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White Buildup on Scalp: Everything You Need to Know

“When I scratch my scalp, white stuff comes off!”

White buildup on the scalp is something almost everyone experiences.

But, this doesn’t make it any less frustrating.

It makes you wonder:

What is white scalp buildup? How did I get it? Is this related to my hair loss?

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The root cause of white buildup on your scalp is relatively simple. However, many factors can influence it.

In this article, I’ll give you all the insight you need to understand the cause of your scalp buildup.

You’ll walk away with a deeper understanding of how your scalp works and how you can treat the white buildup.

Just keep reading!

Quickly, make sure you take the free hair quiz later in this article.

White Buildup On Scalp: What Is it?

The explanation of white buildup is relatively simple. It’s simply a mixture of sebum, the waxy substance that lubricates our skin and hair, and dead skin cells.

A close up showing sebum buildup on the scalp

Under normal conditions, the skin sheds these dead skin cells efficiently in a process called skin cell turnover. However, different factors can impact our skin’s ability to accomplish this.

When the skin doesn’t slough these cells off quick enough, they can hang around on the scalp. When sebum is secreted, the dead skin cells can absorb it and create a waxy paste.

This is essentially what your scalp buildup is.

Key Takeaway: White scalp build up is caused by inefficient skin turnover. Sebum and dead skin cells mix together to create buildup.

Why Do I Have White Buildup on My Scalp?

There are a few factors that influence the why behind scalp buildup. Ultimately, it comes down to a dysfunctional skin barrier (1).

On the skin, which includes the scalp, there is a lipid barrier that protects the skin from microbial invaders and preserves water content.

Microbial invasion stimulates inflammation, which is problematic. (More on this later.)

But, the water loss that results from an impaired barrier is what causes dead skin cells to build up on your scalp.

The water content in the layers of the skin is absolutely essential to proper skin cell turnover. It activates the enzymes that are responsible for stimulating the removal of dead skin cells (2).

So, when barrier function is impaired, these enzymes shut down. As a result, the dead skin cells can’t properly slough off.

This can be caused by two main factors when it comes to the scalp: the presence of Malassezia yeast and the use of products that damage the skin barrier.

Malassezia is a type of yeast that is believed to be responsible for the development of dandruff (3). This yeast species consumes the sebum on the scalp and release oleic acid as a byproduct.

Oleic acid is a fatty acid that damages barrier function. Researchers believe a sensitivity to oleic acid or other toxins released by Malassezia yeast is what causes dandruff, as opposed to the presence of the yeast alone (4).

By damaging the skin barrier in susceptible hosts, Malassezia yeast could be the causative factor in scalp buildup for some.

Product use could also play a role.

The skin exists at an acidic pH (5). When this pH is raised to an alkaline pH, it also impairs skin barrier function.

This is why products like bar soaps and Castile soaps should never be used in place of shampoo. This can raise the pH of the scalp to alkaline, leading to skin buildup and possible downstream issues.

Harsh sulfates in haircare products should also be avoided. These can strip the scalp of the sebum needed for the protective lipid barrier. Too much sebum can cause issues, but so can too little.

In some cases, a combination of these factors might be contributing to your scalp buildup.

Key Takeaways:

  • The main factor in scalp buildup is a dysfunctional skin barrier.
  • There are two main things that can influence an impaired barrier on the scalp: Malassezia yeast and improper product use.
  • Malassezia yeast consume sebum and secrete oleic acid as a byproduct. This fatty acid disrupts skin barrier function.
  • Improper product use like bar or castile soap as shampoo or using shampoos with harsh sulfates can strip the sebum needed to preserve barrier function.
  • A combination of these factors could contribute to scalp buildup.

Sebum Buildup On Scalp: How It Relates

Sebum is food for Malassezia yeast. Too much sebum production and an imbalanced sebum composition could be the plausible factor in dandruff and the scalp buildup that accompanies it (4).

The research on how sebum levels influence Malassezia activity is confounding. In the body of research, dandruff is observed even when sebum production is normal. Moreover, excess sebum production doesn’t always result in dandruff.

This indicates to us that sensitivity to Malassezia byproducts could be a possible cause of dandruff.

