Scalp Buildup: What is it and how to fix it

Have you noticed that your hair is starting to look and feel different? Dry, dull, lifeless, lack of volume, frizzy and impossible to style? This is most likely caused by build-up. Build-up comes from products sitting on your scalp and accumulating over time—usually from ingredients such as silicone (Dimethicone and Cyclomethicone), mineral oils, polyquats, polymers and others in styling products like aerosol dry shampoo, hairspray, mousse, serums, waxes, and more.

Products that cause build-up

Products that contain higher concentrations of certain types of silicones, in particular insoluble silicones (silicones that do not dissolve in water - typically have the suffix “o n e”. 

These products use a higher concentration of silicones in order to deliver on those famous promises of “healthier looking hair”. In order to counter the stripping effects of the harsher surfactants (cleansing agents) used in these products, silicones that coat the cuticle are added to the formula - basically filling in gaps in the cuticle layer and creating a smoother more “even” surface on porous hair. This artificially smoothed out surface is what gives the hair the shine these products advertise. 

If these products fill in the pot holes and create shine, can they really be that bad? 

Oh, yeah! 

Because of 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. 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!

Water can cause build-up too

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 by over washing, chemical processing and using harsh surfactants, these positive ions bond to the negative ions of our stripped hair. Chlorine is used to treat our water and it bonds to the copper which is absorbed by our hair. It then oxidizes and turns the hair a green/yellow colour. If the hair is in poor condition or chemically altered, the potential for build up & colour shift can be worse since the hair has a greater negative charge, making it easier to attract those positively charged mineral ions. 

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.

Build up can occur naturally, through our tap water! If you have hard water, or very chlorinated water, or enjoy a swim in a chlorinated pool, minerals can be responsible for buildup and tonal shifting in your colour. 

What does product build up look like? 

Product build-up in the hair can look like blobs, white film, or chunky flakes that stick to the strands of hair. To test this for yourself, part your hair and rub your fingers along the parted hair, not too harshly though. The buildup will accumulate under your fingernails and will have a scaly, white film. Clogged hair follicles after time will lead to scalp irritation such as itching, scaling, inflammation and in worst case scenarios infection. Clogged hair follicles can also result in hair loss overtime.

What can you do to prevent build-up?

Following a periodic clarifying regime with 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 up-taking, or lifting properly.

To find out more about the difference between a “daily” and clarifying shampoo from our experts click here.

Written by Sarah Byer, co-owner & Senior Stylist at InGoodCo. Toronto & Amy Hamilton

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