Everyone who’s had to deal with greasy hair knows how annoying and inconvenient it can be. But sometimes, it’s more than just a nuisance. A greasy scalp is prone to irritation, dandruff, and other skin conditions. To get rid of excess oil on your scalp, you must get to the root of the problem. Find out what contributes to greasy hair and learn nine ways to reduce excess oil production.
You wake up and realise that you’re already running late. You look in the mirror and see that your hair needs washing—again. In fact, you wash it every morning, sometimes twice a day. No matter which shampoos you use, you cannot achieve a weightless bouncy hairstyle for more than a few hours. If this sounds familiar, you probably have a greasy scalp.
Everyone’s hair gets oily over time. Like the rest of your skin, your scalp is covered with tiny sebaceous glands, each attached to a hair follicle, that produce a complex fusion of lipids called sebum. This oily, waxy substance protects and lubricates the scalp, preventing dandruff, infections, and other skin irritations, and gives your hair a shiny coating. But excess sebum production undermines many of those benefits. When the glands excrete excess sebum, it collects at the roots of your hair, clogging the follicles and causing a build-up of dead, flaky skin. Now you have oily-looking hair and dandruff!
If you can’t go a day without a greasy build-up on your scalp and hair, you have oily hair. Additional symptoms include:
The main culprit here is genetics. The size of a person’s sebaceous glands and the way hormones influence them is genetically determined. Acne, dry skin, and oily hair are all sebum-related conditions that tend to run in families. That’s because thin hair covers with sebum faster and doesn’t have enough volume to hide a flat and dull appearance. Although genetic factors can’t be changed, there are ways to manage the over-production of sebum so you can go at least a day or two between washes.
You wash your hair when it looks dirty, right? Yes and no. Washing your hair too often can dry your scalp, which will compensate by producing more sebum. If you wash your hair daily, try cutting it down to every other day or every three days and see what happens.
Leave-in conditioners, oil-based sprays, and shampoos that are not meant for your hair type can interfere with or exacerbate sebum production, resulting in even greasier hair. Heavy products can also weigh down your hair and leave a residue that makes your hair look dull, even after a proper wash.
Freshly washed hair falls so lightly and naturally, you want to play with it. But the more you touch your hair, the faster it gets dirty. Even clean hands are naturally coated with oils on your fingers that coat your hair and make it oily. Also, your fingers spread the oil from the scalp to the hair, making it greasy faster.
We often overlook water as contributing factor, but hard water contains minerals, particularly calcium and magnesium, that can dry and irritate your skin, leave a residue on your hair, and make your hair more brittle. Your scalp may try to compensate by making more sebum. Also, soaps and shampoos don’t lather as well in hard water, potentially leading us to use more than we need. Chlorine is often added to public water supplies to kill harmful pathogens, but it can also interfere with your scalp’s ability to regulate itself.
A diverse, nutritious diet is essential for healthy hair and scalp. If you eat a lot of junk food, processed fats, and refined sugars, your body will be more prone to inflammation, and your sebaceous glands might malfunction. Lack of essential minerals and vitamins in your diet deprives your skin and hair of natural bounce.
Hormones play a significant role in hair health and sebum production. Some women report that their hair gets oily faster just before menstruation and during pregnancy when androgen levels are elevated. Androgens—male sex hormones—bind to receptors on the sebaceous glands and stimulate sebum production. Some endocrine conditions, such as hypothyroidism and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), can also increase sebum production.
Certain medications can also influence sebum production. Hormonal contraceptives and HRT increase the amount of oestrogen in the body, potentially causing oily skin, acne, and greasy hair. Corticosteroids, lithium, anticonvulsants, barbiturates, androgenic steroids, and DHEA, and medications that contain bromides or iodides, have all been linked to excess oil production. Check the ingredients of your medicines to see if something you are taking might also be affecting your scalp.
Now that you know where the problems lie, here are nine tips to help you improve the health of your scalp and keep your hair clean for longer than a day.
Do you know what’s in the hair products you use? Shampoos formulated for curly or dry hair and those that promise a glossy sheen generally contain ingredients that weigh down fine, thin hair. If you have oily hair, choose a shampoo with mild ingredients, and avoid parabens, sulphates, and silicones. These additives produce instant shine, but over time can irritate the scalp, increase oil production, cause your hair to become dull and brittle, and even provoke hair loss. Avoid leave-in conditioners and heavy hair masques, and if you use conditioner, apply it only from the middle to the ends and rinse your hair thoroughly before drying.
Consider adding a clarifying shampoo or a scalp scrub to your hair care routine. Clarifying shampoos contain more surfactants, so they do a better job of breaking down oils and product residue than regular shampoos, but they can dry and damage your hair if overused. Once or twice a month is enough for most, but people who struggle with greasy hair and/or wash in hard water can clarify more often. Scalp scrubs encourage blood circulation, stimulate healthy hair growth, can help with conditions such as dandruff, eczema, psoriasis, or seborrheic dermatitis, and remove product and oil residues from your hair and scalp. When used appropriately, such products can revitalise your scalp and help manage greasy hair.
