Sebum is a natural substance secreted by the sebaceous glands and present on the hair and skin.
However, a buildup of sebum which can occur over time may lead to follicle blockage and possibly even hair loss.
This can get even worse when the fatty substance combines with other debris – including dead skin cells, sweat, and natural waste – to form a sebum plug.
The plug can do more than just prevent hair from growing, though. It can also trap harmful substances, including DHT, against the scalp and lead to irritation and inflammation.
As such, it’s essential that you take the time to reduce the risk of a blocked scalp and treat it if it occurs.
Only then can you ensure the health of your scalp and hair follicles, which can be seriously harmed if the clogging is allowed to remain.
In this article you’ll learn what happens when a clogged, or blocked, scalp occurs. You’ll then discover the type of harm a blocked scalp can cause, and how it can impact hair growth.
Finally, you’ll learn the best ways to cleanse the scalp and hair follicles of sebum blockages, as well as what you can do to prevent the recurrence of clogging.
What Causes Blockages?
Hair follicles are microscopic organs embedded in the skin and found throughout the body (except on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet). As their name suggests, their role is to produce hair.
On either side of the follicles are sebaceous glands – organs that produce an oily substance (sebum) that’s released into the hair follicle which is then passed to the hair strands and skin (1).
Sebum is a complex mixture of lipids that all mammals produce. However, the composition varies from species to species.
In humans, sebum consists of “squalene, esters of glycerol, wax and cholesterol, as well as free cholesterol and fatty acids (2).”
But, due to the sebaceous gland’s close proximity to the follicles, an excess production of sebum can quickly lead to a build-up. The build-up may eventually form into a ball, or ‘plug’, and block the follicle entirely.
Sebum can build up over time, and it may also combine with other debris, such as dirt and hair products, to make the blockage worse.
The follicle isn’t the only organ that can become blocked from excess sebum, though. The sebaceous glands can suffer blockages, too.
When the sebaceous glands produce too much sebum, there isn’t enough time for the sebum to disperse on the skin and hair. The gland can then become backed up, which can result in sebaceous hyperplasia.
This condition occurs when the sebaceous glands become enlarged, which can put pressure on the hair follicle and cause another set of problems that will be discussed later.
The Effects of Blockages on the Hair
When the follicles become blocked by sebum build-up, a condition known as folliculitis occurs (3). This literally translates to ‘inflammation of the follicle’ and it can lead to a slow- down (or halt) in hair growth and eventual follicle death if left untreated.
The follicle death associated with this process is due to follicle miniaturization, a process that occurs slowly over time.
In short, outside factors such as inflammation or sebum build up put pressure on the follicle. There is then less room for the hair shaft to grow, which causes it to become stunted.
Over time, the hair strand will be unable to reach the scalp and baldness will occur.
But for individuals with Androgenetic Alopecia (AGA), this process can be sped up by the presence of di-hydrotestosterone (DHT) (4).
AGA is the most common cause of hair loss, and it occurs in both men and women. It’s often referred to as pattern hair loss due to the telltale M-shaped hairline seen in men and the vertex balding seen in women.
Those with AGA are sensitive to the androgen hormone DHT, which is present at the follicular level.
When sebum build-up occurs and the follicles become blocked, this worsens the impact of DHT. This is because DHT becomes trapped in the follicle, which then aggravates the inflammation.
Miniaturization of the follicle can also cause increased sebum production because the size of the sebaceous gland grows larger as the follicle becomes smaller (5, 6).
This cycle will continue if left unchecked, which can have long-term consequences for your scalp and hair.
Can Clogged and Blocked Hair Follicles Lead to Hair Loss?
Hair loss, or alopecia, is a general term that refers to the loss of hair whether by injury, illness, genetics, or other factors. There are many types and many causes of alopecia.
One possible cause for hair loss, though, is clogged and blocked hair follicles.
Let’s take a look at a few scientific studies that explore this phenomena and related ones.
Study #1: Canada, the United States, and Israel (2017)
While there may be other contributing factors, the main reason clogged hair follicles leads to hair loss is follicle miniaturization. This process occurs in response to the inflammation triggered by the sebum blockage.
