Hair Care, Hair Care Problems

Oily Scalp Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

oily scalp

What Is an Oily Scalp?

An oily scalp is characterized by excessive oil production from overactive sebaceous glands. This excess oil makes the scalp look greasy and can cause limp, flat hair that appears unwashed.

The main signs and symptoms of an oily scalp include:

  • Greasy hair and scalp – Excess oil makes hair look perpetually dirty and limp. Oil quickly builds up at the roots and can make hair look darker.

  • Itchiness – The greasy buildup on the scalp can cause itching. Scratching can further irritate the scalp.

  • Dandruff – The excess oil traps dead skin cells, leading to white, flaky dandruff. Dandruff indicates the pores are clogged.

  • Oily skin on the face – An oily scalp often corresponds to an oily T-zone on the face (forehead, nose and chin area).

The primary cause of an oily scalp is overactive sebaceous glands. These glands produce sebum, an oily substance that lubricates and protects the scalp and hair. But excess sebum production leads to an oily scalp. Hormonal changes, genetics, diet, hair products and stress can all trigger overactive sebaceous glands.

Causes of Oily Scalp

An oily scalp occurs when your sebaceous glands produce too much sebum, leading to greasy hair and scalp. There are several potential causes:

Overactive sebaceous glands – The sebaceous glands in your scalp produce an oily substance called sebum. When these glands are overactive, excess sebum is produced, creating an oily scalp. This is one of the most common causes.

Hormonal changes – Hormone fluctuations, especially during puberty, pregnancy, and menopause, can stimulate sebum production and cause an oily scalp. The androgens during puberty contribute greatly.

Stress – Stress triggers the release of hormones that increase sebum production from the sebaceous glands. This leads to more oil on the scalp.

Hot and humid weather – Warm and moist environments can cause the sebaceous glands to work harder and produce excess sebum. This causes the scalp to become oily and greasy.

Heavy styling products – Using too many styling products like gels, mousse and sprays can clog pores and lead to a buildup of oil on the scalp. This exacerbates oily scalp problems.

Dandruff – Dandruff causes skin cells to flake excessively. This causes the sebaceous glands to produce more oil to compensate for the flaking and dryness. The excess oil can contribute to an oily scalp.

How to Tell If You Have an Oily Scalp

Some key signs that indicate you have an oily scalp include:

  • Greasy hair and scalp – Excess oil production leads to a visibly shiny scalp and flattened, limp hair that appears greasy and dirty, even after washing. You may notice grease stains on pillows and hair accessories.

  • Frequent need to wash hair – Due to the greasy appearance, you likely feel the need to wash your hair daily or even multiple times a day. Frequent washing strips hair of natural oils and can exacerbate the problem.

  • Itchiness and dandruff – The scalp may become irritated and itchy from the excess oil. Dandruff flakes are also common as grease and dead skin cells build up.

  • Hair looks limp and flat – Too much oil weighs hair down, causing it to lack volume and appear flat against the scalp. The roots also look darker and greasy.

  • Darkening of hair close to scalp – Oil and product residue can cause the hair closest to the scalp to look darker and dingy, while the ends appear lighter and dry.

Pay attention to these signs to determine if you have an oily scalp. The more symptoms you notice, the more excess oil your scalp is likely producing.

Risk Factors for Oily Scalp

Genetics play a major role in determining oil production and can make someone prone to an oily scalp. Those with naturally oily skin types are more likely to deal with excess scalp oil as well.

Age and hormonal changes during puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause can increase sebum production and oiliness. The surge of androgens during puberty contributes to overactive oil glands.

Stress is another culprit that exacerbates oily scalp problems. Stress triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response, which ramps up oil production.

Environmental factors like hot, humid climates can also make the scalp more oily. Heat and humidity cause the sebaceous glands to work harder to cool and moisturize the skin. Those living in tropical, equatorial regions may notice increased scalp oiliness.

Complications of Oily Scalp

An oily scalp can lead to several complications if left untreated. Some of the most common include:

Greasy Hair

Excess oil on the scalp will make hair look and feel greasy, limp, and flat. The oil coats the hair strands, weighing them down and making hair appear thinner and stringy. The greasy look is often most noticeable at the roots. Frequent shampooing may help temporarily, but the greasy look often returns soon after washing.

Dandruff and Itchiness

The extra oil on the scalp provides an ideal environment for the growth of yeast and fungus. This can lead to dandruff, which causes white, flaky skin cells to appear on the scalp and in the hair. Dandruff is often accompanied by an itchy, irritated scalp.

Increased Risk of Infections

The excess oil and skin cells on the scalp can clog hair follicles. This provides a breeding ground for bacteria, leading to conditions like folliculitis. Folliculitis causes inflammation and pus-filled bumps around the hair follicles. Without treatment, it can progress to more severe infections.

Hair Loss

The clogged follicles and inflammation from conditions like folliculitis can damage hair follicles. This impairs their ability to grow healthy hair. Over time, an oily scalp can lead to permanent hair loss if the underlying causes are not addressed. The clogged pores can also cause temporary hair shedding.

Home Remedies and Lifestyle Changes

An oily scalp can often be managed with some simple home remedies and lifestyle adjustments. Here are some tips:

  • Shampoo regularly with a gentle, clarifying shampoo – Using a shampoo formulated for oily hair can help remove excess oil and product buildup. Look for ingredients like zinc pyrithione, salicylic acid, or charcoal. Shampoo every other day or as needed, focusing on the scalp. Rinse hair thoroughly.

