How to Prevent and Manage Oily Hair

Woman washing her hair in a basin
George Doyle / George Doyle / Getty Images

Oily hair feels gross, looks gross, and can even smell gross. It also can cause acne at your hairline, tanking your self-esteem. You don't have to go around leaving oil slicks in your wake, however; you can take some steps to control it.

Why So Greasy?

The first step in dealing with your oily hair problem is understanding it. Sometimes, a greasy scalp is the result of a temporary hormonal problem that comes with puberty, thyroid complications, pregnancy, and even menopause (although the opposite is more often true as we age).

In these cases, the hormones coursing through your body are telling your scalp to produce too much sebum (the natural grease that nourishes your skin and hair). If the problem comes on suddenly, a chat with your doctor might be in order to check for underlying hormone concerns that can be treated medically. Sometimes, though, the excess sebum production is simply the way your body is.

The Oily Hair Cycle

Whatever the cause, your oily scalp is caught in a vicious cycle that some remedies actually make worse.

For example, you might think that frequent hair washing is the way to zap the oil. As logical as that approach might seem, you're probably making your hair greasier. Here's what happens: You wake up with a greasy scalp, so you wash your hair to remove the grease. In the process, you strip your hair of its natural sebum. Your body's response is to replace the natural oil that it's lost. Sometimes, that response goes overboard, and you find yourself feeling oily again by lunchtime.

So the next time you wash your hair, you use a product to dry out your scalp further, like a clarifying shampoo. Your body responds in a panic to rehydrate that lost moisture, and the oil is unleashed. You can't win chasing this greasy cycle.The truth is, the more you wash your hair, the more oil your scalp produces.

Break the Sebum-Production Cycle

The best way to stop this sebum oversecretion is to skip washing your hair. That's right: As counterintuitive as it sounds, skipping the occasional shampoo can help over time. Here's how.

Start slowly. Skip the shampoo one day a week, when you can wear a hat or when you'll be home all day. After a few weeks of this, make it two days a week. The eventual goal is to go two to three days between shampoos to get the oil production under control. Just don't expect to get there overnight. Give it months. Experiment with dry shampoos and hair powders that are designed to help soak up that oil without stripping your scalp of sebum.

The second tip for breaking the cycle of oil production might surprise you as much as the first: Change your shampoo and conditioner. You've likely been choosing products that have very little in the way of moisturizing ingredients, or maybe you've been skipping the conditioner altogether. After all, you don't want to add moisture to an already over-moisturized situation, right? Wrong.

You actually should use a shampoo and conditioner meant to balance the moisture on your head. A heavy-duty super-hydrating shampoo and conditioner would be too much, of course, but a lightweight moisturizing shampoo and conditioner can help maintain the balance of moisture on your scalp and not send it into hyper mode to overproduce its own.

And don't skip the conditioner—just use it properly. Concentrate it on the ends of your hair and rinse it well. A lightweight or leave-in formulation can work well. If conditioner still seems too much for your hair, try conditioning first and shampooing second to remove extra residue.

Check Your Shampoo Technique

Make sure you are shampooing your hair properly, which means rinse, rinse, rinse for a minimum of 30 seconds. Sometimes, what you think is grease is actually shampoo or conditioner that hasn't been rinsed completely.

Rinse With Cool Water

Hot water can stimulate the glands that produce sebum, which is exactly what you don't want. Plus, a cool-water rinse helps close the hair cuticle, preventing damage to your hair from hot styling tools. Bonus: Because a closed cuticle lies flat, each hair reflects more light.

Translation: shine.

Limit Use of Hair Dryer

Whenever possible, let your hair air-dry, or at least, keep the heat to a minimum. Hot air can stimulate oil production.

Keep Your Hands Off Your Hair

Touch your hair as little as possible. The more you touch, brush, and even style your hair, the more you stimulate the oil glands to produce. Touching your hair also transfers whatever's on your hands to your hair, including lotions and sweat. Lastly, it helps distribute the oil from your scalp all the way down to the ends.

Don't Forget to Clarify

Your greasy hair might be the result of product and conditioner buildup, so use a clarifying shampoo or treatment twice per month (but no more, for the reasons previously discussed). These come highly recommended:

Use Dry Shampoo

Dry shampoo for great for quick oil absorption during the day and on days that you don't shampoo. Not only does dry shampoo instantly suck up the grease, but it also adds volume and absorbs odors. Two to try:

Try a Hair Powder

You can sprinkle oil-absorbing hair powders at the root that provide long-lasting grease absorption. Light-colored hair can get excellent results from baby powder or plain cornstarch; dark hair can benefit from cocoa powder. You also can find lots of good commercially made hair powders in the hair care aisle, like these:

Avoid Products That Shine

Stay away from products with extra shine-enhancing ingredients; they're usually some type of oil. Instead, look for hair products with volumizing properties.

Try Different Hairstyles

If you have naturally curly or wavy hair, embrace it. Blowing it out or flat-ironing it every day makes your hair appear greasier. Straight hair gives grease and oil a direct path down your hair shaft, making it much more noticeable. If you have straight hair, try curling it, or go for a cut that brings out the wave.

Your hair will appear much less oily than if it were straight.