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Got Grease? Your Oily Scalp May Be Due To Stress, Say Dermatologists

May 11, 2020

We've said it time and time again: Just as you're familiar with the skin on your face (be it dry, oily, or inflamed), you should be just as vigilant when it comes to your scalp. Some scalps naturally produce more oil, some are drier, some are more prone to flakes, and there are different treatments to target each. But as we approach another week of quarantine, a common query keeps popping up: People are experiencing greasier roots right now, and it seemingly spares no scalp type. What gives? 

Well, it turns out the answer may be internal: Stress can underlie just about every health concern under the sun—from digestive issues to tension headaches to breakouts. And as we're living in quite the anxiety-ridden time, there seems to be no shortage of stress to go around. According to derms, that stress may be the reason your locks are looking a little greasy of late. Here's why:

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Stress increases oil production. 

By now, we're pretty familiar with the stress-skin connection. Take it from board-certified dermatologist Keira Barr, M.D.: "Our skin is both an immediate stress perceiver as well as a target of the stress responses," she's told us about stress-related acne. "This is why the presence of acne not only contributes to a feeling of stress, but acne is more common in those who experience a higher intensity of stress from life events."

With stress comes a wave of cortisol into the bloodstream—and too much cortisol can activate sebocytes, the cells that produce sebum. While sebum is necessary for keeping our skin and hair moisturized, too much of the yellowy liquid can become an issue: An influx of sebum can cause excess oil to trap bacteria and dead skin cells in our pores, causing sebum plugs (the precursor to blackheads) and acne. 

And because we have sebaceous glands (aka, pores) everywhere on our bodies, this overactive oil production can happen virtually anywhere—whether that means breakouts on some uncommon areas or a greasier-than-normal mane. 

Board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, M.D., agrees: "The oil follicles on the scalp are controlled in similar ways to the oil follicles on our face and other areas like the neck, chest, and upper back," she tells mbg. "So, factors like stress that may increase oil production on our face may also increase oil production on our scalp." 

What can you do?

OK, we know the last thing someone who's stressed wants to hear is, "Don't stress!" But the better you can manage your anxiety, the less your cortisol will spike, the less extra sebum you'll produce, and so on. And reducing your stress levels can do so much more than leave you with thick hair with just the right amount of gloss: Your skin, sleep, and immune systems can all benefit from finding your Zen. Find what works for you, be it meditation, a new supplement regimen, or a favorite running route, or check out what the CDC recommends for reducing stress and anxiety during the pandemic.

To target the grease you already have, you might have to wash your hair more, depending on your shampoo type, hair texture, and activity level. You may also throw a scalp scrub into the mix weekly or biweekly to lift up any excess oil, bacteria, and debris (check out our favorites here). 

And of course, you don't have to do anything at all if it doesn't bother you. In fact, if you don't necessarily mind the grease, why not own it? Slide a hot oil treatment through your hair and call it a day. Perhaps a chic, slicked-back look will be all the rage these quarantine days.

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