Hair Buildup: What It Is + The Easiest Way To Remove It

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Are you tired of dealing with dandruff, itching, and other scalp problems?

You may be experiencing hair buildup, a common issue that occurs when hair products, dead skin cells, and natural oils accumulate on the scalp over time.

Not only is hair buildup uncomfortable and unsightly, but it can also affect your hair’s health and appearance.

A cropped photo of a woman scratching her messy hair with her hands.

So today we will discuss the causes, signs, and symptoms of scalp buildup, as well as effective prevention and treatment methods.

By the end of this article, you’ll have all the tools you need to prevent and treat hair buildup. 

You can finally bid farewell to bad hair days and say hello to healthy, flake-free hair.

What Is Hair Buildup?

Hair buildup happens when gunk, sweat, excess oil (sebum), and hair products accumulate on your hair and scalp. 

If left unchecked, it clogs your hair follicles, which eventually leads to hair root inflammation, scalp infection (folliculitis), scalp acne, and hair loss.  

Technically, there are two types of hair buildup: natural and product buildup. 

Natural Buildup on Hair

There are several factors that cause natural buildup. 

First is dead skin cells. Your scalp constantly renews itself by sloughing dead skin cells. New cells are formed replacing old ones.

For some people, the old skin cells are not shed fast enough, causing them to pile up on the scalp and into the hair strands. 

Next is sebum. Your sebaceous glands produce a waxy oil called sebum that moisturizes your scalp and hair. However, some people produce too much of this natural oil. 

Excess sebum on the scalp can cause grease buildup. 

Lastly, sweat and pollution. Sweating is a natural process that allows the body to flush out toxins. When our work requires us to be out in the field, we catch dust and other pollutants that settle on the scalp. 

The accumulation of these factors, especially if you take too long between washes, leads to natural hair buildup. 

Product Buildup on Hair

As the name suggests, this type of buildup is caused by the hair care products you use. 

Many hair products contain waxy substances. Shampoos, conditioners, gels, styling creams, mousses, and sprays have heavy chemicals. The thicker the product, the more it will likely form gunk and grime. 

Excessive use of these products, improper rinsing, and skipping hair washing can cause buildup.

It is important to note that when layers of dirt and product residues are sitting on top of one another, the nourishing ingredients in your hair care routine are not absorbed into your scalp. 

From that point onward, everything you apply will be ineffective. 

Plus, they will keep piling, weighing, and stressing your strands, which can worsen buildup. 

The muck will suffocate and irritate your hair roots and can lead to inflammation (scalp dermatitis), tenderness, and even soreness or mild pain. 

What Does Hair Buildup Look Like? 

Hair buildup looks different on everyone.

A close up of a woman's oily hair with small flakes

It can manifest through visibly noticeable white-grayish flakes or thin films, itchy scales, or some tender or soft spots on their scalps. 

There are several simple signs that let you know it’s time to wash your hair. 

Here are some tips on how to tell if you have product buildup in your hair and scalp.

Oily and Heavy Feel

Try running your fingers through your hair. How does it feel? The main symptom is the greasy, clunky, and heavy feel sometimes accompanied by a foul smell.

Dull, Dry, Brittle Hair 

Hair buildup stops your follicles from breathing and cuticles from absorbing moisture, leaving your hair looking dull and feeling dry. 

Since your hair is not getting the nourishment it needs, your hair will become brittle and prone to breakage. 

If you do not take real action quickly, you will be in for more serious problems than hair loss. 

Limp and Lanky Hair 

Over time, your hair will lose its natural volume and will become limp and lanky. Also, your hair movement will not be bouncy or fluid as it usually was.

So if you notice your hair will not hold its usual shape no matter how much styling and reviving products you apply, it’s another sign you have a buildup. 

At this point, there is nothing you can do but give your scalp a good wash with clarifying shampoo. 

Loosened Flakes and Dirt Under Your Nails

If you feel that your hair is a little stiff and does not feel quite right, part a section of your hair. 

Scratch that exposed section. 

Take note of the loosened flakes and the dirt under your nails. If there’s plenty of it, it’s time to clean your scalp. 

How To Remove Hair Buildup

An infographic featuring how to remove hair buildup with natural remedies and their instructions how to use it

The good news is that scalp and hair buildup can easily be cleared up. 

Let’s dive into the details and learn how to remove buildup effectively to keep your hair looking and feeling its best!

