An oily scalp is a common complaint of hair loss sufferers.
But, are sebum buildup and hair loss related? Or are they just two related symptoms of common underlying issues?
In this article, I’ll explain what causes excess sebum production, how sebum buildup and hair loss are related, and tools that may help lower sebum production.
Quickly, make sure you take the free hair quiz later in this article.
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What Causes Excess Sebum Production?
Sebum production rate is different among each individual person (1). It’s unclear what the exact factors involved are.
One thing we can establish as a contributor, though, is a powerful male hormone called Dihydrotestosterone (DHT).
DHT is converted from testosterone by the 5α-reductase enzyme (5α-R). It is involved in cell functions like cell division and proliferation.
It works by stimulating a key molecule called mTORC1 that regulates the growth of cells (2).
In the sebaceous gland, the gland that houses sebocytes which produce sebum, DHT signals the excessive proliferation of sebocytes through mTORC1.
In the hair follicle and on the skin, sebocytes dissolve to secrete sebum in a process called holocrine secretion. Essentially, the sebocyte itself is the sebum.
Because of this, an increased rate of cell division through DHT can drive excess sebum production.
- Sebum production is different among each individual person
- DHT stimulates the division of sebocytes by stimulating mTORC1 which leads to increased oil production.
What’s the Connection Between Sebum Buildup and Hair Loss?
Sebum buildup and hair loss are connected by the hormone DHT (3).
DHT and DHT activity is believed to mediate the progression of a form of hair loss called Androgenetic Alopecia (AGA), or pattern hair loss.
Excess sebum as a result of DHT can also directly influence AGA. It might also influence other forms of hair loss by impacting scalp health, too.
P. Acnes and Hair Loss
The presence of excess sebum in the hair follicle creates the perfect environment for a strain of bacteria called P. acnes (3).
P. acnes, at normal concentrations, is not normally an issue. In fact, it’s essential for normal skin health and microbial balance.
However, this bacterial strain can become problematic when it overgrows within the hair follicle. More P. acnes means more inflammatory byproducts called porphyrins get released. Additionally, the inflammatory response to P. acnes leads to the formation of free radicals (4).
Not surprisingly, studies suggest P. acnes is elevated in AGA-affected hair follicles.
Oxidative stress and inflammation are known to be contributors to AGA, with AGA patients demonstrating elevated levels of oxidative stress (5).
Chronic inflammation and oxidative stress also force the body to produce fibrous scar tissue in a process called fibrosis. Around the hair follicle, this is called perifollicular fibrosis. They also contribute to the calcification of blood vessels which reduces blood flow.
This culminates as follicle miniaturization which is a well-known characteristic of AGA.
So, in this way, excess sebum production stimulated by DHT contributes to hair loss.
- Excess sebum in the hair follicle creates the environment for P. acnes to thrive and proliferate.
- Excess P. acnes leads to inflammation and oxidative stress that can contribute to hair loss.
- Studies suggest P. acnes is elevated in AGA hair follicles.
- Chronic inflammation and oxidative stress lead to perifollicular fibrosis and blood vessel calcification that culminate as follicle miniaturization.
Dandruff and Hair Loss
Sebum doesn’t just feed P. acnes. In some cases, excess sebum can also fuel the growth of Malassezia spp. yeast that play a role in dandruff (6).
When Malassezia spp. yeast overgrow, they secrete a fatty acid called oleic acid. This opens up the skin barrier, allowing bacteria and environmental pollutants to irritate the scalp. This can lead to inflammation and oxidative stress which can contribute to hair loss, as mentioned earlier.
However, it should be noted that DHT-stimulated excess oil in itself is not always a cause of dandruff. Dandruff patients don’t always present with excess sebum production. Similarly, excess oil production doesn’t always result in dandruff.
Researchers believe it could also be attributed to sebum composition, as opposed to sebum quantity. Individual predispositions may also contribute to enhanced reactivity to Malassezia byproducts.
Dandruff, overall, contributes to an unhealthy scalp environment. Considering the scalp acts as an incubator for the hair follicle, scalp condition is believed to directly influence hair quality and growth (7).
