What can I do to take care of my very oily hair and skin?

Originally Published: October 3, 2003
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Dear Alice,

Ever since high school, I've had very oily hair and skin, but it became worse in college. Now I'm in my mid-twenties and have to shampoo my hair about 10 times each day to get it clean. Then by evening it's already oily again. This isn't my scalp trying to moisturize itself after being over cleaned, because I've tried not washing it completely and it's even oilier the next day.

Are there any special shampoos or medications that help reduce oily skin? I've tried some facial products from my dermatologist, but they haven't reduced the oil production. This is an embarrassing problem and limits the overnight activities I can do, like camping or staying with friends.

My Hair Needs Help

Dear My Hair Needs Help,

Hair and skin oiliness depends on a number of factors; an oily substance known as sebum is a primary cause. Sebum is produced by sebaceous glands located at the base of each hair shaft in the skin, including the scalp. Male hormones called androgens manage the production of sebum. For people with oily hair and/or skin, sebaceous glands are working overtime and/or are in greater numbers, producing an excess of sebum.

Genetics, puberty, heat, and humidity also affect oil production. People who have fine, straight hair texture and/or an abundance of hair tend to have oilier hair than those with curlier locks and/or less hair.

Your current hair and skin care regimen is not only ineffective for you, but also an inconvenience; a waste of your time, money, and water; and, it interferes with your social life. Maybe you've not used these products long enough. They may take a while to work, or you may need the next level in treatment — even perhaps medication.

It's not clear from what you've written if you've spoken with your dermatologist about your oily hair and oily skin, or just about your oily skin. It also may be time for a second opinion. You could start with Health Services at Columbia, if you're a student here, or with your own primary care provider, who may be able to treat you, or who could probably refer you to a dermatologist. Besides looking at the condition of your scalp, hair, and facial skin, s/he can provide strategies and suggest/prescribe products, including new treatments, that could help you to manage the excess oil. Dermatologists sometimes have samples available that you can test for effectiveness at no cost to you.

In the meantime, here are suggestions that some people have found effective:

To take care of oily hair

  • Shampoo daily with a specially formulated cleanser for oily hair. Finding one that works for you will take time, with a trial and error approach.
  • Gently massage the scalp while shampooing hair and leave the lather on for at least five minutes before rinsing. Repeat right away if hair is particularly oily, and again later in the day, if necessary.
  • Skip the conditioner. Or, condition with an oil-free product; work a minimal amount into the hair tips only, not the roots; and, apply it only as needed.
  • Brush/comb hair briefly and infrequently. When working the brush or comb through the hair, avoid contact with the scalp. This helps prevent or limit the transfer of oil from the scalp to the hair.
  • If you have an oily scalp, use a shampoo that contains a detergent, such as ammonium or sodium lauryl sulfate. (Detergent ingredients are quite drying to skin and hair.)
  • Apply a mild astringent directly to the scalp for extra oil-fighting power.

To take care of oily skin

  • After waking and before going to bed, use a mild cleanser that is specially formulated for oily skin, or plain soap that contains no fragrances or dyes, and warm water to wash the face. For exceptionally oily skin, cleanse the face during the day, but avoid overdoing it, because it can be drying.
  • Skip the moisturizer on the oily parts of the face. For the normal or dryer areas, use an oil-free lotion.
  • Apply a mild astringent to dull the shine further.
  • Use water-based, oil-free cosmetics; choose powders rather than creams.
  • Gently pat your face with oil blotting papers, which are convenient in a pinch when you're out and about.

Stress and the use of oral contraceptives affect androgen levels in the body, which can lead to an increase in oil production. To minimize this effect, adopt some techniques to help manage stress, such as meditation, massage, acupuncture, and/or yoga. And, if you're using birth control pills, talk with your gynecologist or primary care provider about other kinds of pills or contraceptive options that may have less impact on the oilyness of your hair and/or skin.

Seeing a dermatologist and following her/his recommendations to the letter could help clear up your concerns. In the meantime, consider other things, such as taking advantage of what's on your social calendar.

Alice