We Ask a Derm: How to Remove Scalp Buildup

Does your hair seem to be falling flat more so than usual these days? If so, you may have excess buildup on your scalp. While a mild case of buildup can typically be cleared up with a solid shampoo and rinse, too much of it can cause dandruff and inflammation, which may require more care. To guide us through the best ways to remove (and prevent) scalp buildup, we turned to a dermatologist who frequently deals with the issue at her practice.

Meet the Expert:

Dr. Kellie Reed, a board-certified dermatologist at Westlake Dermatology in Austin, Texas.

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What Causes Scalp Buildup?

The most common sources of buildup come from natural oils and the skin cell shedding that occurs on your scalp, as well as environmental factors like styling products, dust and pollution. “Seborrheic dermatitis, which is an inflammatory condition caused by an overgrowth of yeast called Malassezia, or an immune response to this yeast, can also contribute to scalp buildup,” explains Reed. “You can usually spot buildup fairly easily, as the signs range from dryness, itchiness and redness to greasy scaling or flakes,” she adds.

If not treated, continued inflammation on the scalp can contribute to increased hair shedding leading to thinning of hair.

What Are Some Things to Look Out For?

“Using too many products—or too much of them—can increase scalp buildup,” says Reed. As for specific things to look out for, one common ingredient that’s often used in hair products is silicone. “Silicones are found in many styling products because they coat your strands [which makes them smoother]. However, they are more prone to building up on your scalp, especially if you’re not washing your hair enough.”

What Are Some Ingredients That Can Help Remove Scalp Buildup?

Reed recommends shampoos or treatments with ingredients like pyrithione zinc, salicylic acid, selenium sulfide, tar, sulfur or ketoconazole. “They each have unique purposes, but in general, they all work to reduce yeast, inflammation, and flakiness on the scalp,” she says.

What Are Some Best Practices for Preventing Scalp Buildup?

“Choose products that have the aforementioned ingredients (like pyrithione zinc) included in them, and when you’re shampooing, make sure to focus on your scalp and roots, rather than your ends,” advises Reed. “Not only will this treat your scalp and make sure it’s getting the appropriate amount of cleansing, but this will also minimize drying out your ends.”

Next comes the conditioner and any styling products you may use, which Reed recommends using sparingly and “only applying to your ends.” Last but not least, if you’re a frequent exerciser or excessive sweater, you should suds up after your workouts to minimize further scalp buildup.

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Beauty Director

Jenny Jin is PureWow’s Beauty Director and is currently based in Los Angeles. Since beginning her journalism career at Real Simple magazine, she has become a human encyclopedia of...