Generally, dandruff is associated with hair loss. While it may not be a cause, resolving the underlying factors of dandruff may help reverse hair loss or vice versa.
- Sebum also feeds Malassezia spp. yeast that contribute to the development of dandruff.
- Malassezia spp. release oleic acid which disrupts the skin barrier leading to inflammation and oxidative stress known to cause hair loss.
- DHT-stimulated oil production is not always a cause of dandruff. Dandruff patients don’t always present with excess oil and excess oil production doesn’t always result in dandruff.
- Researchers believe some other causes of dandruff could be sebum composition and predisopostions to reactivity to Malassezia byproducts.
- Dandruff promotes an unhealthy scalp environment which directly influences hair health and growth.
- Generally, dandruff is associated with hair loss. Resolving underlying factor of dandruff may help reverse hair loss or vice versa.
Sebum Hair Loss Regrowth: Addressing the Root Cause
If you’ve lost hair as a result of sebum production alone, resolving the underlying excess sebum may help reverse hair loss.
Below are some tools that may help reduce sebum production.
Finasteride is currently the only FDA-approved anti-androgen (8). It works by inhibiting the 5α-R enzyme and reduces DHT.
This means higher levels of testosterone (which is considered a less powerful androgen than DHT) and estrogen.
However, there are various documented side effects associated with the use of finasteride. They include:
- Sexual dysfunction;
- Gastrointestinal discomfort;
- And dizziness.
There are also plants that have documented anti-androgen properties.
Pumpkin seed oil is the most notable. In one clinical trial, men who took 400 mg of PSO per day** for 24 weeks experienced an average 40 percent increase in hair count. This was statistically significant when compared to the 10 percent average in the placebo group.
**It should be noted that the source of the PSO, Octa Sabal Plus, does contain other components in addition to PSO. There is certainly a need for more in-depth research on the topic.
By reducing DHT, anti-androgens may reduce sebum production that can lead to hair growth.
Unfortunately, though, there is very little data to support the use of many other touted anti-androgens like saw palmetto and white peony.
Additionally, the dosages might need to be considerably high to be effective.
- Finasteride is currently the only FDA-approved anti-androgen. It works by inhibting the 5α-R enzyme and reducing DHT. However, it can have significant side effects.
- Certain plants also have anti-androgenic properties like licorice, green tea, and pumpkin seed oil.
- In one clinical trial, 400mg of PSO per day resulted in an average 40 percent increase in hair count at 24 weeks.
- By reducing DHT, anti-androgens may reduce sebum production that can lead to hair growth.
- There is very little data to support the use of many other touted anti-androgens like saw palmetto. Doses needed for effectivness could also be considerably high.
L-Carnitine is an amino acid found in food. It might also decrease sebum production when used topically (12).
Currently, the only data available on L-Carnitine and sebum is one cell culture study. When added to cell cultures, L-Carnitine upregulated beta-oxidation that helps to break down fats like sebum.
As a result, when researchers added L-Carnitine to the cell culture, oil was dramatically decreased.
However, whether or not these results translate to human skin remains to be seen. Clinical trials are needed to see if L-Carnitine is more effective than a placebo.
- L-Carnitine reduces sebum production in cell culture studies. It works by increasing beta-oxidation, the process that breaks down fats like sebum.
- when researchers added L-Carnitine to the cell culture, oil was dramatically decreased.
- Whether or not these results translate to human skin remains to be seen. Clinical trials are needed.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that plays a part in various functions in the body.
One of these functions is maintaining skin health (13). It influences skin through vitamin D receptors that are distributed throughout the skin.
As it relates to sebum, studies indicate that vitamin D may directly influence sebum production. Cell culture studies show vitamin D reduces sebocyte division in a dose-dependent matter. Essentially, more vitamin D means less sebum production.
But, whether or not these results can be extrapolated to real life is not clear. No studies have been performed that assess the association between vitamin D deficiency and sebum production.
It’s probably unlikely that bolstering vitamin D levels would decrease sebum production in the absence of vitamin D deficiency. Nonetheless, vitamin D is essential for health.
