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Oily Scalp: 8 Common Causes, Plus Top Tips to Cut the Grease

BY Felicia Ler

If you have an oily scalp, you probably feel like you shampoo, condition, and blow dry your hair only for it to transform into an oil slick almost immediately afterward. As if the glistening roots aren’t enough to make your tresses look like messes, you may also struggle with an itchy scalp, greasy hair, dry ends, and even flakes. 

To complicate matters, almost everything under the sun can trigger an oily scalp, from fluctuating hormones to 85-degree weather. Fret not, though. We’ve outlined the common causes behind an oily scalp and what you can do to address them.

8 Culprits Behind an Oily Scalp

Your scalp — besides your face, chest, and back — is prime real estate for your body’s sebaceous glands, which synthesize the waxy substance called sebum. As such, it’s no surprise that sebum overproduction is the most common culprit for an oily scalp (aside from genes predisposing you to oily skin).

Both intrinsic and extrinsic factors can trigger excessive oil production to saturate your scalp, roots, and hair. But more than one factor is usually at play — here’s what you need to know.

1. Fluctuating Hormones

Have you ever heard of androgens? They’re a group of sex hormones that activate your body’s sebum production. For this reason, excess sebum usually rears its head during puberty and ovulation, which coincides with high androgen activity. If you feel like your scalp (and hair) is exceptionally oily near that time of the month, you aren’t imagining it.

2. Scalp Issues and Health Conditions

If your oily scalp is accompanied by dryness, itchiness, and flaking, you’re probably experiencing common scalp issues such as:

  • Dandruff: Characterized by flaky white or yellowish scales on the scalp without visible inflammation
  • Seborrheic dermatitis: A type of eczema that manifests as a more severe form of dandruff. Expect inflamed, scaly, and oily patches on the scalp.

Meanwhile, specific chronic diseases may also incite a spike in scalp sebum production. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a common hormonal disorder that affects women’s reproductive systems, features hyperandrogenism (higher-than-normal androgen levels). PCOS-affected individuals often suffer from an oily scalp and increased hair shedding.

If you suspect an underlying medical condition may be the reason behind your oily scalp sebum, it’s best to consult a healthcare professional.

3. Certain Medications

Certain medications may also kick the scalp’s oil-producing glands into overdrive. For example, some oral contraceptives are rich in androgenic progestins, which stimulate the androgen receptors in your body. These birth control pills are closely associated with unwanted side effects like an oil-soaked scalp and hair loss.

4. Overwashing

There’s nothing like a sebum-smeared scalp that makes you want to hit the shower more than once a day. Unfortunately, doing so could be the reason your scalp is overreacting and producing more sebum than usual.

Just as over-cleansing your skin exacerbates dryness, overwashing your hair strips away the natural oils coating your scalp and hair shafts. This throws the sebaceous glands into a frenzy, producing more oil to compensate for the dryness. Not only that, but you’re likely also overwhelmed with frizz and split ends, particularly for curly and coily hair types. (Remember, a wavy trajectory of hair strands already makes it difficult for the oil to travel from the roots to the tips.)

5. Wrong Hair Products

Reaching for the ultra-moisturizing conditioner at Target may seem like a treat for your locks, especially if you’re dealing with dried-up strands. However, hair products full of rich, heavy ingredients might not play well with an oily scalp and may, in fact, be the reason why you have too much grease in the first place.

As if oily roots and dry ends aren’t bad enough, strong-hold styling products tend to leave behind clinging residues that are hard to wash off. Not only can such product buildup marinate your scalp and weigh down your tresses, but the barrage of harsh chemicals (present in many hair products) may also irritate an already sensitive scalp.

6. An Unhealthy Diet

You may not realize it, but an unhealthy diet is a key suspect behind scalp oiliness. Science shows that indulging in meats, dairy products, soft drinks, and alcohol are more likely to escalate sebum production than dial it down. Plus, a lack of proper nutrition may be why you’re experiencing dullness, dryness, and even thinning hair.

7. High Stress Levels

Large doses of cortisol (a stress hormone) flowing through your veins can also lead to oily roots. Research explains psychological stress prompts your body to secrete the hormone prolactin, which then signals to the sebaceous glands to produce natural oils. High stress levels are also infamously linked to hair loss.

8. High Humidity

It comes as a no-brainer that hot, humid temperatures pump up the oil factor fast. Besides the overzealous sebaceous glands, your sweat glands also join in on the action — scientific evidence indicates more sweat is secreted on the scalp during hot and humid conditions. As you can imagine, your scalp and mane can appear greasier than ever.