Researchers have also hypothesized that it could be sebum composition. Patients with dandruff often have higher levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in their sebum. On the other hand, people without dandruff have higher levels of squalene and free fatty acids.

So, the key to understanding scalp buildup for some may not just be rooted in Malassezia yeast. It could also be sebum production and, more likely, sebum composition.

Key Takeaways:

  • Research on the effect of excess sebum production on Malassezia and dandruff is confounding. Malassezia is present even with normal sebum production and those with excess sebum production don’t always have dandruff.
  • Sebum composition is a more likely factor in dandruff. Patients with dandruff have higher levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in their sebum whereas normal subjects have higher levels of squalane and free fatty acids.

White Stuff On Scalp and Hair Loss: Are They Related?

There are many different studies that have specifically connected dandruff to hair loss.

In one study of males and females suffering from androgenetic alopecia (AGA; pattern hair loss), more than half (112/206) of the patients also suffered from dandruff (6).

A similar study of Korean outpatients mirrored these results, finding that dandruff was the most common disease associated with AGA (7).

Another study demonstrated a connection between dandruff and the development of folliculitis, an inflammation of the hair follicle (8). It is well-known that long-term inflammation can lead to tissue damage, which requires the formation of scar tissue to repair. This is the main cause of scarring alopecia, an irreversible form of hair loss.

An example of a healthy hair follicle and a clogged hair follicle
An example of a healthy hair follicle and a clogged hair follicle.

Researchers in this study hypothesized that dandruff is connected to the development of scarring alopecia via folliculitis.

Moreover, a review on dandruff suggests it precipitates telogen effluvium (TE) (9). TE is a form of hair loss where multiple hairs transition from the growing to the resting phase at once, mimicking hair loss.

Scalp dandruff has also been connected to diminished hair diameter, leading to thinner looking hair (10).

Considering dandruff signals an unhealthy scalp, it’s not surprising that it is connected to various hair issues. The scalp acts as an incubator for growing hair. A healthy scalp creates the environment needed for healthy hair to grow.

However, there is one observation that suggests dandruff doesn’t tell the full story.

In patients with dandruff, researchers have connected dandruff to decreased levels of P. acnes bacteria (4). Surprisingly, AGA patients often have elevated levels of P. acnes (11).

Since P. acnes may help regulate Malassezia, this finding indicates that Malassezia-associated dandruff might not always be connected with AGA.

Key Takeaways:

  • Dandruff is associated with different forms of hair loss in many different studies.
  • Dandruff is also connected to diminished hair quality.
  • The Malassezia yeast that are implicated in dandruff may be regulated by P. acnes. This is supported by the low levels of P. acnes often found in dandruff patient’s scalps.
  • In AGA patients, there is often elevated levels of P. acnes, suggesting Malassezia-associated dandruff might not be connected in all cases of AGA.

How to Remove Scalp Buildup

There has to be a systematic approach to removing scalp buildup.

While removing the buildup is relatively easy, preventing it from reoccurring is more complex.

You have to try and identify what your specific root cause is. For some, this can be dandruff potentially caused by Malassezia yeast. For others, it’s a dysfunctional skin barrier.

Below, I’ll discuss the steps you can take to remove and possibly prevent scalp buildup.

First Things First, Remove the Buildup

Removing the buildup is relatively easy.

Using a mild, pH-balanced cleansing agent paired with an exfoliant is a great way to gently remove buildup.

Salicylic acid is the perfect option for this because it is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) (12). BHAs are lipophilic, meaning it can effectively dissolve sebum along with dead skin cells.

The chemical structure of salicylic acid

Salicylic acid products are sold in various concentrations, ranging from 0.5% to 2%. Higher concentrations can be obtained but shouldn’t be used on the scalp.

The best way to utilize salicylic acid for scalp buildup is in a shampoo.

Physical exfoliants or scrubs can also remove dead skin cells. However, too harsh of a scrub could also potentially damage the skin.

Key Takeaways:

  • Salicylic acid is a great option because it is a lipophilic BHA, meaning it dissolves oils. As an exfoliant, it removes dead skin cells. It’s best utilized for scalp buildup in a shampoo.
  • Physical exfoliants or scrubs can also be used. However, too harsh of a scrub could also potentially damage skin.