Inflammation is an immune response – either acute or chronic – to an injury, illness, or foreign invader such as a virus or bacterium. In the case of sebum overproduction, the cause would be an ‘injury’ to the follicle.
The inflamed follicle may then stop producing hair depending on if the blockage is partial or whole.
This fact is supported by a 2017 research review on the topic of hair loss in relation to heredity, aging, and environmental factors (7).
As stated by the researchers,
“[t]he ideal environment required for a healthy growth of hair still has to be identified, yet changes in the environment surrounding the follicle like sebum excretion, debris, and chronic inflammation could significantly impact the growth and health of hair.”
Study #2: The United States (2013)
The idea that sebum overproduction contributes to inflammation is not new. In fact, a previous study was published in 2013 that highlighted this fact quite clearly (8).
Acne is a common phenomenon, especially among adolescents and young adults. However, it can persist into adulthood depending on many factors.
One such factor is the amount of sebum that the sebaceous glands produce.
According to the 2013 study, “[a] combination of increased sebum production and abnormal hyperproliferation of keratinocytes results in the formation of a small microscopic lesion called a microcomedo.” As sebum continues to build, this leads to the formation of comedones, or pimples (9).
And while this isn’t exactly a hair issue, this study does shed additional light on the role that sebum plays in inflammation.
Study #3: The United States (2015)
Even more than acne, an imbalance of sebum can contribute to the development of various inflammatory skin disorders.
These conditions include acne vulgaris, atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, and seborrheic dermatitis.
In 2015, researchers performed a review on scientific papers relating to sebaceous glands and their relation to inflammatory dermatoses (10).
As the researchers point out, sebaceous glands play an important role in hair and skin health. The sebum they produce contributes to the skin’s surface lipid film and, as researchers surmised, interruptions of this film lead to hypersensitivity and susceptibility to the disorders mentioned above.
But what does this have to do with hair?
Conditions such as psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis cause inflammation. When they’re present on the scalp the inflammation contributes to follicle miniaturization. This will cause increased shedding and baldness if left untreated.
When the usual production of sebum is interrupted – as it may be in the presence of clogged follicles – it can cause issues within the gland, in the follicles, and on the hair and scalp.
As succinctly summarized by the research team:
“[s]ebaceous glands contribute lipids to a normally functional skin barrier. Their dysfunction leads to an abnormal skin hydrolipid film and abnormal function of the skin barrier.”
How Can You Tell If Your Follicles are Blocked?
If you’re struggling with seemingly unexplained hair thinning and loss, you may be wondering if a blocked and clogged scalp is the cause.
Do keep in mind that severity of the blockage can largely determine the signs and symptoms.
The less severe blockages that have not developed into full-blown folliculitis will commonly just be accompanied by itching and irritation.
You may also notice, upon scratching your scalp, the removal of small, white balls. These are sebum plugs and are indicative of overactive sebaceous glands.
Folliculitis is the sign of a more severe blockage. Its most common symptom is the formation of small, yellowish-white pustules (11). You may also notice redness and inflammation around the blockage, and the presence of pus isn’t uncommon.
A few other signs that may tip you off to a problem include acne around the hairline, clumped hair strands, yellowish or white skin flakes, and small bumps without a whitehead.
The last symptom is known as sebaceous hyperplasia, and it’s a condition by itself.
This disorder causes bumps, that, while technically harmless, can cause further blockage of the hair follicles. As such, it’s in your best interest to have them removed by a medical professional.
Can Clogging and Blockages Be Treated and Prevented?
With a greater understanding of the impact that clogged hair follicles can have on hair growth, you may be wondering whether this problem can be remedied.
Sebum is the major culprit in follicle blockage. However, there are other factors that can play a role.
Fortunately, it’s possible to handle these factors individually and both treat and prevent clogging and blockages of the hair follicles.
6 Tips for Getting Rid of Clogged and Blocked Follicles
Let’s look at a few simple lifestyle changes you can make to remove sebum plugs from the hair follicles and ensure that they don’t return.