  • Limit use of hair products – Hair gels, mousse, sprays, and pomades can exacerbate an oily scalp. Try to cut back on styling products, or look for lightweight, non-comedogenic options. Avoid applying products directly to the scalp.

  • Manage stress levels – Stress and anxiety can overstimulate oil glands and increase oil production. Practice relaxation techniques like meditation, yoga, or deep breathing. Get enough sleep and exercise. Manage a healthy work-life balance.

  • Balanced diet – Eat a nutritious, balanced diet focused on whole foods like vegetables, fruits, lean proteins and healthy fats. Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water. Some vitamins like B5 and zinc may help regulate excess oil.

  • Scalp massages – Gently massaging the scalp can help stimulate circulation, remove dead skin cells, and distribute oil more evenly. Use light, circular motions with your fingertips for a few minutes before washing hair.

Making lifestyle changes like these can often help control an oily scalp without harsh chemicals or medications. Be patient, as it may take some trial and error to find the right approach. Consult a dermatologist if home remedies are ineffective.

Medical Treatments

If home remedies and lifestyle changes aren’t providing enough relief, there are medical treatments that can help control an oily scalp.

Medicated Shampoos

Medicated shampoos containing ingredients like selenium sulfide, zinc pyrithione, and ketoconazole can help reduce oil production and treat any fungal infections that may be contributing to your oily scalp. These shampoos are available over-the-counter or by prescription. Using them 2-3 times per week can help remove excess oil and keep your scalp healthier.

Topical Ointments

Applying salicylic acid ointments directly to your scalp can help exfoliate dead skin cells and reduce oil buildup. Using an ointment containing this ingredient 1-2 times per week after shampooing may help treat scalp acne and control excess sebum production.

Oral Medications

For more stubborn cases of oily scalp, your dermatologist may prescribe oral medications like isotretinoin, spironolactone, or oral contraceptives. Isotretinoin can reduce oil gland size and secretion. Spironolactone blocks androgens, which can contribute to excess sebum production. Oral contraceptives containing estrogen can also help regulate sebum secretion in some women. Your doctor will determine if any of these medications are appropriate for your specific situation.

Tips for Styling Oily Hair

Oily hair can feel flat, greasy, and limp. Luckily, there are styling techniques that can help control excess oil and add volume. Here are some tips:

  • Use dry shampoo: Dry shampoo absorbs oil and adds texture. Spray it onto roots and work through hair with fingers. Let it sit before styling as usual. Reapply as needed.

  • Don’t over-wash: Frequently washing strips natural oils and causes the scalp to overproduce oil. Stick to every other day or every 2-3 days.

  • Use lightweight products: Avoid heavy oils, creams, or serums. Look for lightweight mousses, gels, sprays.

  • Let hair air dry: Heat tools damage hair and stimulate oil production. Allow hair to air dry when possible.

  • Use texturizing sprays and mousses: These add volume and absorb oil. Apply to the roots while hair is damp and style as usual. Reapply to refresh hair.

When to See a Dermatologist

An oily scalp is usually manageable with over-the-counter treatments and lifestyle changes. However, you may need to see a dermatologist if:

  • Your oily scalp doesn’t respond to over-the-counter shampoos and remedies. If your scalp remains excessively oily despite trying various shampoos and home treatments, a dermatologist can help identify any underlying causes.

  • You experience persistent greasiness, itching, or irritation. While some oily scalp symptoms are normal, excessive or persistent irritation may indicate an underlying skin condition that requires medical treatment.

  • You notice signs of infection like redness, swelling, oozing, or pus. An oily scalp can provide an ideal environment for bacterial or fungal infections. See a doctor if your scalp is painful, inflamed, or shows other signs of infection.

  • You experience abnormal hair loss. While some hair loss is normal, excessive shedding could signal an underlying issue. A dermatologist can check for conditions like seborrheic dermatitis that may cause scalp irritation and hair loss.

Getting an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan from a dermatologist can help manage stubborn oily scalp symptoms and minimize complications. Don’t hesitate to book an appointment if over-the-counter remedies aren’t working or your scalp symptoms worsen.


An oily scalp is a common skin condition where the scalp produces excess sebum, leading to greasy hair and sometimes dandruff. The main causes are hormonal changes, genetics, diet, hair products, and certain medical conditions. An oily scalp can feel itchy and dirty, and often results in flat, limp hair that appears greasy and stringy.

Some of the key points covered in this article include:

  • Causes of oily scalp such as hormones, genetics, diet, hair products, and medical conditions
  • Symptoms like greasy hair, itchiness, dandruff, and a dirty scalp feeling
  • Home remedies to try like apple cider vinegar rinses, tea tree oil, zinc supplements
  • Medical treatments prescribed by dermatologists including medicated shampoos and oral medications
  • Tips for styling oily hair like using dry shampoo and avoiding heavy conditioners

It’s important to manage an oily scalp because it can negatively impact self-esteem and lead to other scalp issues. Following a proper hair care routine and making dietary changes can often help control excess oil production. Seeking medical advice is recommended if home remedies are ineffective. Getting to the root cause of an oily scalp leads to healthier hair and improved scalp health.