The hair follicles are sophisticated, yet somewhat delicate structures that produce hair all over the body. But due to their sophistication, there are issues that may arise during their usual functioning.
One such issue is blockage, or clogging. If left untreated, this can lead to pain and discomfort, and even hair loss.
So, what can you do to stop this problem from occurring, or even reverse its effects?
This guide will help you to understand how follicles may become blocked, and the symptoms you can look for to determine if you’re dealing with a blockage.
You’ll also learn the steps you can take to treat clogged hair follicles, and how you can prevent from reoccurring in the future.
The Hair Follicle’s Structure: An Introduction
The hair follicle is an organ that consists of various parts that include the papilla, the hair matrix, the root sheath, and the bulge.
The papilla is located at the base of the follicle, and it’s composed of blood vessels that deliver nutrients to each follicle and hair shaft.
The hair matrix is where dermal papilla cells form together to produce the hair strands. This is also where changes in the hair growth cycle take place such as transition from telogen (resting) to anagen (active).
The root sheath is a protective layer found within the follicle. It consists of two parts – inner and outer – which work to protect the hair strand as it grows.
Finally, the bulge is found in the outer root sheath and its home to the various stem cells which contribute to the makeup of hair, as well as its repair in the event of damage.
These parts work together to deliver nutrients to the hair strands, and to support the hair growth cycle.
But as the hair follicle lies within the skin, there are other structures that interact with the follicle and may interfere with hair growth.
One such structure is the sebaceous gland, which is located near the top of the follicle. This is the gland that produces sebum – a protective substance – all over the body (except the palms of the hands and soles of the feet).
When the sebaceous gland functions properly, the sebum it produces can help to protect the hair and surrounding skin from damage or dryness. But when it becomes overactive or otherwise dysfunctional, it can wreak havoc.
What Causes Blocked Follicles?
It’s fairly well known that excess sebum is a major cause of acne. Acne occurs when the pores become blocked with sebum and bacteria.
But did you know that excess sebum or improper drainage of the pores can also contribute to hair loss and conditions such as folliculitis?
An excess production of sebum is common in those with hormonal imbalance (such as teenagers in the throes of puberty), or in those with a genetic predisposition to the condition.
- A diet high in fats and sugar
- Poor hygiene
- Scalp conditions such as seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff
- Excessive exposure to the sun
- A suppressed immune system
- Damage to the skin
However, excess sebum is not the only cause of clogged follicles.
Irregularities in the follicle structure can sometimes make it difficult for sebum to escape to the skin as it should. And damage to the follicle, such as the kind that causes inflammation, can also make it harder for sebum to travel.
How to Know If Your Follicles are Blocked
Folliculitis is a condition in which the follicles enflame, often as a result of blockage or injury (3).
The first signs of a blockage may be subtle.
They include irritation and itching, and perhaps even a slight burning. But if this blockage continues, it may lead to more severe symptoms (4).
The most severe symptoms include painful, tender skin and large, swollen bumps. You may also notice red clusters of pimples or white acne surrounding the affected follicle.
In severe or recurrent cases of folliculitis, pus-filled blisters that pop and crust over may also be present.
The extent of the blockage will depend on how much sebum you naturally release, and exactly how blocked the follicle is. A partial blockage may enable small amounts of sebum to escape which can slow the onslaught of symptoms.
And you may notice that while you don’t suffer from the most severe symptoms, you still are struggling with itching and irritation.
5 Ways to Get Rid of Clogged and Blocked Hair Follicles
If blocked follicles have become an issue for you, it’s time to take control. Learn how with the five tips outlined below.
1. Remove Sebum Build Up
If an excess of sebum production is the most common cause of clogged follicles, it makes sense that removing this build up should be your first step.
Sebum build up doesn’t happen overnight. Instead, it often builds up over weeks, months, and even years until it becomes an issue.
There are many factors that contribute to sebum production and the likelihood of build up, as mentioned above. But there are steps you can take to remove this build up and even prevent it from reoccurring in the future (more on that in the next section).
The easiest way to remove built up sebum is with a scalp cleanse.
Shampoos are used to cleanse the scalp, but in many cases they end up just sitting on the surface and not removing much of anything. This is why a heavy duty solution is necessary.
There are a few options to choose from, and there are even those you can find on the market. But the simplest (and cheapest) solution can be found with a bottle of unrefined apple cider vinegar.
Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV) is a vinegar made from fermented apple juice. It is used in foods, as a household cleaner, and even in cosmetics.
