Hair greasiness is a common occurrence among the population.
Interestingly, this ordinary, usually unnoticed condition could be connected to hair loss.
In this article, I’ll not only explain the compelling connection between an oily scalp and hair loss but the root cause of excess oil production.
I’ll also equip you with some practical tools that can help you prevent too much oil production in the first place.
Just keep reading!
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Oily Hair Causes: What Causes an Oily Scalp?
Everybody’s sebum production rate differs (1). Researchers are still trying to pinpoint the exact factors involved.
However, there are a few contributors to sebum production with some hard data to support their role.
One of those factors is a powerful male hormone called dihydrotestosterone (DHT). It plays a significant role in the division of sebocytes, the cells of the sebaceous gland.
Sebocytes are interesting cells because they release oil through holocrine secretion. Essentially, this means that these cells disintegrate to release sebum.
Because the cell itself is the sebum, an increased rate of cell division can drive excess sebum production.
Androgens like DHT stimulate a key molecule called mTORC1 that regulates the growth of cells (2). Activation of mTORC1 drives sebocyte cell division which increases sebum production.
So, products that counteract these effects may be beneficial for reducing scalp oiliness.
- Sebum production rate differs from person to person.
- One of the main factors in excess oil is DHT. It stimulates the proliferation of sebocytes by stimulating mTORC1, leading to increased oil production.
Oily Scalp Hair Loss: Hormones and Greasy Hair
We know that the hormone DHT plays a role in excess sebum production.
But, interestingly, this same hormone plays a role in a form of hair loss called Androgenetic Alopecia (AGA; pattern hair loss) (3).
AGA is characterized by high levels of DHT and inflammation in the scalp. AGA-affected hair follicles also often have enlarged sebaceous glands and higher sebum production.
Sebum is the food for a strain of bacteria in the skin called P. acnes. You might have heard of this bacteria because of its well-known contribution to the formation of acne.
Not surprisingly, P. acnes is elevated in AGA-affected hair follicles as well. This is a result of the sebum fueling the reproduction of this bacteria, leading to its overgrowth in the follicle.
This becomes problematic because P. acnes bacteria release a substance called porphyrins as a byproduct. These are proteins that stimulate inflammation.
Excessive, chronic inflammation can lead to uncontrolled tissue damage (4). The body then upregulates fibroblast activity, the cells responsible for creating fibrous scar tissue.
When inflammation in and around the hair follicle persists, causes tissue damage, and requires scar tissue repair, it causes perifollicular scarring.
In a controlled manner, this isn’t problematic. But, the accumulation of this fibrous tissue can eventually cut off the blood supply to the follicle and restrict hair growth space.
These are how the hallmark characteristics of AGA work together, manifesting as thinning hair or hair loss.
Considering these mechanisms, we can see that excess oil production definitely plays an integral role in AGA.
However, whether or not reducing oil production alone alleviates hair loss remains to be seen.
- DHT increases sebum production which is the fuel for the proliferation of P. acnes in the hair follicle.
- P. acnes release porphyrins as a byproduct which stimulates inflammation.
- Chronic inflammation leads to uncontrolled tissue damage which requires scar tissue for repair.
- Enough tissue damage requires excessive scar tissue formation. Eventually, the presence of enough scar tissue can cut off the blood supply to the follicle and restrict hair growth space.
- These characteristics are hallmarks of AGA and it’s clear that excess oil production definitely plays a role.
- However, whether or not reducing oil production alone alleviates hair loss remains to be seen.
Oily Scalp Hair Loss Home Remedies and Treatments
There are various remedies available for treating an oily scalp.
For a lot of these ingredients, their effectiveness has been observed for reduced oil production as it relates to acne. This is because scalp greasiness isn’t a severe enough issue to warrant research for treatment.
However, we can most likely extrapolate these results to the oil production on the scalp.
Below are some easily accessible treatments for reducing sebum production.
Green tea has two compounds related to hair greasiness: epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) and quercetin.
Both of these antioxidant compounds within green tea have anti-androgenic properties (5). They work by inhibiting the enzyme 5α-reductase (5α-R) that converts testosterone into DHT.
