Scalp buildup happens when an oily secretion called sebum accumulates on the scalp alongside sweat, hair products, and dead skin cells. It can create symptoms similar to those of seborrheic dermatitis, scalp psoriasis, and eczema, each of which causes white flakes to appear in the hair and scalp. There are a couple of main causes of build-up.
Products sit on your scalp and accumulate over time—usually from ingredients in styling products like aerosol dry shampoo, hairspray or mousse.
Products that contain higher concentrations of insoluble silicones (silicones that do not dissolve in water like Dimethicone or Cyclomethicone) can build up quicker.
Silicones are commonly used in hair care to deliver on the promise of “healthier looking hair”. They counter the stripping effect of the harsher surfactants (cleansing agents) used in shampoos by coating the cuticle and filling in gaps in the cuticle. They create a smoother, more “even” surface on porous hair. This artificially smoothed hair strand is what gives the hair the shine that these products advertise.
So, if these products fill in the pot holes and create shine, can they really be that bad?
Yes, due to the size and nature of the silicone molecules, they are not absorbed or used by the hair (don’t worry, you wouldn’t want them to be anyway!), meaning they add no actual value, just a short term masking of the damage the harsh surfactants are doing to your hair. Your hair may feel smoother and softer now, but after prolonged use, these big molecules are actually dehydrating your strands by locking out moisture and nutrients - not to mention building up on the cuticle, and in some cases, making it harder for your colourist to achieve your hair goals!
Minerals in tap water can also create a buildup on the hair. Copper, Iron, and Calcium all have a positive charge. When the hair’s lipid layer is stripped or damaged by over washing, chemical processing, or harsh surfactants, these positive ions bond to the negative ions in your damaged hair. Chlorine is used to treat water, which bonds to the copper that is absorbed by the hair. Together, the two minerals oxidize and turn the hair green/yellow. If the hair is in poor condition or chemically altered, the potential for build up & colour shifting can be even worse.
5 Signs You Have Build Up:
1. Itchy scalp
Build up on the scalp can lead to inflammation causing the scalp to be itchy and irritated.
2. White flakes in the hair
Eventually you will start to see white flakes on your scalp and hair from the build up shedding off.
3. Your hair looks dull
Build up will leave a film on the hair causing it to look dull and lifeless.
4. Your hair lacks volume
Products and minerals that build up can weigh down the hair causing it to lack volume and body.
5. Your hair doesn't hold a curl
Products and minerals that build up on the hair shaft weighing the hair down make it hard for the hair to hold curl.
How to prevent build up:
Avoid ingredients that are not water soluble.
Not all silicones are created equal. Silicones with a higher molecular weight, like dimethicone, which is also insoluble, should be avoided - especially in higher concentrations (the closer to the top of the list of ingredients, the more of it there is!). Soluble silicones that won’t build up on the hair include the “Copolyol” silicones, and other silicones that have a “PEG” prefix.
Exfoliate the scalp:
Exfoliating your scalp can remove oil, dead skin cells, product buildup, while increasing circulation, and stimulating hair growth. Perform regular scalp massages using the pads of your fingers, in firm circular motions, every time you wash your hair. Using a natural bristle brush and brushing your hair from roots to ends before you wash can also loosen any buildup on your scalp, allowing the shampoo to do its job more effectively.
Install a water softener:
Build up can occur naturally, through our tap water! If you have hard water, or very chlorinated water, or enjoy a regular swim in a chlorinated pool, minerals can be responsible for buildup and tonal shifting in your colour. Add a water softener or filtration system to your shower, followed by a periodic clarifying regime.
Use a clarifying shampoo:
A clarifying shampoo can remove these layers of buildup, allowing moisture and nutrients to be absorbed by the hair before it becomes dehydrated and brittle. They can also be useful in removing that greenish cast on the hair that results from mineral build up. Clarifying shampoo should also be used prior to appointments with your colourist if you know your hair has buildup, in order to avoid issues with your colour uptaking, or lifting properly.
At the High End Hippie, we formulate all our shampoo and conditioner to address a variety of different scalp imbalances. Our Clarify shampoo performs the closest to a true clarifying shampoo, even though technically it's a daily shampoo. We use activated charcoal and kaolin clay to help detoxify, exfoliate and remove product build up from the hair and scalp. The Clarify shampoo can be used as a daily shampoo or as needed to help remove build up.
Written by Amy Hamilton & Sarah Byer, co-owner & Senior Stylist at InGoodCo. Toronto