You can boost vitamin D levels through D3 supplementation, safe sun exposure, or vitamin D-rich foods.
- Vitamin D influences the skin through vitamin D receptors.
- Cell culture studies indicate that vitamin D may directly influence sebum production. Vitamin D reduces sebocyte division in a dose-dependent manner, meaning more vitamin D equals less sebum production.
- It’s difficult to extrapolate these results to real life, though, because there are no studies that have currently examined the connection between vitamin D deficiency and excess sebum production.
- It’s unlikely that bolstering vitamin D levels would decrease sebum production in the absence of vitamin D deficiency.
- Nonetheless, vitamin D is essential for health and can be obtained through D3 supplementation, safe sun exposure, or vitamin D-rich foods.
Salicylic acid is a Beta-Hydroxy Acid (BHA) that exfoliates the skin (14). Unlike alpha-hydroxy acids, BHAs are lipophilic, meaning they dissolve oils.
Cell culture studies have demonstrated that salicylic acid reduces oil production by sebocytes (15). This reduction is attributed to the ability of salicylic acid to induce cell death in sebocytes. Fewer sebocytes mean less oil production.
This study suggests that salicylic acid could be a potential solution for excess oil production. However, it doesn’t resolve underlying factors like excess DHT.
Topical salicylic acid used in a shampoo or topical, though, may help prevent hair loss progression and reverse hair loss associated with sebum production. These results would likely be limited to the time you are using it.
- Salicylic acid is a BHA that exfoliates the skin and may reduce oil production.
- In cell cultures, salicylic acid stimulates cell death of sebocytes, reducing oil production.
- Salicylic acid could be a potential solution for excess oil production but it doesn’t resolve underlying factors that can cause excess oil production.
- Topical salicylic acid may prevent hair loss progression and reverse hair loss associated with sebum production. These results would likely be limited to the time you are using it.
Cannabidiol (CBD) might also be a tool that can be used for sebum buildup.
In cell culture studies, adding CBD to sebaceous gland cell cultures is sebostatic (16). This means it normalizes excessive sebum production.
It’s possible that these cell culture study results do, in fact, translate to the sebaceous glands in the skin. This is because sebaceous gland cells contain receptors that make up the Endocannabinoid System (ECS).
These receptors consist of CB1, CB2, TRPV, and PPAR receptors. They all influence a myriad of functions in the body.
As a cannabinoid, CBD can bind to and modulate the activity of the receptors in the ECS, impacting the function of the sebaceous gland.
CBD acts on the family of TRPV receptors to theoretically exert its sebostatic effects.
Although, we don’t have clear cut evidence to help us understand exactly how CBD works.
Additionally, CBD is relatively expensive. It’s doubtful that using CBD products internally would provide enough CBD to the skin to have a relevant effect. So, for the most effectiveness, CBD would have to be used topically. While this isn’t necessarily out of the question, topical CBD products could prove to be an expensive use of the nutrient.
- CBD might normalize sebum production.
- According to cell culture studies, CBD is sebostatic.
- It’s possinle that these cell culture studies do translate to the real life activity of sebaceous glands because they contain ECS receptors.
- These receptors regulate a variety of functions and cannabinoids like CBD can modulate their activity.
- CBD works by activing on the ECS TRPV receptor, according to cell culture studies. But, more studies are needed to understand just how CBD works in the skin.
- CBD’s accessibility might be limited by its high cost. High dosages would probably be needed for CBD to reach the skin in high enough quantities to be effective. Topical CBD could also prove to be an expensive use of the nutrient.
Are Sebum Buildup and Hair Loss Really Connected?
Sebum buildup is not only connected to hair loss like AGA via DHT, but it’s also a mediating factor in AGA progression.
Sebum-feeding microbes like P. acnes and Malassezia spp. can proliferate in the presence of excess oil. Their byproducts can contribute to chronic inflammation and oxidative stress that links to hair loss.
There are a few solutions available that may reduce sebum production. However, very few of these have actual human clinical trials to prove their effectiveness.
Have you noticed a connection between sebum buildup and hair loss? What has your experience been? What has worked for you? Leave a comment below.