In this way, they may prevent excess oil production.
However, the rate at which EGCG and quercetin penetrate the skin could be an issue.
EGCG and quercetin accumulate mostly in the stratum corneum and epidermis, which are the uppermost layers of the skin (6). Unfortunately, topical use of EGCG and quercetin from green tea doesn’t result in much penetration to the dermis where the sebaceous gland is located.
This means that it’s unlikely that topical application of green tea, unless encapsulated in liposomes, would result in a significant decrease in scalp oil production.
There is only one study looking at how a 2% green tea tonic impacts scalp hair greasiness (7). Although the researchers in the study conclude that using green tea is safe and efficient for reducing scalp oil production, the researchers indicate that no significant improvement was observed.
The lack of results could be attributed to the low concentration and poor absorption of EGCG and quercetin in green tea. The researchers inform future researchers to experiment with higher concentrations of green tea extract.
With this in mind, drinking green tea rather than applying it topically might be more effective.
- EGCG and quercetin in green tea may reduce sebum production by inhibiting the conversion of testosterone to DHT.
- However, these results might be restricted by the limited absorption of EGCG and quercetin into the dermis, where the sebaceous gland is located.
- One study has looked at the effects of a 2% topical green tea tonic on hair greasiness. Although there was a reduction in sebum, no significant improvement was observed. There might have been better results had there been a higher concentration of green tea extract.
- For this reason, drinking green tea may be more effective than using it topically.
Salicylic acid is often used as a treatment for acne.
It is a lipophilic (fat-loving) beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) that helps to dissolve oil (8). It may also lower sebum production.
In a cell culture study of sebocytes, adding salicylic acid resulting in a decreased production of oil by sebocytes (9). This was accompanied by a decrease in the number of sebocytes as a whole because salicylic acid stimulated sebocyte cell death.
From this, we can speculate that salicylic acid could be an effective way to lower scalp sebum production.
Salicylic acid can be found in shampoos often used to treat psoriasis and dandruff.
- Salicylic acid, a lipophilic BHA, is often used as a treatment for acne.
- It dissolves oil as well as interacts with molecular systems in sebocytes to reduce the production of oil. Salicylic acid also decreases sebocyte count in cell culture studies.
- From these results, salicylic acid might be an effective way to lower scalp sebum production.
- Salicylic acid can be found in shampoos often used to treat psoriasis and dandruff.
Vitamin D, also known as the sunshine vitamin, could also play a role in sebum production (10).
Researchers have observed that vitamin D directly influences the proliferation of sebocytes in a dose-dependent manner. This means that the more vitamin D that sebocytes are exposed to, the less they proliferate. In this way, vitamin D may help lower oil production.
You can obtain vitamin D through safe sun exposure, supplementation, or vitamin D-rich foods.
Sun exposure is the most efficient way to obtain vitamin D. Best of all, it doesn’t cost anything! But, it’s paramount to make sure you get sun exposure safely. Always try to avoid getting burnt.
You can also increase vitamin D through food and supplementation. Egg yolks, oily fish, fortified dairy, and dairy alternatives are good sources of vitamin D.
When supplementing, be sure to supplement with D3 instead of D2. D3 is much more bioavailable in the body and, thus, provides the most benefit.
- Vitamin D may play a role in sebum production.
- Cell culture studies suggest vitamin D directly lowers the proliferation of sebocytes. This could decrease sebum production.
- You can obtain vitamin D through safe sun exposure and D3 supplementation. You can also increase your levels with vitamin D-rich foods like egg yolks, oily fish, fortified dairy, and dairy alternatives.
CBD, a major component of the hemp plant and its extracts, could activate receptors that influence sebum output (11).
Within the sebaceous gland, there are endocannabinoid receptors (CB1, CB2, TRPV). These receptors are part of a large group called the endocannabinoid system. They are responsible for interacting with cannabinoids, both ones that the body produces naturally (endocannabinoids) and cannabinoids found in the hemp plant (like CBD).
The presence of these receptors suggests a possible role for both endocannabinoids and hemp cannabinoids in the regulation of oil production.