Try Natural Remedies 

When it comes to treating scalp build-up, there are a variety of options to choose from. One approach is to use natural remedies that can help dissolve and get rid of scalp buildup without harsh chemicals.

Here are some popular natural remedies you can try at home:

  • Apple cider vinegar rinse. ACV offers many hair benefits. It contains acetic acid and alpha-hydroxy acids, which can help degrease and cleanse your hair while restoring your scalp’s pH balance.

    Plus, apple cider vinegar has antibacterial properties that can prevent infections.

    To use, add two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar to a cup of cold water. Pour the solution into your scalp and hair, and let it sit for five minutes.

    Gently massage your scalp before rinsing. Then shampoo as usual. (Better use a clarifying shampoo, but more on that later).

    Tip: Some people use baking soda in tandem with ACV to exfoliate the scalp. Be careful of using the duo though. Baking soda is a potent ingredient and may irritate sensitive skin.
  • Brown sugar and oatmeal scrub. This natural combo is a popular DIY remedy for scalp and hair buildup. Brown sugar is a natural exfoliator, while oatmeal soothes and moisturizes the scalp.

    To make the scrub, you’ll need to mix together equal parts of brown sugar, ground oatmeal, and hair conditioner. Then massage the mixture into your scalp and hair before shampooing.

    Note, however, that exfoliating your scalp to remove buildup should be done in moderation.

    Also, be sure to follow a regular hair care routine and use products specifically designed for your hair type to keep your scalp and hair healthy and buildup-free.

    Word of caution: Scalp exfoliation is NOT recommended for people with a pre-existing scalp infection or condition like ringworm, psoriasis, lice, or any open source. 
  • Lemongrass oil. A study suggested that lemongrass oil may be an effective treatment for hair buildup.

    Of the hair tonics used in the study, the solution containing 10 percent lemongrass was shown to work the best as a dandruff treatment.

    You can combine lemongrass oil with neem oil, a potent antifungal carrier oil. Neem oil is known to help eliminate any fungal infections causing the buildup.

    These oils will help invigorate your scalp, leaving your hair fresh and healthy. 

Use a Clarifying Shampoo

A clarifying shampoo is specifically designed to help get rid of buildup on the scalp and hair. 

It works by using stronger and more powerful cleansing agents than regular shampoo to remove stubborn dirt, oil, product buildup, and other impurities.

Clarifying shampoos contain ingredients like sulfates and citric acid that can break down and dissolve filth and dirt, allowing it to be easily washed away. 

A woman is taking a bath with foam in her hair.

You might want to consider using Avalon Organics Clarifying Lemon Shampoo. Its gentle and certified organic formulation cleanses and revitalizes hair while removing excess oils and dulling buildup.

It’s important to note, however, that while clarifying shampoos are effective in removing the buildup of dead skin cells and grime, they can also strip the hair and scalp of natural oils. 

Excessive use of clarifying shampoos can cause scalp dryness and hair damage.  

Clarifying shampoos should not replace regular shampoos. So only use them once a week to once a month, depending on how often you wash your hair. 

Use a Medicated Shampoo

If you have tried natural remedies but the itching and if soreness just won’t go away, it’s time to consult a physician or a dermatologist. 

Try feeling your scalp. Do you feel patches of buildup? Do you feel sore in those areas? Are there big scaly, flakes you can touch?

These are signs that you might have an underlying condition, like seborrheic dermatitis or psoriasis, which causes or amplifies the gunk formation. 

In this case, only a health-care professional can correctly determine the cause of your discomfort and ultimately the appropriate treatment. 

Treatments may include antifungal or medicated shampoos with the active ingredient zinc pyrithione or ZPT

Get a Scalp Treatment 

If you are planning on a more relaxing approach to dealing with hair buildup, a spa scalp treatment is the way to go. 

A trained professional will assess your scalp condition and recommend specific treatments based on your needs. 

One of the many popular options is a deep cleansing scalp treatment.

This involves using a clarifying shampoo to thoroughly clean the scalp and remove any excess oil, product buildup, or dead skin cells.

Usually, hair products used in the treatment contain ingredients like tea tree oil or peppermint oil, which have antifungal and antibacterial properties that can help prevent future buildup.

The best part of any scalp treatment is the scalp massage. (We bet you’re imagining it too!) 

The massage relaxes the scalp muscles and improves blood flow to the hair follicles, promoting healthier hair growth and reducing the likelihood of scalp and hair buildup.

