I Tried Scalp Training for 2020

Last year, after I stopped taking my acne meds (whattup, spironolactone), my very average scalp turned oily. Like, WTF oily. I went from being able to wash my hair every 2-3 days to needing major amounts of dry shampoo 12 hours after sudsing up. Though greasy hair—or skin—is a totally common occurrence after going off hormone-regulating meds (like spiro or birth control, which tend to slightly suppress oil production), yer girl went a LITTLE CRAZY at suddenly having a whole new hair-washing, grease-obsessing life.

And so I Googled. A lot. And I discovered an entire community of people who swear by scalp-training—i.e., tricking your scalp to produce less oil and be less of a dick. More or less. All it takes is a few product swaps, a few months of an adjustment period, and then a life of gloriously chill, non-greasy hair. At least, in theory. But the reality of my own five-month experiment? LOL—it was anything but awesome.



How to make your hair less greasy

Here’s the gist of scalp training:

  • Cut out all harsh, drying ingredients (like sulfates and alcohols, which include aerosol hairsprays, mists, dry shampoos, texturizers, etc.)
  • Wash your hair way less—like every 3-4 days, instead of every day or every other day
  • Use only gentle, moisturizing products (like sulfate-free shampoos or cleansing conditioners)

    The idea is that by throwing a ton of hydration and gentle kisses at your scalp, along with letting your natural grease hang out without being washed away, your scalp will get the signal to decrease its oil production.

    It sounds both totally plausible and too good to be true. Though it’s commonly accepted that the more you dry out your scalp (or face), the more oil it produces to compensate, would doing the exact opposite work? If you ask the internet, you’ll get hundreds (thousands?) of yesses. Truly every person in Reddit’s curly hair community—my brethren—swore that after a few months of dealing with extra-greasy hair, their scalp balanced itself out, and now they only wash their hair once a week. Dreams.

    My scalp-training experiment

    Though I already use a gentle sulfate-free shampoo for my curly hair (love you, Maui Moisture Vanilla Bean Shampoo), I had to cut out all my aerosols—they’re formulated with drying alcohols—which meant fully ditching my hairsprays and flyaway smoothers, and swapping my usual dry shampoo for a powdered version (Klorane Non-Aerosol Dry Shampoo). I also reduced my wash routine from every other day to every three days and didn’t touch a heat tool (drying and damaging) for the entire five months. Yup, five freaking months.

    The first week

    …suuuucked. My hair was both extra greasy and extra frizzy at all times without my normal hairspray and dry shampoo. I tried a dozen alternatives, but the “hairsprays” were always too sticky and wet, and the powdered dry shampoos worked so well they were almost too drying for my curly hair. Which, in turn, led to more frizz.

    By month two

    …I developed dandruff. And itchiness. And even more grease. But because most dandruff shampoos are hella drying or contain sulfates, I did some research (ahem, texted my derm friends) and DIY’d my own dandruff scalp spray, which was shockingly excellent?? Hello, I’m proud of this?? Try it??

    In a spray bottle, mix:
    — 1/4 cup hot water
    — 1/4 apple cider vinegar (which disrupts yeast growth—the cause of dandruff—by changing the acidity on your scalp)
    — 6 drops of tea tree oil (a natural antibacterial and antifungal)
    — 5 crushed-to-a-powder aspirin tablets (a major source of salicylic acid, which reduces flakes and soothes inflammation)

    Once a week, I’d spray it all over my dry scalp, let it sit for 20 minutes, then hop in the shower to shampoo and condition like usual. It didn’t fully eradicate my dandruff, but it definitely lessened it by 70 percent.

    By month four

    …I had developed anxiety (jk I was born with that, but this was next-level). I felt like my dumb scalp-training experiment hair was a toddler I had to watch, tend to, and obsess over. I had created this weird invisible prison for myself, ignoring the products I knew worked well, all in an effort to…what, have a slightly less oily scalp that would still require dry shampoo and hairspray sometimes? Because that’s life? By the end of month four, it was clear that my grease hadn’t gotten better at all.

    By month five

    …I was done. I was beyond done. Considering the majority of scalp-training devotees said they noticed a decrease in oil within 2-3 months—and mine had only somehow increased—I ruled my experiment a failure. I pulled my dry shampoo and hairspray out of hiding, I blew out my hair for the first time in five months, and I walked off into the sunset, middle fingers held high.