Find the Root Cause

The root cause of why you have scalp buildup in the first place needs to be addressed. Proper diagnosis will help you treat the issue, preventing buildup from reoccurring.

But, since most scalp buildup looks the same, you may need to see a doctor for accurate insight. They will be able to tell you whether or not your condition is caused by an excess of Malassezia yeast. If not, it could just be an issue of impaired barrier function.

Key Takeaway: You might need a doctor to figure out whether your scalp buildup is yeast related or just a result of impaired barrier function.

If It’s Dandruff: Treat the Yeast and Sebum

Dandruff is a complex interaction of Malassezia yeast and altered sebum composition.

By addressing these two factors, you may be able to get rid of the dandruff-related build up on your scalp.

As of right now, the gold standard of dandruff treatment is anti-fungal agents used to kill Malassezia. Zinc pyrithione shampoos are easily accessible. Ketoconazole shampoos are also commonly prescribed, however, they have to be obtained via a prescription.

Tea tree oil is a natural essential oil derived from the tea tree plant also possesses anti-fungal properties (13). Tea tree oil shampoos are often used to treat dandruff.

Altering sebum composition is a little bit more difficult. Some studies suggest altering dietary carbohydrate intake could benefit sebum composition (14).

Other studies suggest consuming long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids like DHA and EPA may also modulate sebum composition (15).

Additionally, topically applied fatty acids like linoleic acid have been shown to penetrate the skin and accumulate around the sebaceous gland. This suggests that topically applied oils might also impact sebum in some way.

However, the science isn’t too clear on this.

Key Takeaways:

  • Anti-fungal agents are the gold standard for dandruff treatment. They help keep Malassezia yeast at bay.
  • Zinc pyrithione is an accessible OTC anti-fungal. Ketoconazole is often used as well, however, it has to be obtained via prescription.
  • Tea tree oil is a natural essential oil with anti-fungal properties.
  • Modulating sebum composition may also benefit dandruff. The science suggests lower carbohydrate intake, DHA and EPA, and topically applied oils may impact sebum composition favorably.

If It’s Impaired Barrier Function: Repair the Scalp

An impaired barrier function can easily be repaired with topical oils (16).

Linoleic acid is the predominant fatty acid in the skin. It helps to keep water in the skin, which prevents dead skin from building up.

Applying linoleic acid rich oils has been shown to repair the skin barrier. Some oils with proven barrier-promoting properties are sunflower seed oil, coconut oil, argan oil, borage oil, and jojoba oil.

Coconut oil scooped onto a spoon

Using these on the scalp on a consistent basis could help to prevent white buildup on the scalp.

Keep in mind, though, that Malassezia yeast feed off fatty acids. It’s important to rule out that factor before introducing oils regularly.

You’ll also need to remove any alkaline or oil-stripping products that could be impacting barrier function.

Key Takeaways:

  • Linoleic acid is a predominant fatty acid in the skin that prevents water from leaking out. This promotes healthy skin cell turnover.
  • Applying linoleic acid rich oils helps repair the skin barrier.
  • Using these on the scalp on a consistent basis could help to prevent white buildup on the scalp.
  • Removing alkaline or oil-stripping products is also paramount.

Scalp Cleansing Home Remedies: A Word of Caution

Creating a scalp cleansing home remedy is quite difficult. Hair cleansing products are carefully formulated to stabilize pH levels and cater to the delicate acid-alkaline balance of the scalp and hair shaft.

So, it’s best not to use home remedies to remove your scalp buildup, ensuring you don’t do any extra damage.

Key Takeaway: Hair cleansing products are carefully formulated with pH levels in mind. It’s best not to use home remedies to remove your scalp buildup, ensuring you don’t do any extra damage.

Treat Your White Scalp Buildup By Understanding the Root Cause

White buildup on the scalp comes down to one thing: a faulty skin barrier.

But, there are other factors, like improper product use and Malassezia-associated dandruff.

Interestingly, some cases of scalp build up can be connected to hair loss. This connection indicates the need for proper identification and treatment to possibly prevent associated hair loss.

Treating the root cause of your scalp buildup will help to foster a healthy scalp environment for hair to flourish.

Have you experienced white scalp buildup? Have you found it has been linked to your hair shedding? Let me know in the comments.

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