Treating hair buildup requires effort and consistency, but the results are worth it. However, as the saying goes, prevention is better than cure. 

In the next section, let’s explore the many different ways you can prevent natural and product buildup on your scalp. 

How to Prevent Hair or Scalp Buildup

By understanding causes and symptoms, as well as using the right products and techniques, you can maintain healthy, flake-free scalp and hair. 

Here are our top tips to prevent scalp flaking and other forms of hair buildup.

Evaluate Your Current Hair Products 

Evaluating your existing hair products is an important step in preventing hair buildup. The products you’re using have a significant impact on the health of your scalp and hair.

Many hair care products contain ingredients like silicones, sulfates, and heavy oils that can cause scalp buildup over time. Thus, it is important that you identify any potential irritants or allergens that could aggravate scalp issues. 

By choosing products that are gentle, lightweight, and free from potentially harmful ingredients, you can prevent product and natural scalp buildup effectively while promoting optimal hair and scalp health.

Find the Right Shampoo and Conditioner

One of the few crucial ways to prevent hair product buildup is by using the right shampoo and conditioner that match your hair type and scalp needs. 

As there are numerous shampoo formulations, it’s time to flip the bottle and read its list of ingredients. The higher the ingredient is on the list, the higher its concentration on the product. 

If you are not sure which shampoo and conditioner to buy, here’s a list of different hair types and the primary shampoo ingredient you should look for:

  • Average to dry hair and scalp: Look for an all-natural shampoo with jojoba, coconut, and tea tree oil. These ingredients are rich in fatty acids that strengthen hair and reduce breakage.

    Shea butter and aloe vera are natural moisturizers and conditioners that will leave your locks feeling healthy and restored after every use.

    Organic products also contain plant-derived cleaning agents that wash and reduce scalp buildup without stripping your scalp of its natural oils. 

    One of the most recommended shampoos for normal hair, the Odacite Shampoo Bar has argan and coconut oil, making it the best for hydrating and moisturizing your hair and scalp without harming the environment.
  • Oily hair and scalp: Choose apple cider vinegar hair shampoo and conditioner. ACV has astringent properties that can help balance the pH of the scalp and reduce oil production.

    Witch hazel, peppermint oil, and lemon juice also help regulate sebum production, remove scalp buildup and improve overall hair health.

    Try a vitamin-loaded shampoo such as Crazy Owl Witch Hazel Extract Shampoo. Your hair and scalp will thank you later. 
  • Dry and sensitive scalp and hair: Go for natural ingredients that are gentle and nourishing and won’t further dry out or irritate the scalp. 

    Argan oil is rich in antioxidants that moisturize and protect the scalp. Chamomile is another good ingredient to look out for. It has anti-inflammatory properties that soothe and calm an irritated scalp. 

    Aloe vera, coconut oil, and shea butter also help moisturize dry and sensitive scalp and hair. 

    You can check out Real Aloe Aloe Vera Hair Shampoo with Argan Oil & Oat Beta Shampoo. It was specifically created to nourish dry and sensitive scalp and hair. 

    Finding the right shampoo and conditioner for your hair type is crucial in proper hair care. With so many options available, be sure to take the time to choose products with natural and nourishing ingredients.

Maintain a Healthy Hair Care Routine

Build and maintain a hair care routine that works for you. Include gentle cleansers, conditioners, and occasional clarifying treatments in your hair care routine. 

Choosing natural and nourishing hair products can also help reduce the risk of buildup and promote healthy hair growth. Additionally, avoid overusing hair products, especially those with silicones. 

Silicones are used to treat frizz and protect strands from heat as they coat the hair. This coating can build up in hair shafts, causing your scalp and hair to look and feel dirty. 

By taking care of your hair with a healthy hair care routine, you can prevent product buildup and maintain healthy, shiny, and luscious locks.

Remove Buildup by Washing Frequently and Thoroughly 

Hair care experts agree frequent and regular cleansing is the easiest and most convenient way to prevent any type of scalp buildup. 

Depending on your hair type, your wash frequency will vary. Average to oily hair should be washed every one or two days. Meanwhile, dry and sensitive hair should only be washed every three to four days.

But if you’re seeing a buildup of dead skin cells on the scalp, it may be time to wash a bit more frequently. 

Keep in mind that the way you wash your hair and the products you use can significantly impact your cleansing efficacy.

Stop Using Dry Shampoos

Another culprit of product buildup on the scalp and hair is dry shampoo. 

