Hair products, oil, sweat, and dead skin cells can build up on the scalp and then flake off. People may refer to this as “scalp buildup” or “hair buildup”.

Scalp buildup can occur at any point in a person’s life. However, infants often experience thick, yellow patches on their scalp, known as cradle cap, in the first few months of life, and adults between the ages of 30 and 60 may be more likely to experience scalp buildup due to seborrheic dermatitis.

Treatment often consists of at-home remedies and lifestyle changes that address and prevent further buildup from occurring.

In this article, we explain what scalp buildup is, its causes, and how to get rid of it.

a woman scratching her scalp because she has a build up there Share on Pinterest
Scalp buildup may cause itchiness.

Scalp buildup occurs when an oily secretion called sebum accumulates alongside sweat, hair products, and dead skin cells on the scalp. It can have symptoms similar to those of seborrheic dermatitis, scalp psoriasis, and eczema. For example, each of these conditions can cause flakes to appear in the hair and scalp.

In addition to flaking, scalp buildup can cause:

  • itchiness
  • oily or crusty skin
  • redness of the skin

According to the National Eczema Association, seborrheic dermatitis can appear with other skin conditions, such as scalp psoriasis or atopic dermatitis.

A person living with scalp buildup can take steps to treat and prevent scalp buildup at home, but they often do not require a specific treatment.

Scalp buildup is the result of one or more substances becoming stuck on the scalp and building up over time. Bits of the buildup can flake off and end up in a person’s hair or on their scalp.

Substances that can build up typically fall into one of two categories: products and natural substances.

Several hair products accumulate on the scalp and hair. Some examples include:

  • conditioners
  • styling creams or gels
  • shampoos
  • ointments
  • oils
  • foams

Some substances that a person naturally produces can also become caught in their scalp and hair. These include:

  • sweat
  • sebum, which the body makes to soften the skin and hair
  • dead skin cells

Home treatments and remedies are the primary way to get rid of and prevent scalp buildup. A person may need to try a few different options before they find an effective combination.

The following practices may help:

  • brushing regularly to prevent tangled hair and help break apart buildup
  • using an exfoliator on the scalp to break up the buildup
  • selecting a shampoo and conditioner that work for the person’s hair type
  • washing the hair regularly — typically daily for oily hair and every few days for drier hair

A person living with seborrheic dermatitis may need additional treatment. In some cases, dandruff may go away on its own or with an over-the-counter product. In severe cases, a doctor may need to prescribe a topical corticosteroid to manage it.

If a person is living with scalp buildup from psoriasis or eczema, they will need a specific treatment plan from their doctor.

Prevention involves proper hair care. A person should keep their hair clean, and they may need to change some habits, such as:

  • reducing the amount of hair products that they use
  • washing dry hair less often or washing oily hair more frequently
  • washing the scalp thoroughly and rinsing it off well
  • protecting the hair when swimming by wearing a swimming cap

A person should get advice from their dermatologist about what shampoos and conditioners are right for them.

According to an article in the Indian Journal of Dermatology, different shampoos and conditioners work well on different hair types. For example, shampoos containing lauryl sulfates are good to use on oily hair, while products containing laureth sulfates are good for dry-to-normal hair.

Learn about whether or not it is safe to put sulfates on the hair.

A person should talk to their dermatologist or hair care specialist about shampoos or conditioners that are good for their type of hair.

In some cases, scalp buildup may cause more severe problems. Scalp buildup can create an environment in which bacteria thrive.

The buildup of debris and bacteria on the scalp can cause the hair follicles to become inflamed. An infection of the follicles, which doctors call folliculitis, can also develop.

Without treatment, folliculitis can cause sores that never fully heal, and the resulting scabs can cause hair loss.

In most cases, a person can avoid these complications by limiting their use of unnecessary hair products, cleaning their hair regularly with shampoo and conditioner that is suitable for their hair type, and keeping the hair tangle-free.

A person should see their doctor if their scalp becomes inflamed or painful or if they cannot get rid of the flaking. A person should also talk to their doctor if they have psoriasis and have started to notice new or worsening patches forming on their scalp.

A doctor can determine the cause of flaking and work with the person to develop a treatment plan that can help remove the buildup and prevent it from reoccurring.

Scalp buildup occurs when natural oils, dead skin cells, and hair products accumulate on the scalp. Over time, this can create flakes very similar to those that form in other conditions, such as psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis.

A person can treat their scalp buildup at home by using shampoo and conditioner that is good for their hair, avoiding certain products, keeping the hair clean and groomed, and moisturizing the scalp.

A person should talk to their doctor if they cannot get rid of the scalp buildup on their own.