In Ask a Dermatologist, Cosmetic, Medical Dermatology

Microscopic sebaceous glands produce a natural oil called sebum that protects and moisturizes your skin and scalp. The sebaceous glands found on your scalp are attached to your hair follicles. When the glands become overactive, they can create a condition called seborrhea – more commonly known as oily scalp.

Sebum is necessary for a healthy scalp and skin, but when you have too much of it, the oil builds up and causes greasy hair and dandruff. Excess sebum production is also the culprit in acne. It makes your skin oily and clogs the pores on the face or body, which can result in blackheads and pimples. 

Symptoms of oily scalp

Signs of an oily scalp are apparent. You may need to wash your hair daily because it feels greasy quickly. Your scalp may feel itchy from the buildup of dead skin cells.

You may develop dandruff. The condition can be caused by too much or not enough oil. Flakes from dandruff caused by excess oil are usually larger and feel greasy, while dandruff flakes from dry skin are smaller. 

If you go a few days without washing your hair, the oils can build up and cause an unpleasant odor. You may also see oily stains on your pillowcases. Your hair may look flat because of the heaviness of the oil weighing it down.

How hair texture affects your scalp

Excess sebum can have different effects depending on your hair type. People with thin or fine hair tend to have an oily scalp because there is less surface area for the oil to distribute. On the other hand, people with thick hair have more hair follicles and more glands to produce oil, so they can also suffer from an oily scalp. People with curly hair may have oily scalps and dry ends because the sebum gets trapped in the waves of their curls and does not make its way down the hair shaft.

In addition, having an oily scalp can prevent new hair growth. The excess oil clogs the hair follicles with dirt and dead skin that can block new hair from growing. In some cases, it can cause breakage at the root.

Causes of oily scalp

Excess sebum can be caused by a variety of factors. You may struggle with it constantly or find that it comes and goes depending on your lifestyle or stage in your life. Here are a few common culprits of oily scalp:


If your family members tend to have oily scalps, you are more likely to have overactive sebaceous glands, too.


Shifts in hormones due to puberty, pregnancy and menopause can cause the glands to produce excess sebum. Hormone imbalances from stress can also contribute to excess oil.

Medical conditions

Disorders of the pituitary or adrenal glands, which control hormones, can increase sebum production and result in an oily scalp. Medications, like oral contraceptives, that regulate hormones can also cause excess oil.

The weather

The dry air of winter and your home’s heating can make your scalp dry and increase sebum production. Summer’s humid days increase sweat on your scalp, pushing the sebum down the hair shaft and making it feel greasier than usual.

Washing too much

If you wash your hair too vigorously, too often or with harsh products, you can irritate your scalp to the point that the glands work overtime to produce more protective sebum.

Not washing enough

If you do not wash your hair regularly, sleep on dirty pillows or use hair tools that have not been cleaned, you can contribute to the dead cells and dirt that build up on your scalp.  

Managing oily scalp

When an oily scalp is due to genes or hormones, you may not be able to eliminate it altogether, but you can manage it. If the condition is new, consider recent changes that may contribute to your oily scalp. Here are some hair care tips for anyone wanting to reduce excess oil on their scalp:

  • Wash your hair daily or every other day, depending on how quickly the oil develops
  • Look for a shampoo formulated for oily hair
  • Use a mild conditioner for the ends of your hair only, not the scalp
  • Rinse your hair thoroughly with cool water after washing
  • Let your hair air dry, or use the lowest setting on your hair dryer
  • Avoid oil-based hair products
  • Clean your hairbrush, comb and other tools often
  • Try dry shampoo to absorb oil when you are unable to wash your hair

When should I see a dermatologist?

In most cases, changes you make at home can help you manage an oily scalp. If it seems to be getting worse, you may have a skin disease called seborrheic dermatitis. It’s often seen in infants for the first few months of their life. It’s known as a “cradle cap.”

In adults, the condition causes scaly patches, inflammation and dandruff.  It is not contagious, but it can be chronic. People with seborrheic dermatitis may have flare-ups when they are under stress. Some people have one case of it and never have symptoms again.

The symptoms mimic other skin conditions like rosacea or psoriasis, so see a dermatologist for a proper diagnosis. If it is seborrheic dermatitis left untreated, it can lead to an infection if you scratch the area and cause a rash.

Columbia dermatologists

If you are concerned about an oily scalp or other issues relating to your skin, make an appointment with one of our board-certified dermatologists today. 

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