How Important is Salicylic Acid for an Oily Scalp?

We’re all familiar with salicylic acid as a topical remedy for a variety of skin issues, such as acne, calluses — and even warts! However, did you know that salicylic acid’s effective exfoliating and anti-inflammatory properties make it a powerful non invasive treatment solution for oily scalps too? 

Understanding salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) and belongs to a class of drugs known as salicylates. It is often found in skincare products, like acne treatments and pore-cleansing masks, because of its anti-inflammatory and exfoliating properties. 

This chemical exfoliant is also an oil-soluble substance, which means it can effectively penetrate through layers of sebum and access hair follicles and pores on the skin. It is also a keratolytic agent, which means it can break down the outer layers of the skin, gently exfoliating dead skin cells.

These are some of salicylic acid’s unique characteristics, and why it is often used in treatments for oily scalps and other sebum-related skin conditions, such as acne, dandruff and seborrhoeic dermatitis.

Causes of an oily scalp

Contrary to popular belief, having oil on your scalp is integral to scalp health. It keeps the scalp hydrated by locking in moisture, serves as a protective barrier for the scalp, and is responsible for your hair’s natural, glossy sheen. Oil is naturally produced by the sebaceous glands on the skin — these are microscopic glands attached to each hair follicle which release sebum that travels up the hair shaft. 

That being said, an overly greasy scalp can also lead to a spectrum of issues, such as dandruff and acne. Causes of overactive sebaceous glands that lead to an oily scalp include: 

  • Hormonal imbalance — You may experience an oily scalp during significant periods of hormonal change, such as puberty or menopause. Fluctuations in hormones can cause an increase in oil production and hence, an oily scalp.
  • Genetic predisposition — Some people naturally have oilier scalps than others, and this can be genetics passed on from our parents or close relatives. If you have a family history of oily scalps, there is a higher probability of you experiencing the same.
  • Hot and humid environments — Our external environment also plays a huge part in scalp health, as hot and humid weather encourages the production of more sebum and worsen oiliness in the scalp.
  • Not washing your hair enough  — Not washing your hair enough can cause an accumulation of oil, along with a build-up of dead skin cells and debris. This can aggravate the scalp and stimulate more sebum production, causing a vicious cycle. 
  • Washing your hair too much — On the other hand, washing your hair too frequently could also dry out the scalp, which triggers more oil production in response. 
  • Using the wrong hair care products — Choosing the wrong hair care product for your hair and scalp type can lead to an oily scalp. Products that are too harsh may strip the scalp off its natural oils, causing the sebaceous glands to overcompensate by producing more oil. Conversely, products that are too heavy or rich could mix the scalp’s natural oils, creating an even oilier appearance.
  • Frequent touching — Frequently running your fingers through your hair could spread the oil from your scalp to your hair, leading to a greasy appearance.
  • Medication — Certain medications, such as oral birth control, antidepressants and anti-seizure medications, can affect one’s hormone levels, which often leads to side effects, such as an oily scalp. 
  • Underlying health conditions — Your oily scalp could be the symptom of a health issue such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) or liver congestion. A consultation with your healthcare provider and a few diagnostic tests can help you rule out the possibility of this.


It may be good to note that hair type also makes a difference. Finer hair types, as compared to coarse hairs, often appear oilier because it is easier for oil to spread along the hair shaft.

Benefits of salicylic acid for managing an oily scalp

Salicylic acid is an exceptional ingredient in numerous oily scalp treatments because it:

  • Exfoliates — Salicylic acid is a chemical exfoliant that can gently remove dead skin cells, debris and excess oil that worsen and contribute to the appearance of an oily scalp.
  • Unclogs pores — Oily scalps often lead to clogged pores because the oil mixes with the build-up on the scalp and settles in the pores. Salicylic acid can dissolve the substances accumulated in the pores and helps dislodge any blockages.
  • Regulates sebum production — Although salicylic acid does not directly regulate sebum production, its exfoliation and pore unclogging effects indirectly contribute to more balanced oil production. With a cleaner scalp and less congested pores, sebaceous glands are less overstimulated, which, in turn, leads to less sebum production. 
  • Reduces inflammation — A cleaner scalp and less congested pores lead to reduced inflammation. Moreover, salicylic acid can block certain enzymes called cyclooxygenases that trigger redness and swelling in the body. 
  • Enhances absorption of other ingredients — As salicylic acid can help remove dirt and the outer layers of the skin, this primes the scalp for better absorption of other important minerals that help fortify your skin, creating a more balanced environment and less oily scalp.


Along with a balanced hair care routine, salicylic acid can be a powerful addition to your hair care routine for preventing an oily scalp. Due to its exfoliating and anti-inflammation properties, it can help promote overall scalp care and reduce your likelihood of scalp sebum-related issues such as acne, dandruff and infection. 

Incorporating salicylic acid into your hair care routine

Most over-the-counter hair care products for an oily scalp are already formulated with salicylic acid, making it easy to incorporate into any hair care routine. Look out for salicylic acid based shampoos, scrubs and treatments. 

It is important to not overdo it, though, as too much salicylic acid can overwhelm and dry out the scalp. Opt for one product that works for you, and use it no more than twice a week to avoid causing irritation to your scalp. 

