We've all had days when our scalp seems especially slimy, say, if we skipped a shampoo post-workout or went a little too long without lathering our locks. But when your scalp's usual state is something like an oil slick, you might be wondering what's up.
Here, Aanand Geria, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in New Jersey, explains what could be causing your greasy crown along with ways to prevent and minimize the overload of oil.
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1. You’re Dealing With Dandruff
Typically, people assume dandruff and dry scalps go hand in hand, but a greasy scalp can be an ideal setting for flakes to flourish too, Dr. Geria says.
Indeed, seborrheic dermatitis, the skin condition that causes dandruff, usually appears on body parts that produce plenty of oil, according to the National Eczema Association.
And while the exact cause of the condition is unknown, dandruff often develops in people with naturally oily skin, Dr. Geria says.
In some people, seborrheic dermatitis can also surface when there's a surplus of Malassezia, a normal type of yeast that lives on the skin, per the National Eczema Association.
Fix it: Over-the-counter dandruff shampoos can be very effective for offsetting excess scalp oil and treating seborrheic dermatitis. When shopping for a shampoo, look for ingredients such as salicylic acid, sulfur, tar soap and sulfacetamide, Dr. Geria says.
While there are many reputable dandruff products on the market, he recommends Nizoral Anti-Dandruff Shampoo ($15.47, Amazon).
You can try other natural remedies for dandruff, too, like tea tree oil, apple cider vinegar and changing your diet. And you'll want to avoid things that make dandruff worse, like washing your hair in too-hot water and using harsh hair products.
2. You’re Using the Wrong Hair Products
It's a no-brainer: What you put on your scalp will affect the amount of grease you get. But which products will produce an overabundance of oiliness isn't always obvious.
"Certain hair products that contain ingredients such as creams, waxes and fillers can cause a buildup at the hair root, resulting in a greasy scalp," Dr. Geria says.
Similarly, using something that's too moisturizing, like some conditioners for example, can also make your scalp especially slick.
Fix it: Pay attention to your hair products. If you notice your scalp is slimier since you’ve been using a certain product, try switching it out to see if there’s any change in the degree of greasiness.
And again, avoid heavy or overly moisturizing taming creams or conditioners that can weigh your hair down and accumulate greasy gunk at your roots.
3. You’re Washing Too Much
While too much moisture can make your scalp an oily mess, not enough can have the same effect too.
"Although it may sound counterintuitive, washing your hair too frequently can add to its greasiness," Dr. Geria says.
That's because over-washing your hair strips away the natural oils from your scalp. "When this happens, your body responds by going into overdrive and producing too much oil," Dr. Geria says.
Fix it: When it comes to maintaining a healthy amount of moisture in your hair and scalp, limit your lathering.
Still, finding the perfect shampooing frequency for you may take some trial and error. How often you should suds up your scalp depends on several factors.
First, your hair type and texture will play a part. For example, fine, straight hair tends to be greasier (more on this later), Dr. Geria says. So, in this case, several shampoos per week should suffice. Conversely, coarse, curly hair — which requires more hydration to stay healthy — may need one to two weekly washes tops.
Other factors like how often you sweat and use hair products will also determine your shampoo schedule as well.
4. It’s Your Diet
The foods you pile on your plate can play a role in scalp grease. Yep, "what we eat contributes to our hair health," Dr. Geria says.
"For example, consuming fried food, dairy products and sugar can all cause oily hair," he says. Here's how each type of food can increase the grease:
- Fried food: Heavily fried fare is "full of excess oil, which can seep into our hair shafts from the body while we sleep," Dr. Geria says.
- Dairy: When you digest full-fat dairy products such as cream, whole milk and butter, they break down into fat and oil, Dr. Geria says. And as we know, oily foods can be absorbed by your hair shafts.
- Sugar: The sweet stuff is notorious for causing an oily scalp. Sugar initiates inflammation, which affects hair follicles and doesn't help your body balance oils, Dr. Geria says.
It's worth noting that there doesn't seem to be any research around these particular foods and how they contribute to scalp grease. Rather, the above is based on Dr. Geria's personal knowledge and experience.
Fix it: For a healthy head of hair and a stellar scalp, limit fried, fatty and sugary foods and pack your plate with lean proteins, healthy fats and veggies.
5. Your Hormones Are Fluctuating
"When our hormones are imbalanced, it can cause greasy hair," Dr. Geria says. That's because our hormones regulate our body's production of sebum, or oil, he says.
And during periods of hormonal changes, your glands tend to grind out more grease. Case in point: "Being stressed out by a major life-altering event and pregnancy are two examples of things that can affect sebum production, contributing to an oily scalp," Dr. Geria says.
Similarly, your monthly menstrual cycle and use of hormonal birth control can also make your scalp as oily as a salad too.
Fix it: While you may not be able to control your hormones, you can practice stress reduction strategies to better manage these hormonal changes and minimize their impact. Regular exercise, meditation and deep breathing are all effective ways to cope with daily stress and, in the process, possibly keep your oily scalp in check.
6. It’s Your Hairstyle
If you go heavy on the hot tools to style your hair, your scalp can take a hit in the grease department.
"Straightening and curling irons can soften and melt the oil already in your hair," Dr. Geria says. In effect, the heat spreads excess oil across your scalp and hair fibers.
For a similar reason, "over-brushing your hair can also add to the greasiness," Dr. Geria says. "When we brush our hair, we spread sebum," he says. Same thing goes with touching your hair too much, he adds.
What's more, always wearing your hair pulled back tightly can trap oils and lead to an oil-slicked scalp.
Fix it: “If you’re struggling with oily hair, regularly cleaning your hairbrush can be helpful,” Dr. Geria says. “This will get rid of any built-up products and dirt” that can exacerbate your greasy scalp situation, he says.
And if you’re a hair twirler, try to tame the habit, as it can sweep oily sebum around your scalp and hair.
7. You’re Taking a Certain Medication
When it comes to a greasy scalp, the contents of your pillbox could be the problem.
"Some medications, such as oral contraceptives, which contain androgenic progestins, can stimulate our bodies' androgen receptors," Dr. Geria says. And this can affect our scalp's oil-producing glands, resulting in an oversupply of oil.
Fix it: If you suspect your medication is making your scalp slimy, speak to your doctor who may be able to prescribe a lower dose or different drug.
8. It's Your Genetics
Born with straight hair? Blame your DNA for your greasy scalp.
Straight hair is more prone to collect oil, Dr. Geria says. Because this hair type lacks a ton of texture (like waves, curls or coils where sebum can be distributed), scalp oil tends to stick to your crown and collect on top of your head.
Likewise, some people are just naturally prone to more oily skin in general. (Thanks, Mom and Dad.)
Fix it: Though you can’t transform your hair type, you can temper the tendency for your scalp to become oily.
Try Dr. Geria’s tips:
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.