6 Expert-Backed Ways To Get Rid Of Scalp Buildup

Flakes, be gone.

by Summer Arlexis and Kui Mwai
Originally Published: 
If you've developed a habit of over-washing (or under washing) your hair or you've been using a lot ...
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If you've developed a habit of under-washing your hair or you've been using a lot styling products lately, you've probably noticed white flakes making themselves at home on your scalp. You might have even started to wonder why your scalp is so itchy lately. Well, my friend, the culprit could be a buildup of grime. But what actually causes it? And how do you get rid of scalp buildup? Bustle tapped pros to tackle the former first.

“Scalp buildup occurs when an oily secretion called sebum accumulates alongside sweat, hair products, and dead skin cells,” Diane Stevens, hairstylist and Cole Stevens Salon owner, explains to Bustle via email. Sounds unappealing, right? Just think about it. By the end of the week, you've probably loaded your hair with myriad products. Whether you're stretching washes with dry shampoo or you douse your strands in mousses, gels, and hairsprays, tons of chemicals routinely go onto your scalp, leaving behind sticky buildup. Mix that with other elements and you’ve got a greasy mess.

Before you start increasing your washes, more frequent shampooing isn’t necessarily the answer. It’s actually part of the problem, as over-washing your hair can lead to excess sebum production. Figuring out how often your hair and scalp need a wash is crucial (and so is using the right shampoo and conditioner for you.) Products with natural ingredients are great for your hair strands, but hairstylist and educator Vinnie Ferrara says some formulas may “overlook the scalp health in exchange for protecting the hair fiber.” He adds that this is the main cause of scalp buildup in his clients.

In extreme cases, scalp buildup can corrupt your hair follicles and even lead to hair loss. But don’t worry. There’s a lot you can do before your scalp buildup gets that bad, or even shows up at all. Bustle spoke to hair experts about how to get rid of scalp buildup, and their advice will keep your scalp is healthy, happy, and gunk-free.

Use A Clarifying Shampoo

Using a clarifying shampoo is one of the most common methods for relieving the scalp of excess dirt and residue. “The simplest way to remove any signs of scalp buildup is by using a clarifying shampoo,” Stevens tells Bustle via email. Hairstylist Raquel Minwell also explains that they work “to bust through any gunk or oils you might have lurking up there."

Unfortunately, clarifying shampoos have the potential to dry up your strands’ (much-needed) natural oils if used in excess. To avoid sucking the moisture out of your hair, don't expect clarifying products to take the place of your everyday shampoo. Use one only once a month (unless there are lifestyle factors, such as frequent swimming, at play that would make bi-weekly washing beneficial). "Chances are you are using the wrong product or just way too much product if you feel like you need to use a clarifying shampoo often," Minwell says.

Try An Apple Cider Vinegar Scalp Rinse

If you’re struggling with buildup, give your scalp a rinse with products you can literally get at the grocery store. Carla Rivas, co-founder of Hair La Vie, “personally prefer[s] natural rinses like apple cider vinegar (ACV) or chamomile tea, both known to remove buildup from hard water and harsh products.”

ACV is the MVP when it comes to getting rid of scalp buildup. Most hair products can disrupt the natural pH of your hair, and thus, negatively affect the condition of the scalp. Apple cider vinegar, Minwell explains, “helps restore your hair and scalp to its natural pH.” But you never want to put it on your hair straight from the bottle. She advises using a four-to-one ratio of water to ACV when using it as a hair rinse.

(Occasionally) Reach For A Scalp Scrub

Scalp scrubs are another great way to get rid of grime. “A periodic scalp scrub is extremely helpful in clearing away toxins and debris from the scalp,” explains Ferarra. Stevens suggests making your own by adding “oatmeal and brown sugar to your regular conditioner.”

If you chose to use a scalp scrub, make sure you do so gently and sporadically. Like with your skin, scalp scrubs can be irritating and stripping if used excessively. Aim for monthly usage and gently work it in using the pads of your fingers (not nails) in soft, circular motions.

Use A Scalp Massager

Scalp massagers are another great way to give your scalp some relief and get rid of pesky buildup, especially if you have natural hair or protective style. They help get rid of excess oil, while also making sure your scalp really absorbs your hair care products. Scalp massagers will also have you feeling like you're getting a full-body spa treatment. Who could say no to that?

Use The Proper Shampoo And Conditioner

With clarifying shampoos being too stripping to use on a consistent basis, having the right shampoo and conditioner in your arsenal is crucial to combatting buildup. “Selecting a shampoo and conditioner that work for the person’s hair type is key,” Stevens says. “Shampooing your hair regularly— typically daily for oily hair and every few days for drier hair—plays a big role in keeping your scalp healthy and buildup-free.”

Using the right conditioner is imperative as well, as they help nourish and detangle your hair, both of which are important to preventing scalp buildup.

Keep Your Hair Detangled

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Although simply brushing your hair isn't a solution to cleaning scalp build-up, keeping your hair detangled makes a noticeable difference. "I would say keeping your hair detangled works to help fight buildup a little just because there are less knots for residue to cling on to," Minwell mentioned. As for the proper brush and technique, she advises holding the top of your hair so you're not irritating the scalp by pulling directly at the roots and using tools with less bristles if you have thicker hair. Rivas also suggests you “use a gentle silicone comb to scrub your scalp and detangle your hair.”

Whichever scalp buildup remedy you choose, use or do it with care. The kinder you are to your hair, and especially your scalp, the better.

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