After carrying out your usual lather-and-rinse, end off your hair care routine with products formulated to moisturise and hydrate, such as glycerin. This will help prevent your hair and scalp from drying out while soothing the scalp.

Additional tips for managing an oily scalp

If you have sensitive skin, take caution when incorporating salicylic acid-containing products into your hair care routine. As they come in different formulations and concentrations, some may further aggravate your scalp’s condition. 

Before undergoing any do-it-yourself home treatments on your own, consider consulting a professional first. They will be able to do a thorough diagnosis of your scalp and recommend treatments for your oily scalp, specific to your skin and hair type.

Alternatively, you can opt for a salicylic acid treatment done by a professional. TrichoLab offers a non-invasive Salicylic Acid Peel Treatment, specially devised to treat excessively oily scalps, dandruff and seborrhoeic dermatitis. This treatment gently exfoliates the scalp and debris, promotes hydration, reduces scalp irritation and itching, and helps balance its pH levels. 

This 75-minute treatment option is the perfect choice for those looking for a salicylic acid treatment done by professionals who can ensure a safe and effective exfoliating treatment for their oily scalp, without stripping it off its moisture. 

Debunking myths about salicylic acid and oily scalp treatment

  • Salicylic acid is only for blemishes, not oily scalps 

Although salicylic acid is very effective in keeping pores clear of sebum and inhibiting bacterial acne growth, it can equally be as effective for treating oily scalps. Its exfoliating and anti-inflammatory properties make it a useful tool in regulating sebum production. 

  • Salicylic acid is harsh and drying

Salicylic acid is generally safe for all skin types. When used in correct amounts and concentrations, salicylic acid can regulate sebum production without causing excessive scalp dryness. Choose the right products for your skin type, and consult a doctor, before trying out high-concentration products, to assess your suitability.

  • Salicylic acid increases the scalp’s sun sensitivity

Salicylic acid itself does not increase the scalp’s sun sensitivity. However, after any form of exfoliation treatment, it is always best to reduce prolonged sun exposure and protect your skin (including your scalp) from harmful UV rays. 

  • Salicylic acid can cure any skin condition

Although salicylic acid is useful for numerous skin and scalp conditions, it is not a cure-all for all our skin problems. It should only be incorporated as part of a holistic treatment plan for your specific skin and scalp needs. Your doctor will be able to better advise you on what you require for overall scalp health. 

  • When it comes to salicylic acid, more is better

As with everything, moderation is key! Too much salicylic acid can overwhelm and dry out the scalp, and damage your skin barrier. Use salicylic acid hair care products no more than twice a week, or as advised by the instructions on the product label. 

  • All salicylic acid products are the same 

Salicylic acid comes in a spectrum of formulations and concentrations. For example, over-the-counter products come in concentrations of up to 2%. However, salicylic acid peels can have concentrations of up to 50% — in these cases, it can only be done by a licensed aesthetic doctor or trained dermatologist. 

  • Do not combine salicylic acid with other ingredients

Salicylic acid actually works better when combined with other ingredients, and even helps improve their efficacy. Although it should not be mixed with other strong exfoliants, salicylic acid can be used in tandem with ingredients that confer nutrients or have hydrating properties, such as vitamin C or hyaluronic acid. In fact, it is recommended that you do so. 

When to seek professional help

Many oily scalp issues can be treated from the comfort of your home, with the right salicylic acid hair care product. However, there are also instances where you may require professional guidance and medical-grade solutions for your oily scalp.

  • Persistently oily scalp — If you’ve tried to improve your hair care routine with oil-control products, but your scalp remains persistently oily, you may have an underlying condition that requires a proper diagnosis and treatment by a healthcare professional.
  • Severe discomfort — If your oily scalp causes great discomfort and affects your quality of life, consult your doctor for proper treatment solutions.
  • Worsening symptoms — If you find your oily scalp symptoms worsen, or if you discover visible changes in your scalp such as redness or bumps, you should get medical attention.
  • Flaking skin — Flaking skin could be a sign of dandruff or other underlying conditions, which will require personalised treatment.
  • Acne breakouts — Breakouts could result from excessively oily skin, and consulting a doctor would better equip you with solutions to effectively manage your oily skin and acne breakouts.
  • Foul-smelling scalp — If you notice an odour coming from your scalp, despite washing it frequently, you may have a bacterial or fungal infection that needs treating.
  • Hair loss — Thinning hair or sudden bald patches may indicate an underlying condition or damage to your hair follicles, which will require treatment by a professional.


If you are concerned about your oily scalp, and at-home treatments do not suffice, do not hesitate to consult your skin scalp specialist for a proper diagnosis.

Oily scalp treatment in Singapore

You are spoilt for choice when it comes to treatments available for an oily scalp. However, it is important to find the right one for your scalp and hair type, and one that would be able to effectively address your concerns. 

TrichoLab is a hair scalp specialist in Singapore, and offers a variety of treatments  for an oily scalp — from hair restoration products to personalised non invasive treatment plans. 

Book a consultation with us for a thorough scalp analysis and treatment tailored to your unique condition

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