Scalp Buildup

November 28, 2021

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What is Scalp Buildup?

Over time there can be a ‘build-up’ of residues from hair products, shampoos and conditioners as well as an accumulation of  natural oils and dead skin cells. Exfoliating or treating this scalp build up can help return hair’s natural luster, make the scalp less ‘flaky’ or dry, and hopefully less itchy. 

Inflammation can lead to significant scaling and flakiness to the scalp. Commons examples of this are psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis. For these conditions, exfoliating the scalp or trying to actively remove or dislodge this scale can result in significant discomfort, raw or tender sensations, and even bleeding. This scaling and flakiness can be treated, however, the approach is a little different than mechanical exfoliation.
Related: Dr Erum Ilyas discusses Scalp Buildup with Vegamour

Why should scalp build up be addressed?

Regardless of the cause of buildup, flakiness or scaling to the scalp, this really should be addressed. Any kind of build up or scaling can result in a few problems. Not addressing this can make our scalp feel itchy. This itching can cause flakes and dead skin cells to fall on our clothing which can be a bit embarrassing when wearing darker colored clothing. Excess itchiness can result in hair breakage as well.
What are the different conditions that can results in buildup on the scalp?

Understanding and accurately diagnosing the causes of different scalp conditions is important prior to deciding to use a scalp exfoliator or a detox scalp serum.

Buildup can result from:
  • Accumulation of dead skin cells
  • Accumulation of oils
  • Accumulation of products
  • Inflammation in the scalp that results in flaking of inflamed skin
If dry flaky scalp is the result of inflammation, then the underlying cause of the inflammation should be treated or addressed. If the inflammation becomes chronic, then it can interfere with hair growth and become a source for discomfort as well. 

What are some common ingredients to look for in a scalp exfoliant or detox scalp serum?

Most products marketed as scalp exfoliants and detox scalp serums use ingredients intended to chemically exfoliate the scalp.  These ingredients are  similar to acne products in their exfoliating properties and may also contain hydrating ingredients intended to address itching and flaking of the scalp.


Charcoal has become a popular ingredient for products to include when targeting excess oil or impurities. Although I could not find a single medical study to show the effectiveness of charcoal in treating scalps directly, I can find potential benefits to using products that contain it.

Activated charcoal used in products and in medicine is made by heating substances rich in carbon such as wood, sawdust, coconut shells, etc.  This is an interesting process because it allows the carbon to become more adsorbent. Adsorbent means that it can bind more molecules.  In medicine activated charcoal has been used to treat overdoses and poisonings as it can adsorb these toxins quickly.  It has been used in wound healing in addition to a number of other uses. Charcoal applied to the skin is overall harmless and is not likely to irritate the skin. The theory behind adding it to products is that it may possibly absorb extra oil from the skin. If you have found a benefit in treating your scalp with charcoal containing topicals then it is perfectly ok to continue. It would likely be best for people that have an oily scalp.  It is a milder alternative to help reduce the oiliness without excessively drying the skin or hair.  

Coconut oil
Coconut oil is gaining a lot of attention in skin care products. It is a proven emollient that can effectively hydrate the skin. It also has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. These can beneficial for dry flaky scalps to help hydrate and improve scaling or flaking to the scalp.

Apple cider vinegar 

I don’t think a day goes by where a patient doesn’t tell me that they used apple cider vinegar to treat something! ACV has anti yeast properties and has been used to even treat diaper rash. Seborrheic dermatitis is thought to be related to yeast that overgrown on our skin. It can often be added to scalp exfoliators to help address the underlying yeast that triggers inflammation resulting in scaling.

Tea tree oil

Tea tree oil has become one of the most common ingredients to find in skin care products. It is known for its antimicrobial and antiseptic properties in it’s activity against bacteria, viruses, fungus, mites, etc. When added to scalp exfoliators it is likely addressing some of the underlying triggers for scalp inflammation that result in scaling and itching. The only caution is that it does have about a 1-2% chance of causing a contact dermatitis in those that use it. If using a product that has tea tree oil and your itching and flaking is getting worse, it’s important to take a look at your products and make sure they are not making it worse! 

Salicylic acid

Salicylic acid breaks apart superficial skin cells to help remove dead skin cells from the  surface. It is used in acne medications but can also be found in higher concentrations in wart treatments.  It can be effective without being too irritating.  In scalp products it can help remove excess dry skin and scale. 
If you would like to try a scalp exfoliator, start off using every other week or up to once a week. It may help to get used to them a bit and avoid over drying your scalp. Excess use may strip your scalp of natural oils and even strip away some hair color if you are coloring your hair.

Other ingredients

Curcumin and red clover can serve the antimicrobial and antioxidant roles to reduce inflammation that can aggravate the scalp.

Any tips on what to expect with a scalp exfoliator?

It can feel really good to use a scalp exfoliator the first time you use it. It’s almost like a really good salon wash with a great scalp massage. However, try not to go overboard. At first your hair will look great. If overused, you will start to lose the natural luster to your hair. It’s actually helpful to follow up these treatments with a leave in conditioner or regular conditioner to rehydrate your scalp and hair. 

Any cautions if a product is not working?

People will often say that these products worked at first and then stopped working. This is not always the product at fault. Often this is the result of not addressing the underlying trigger or cause for flaking and itching in the scalp. Most people that continue to struggle after using these products have underlying seborrheic dermatitis or psoriasis that should be addressed at the same time or first to ensure that they are successful at choosing the right products.



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