Scalp Buildup; Let's Break It Down

Posted by Azadeh Shirazi MD on

Let’s talk about scalp health. Ever notice little white flakes on your scalp and immediately assume it to be dandruff? Well, you might be wrong! Scalp buildup is common among all gender, ages, etc. In this mini blog, Dr. Azi walks us through what it is and how to address it. 

What is scalp buildup?

Scalp buildup happens as a result of oil, sweat, dead skin cells, and hair products that pile up on the surface of the scalp often clogging hair follicles and pores. It depends if it’s an inside job, natural buildup, or an outside job, product buildup.

 Skin oils, dead skin cells, and sweat accumulate on the surface of your scalp in between washes. Therefore, this is what is called natural scalp build up. Natural scalp buildup especially occurs if you wait longer between shampooing. It can also be caused by hair care products (dry shampoo, hair spray, root volumizer), that layer up and produce sticky flakes that can adhere to the scalp hair.

Scalp Buildup Remedies:

  1. Wash your scalp. If you have an oily scalp, it’s best to cleanse the scalp every day or every other day. If you have dry, damaged or colored hair, then once every 3-5 days works best. Use a Clarifying shampoo on wet hair focusing on the scalp.  Rinse hair with water before adding shampoo for a more effective lather that spreads more evenly with less product.  Use warm water to help loosen up dirt and debris.  Only apply conditioner to the ends.   
  2. Exfoliate your scalp once to twice weekly. I recommend using a glycolic salicylic acid spray to prevent or reduce buildup.
  3. Brush your hair. Brushing your hair keeps your lock from getting tangled but it also helps reduce and break up scalp build up. I recommend The Miracle Brush as it's also gentle on the hair. 
  4. Avoid overusing products particularly close to the scalp.

When is it time to see a dermatologist about scalp buildup?

It’s time to see your Dermatologist when there’s more than just build up; symptoms of itching, pain, sensitivity, or buildup that doesn’t easily wash off with shampooing. These can signal various scalp conditions such as psoriasis, fungus, or dermatitis that require medical attention.  If you start to experience hair loss in association with build up, it’s important to have an evaluation.

Dr. Azi’s Scalp Buildup Treatment Recommendations: 

Glycolic 10% Salicylic 2% spray is a favorite amongst my patients. It also helps reduce scalp breakouts.  I recommend using this 1-2 x a week. It dries quickly without leaving a residue.

*GlySal Body Spray

Hydrafacial Keravive - it’s like a Facial for your scalp, a Scalpcial. A 3 step in office treatment uses a vacuum to extract buildup and debris from pores, exfoliate the scalp skin, and hydrate it with a solution with nourishing ingredients.


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Dr. Azadeh Shirazi, MD is a Board-Certified Dermatologist.

Specializing in medical, surgical, and cosmetic dermatology, Dr. Shirazi received her undergraduate and medical degrees from the University Of Kentucky College of Medicine. After doing a Research Fellowship at Harvard Medical School at the Wellman Center for Photomedicine, she completed her residency training in Dermatology and Cutaneous Surgery at the prestigious Mayo Clinic in addition to completing her training in dermatology and cosmetic surgery at the University of California San Diego.

She has received multiple research scholarships from iconic institutions including Harvard University and the University Of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and has several peer-reviewed publications to her name.