1. Wash Your Hair Less Frequently
It may seem counterintuitive to wash your hair less frequently if you want to decrease sebum production and remove blockages, but it actually makes a lot of sense.
The sebaceous glands produce varying amounts of sebum depending on various factors which have yet to be fully understood (2). But one thing is for certain, and that’s washing your hair too often causes the skin to dry out, which then leads to more sebum being produced.
This becomes a vicious cycle and, before you know it, you’re having to wash your hair once or twice per day to prevent oiliness.
You can work to correct this imbalance by washing your hair less and using natural shampoos when you do.
2. Use Natural Shampoos
Over-the-counter shampoos contain waxes and emulsifiers, among other ingredients, which can make clogging of the follicles worse. This is why all-natural shampoos containing moisturizing carrier oils and cleansing essential oils are best.
All-natural shampoos are those that don’t contain preservatives or surfactants. These ingredients are beneficial to the shelf-life of the product, but they can cause overdrying of the scalp or even contact dermatitis.
3. Take Colder Showers
That’s not to say that you should take cold showers, but too often hot showers are the cause of excess sebum production. And here’s why:
Hot water opens the pores and allows for an excess outflow of sebum, bacteria, and other molecules. This can be beneficial in the short-term, as it helps to remove blockages from the area.
However, this will eventually lead to a continuous excess production of sebum as the skin is stripped of its natural oils and sebum is needed to replace it.
But cold water, too, can have its problems. For example, it constricts the pores in such a way that no sebum or bacteria is able to exit and further clogging takes place.
The answer, then, is lukewarm water.
Lukewarm water will ensure that your pores remain open so that blockages don’t occur as a result. It also keeps the sebum production at a healthy rate, as the natural oils won’t need to be replenished as a result of the temperature.
4. Treat Underlying Skin Conditions
Overactive sebaceous glands can be a natural occurrence, but they can also indicate an underlying skin condition.
In cases where sebum isn’t the only cause of the blockage, you may also be dealing with excessive skin cell production (such as psoriasis) or a fungal infection (such as dandruff).
As you can imagine, these conditions can make it difficult, if not impossible, to treat and prevent follicle blockage in the future.
This is why you must address any underlying conditions.
The first step is to get a diagnosis. You may be able to self-diagnose, but a dermatologist can also help to pinpoint the more complex issues.
You can then treat the problem accordingly and get an upper hand in the fight against sebum blockages.
5. Reduce Sebum Production through Diet Change
Diet isn’t often the only cause of hyperactive sebaceous glands, but the hard truth is that it does play a significant role (14).
This is true when it comes to the development of acne vulgaris, and it makes sense that this would also be true for the hair follicle’s glands (15).
So, what can you do?
The most likely culprits – especially in the Western world – are high fat and high-glycemic foods. These include:
- Red meat
- Oils and butter
- White foods (potatoes, rice, bread)
- Sugary foods (candy, cakes)
- Carbonated beverages
You should aim to reduce your intake of saturated fats and increase your consumption of unsaturated fats and low-glycemic foods. These include vegetable oils, fish such as salmon and sardines, nuts including almonds and walnuts, and whole grains.
If you’re still not convinced on the link between diet and sebum, consider this conclusion reached by researchers:
“Influence of diet on severity of acne vulgaris still requires a lot of research but it should be no longer a dermatologic dogma to state that any association between diet and acne is a myth.”
6. Add Other Ingredients to Your Hair Care Routine
Aside from the ingredients in your shampoos, you can also add ingredients proven to treat scalp irritation and inflammation to your hair care routine.
While a popular beverage, green tea has found a place for itself in the health and cosmetics industries. This is due to its high polyphenol content, as well as its proven abilities as an anti-cancer and anti-aging substance (16, 17).
However, green tea is also quite popular in the cosmetics industry for its ability to reduce sebum production.
Study: Pakistan (2010)
One study to touch on this topic used a three percent green tea emulsion on ten male volunteers over an eight-week period (18).
Skin sebum production was measured throughout the study.
By the end of the eight weeks, it was shown that the reduction in sebum production was statistically significant.
The researchers concluded that the green tea formulation was “ideal in all aspects and can be experienced in skin disorders like acne to further investigate its effects in unhealthy volunteers.”