A dry shampoo’s core purpose is to soak up oil to “extend a wash.” In most cases, they sit on top of your scalp and hair roots for an extended time.

Because dry shampoos block the surface where your skin sheds skin cells and because your glands secrete oil, dry shampoos prohibit the natural and healthy skin turnover lifecycle

Should you need to apply a dry shampoo, especially if your hair underwent bleaching or dyeing, use it occasionally (one to two times per week). And make sure to thoroughly cleanse after.

Remember, too much product can result in scalp irritations and cause the hair to lose its natural luster. 

Shampooing and Conditioning Tips

  • Always apply shampoos on completely wet hair. 
  • Dilute your shampoo with water before applying it to your hair and scalp. Product buildup can also occur when you put too much shampoo on the scalp. 
  • Focus on your scalp as this is where dirt, product residue, and dead skin cells can build up and pile up. 
  • Be gentle. Massage any product using your fingertips. Scratching your scalp too hard using your nails may wound the scalp and lead to irritations or infections. 
  • Do the shampoo, rinse, and repeat method. Shampooing the scalp twice is always recommended for getting rid of buildup.
  • Put conditioners on hair ends only. Your scalp does not need more moisture since it produces oils naturally. Putting hair conditioner on the scalp can only cause more buildup. 

FAQs About Waxy Buildup on Hair and Scalp 

Can hair and scalp buildup cause hair loss? 

Yes. Scalp buildup may cause hair loss. If left untreated, product and scalp buildup can cause irritations and inflammation of hair follicles, which can lead to an infection (folliculitis).

Severe cases of folliculitis may lead to crusty sores that don’t seem to heal. These sores can cause permanent hair loss and scarring. 

What are the signs of silicone buildup on hair?

Silicones are non-water soluble ingredients found in many hair products. Water and regular shampoo are not enough to break these compounds, making them a common product residue.

Signs of silicone buildup include dry, lifeless, and dull hair as well as excessively greasy and always glossy scalp.

Is dandruff the same as hair buildup?

No. Hair buildup is the accumulation of dead skin, gunk, and product residue, which can easily be mistaken for dandruff. 

Dandruff is a scalp condition where the scalp produces excess oil and became a breeding ground for Malassezia yeast.

These two may have similar appearances and pose similar conditions, but they require different treatments and care for your hair.

Is washing your hair every day a good practice? 

It depends. Overwashing may cause dryness and hair breakage for those with dry hair and a sensitive scalp. However, for those with a naturally oily scalp, washing your hair daily might be beneficial.

The frequency will vary on your type of hair. Still, washing your hair is the best way to remove buildup at home. 

Does brushing hair regularly prevent scalp buildup?

Keeping your hair tangle-free is one of the lesser-known tricks in the books in preventing scalp buildup. 

Brushing your hair actually helps to evenly distribute your natural oils into your scalp, giving your skin the nourishment it needs. 

Your Scalp and Hair Health Matters 

We hope this ultimate guide to preventing and treating scalp and hair buildup provided you with useful information on how to keep your hair and scalp flake-free and fabulous.

Cropped view of a beautiful young woman's face with itchy scalp on a yellow background

By following a healthy hair care routine, using natural and nourishing hair products, and incorporating preventative measures like scalp exfoliation and regular clarifying treatments, you can maintain a healthy and balanced scalp and luscious, shiny hair.

Remember to consult with a healthcare professional if you experience persistent or severe buildup or any other hair or scalp issues.

With the right care and attention, you can achieve a healthy scalp and beautiful mane that shines with vitality and radiance. 

Discover More Scalp and Hair Care Tips Here:


  • Stephanie Martin

    Stephanie Martin blends her beauty industry background with expertise in communications to lead in the fashion and beauty world. As a fashion and beauty editor, she is known for engaging and informative articles. Her lifelong passion for fashion, makeup, and hair shines through her work, earning her widespread respect among readers and clients. Stephanie's style, a mix of classic and contemporary, makes her a dynamic and influential figure in the industry, inspiring others with her knowledgeable and approachable insights.

  • Jessica Hoelscher

    With thirteen years in cosmetology, Jessica Hoelscher is a seasoned stylist recognized for her modern techniques. A graduate of Paul Mitchell the School in St. Louis, her expertise has been showcased on Fox Two News and in People Magazine. Self-employed at Salon Lofts, her work has graced TV screens, styling for renowned events and Ole Miss cheerleaders.

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