Why Do I Have Sebum Under My Nails After Scratching My Scalp?

Why Do I Have Sebum Under My Nails After Scratching My Scalp

Why is there sebum buildup under my nails? If you have ever felt the need to scratch your scalp, you might have noticed a white residue collected under your nails. While some people are unaware of the proper term for this white waxy substance, others might know it by its common name, sebum.

Some people might be embarrassed to admit that they have found some of this substance in their scalps, but the truth is that everybody produces varying amounts of sebum. If you have been concerned that something is wrong with your hair or scalp, then be at ease since the production of sebum is not only natural, it’s even helpful.

What Exactly Is This White Substance?

The explanation for this buildup in your scalp is very straightforward. This white, waxy substance is the mixture of sebum and dead skin cells. Normally, the dead skin cells that we shed are used by the body through a process typically called skin cell turnover. This process can be affected by several factors, which may increase the production of dead skin cells.

If your body isn’t able to take care of dead skin cells fast enough, they will eventually build up and be absorbed by sebum. This will result in that white substance found on your scalp.

What Causes Scalp Buildup?

While many factors come into play when talking about the cause of this buildup, what it really comes down to is a dysfunctional skin barrier. The skin barrier we are referring to is the first layer of your skin, called the stratum corneum.

This lipid barrier on your skin is responsible for many bodily functions that keep your body alive and safe from the outside world. The function we will look at, however, is its role in keeping you hydrated.

If this skin barrier starts to fail, then the water loss will result in the buildup of dead skin cells. This is because the water found in your skin is vital for skin cell turnover. Water in your skin is responsible for activating the enzymes that remove dead cells from your skin.

What Causes a Dysfunctional Skin Barrier?

A dysfunctional skin barrier when talking about the scalp can be attributed to two main causes: the production of Malassezia yeast and as a byproduct of using damaging products.

Malassezia Yeast

Malassezia yeast is commonly thought to be responsible for the production of dandruff. This yeast feeds on the natural oils produced by your scalp, and sebum is no exception. When this yeast eats sebum, it manages to produce a substance called oleic acid, which serves to irritate your scalp. Finally, this oleic acid will create an immune response that will lead to a rapid increase in your cellular turnover. 

While oleic acid is one of the direct causes of scalp buildup, it starts off with the production of Malassezia yeast. By limiting the amount of Malassezia yeast produced in your scalp, you can see a reduction in dandruff.


Unfortunately, the products you use to take care of your hair can also play a role in damaging your skin barrier. 

What it affects is the pH level in your skin. The pH is measured in a scale that goes from 0 to 14. Anything above 7 is alkaline and anything below it is considered acidic. Normally, skin is at a pH level of pH 5.0, but factors can interfere with this balance and turn your skin’s pH level alkaline. This change will affect your skin’s barrier functions.

You should always pay attention to what products you use on your hair and scalp to prevent messing up your pH level. Using products not meant for hair, such as bar soap, can damage your scalp, even if you can’t notice it at first glance. Misuse of products on your scalp can turn the pH level on your scalp alkaline, which will lead to dead skin cells building up.

Some hair care products contain harsh sulfates, which should be avoided. These have the opposite effect in the sense that they remove most of the sebum on the scalp. While too much sebum can be a negative, having too little will also be harmful to your skin. Before applying a product to yourself, you should be aware of what it does and how it is intended to be used.

A question that might be on your mind is: is dandruff related to hair loss? This is a common concern, and it’s certainly not unfounded by scientific research. Several concrete studies have been able to show a connection between the two issues.

A study performed by the Annals of Dermatology showed that half of the subjects suffering from pattern hair loss also had dandruff in their hair. Another study supported this connection when it found that the most common disease associated with pattern hair loss among subjects was dandruff. 

How Does Dandruff Affect Hair Loss?

We established that dandruff does have a connection with hair loss, but what exactly is that connection?

To find out how dandruff affects your scalp and hair loss, we have to take a look at yet another study. This study managed to establish a link between dandruff and the inflammation of the hair follicle. The reason why such a connection is important to hair loss is that hair follicle inflammation, over a long period of time, can lead to severe tissue damage. This will lead to the formation of scar tissue, a well-known cause of hair loss.

Dandruff is not directly related to hair loss, but it serves as a symptom to show an unhealthy scalp. While it can have some direct consequences, you should understand that dandruff has a correlative relationship with hair loss rather than one of causation. 

How to Get Rid of Scalp Buildup?

Getting rid of scalp buildup needs a formulated approach since it can be both relatively easy and complex. The easy part is getting any dandruff off your hair, and the complex part is making sure that it doesn’t come back.

The first step before you take any measures is to find out what the main cause of your scalp buildup is. It can be any of the factors mentioned previously, or it could be many other conditions that we have not covered in this article. 

Once you are aware of what is causing your buildup, you can begin by removing anything accumulated on your scalp.

Remove Scalp Buildup

The ideal product to remove any buildup on your scalp is a pH-balanced cleansing agent along with an exfoliant. This method is both easy and relatively inexpensive. Combining with an exfoliant is a great way to gently remove buildup. You should be on the lookout for any product that uses salicylic acid, as it is perfectly capable of breaking down sebum and dead skin cells.

Be warned that products will use different levels of salicylic acid, and you should use one that has a high concentration. Any product that uses 0.5% should be ideal as your scalp can be very sensitive. 

Find The Root Cause

Now that we got the easy part out of the way, we now have to deal with fixing the issue at its core. You need to find out why your scalp is creating this buildup before you can remedy the situation. The problem is that, to the untrained eye, this is next to impossible.

You should speak to a doctor about your condition as they will be able to diagnose whether the problem is an overproduction of Malassezia yeast or a dysfunctional skin barrier.

Root Cause: Dandruff

If you find that the root cause of your case is dandruff, then you can use the standard treatment, which is anti-fungal agents that can kill Malassezia. A good example of this is zinc pyrithione shampoo, which can be found online. Alternatively, you can get your doctor to prescribe some stronger shampoos, but that should be discussed with your doctor. 

Root Cause: Dysfunctional Skin Barrier

If the root cause of the issue is a damaged skin barrier, then we can deal with it through topical oils. The main fatty acid in your skin is linoleic acid, and any oil rich in this will be able to repair your skin.

Other oils that have been shown to have some effect are coconut oil, borage oil, and even sunflower oil. Apply any of these oils on a daily basis and you should be on your way to preventing any more scalp buildup.

Speak to Your Doctor

It may be tempting to jump at a solution you found or maybe even a product that your friend said worked for them, but the truth is that a makeshift solution can cause more harm than good. If you are serious about combating your scalp buildup, then you must speak to your doctor to see what is best for your personal situation. Don’t be embarrassed to talk about something like this with your doctor, as this condition is very common and perfectly normal.

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