beauty

‘Why Is My Scalp Suddenly Oily?’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

Dear Beauty Editor,

My scalp is oily like a day after I shampoo it. It didn’t use to be this way. What’s going on? 

Laura

You know that friend who has had too much therapy and is always offering up platitudes like “Change is the only constant in life”? I’m about to be that friend. You may not realize it, but your scalp, like your facial skin, is continuously adjusting to the weather, hormonal shifts, the products you use, and your cleansing habits. But you probably don’t examine your scalp anywhere near as closely as you do your face, so you don’t notice the changes until they’re significant — like your (seemingly) sudden oiliness. I spoke to a few experts to find out what may be going on.

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Why is my scalp oily?

There are several possible culprits here. Let’s run through them.

New products: I’m assuming you haven’t started using any new hair products recently because that would be an obvious reason for your issue. If you have, take them out of rotation for a month and see if anything changes. If your scalp becomes less oily, you have your answer.

Stress: Have you been more stressed than usual? “Stress increases our cortisol production, and that can directly increase oil production,” says board-certified dermatologist Caroline Robinson, M.D. “That would be my first theory.”

Hormones: If things have been fairly chill, the newfound greasiness could be due to a hormonal shift like the ones that come with puberty, gender transition, pregnancy, and menopause. Or you may have a genetic tendency toward oiliness that (sorry) you just haven’t noticed until now.

Frequency of washing: The last thing to think about is how often you typically shampoo. If your hair was gradually getting oilier over a few weeks or months and, without realizing it, you started shampooing more frequently in response, that might have contributed to the issue. “There’s a theory that if you wash too frequently, your sebaceous glands could compensate by producing more oil,” says Robinson. Dermatologists sometimes see that with patients who have oily skin and wash their face often or use drying ingredients. The follicles on your scalp are the same as the pores on your face, Robinson explains, and they have sebaceous glands that can kick into overdrive to make up for perceived dryness.

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How do I make my hair less oily?

To tackle your oil issue, you’ll have to experiment, but you can’t change more than one variable at a time or you won’t be able to pinpoint the fix. First up, change your shampooing frequency. If you have fine hair and tend to be oily or have a greasy scalp, “you need to shampoo every day or every other day — you should not go any longer than that,” says Jodi LoGerfo, a doctor of nursing and nurse practitioner certified in dermatology. If you have medium or textured hair, you likely won’t need to shampoo as often.

However, if you’re already washing every day, try switching to every other day. I know that seems counterintuitive, but it could help with the rebound oiliness described above. (Robinson says it’s okay to use a dry shampoo between washes to absorb excess oil — you just don’t want to get into the habit of using it multiple days in a row.) If changing your wash schedule doesn’t help, it’s time to move on to the next phase of testing: switching shampoos.

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What’s the best shampoo for oily hair?

If your hair is really oily even if you’re washing it every day, Robinson suggests using a shampoo containing salicylic acid or zinc pyrithione. “They’re technically the ingredients in dandruff shampoos, but they can help with excess oiliness,” she says. Some dandruff shampoos can be drying, but I like Neutrogena Scalp Therapy Anti-Dandruff Shampoo Daily Control (with 1.8 percent salicylic acid) because it doesn’t leave your ends parched — and it doesn’t smell like tar. Another good option is Biolage Scalp Sync Anti-Dandruff Shampoo, which has zinc pyrithione and glycolic acid, another ingredient that can help with grease. “Salicylic and glycolic acids are chemical exfoliants, and I would suggest you try those before anything like a scalp scrub,” Robinson says. “I personally don’t like the scrubs because that’s a form of physical exfoliation that could cause irritation.”

If a new shampoo doesn’t help, try a reset with a clarifying shampoo and then continue to use it every few washes to help prevent the buildup of oils and waxes from your conditioner or styling products (another possible reason your hair may be getting oilier faster). My current favorite is the Ouai Detox Shampoo; I also like Herbal Essences Clarifying Shampoo.

Once you have the oiliness under control, you can gradually work a non-medicated, non-clarifying shampoo back into your rotation. LoGerfo suggests her patients with oily hair look for shampoos that contain lauryl-sulfate-based cleansers, such as sodium lauryl sulfate, triethanolamine lauryl sulfate, or ammonium lauryl sulfate. “They work well in hard and soft water, generate a plush foam, and are easily rinseable,” she says. Klorane Oil Control Shampoo with Nettle and Paul Mitchell Tea Tree Special Shampoo are two of the best that I have been writing about and recommending for years. They both contain the types of cleansers LoGerfo recommends, and they won’t suck the life out of your strands like some oily-hair shampoos (looking at you, Prell!).

If you haven’t noticed any difference after a month, it may be worth heading to the dermatologist. It’s possible you have a medical issue that’s leading to excess oil production. For example, some patients who take spironolactone to help regulate acne or polycystic ovary syndrome notice that the medicine also makes their scalp less oily. “I would never put a patient on oral spironolactone just for an oily scalp,” says Robinson. “But if there were a medical need and they were taking it, a less oily scalp would be a nice benefit.”

Even if you don’t have an underlying medical condition, your dermatologist may suggest a supplement. Robinson says there’s some evidence that taking a zinc supplement may help to decrease sebum production. But talk to your dermatologist or doctor about that; you never want to start a new supplement — even if it seems as benign as a gummy vitamin — without talking to a doctor first.

Send your questions to AskABeautyEditor@nymag.com. (By emailing, you agree to the terms here.)

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‘Why Is My Scalp Suddenly So Oily?’