Study: The United States (2016)
To better understand the effects that polyphenols – a component found in large amounts in green tea – have on sebum production, researchers performed a review study (19).
This review considered the results of eight studies.
Two of the studies evaluated tea polyphenol effects on sebum production, while six of them examined tea polyphenol effects on acne vulgaris.
In addition, seven of the eight studies evaluated topical tea polyphenols, and one study examined systemic (i.e. internal) tea polyphenols.
While none of the studies fit the exact criteria that researchers were hoping for, they did conclude:
“there is some evidence that tea polyphenols used orally and topically may be beneficial for skin health and more specifically, for reducing sebum production by the sebaceous glands and for the prevention and treatment of acne vulgaris.”
Perhaps even more importantly, the review showed that tea polyphenols work to reduce sebum production…
“via several mechanisms, including acting as anti-microbial, anti-lipogenic, [and] anti-inflammatory molecules.”
Niacin, also known as vitamin B3 and nicotinic acid, is an essential human nutrient that is found in a variety of food sources (20).
It plays a significant role in the body’s metabolic processes and, as such, a deficiency can be devastating to your health (21).
However, niacin supplementation does more than just ensures a healthy metabolism. A few studies have recently indicated that it may also play a role in treating hair loss.
Study: The United States (2006)
One of the most compelling studies on the use of niacinamide and its effects on sebum production was published in 2006 (22).
A total of 130 volunteers participated in the study, including 100 subjects of Japanese descent and 30 subjects of Caucasian ancestry.
Fifty of the Japanese subjects applied a 2% niacinamide moisturizer to the face for four weeks, while the remaining 50 applied a placebo moisturizer.
The 30 Caucasian participants were similarly randomized, with half applying the 2% niacinamide moisturizer and the other half applying the placebo moisturizer. However, they participated for six weeks.
Sebum Excretion Rate (SER) measurements were taken at baseline, week two, and week four for the group of Japanese subjects, while SER and Casual Sebum Levels (CSL) were measured at baseline, week three, and week six for Caucasian subjects.
The Japanese participants who applied the 2% niacinamide moisturizer “demonstrated significantly lowered SER after 2 and 4 weeks of application.”
The results for the Caucasian cohort were slightly different with CSL being significantly reduced but not much change in SER.
While these results aren’t conclusive, they do provide a basis for the belief that niacinamide may be helpful in controlling sebum production.
Spironolactone is an oral medication often used to treat high blood pressure and heart failure. However, like many other FDA-approved drugs, spironolactone has a few off-brand applications. One example is its use in the treatment of acne and excessive sebum production.
Study: The United States (1984)
One of the first studies to bring attention to spironolactone’s use in reducing sebum excretion was published in 1984 (23).
The study consisted of 36 male and female patients over a three-month period.
The subjects were split into two groups – one took 50-200 mg daily of spironolactone while the other group took a placebo.
The results showed that the drug reduced sebum excretion in all female subjects, and maximum benefit was observed when 150-200 mg was used.
While the study doesn’t go into extensive detail on the drug’s effects on sebum production in men, further studies have shown spironolactone to be quite effective in women. One such study was published in 2012 with similar positive results as highlighted above (24).
Do keep in mind that spironolactone is for more severe cases of acne, and it therefore may not be suitable for your needs. However, it’s something to speak with your dermatologist about if clogged follicles are a continuous problem.
There are many ‘traditional’ causes of hair loss, including AGA and Alopecia Areata (AA). However, there are some nontraditional causes that you must be sure to look out for, too.
These include a clogged and blocked scalp, which is often due to the buildup of sebum and other debris within the hair follicles.
If left untreated, the blockage can have devastating effects on your hair’s health and the hair growth process itself.
Fortunately, it’s possible to alleviate the problem and even prevent it from occurring.
And best of all, many of these fixes are easy and all-natural.
By making some simple changes to your lifestyle – including hygiene, hair care routine, and diet – you can see a beneficial change in the health and quality of your scalp and hair.
This will then make it possible to regrow any hair that you’ve lost, or prevent hair thinning from occurring in the future.