One of the best things you can do for your hair is to leave it alone. While occasional brushing prevents tangles and distributes oils, over-brushing can make your hair dirtier and contribute to hair loss. Most brushes carry oils and dirt that can weigh hair down, especially fine hair. Choose haircuts and hairstyles that are easy to maintain with minimum attention.
To determine if your tap water contains enough minerals to be considered hard, consult with your local water provider, buy a hard water test kit, or do a simple soapsuds test at home: Fill a clean, clear water bottle about 1/3 with water. Add a few drops of dish soap, screw on the cap, shake, and observe. If the soap lathers quickly, the water is soft. If few suds appear, add a few more drops of dish soap and try again. The more soap you need to produce a lather, the harder your water is.
There are many different water filters, each designed to remove specific impurities or contaminants from the water we drink and bathe in. Water softeners generally exchange calcium (Ca ) and magnesium (Mg) ions for sodium (Na) or potassium (K) ions. Other types of filters can remove chlorine, heavy metals, bacteria, and other pollutants. No one filter can remove every impurity. You will need to do some research to determine which filter is most appropriate for your needs. Improving the quality of the water you wash in can protect and improve the health of your skin and hair.
Healthy hair requires sufficient vitamins, minerals, and protein to grow long and strong. B group vitamins—especially B7 (biotin)—are crucial for healthy hair. Vitamins E, D, and C and minerals zinc, iron, and selenium all play important roles in hair growth and normal sebum production.
You may be doing all the right things and still have greasy hair at the end of the day. If that’s the case, it might have to do with your hormones. Excess oestrogen is linked to oily skin, acne, and other skin problems. Androgens in women also increase excess sebum production and hair loss. However, sex hormones aren’t the only possible culprits. Chronically elevated cortisol levels can lead to greasy hair and skin, and an imbalance in the thyroid hormones can cause hair problems. The only way to find out for sure is to ask your doctor to test your hormone levels.
This may be easier said than done but limiting the number of times you wash your hair each week can help your sebaceous glands self-regulate. If your hair feels uncomfortably greasy, it’s best to wash it. But if only the roots are greasy, and you don’t have someplace important to be, let your scalp rest for another day. When the skin is well-hydrated and maintains balanced conditions for healthy follicles, the sebaceous glands settle down and stop overproducing oil.
Using an oil mask to prevent oily hair may seem counterintuitive, but many people swear by the benefits. Not only do certain oil masks reduce sebum excretion, but they also nourish and hydrate your hair and skin and promote healthy hair growth. You don’t need much—just apply a few drops of oil to your scalp, massage it in with your fingertips, and let it sit for 30 to 60 minutes. Then carefully wash and dry your hair. Argan oil, olive oil, jojoba oil, avocado oil, and grape seed oil can all be used to condition your scalp, reduce sebum production, and protect your hair from split ends and damaging detergents.
You may be surprised at how dirty your pillowcase can get after just one night. Fabric softeners, detergents, make-up, skincare products, and natural oils from your skin all accumulate on the fabric and get rubbed back into your skin and hair during the night, especially if you sleep with your hair loose. Avoid these problems by putting your hair in a braid or loose bun and wearing a silk or satin sleep scarf at night. This can reduce oiliness and protect your hair from breaking.
If you have greasy hair, you’ve probably tried using dry shampoo. While this can be a great way to refresh your hairstyle on occasion, regular use can be damaging. Many dry shampoos contain chemicals that are harmful to the respiratory system and leave a residue on the scalp that can irritate the skin, cause a rash, and contribute to hair loss. If you prefer dry shampoo, look for brands that use natural ingredients or make some yourself. Corn starch, baking soda, arrowroot powder, baby powder, diatomaceous earth, cocoa powder, and charcoal (those last two for dark-haired people) can all be used to absorb scalp oils.
Sometimes an oily scalp, hair loss, and fine, brittle hair indicate a more serious condition that can’t be solved by switching shampoos. Our bodies are continuously renewing themselves, healing, and self-regulating. They also let us know when something is wrong, and we need to pay attention.
Seborrheic dermatitis is a type of skin inflammation that typically occurs on the scalp and other areas with a higher concentration of sebaceous glands. The skin becomes inflamed, oily, and scaley, possibly due to an over-active immune response to a yeast that commonly lives on our skin. Although it often clears up on its own, medicated shampoos and ointments can be used to control flare-ups.
Psoriasis is a common chronic autoimmune condition. In psoriasis sufferers, triggers such as stress, cold weather, or infection can cause irritation, itching/burning, and scaly patches to develop on the skin, usually around the waist, knees, elbows, and scalp. There is no known cure, but the symptoms can be managed with medications, ointments, and light therapy.
PCOS affects 1 in 10 women. The most common symptoms include ovarian cysts, increased androgen levels, and hirsutism (excess hair growth on the face, chest, and back). Elevated androgen levels increase the activity of the sebaceous glands, resulting in acne, oily hair, and hair loss. If you show signs of high androgen and have few or irregular periods or are having trouble getting pregnant, see your doctor. Treatments for PCOS include medications and lifestyle changes to manage symptoms.
Greasy hair is annoying, but it doesn’t have to define you. We all have some special physical features or biological conditions to tend to. If an oily scalp is your burden to bear, you can evaluate your situation and take steps to heal your scalp and regulate sebum production for healthy, clean, and shiny hair.
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