made with plant-based botanicals and essential oils.
- No GMOs, parabens, harsh preservatives, synthetic colors or fragrances, or phthalates.
- Vegan formula.
- Nourishing essential oils for refreshing the scalp.
- Will help to build up and flakes.
- Natural real ingredients.
- Sulfate free purifying shampoo featuring cleansing natural oils.
- Cleansing shampoo formulated with raw black soap.
- Soothes the scalp while removing build up.
- This is one of my go-to clarifying shampoos and literally the best! It is also a chelating shampoo which will remove any hard water minerals, such as magnesium and calcium.
- It will also prevent hard water build up on your hair.
- Packed with vitamins, which provide nutrients that are beneficial to maintaining healthy hair and scalp.
- Free of harsh sulfates.
- Removes dirt and build up from the hair and scalp without stripping it of its natural moisture.
- Made with Castor Oil, to deeply moisturize hair and protect it from drying out.
- It makes a great hair detangler.
- This is also one of my all time favorite shampoos. I’ve been using it since the beginning of my healthy hair journey.
- It’s sulfate-free.
- Removes build up while infusing hair with nourishing moisture.
- It’s also perfect for damaged and color-treated hair.
- Formulated with Jamaican Black Castor Oil and Shea Butter, which helps to strengthen damaged hair, chemically processed hair and heat styled hair.
- This cruelty-free shampoo and contains no silicone, sulfates, parabens, phthalates, mineral oil or petrolatum.
- Infuses each strand of hair with a blend of vitamins, nutrients, and proteins to increase strength and vitality.
- Designed to protect over-worked, over-processed and color-treated hair while locking in color and shine. Your hair will be hydrated, moisturized and perfectly pH balanced!
- With Aloe Vera, Rosemary, and other Botanical Extracts contained in its formula, it will add moisture and manageability to your hair while remaining gentle enough for everyday use.
- It’s vegan and cruelty-free.
- GIOVANNI products do not contain harsh chemicals.
- It’s a soothing and detoxifying scalp treatment that balances hydration and provides relief to a dry, itchy, irritated, flaky scalp.
- It will also hydrate, balance, and soothe an itchy, irritated, and flaky scalp.
- It detoxifies and draws out impurities.
- Formulated with a unique complex of tea tree oil, biotin, panthenol, and witch hazel to help soothe a dry, flaky scalp. Binchotan charcoal absorbs impurities to help diminish build up. 99% Naturally Derived.
- Safe for: Color treated, keratin treated, chemically-treated, and relaxed hair.
Scalp build-up varies from person to person, ranging from itchy scales to sensitive scalps. It’s important to find a scalp treatment that best suits your needs to maintain healthy hair and scalp.
Nonetheless, it’s just as vital to remove any grime and gunk from your scalp because you don’t want it lingering for very long.
These remedies for relieving scalp build up should get you started. Try one of them and your invigorated scalp will thank you!
1. Zviak, C., The Science of Hair Care. Taylor & Francis: 2005.
2. Robbins, C. R., Chemical and physical behavior of human hair. 4th ed.; Springer-Verlag: New York, 2002.
3. Galliano, A.; Ye, C.; Su, F.; Wang, C.; Wang, Y.; Liu, C.; Wagle, A.; Guerin, M.; Flament, F.; Steel, A., Particulate matter adheres to human hair exposed to severe aerial pollution: consequences for certain hair surface properties. Inter. J. of Cosmet. Sci 2017, 39 (6), 610-616.
4. Naudin, G.; Bastien, P.; Mezzache, S.; Trehu, E.; Bourokba, N.; Appenzeller, B. M. R.; Soeur, J.; Bornschlögl, T., Human pollution exposure correlates with accelerated ultrastructural degradation of hair fibers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2019, 116 (37), 18410-18415.