Most people that have done research into hair loss understand that the primary cause of male/female androgenic alopecia (AGA; pattern hair loss) is dihydrotestosterone (DHT). While this is true, many also fail to realize that there are many other factors beyond just DHT that can exacerbate hair loss ranging from inflammation to low blood flow, oxidative stress, and more.
While some of these factors may not directly cause hair loss like DHT does, they are very important to address for someone who is trying to overcome hair loss. There is one issue that is not discussed as commonly as some of the others in terms of its importance, and contribution to, hair loss, and that is scalp sebum imbalance.
In this article, we will be discussing what scalp sebum is, why it is important for hair health, how it relates to hair loss, and what you can do to ensure that it doesn’t worsen your hair loss.
What is scalp sebum?
Sebum is a natural oil that it produced by the aptly named sebaceous glands. Sebaceous glands are located throughout the entire body as they are attached to hair follicles.
Sebum is a yellowish and waxy substance that has several important functions for the body. Most notably, sebum helps retain moisture on the skin and hair and has antibacterial properties that make it important for helping the body fight infection.
Though sebum is generally recognized for its benefits for skin, we are going to be focusing on how it affects hair health.
How sebum affects hair health
Sebum is very important for regulating scalp and hair health, but it can also be detrimental when there is too little or too much being produced by the sebaceous glands.
When sebum levels are normal, it keeps the hair moisturized. It does so by creating an acidic mantle, that of which helps the cuticle (the outer protective layer of the hair) shut and seal in moisture. Think of the cuticle like shingles on a roof, when the cuticle is open (i.e. the shingles are raised) it allows moisture to escape, but when they are closed it locks moisture in.
Sebum is also important for scalp health. It helps balance the skins pH levels, keeping them around 5.5. But, when sebum is over or under produced it can change that pH level which can begin to lead to problems.
Let’s take a look at some of the issues that can arise when sebum levels are too high or too low and how those may lead to hair loss worsening.
How sebum levels affect hair loss
There are only two issues that occur when it comes to scalp sebum: it’s either over or under produced, both of which come with their own set of challenges.
Overproduction of sebum
Sebum overproduction is commonly associated with skin conditions such as oily skin and acne, but it can also negatively affect your hair.
Too much sebum on the scalp can lead to dandruff. This is because dandruff is commonly caused by a fungus called malassezia, and sebum is its food source. What happens is that when sebum is overproduced it provides a breeding ground for malassezia, and when malassezia feeds on sebum it produces oleic acid as a byproduct. Oleic acid can irritate the skin on the scalp, and when it does it can lead to an immune response that causes dandruff.
Dandruff is not directly linked to hair loss, but it can cause several issues that may exacerbate hair loss.
The first is scalp itchiness: a common side effect of dandruff. Scalp itchiness prompts the individual to scratch their scalp, which can cause damage to hair follicles (learn more about how itchiness and hair loss are connected here). Scratching can cause hair to fall out (temporarily) and worsen thinning that already exists.
Another problem that sebum overproduction can cause is clogged hair follicles. When there is too much sebum it doesn’t have anywhere to go and it can form what are called sebum “plugs” in the hair follicles. These plugs can cause inflammation (and inflammation is linked to hair loss), but worse is that the plugs can interrupt the hair growth cycle, specifically the anagen (growth) phase.
When hair follicles are clogged, the anagen phase may not be able to initiate as quickly, which would result in the hair follicles thinning over time. Although this is temporary, it is bad news for someone suffering from AGA because DHT essentially does the same thing (shortens the growth phase).
Underproduction of sebum
The underproduction of sebum is less common and less serious in terms of how it affects hair loss, but it can still negatively impact your hair.
When not enough sebum is produced, since the hair cannot retain moisture as effectively it will become dry and brittle. Dry hair breaks easily and is more susceptible to damage, and when hair is easily broken off thinning that is occurring from AGA may worsen.
Less sebum also means less moisture, meaning that the skin on the scalp can become dry. Dry skin tends to lead to itchiness, which, as we now know, can lead to hair thinning as a result of scratching.
Conclusion: how to keep sebum levels healthy
Now that we talked about why sebum is important for hair health, and especially for someone suffering from AGA, how do you normalize sebum levels on your scalp?
The primary thing that you need to do it adopt healthy showering habits. This means using a shampoo that is free of harsh chemicals and hair loss friendly. Some of the chemicals in traditional shampoos can seriously mess with sebum levels and scalp pH and, despite their claims, can worsen the sebum imbalance that you may be experiencing. Learn all about the importance of choosing the right shampoo here.
You also should not shower too frequently or infrequently. Showering too often can strip your hair of sebum, while not showering enough can cause build up, which both cause issues as we learned. Here you can learn about healthy showering habits for people with hair loss.
Lastly, implementing a healthy diet can also help reduce sebum overproduction and improve overall regulation.