3 Beneficial Ingredients for Oily Scalps

oily scalp

At this point, it may seem like it’s all doom and gloom for the oily-haired tribe, but fortunately, that’s not the case. In fact, there are a few science-backed ingredients that may help reduce scalp grease, hydrate hair strands, and even thwart icky scalp issues.

1. Vitamin E

Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant to fight off inflammation, which may help address inflammatory conditions associated with an oily scalp. According to the National Eczema Association, vitamin E temporarily reduced itching, redness, and skin thickening among participants with mild to moderate eczema.

Your favorite vitamin also enhances the hydration levels of the stratum corneum — the scalp’s protective barrier — to help keep away dryness and foreign pathogens, like the dandruff-causing yeast, Malassezia.

2. Salicylic Acid

Sure, sulfates promise a frothy lather to rinse away sebum and other impurities. But these synthetic ingredients also have a bad rep for stripping away too many natural oils and exacerbating an already irritated scalp.

Instead, look towards natural clarifying ingredients like salicylic acid, which has antifungal and exfoliating properties to help slough away dead skin cells, sebum, and product residues. What’s more, studies show that salicylic acid-infused shampoos can help improve the symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis.

3. Aloe Vera

Aloe vera is another ingredient to add to your wishlist for hair care. In a small study of 44 adults with seborrheic dermatitis, its triple threat of anti-inflammatory, antifungal, and antibacterial properties reduced itchiness and scaling. Also, aloe vera gel is oil-free, which means it can help hydrate your hair without leaving behind an oily residue.

Oily Scalp Treatment: 3 Tips to Get Your Hair Into Shape

Whether you have an oily scalp and dry hair or itchy, greasy roots, the right hair care routine can help you step up your mane game and help you reach your hair goals.

1. Shampoo and Condition the Right Way

First, cut back on the frequency of your hair washing, especially if you have an oily scalp and dry ends. Everyone’s scalp and hair are different, which is why there isn’t a golden rule on how often you should wash your hair. If you’re jumping into the shower once a day, go two to three days without, and see how your scalp and tresses react.

That said, it’s normal — and even expected — for your hair to appear greasier for the first few days as it self-regulates to less frequent washing. To help your ‘do through this trying period, spritz some dry shampoo to help neutralize the excess sebum and ward off unwanted flatness.

Also, don’t be too heavy-handed with the hair conditioner. If you’re struggling with brittle strands and split ends, only apply conditioner from the mid-lengths of your hair to the ends. This will help hydrate your mane without exacerbating scalp oiliness.

2. Use the Right Products

Next, switch to hair products specifically formulated for tackling an oily scalp. That said, purchasing a shampoo for an oily scalp isn’t as easy as it sounds, particularly if you’re also battling dryness, itchiness, irritation … the list goes on. Where can you find products that will deal with all your hair-y issues?

The answer: Function of Beauty’s fully customizable shampoo and conditioner with specific hair goals to meet all of your oily scalp and hair needs. Here’s a sneak peek into some of the hair goals you can set when you take our hair quiz:

  • Oil control: You can select a formulation with rosemary leaf extract and vitamin E to prevent excessive oil accumulation.
  • Soothe scalp: You can choose a formulation with aloe vera and salicylic acid to reduce buildup and help prevent flakes.
  • Fix split ends: You can opt for a formulation with black oat seed extract and beetroot extract to help improve hair structure and prevent future split ends.

Most importantly, we believe in using only clean, science-backed ingredients that are suitable for your scalp and hair. We take our product formulations very seriously, carefully screening every ingredient. Rest assured that our hair care range is free of sulfates, parabens, and phthalates, among many other potentially harmful ingredients (see our full list of banned ingredients).

3. Go Minimalistic on Styling

When considering how to prevent oil buildup on your scalp, you may want to keep clear of your styling products (at least until you get the oiliness under control). Meanwhile, experiment with natural hairstyles, such as the always-trending messy bun or the ultra-cute space buns (perfect for curly and coily hair types). If your locks aren’t long enough, try a half-up top knot.

If you simply must use styling products for an important meeting (or big date), steer clear of any with ultra-rich ingredients so you can give your oily scalp a break. Also, remember to cleanse thoroughly afterward with your custom shampoo to ensure no product residue is left behind.

Nix Your Oily Scalp for Healthy Hair

As you can see, there are numerous reasons why your scalp is looking shinier than you would like. (You might even have oily hair.) Identifying the exact causes is key to formulating an effective battle plan when waging war against an oily scalp.

Keep in mind the oil-zapping ingredients we mentioned as well as the right hair care techniques and products to help nip an oily scalp in the bud. At the same time, positive lifestyle changes such as a balanced diet and stress-relieving techniques may help promote a healthy scalp.