There are two endocannabinoids in humans: anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). Interestingly, both AEA and 2-AG seem to increase sebum production by activating CB2 receptors.
Conversely, cell culture studies tell us that CBD activates TPRV1, 3, and 4 receptors to return sebum production to normal levels.
However, what we can’t tell is whether oral administration provides enough CBD to effectively influence oil production via these receptors. If not, the high cost of CBD products may not make this suitable as a treatment for something as benign as an oily scalp.
- CBD is a major component of hemp plant extracts that has demonstrated an ability to influence sebum production in cell culture studies.
- Sebaceous glands have cannabinoid receptors (CB1, CB2, TRPV) that interact with both endocannabinoids (AEA and 2-AG) as well as hemp cannabinoids (CBD).
- While AEA and 2-AG activate CB2 receptors to enhance sebum production, CBD activates TRPV1, 3, and 4 to return sebum levels to normal.
- However, whether oral administration of CBD provides enough to produce an effect within the skin hasn’t been tested yet. Using CBD products topically could prove to be extremely expensive.
L-Carnitine is an amino acid that could be a promising treatment for excess oil production (12).
In cell culture studies, L-Carnitine increased beta-oxidation levels, a process resulting in the break down of sebum fatty acids.
Researchers observed that following administration, sebum production was dramatically decreased.
These results suggest that topical L-Carnitine could be an effective way to reduce oil production.
- L-Carnitine could be a promising treatment for excess oil production.
- In cell culture studies, L-Carnitine upregulates beta-oxidation, a process that breaks down sebum fatty acids. Following administration, sebum production was dramatically reduced.
- These results suggest that topical L-Carnitine could be an effective way to reduce oil production.
Shampoo for Oily Hair and Hair Loss
There is currently no FDA-approved shampoo for treating an oily scalp.
However, with the information we went through above, you can look for shampoos that contain these ingredients.
For the maximum effect, always try to source products that have the ingredients you’re looking for towards the front end of the ingredients list. The further up in the list they are, the higher their concentration, and thus, their effectiveness!
This will ensure you get the most bang for your back.
- There is currently no FDA-approved shampoo for treating an oily scalp.
- You can, however, look for ingredients in a prospective shampoo that have oil-regulating benefits.
- For the most effectiveness, look for products that have these ingredients towards the front end of the ingredients list.
Oily Scalp and Dandruff
Dandruff is often associated with hair loss (13).
The primary cause of dandruff is believed to be an oversensitivity to the byproducts of a skin yeast called Malassezia.
The general assumption when it comes to dandruff is that excess oil production feeds Malassezia yeast. While this true to an extent, research has observed that patients can experience dandruff even with normal sebum production (14). Moreover, subjects with excess oil production don’t always develop dandruff.
Instead, it could be a result of the sebum composition. Sebum composition can be impacted by the bacterial colonization of the skin. P. acnes, the bacteria that plays a role in acne and AGA, actually helps contribute to a sebum composition that may prevent dandruff.
However, the primary factor that leads to a healthy sebum composition isn’t fully known yet.
So, dandruff may or may not be a result of excess sebum production. But, it’s more likely that factors impacting sebum composition influence the development of dandruff.
Key Takeaway: Sebum production is not necesarily a predicting factor for dandruff. Instead, the factors that influence sebum composition more likely play a role.
Connecting the Dots: Does an Oily Scalp Cause Hair Loss?
Excess oil on the scalp is a definite factor in AGA, a common form of hair loss.
This is because high levels of DHT upregulate oil production. These elevated sebum levels provide the fuel for P. acnes, a strain of bacteria that stimulates inflammation.
The downstream cascade that follows inflammation leads to characteristic AGA hair loss.
While there are many proposed remedies for excess oil production, there are no hard clinical trials that show a significant improvement in scalp oil production.
The results for some treatments are promising. But, we can’t fully guarantee that any of these ingredients or products that contain these ingredients will make a significant difference.
Have you experienced oily scalp hair loss? When did you first start to make the connection? Leave a comment below.