    Buuuut not before bugging two dermatologists to tell me WTF went wrong, starting with:

    Can you *actually* train your scalp to be less greasy?

    Yes and no. Really—for every dermatologist who says “yup,” you’ll find another two who say “nope.” It’s actually been a question since the ‘50s, when a bunch of studies came out proving (and then refuting, and then kinda re-proving?) the idea that you can regulate your scalp’s oil production through external forces (like cutting sulfates, being gentle, etc). No conclusive data has been published since then, which leaves us in a murky ~shrug~ territory.

    If you ask Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, MD, dermatologist and founder of Entière Dermatology in NYC, “Yes, you can totally train your scalp by adjusting your behavior,” she says. “I’ve found that so many patients are either overdoing it with heat tools, dry shampoo, or not washing their hair regularly, so resetting yourself with a gentle haircare regimen can help you assess what your scalp is really doing.”

    For me, though, it appears that what my scalp was really doing was…being oily. Happily. And to dermatologist Mona Gohara, MD, associate clinical professor at Yale School of Medicine, my results make sense. “At the end of the day, there’s really nothing topical you can do to change the anatomical structure of your sebaceous gland—the thing inside of you that’s responsible for producing oil,” she says.

    But—BUT!—she agrees with Dr. Levin that you can, in fact, decrease your greasiness…to a degree. “I think if you stop stripping your hair and irritating your scalp, you can bring down your oil production, but only back to its baseline where it was always meant to be.”

    Basically, if your scalp is naturally oily (like mine is, apparently), it’ll still be naturally oily at the end of your training. But if your scalp is naturally dry, and you’ve accidentally pushed it to an oily state, you may see major results after scalp-training for a few months.

    How can you make your hair less oily, then?

    Ideally, you figure out WTF is going on that ramped up your grease in the first place. Other than an overly harsh haircare routine, “increased oil on the scalp can also come from hormonal changes, climate changes like high humidity levels, or medical conditions like psoriasis or seborrheic dermatitis,” says Dr. Levin. Basically, this is where a dermatologist or a doctor comes in handy.

    But if an oily scalp has always been part of your life, you can ask your doctor about combination birth control and/or spironolactone—two oral medications that have a (positive!) side effect of suppressing your oil-stimulating hormones. And for a permanent decrease in oily hair and skin, there’s always Accutane (heads up, it isn’t as scary as you’ve been led to believe), which actually changes the structure of your sebaceous glands by shrinking them.

    So should you actually try training your greasy scalp?

    Honestly, even though it didn’t work out for me, I think it’s worth trying for at least two months if you’re not a fan of your greasy hair. Just be warned: It will make your dandruff significantly worse (oil fuels the yeast that causes dandruff). So skip this experiment if you deal with flakes or seborrheic dermatitis.

    Also, I think it’s worth remembering that greasy hair isn’t “gross,” and needing to use dry shampoo (or wash your hair) more often than your best friend doesn’t make you or your body a failure. We’ve all got our own deals, and they’re all equally valid—even if some are more annoying than others.

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9 thoughts on “I Tried Scalp Training for 2020

  • December 8, 2020 at 9:46 pm

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  • February 9, 2021 at 9:13 am

    People have no idea that fast hair growth shampoos (obviously without any sulfates, parabens or DEA) are a thing. Persons now may have longer hair and have more alternatives. Surely worth looking into it.

    If you’re discussing alopecia, damaged hair, preventing skin disorders, hair growth, hair care normally, the same principles come to mind.

    In general, you should try to avoid hair products and treatments that use chemicals such as parabens, DEA and sulfates.

    What’s healthy for your hair is healthy for your skin also.

    Clearly the content here is so accurate for various reasons. It stays away from the usual errors and pitfalls most fall into- purchasing horrible alternatives. Keep up the great content!

  • April 3, 2021 at 11:45 pm

    Most people I talk to are not aware that scalp therapy shampoos for fast hair growth (of course with no sulfates, no parabens, no DEA) even exist. Individuals now may attain longer hair and experience more alternatives. Certainly worth investigating.

    If you’re exploring hair loss, damaged hair, preventing skin disorders, hair growth, hair and scalp health in general, similar thoughts actualize.

    For the most part, you will want to avoid hair products and treatments that contain chemicals like parabens, DEA or sulfates.

    What is beneficial for your hair is good for your skin also.

    It goes without saying your content here is so accurate for multiple reasons. It avoids the usual pitfalls and errors so many fall into- getting horrible alternatives. Keep it up!

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