Ask An Expert·3 min read

You Might Have Scalp Buildup — Here's What to Do

Woman looking at scalp in mirror
February 20, 2024

We're dubbing 2024 the year of scalp care. And we’re not the only ones. The recent boom of companies and products focused on the scalp shows how people are realizing it’s no less important than the rest of their skin — and it directly affects hair health, too.  

One thing that can irritate your scalp? Buildup, aka sebum, dead skin, and products that accumulate over time. So we asked Marisa Garshick, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology, about the signs of buildup and how to break it down.  


Marisa Garshick, MD, FAAD

Marisa Garshick, MD, FAAD - Board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology

How do I know if my scalp has buildup? 

Buildup generally comes from needing to wash your hair more often or more thoroughly. And having an oily scalp or using a lot of hair products can make it worse. Look out for signs of buildup like: 

  • Greasy hair that may look dull or weighed down 

  • Irritation of the scalp, including redness, itching, and inflammation

  • Thick, scaly patches of dead skin, oil, etc., on the scalp 

So how do I get rid of scalp buildup? 

In a word: shampoo. If you’re noticing buildup, you should consider washing your hair…

  • More often. Exactly how often depends on your hair type and preferences, but buildup suggests you might need to increase the frequency. If your hair is dry or textured and washing more often isn’t an option, try the other options below. 

  • More thoroughly. You may need to spend more time washing out shampoo and make sure you didn’t miss any areas "to really get rid of anything that's sitting on the scalp," says Garshick.

  • With a different shampoo. Look into a clarifying shampoo, which is designed to get rid of buildup. Or a shampoo with exfoliating ingredients like salicylic acid to help break down dead skin cells.

You might also want to consider a scalp treatment like an exfoliator. Just be mindful not to overdo it and potentially irritate your scalp. 

Another tip: Don’t confuse dry shampoo with the real thing — it can worsen buildup. “Even though [dry shampoo] helps to get rid of some excess oil, anytime you're putting product in your hair and not rinsing it away, there's always the potential for buildup,” says Garshick. 

Ask an Expert is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a question, you are agreeing to let theSkimm use it—in part or in full—and we may edit its answer for length and/or clarity.

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