The reason that ACV is so versatile is its high concentration of acetic acid. It’s been proven to have antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, and this is critical when looking for an effective scalp cleanser (5).
So, how do you use it?
ACV is strong and, as such, it should be diluted with water before use. Otherwise you may suffer from skin irritation or even minor burns. Just simply combine 1 part ACV with 1 part water, and you’re good to go.
The apple cider vinegar rinse can then be poured over your scalp while in the shower.
You can then your fingers to massage the rinse into your scalp, which will help to breakdown the sebum and other types of build up. Then simply rinse your hair under lukewarm water and you’re all set.
With the ACV rinse, you’ve removed the build up on your scalp that may have been clogging your follicles. But how can you prevent future build up? With lifestyle change.
2. Prevent Build Up With Diet Change
While many of us would like to believe otherwise, the truth is that what we put into our body plays a major role in our physical health and well being.
And while diet alone is unlikely to be the cause of your clogged hair follicles, it can certainly be a contributor.
Foods that are fried or otherwise unnaturally high in fat content are often linked with the production of excess sebum. But recent research may have linked overactive sebaceous glands with a less likely dietary cause – high-glycemic foods (6).
These foods include white grains, potatoes, short-grain rice, and sugary beverages. And it may come as a shock to some people, but some fruits (such as watermelon and pineapple) are included in this group, too.
That’s not to say that these foods need to be avoided, but moderation is crucial.
So, what should you eat instead?
Lean proteins, whole grains, and non-starchy vegetables are a good place to start.
You may also find that your skin clears up with the removal of dairy from your diet, though much of the evidence supporting this is anecdotal (7).
3. Treat the Underlying Cause of Inflammation
It’s true that excess sebum is a likely reason for clogged follicles. However, another cause may be inflammation.
The follicles are an organ and, as such, it’s possible for them to become inflamed. This can be caused by many things, including illness, injury, or abnormality.
Genetic conditions can also contribute.
One such condition is Androgenetic Alopecia (AGA), also known as Male-Pattern Baldness (MPB) (8). The condition results in a receding hairline that over time, will lead to permanent balding of the scalp.
And while there are still many questions as to AGA’s cause and triggers, it’s known that the presence of the androgen DHT causes inflammation of the hair follicle (9).
As the inflammation sets in, it leads to miniaturization of the follicle. The follicle is slowly cut off from its connection to the blood vessels, and the hair strand soon becomes unable to grow towards the scalp.
But it also makes sense that inflammation of the follicle would lead to sebum blockages and further inflammation. This is true even if your sebaceous glands are producing a regular amount of sebum.
So, if you want any hope of reversing the build up and preventing any more from happening then you’ll need to treat any inflammation that you may have.
4. Treat and Prevent Damage to the Scalp
I mentioned above that injury is one cause of inflammation. So if you hope to prevent build up then you’ll need to treat (and prevent) damage to the scalp.
The most common causes of scalp damage are due to daily acts of care. These include brushing, washing, and styling and they can lead to friction which causes irritation and inflammation.
In severe cases, it may even lead to hair loss. But as you know, this inflammation can also lead to follicles clogged with sebum and other substances.
While you can’t avoid cleaning or styling your hair, there are steps you can take to reduce the risks of long-term damage. For example:
- Shower in lukewarm water. Hot showers are often a relaxing way to start or end your day, but they can put strain on the hair. Hot water can also lead to drying of the skin, which will only further aggravate the problem.
- Avoid styling with heat. Heat styling is another way to damage your hair and scalp, and this is especially true when it’s done on a regular basis. Straightening irons, curling wands, and even blow dryers can weaken the hair strands. They may also irritate the scalp and triggers inflammation.
- Avoid brushing your hair while it’s wet. Hair can stretch up to 30 percent of its original length before it becomes permanently damaged (10). Wet hair, by its very nature, is easier to stretch (and, therefore, damage) than dry hair (11). If you want to avoid permanent damage to the strands and follicles, it’s best to avoid brushing it while wet.
- Don’t use pore-clogging hair products. If you want to further prevent the blockage of hair follicles, you’ll need to protect the surrounding pores. But too many hair products and other cosmetics are comedogenic meaning they clog pores. You should use only those products labeled ‘non-comedogenic’ especially if you’re prone to blockages.
You may not be able to prevent all damage, but the steps above are a great way to avoid unnecessary follicle blockages and strand stretching.
5. Stimulate Blood Flow to the Follicles
Even in the face of inflammation and follicular damage, it’s possible to ensure that adequate blood flow (and, as a result, oxygen and nutrients) make it to the scalp. This can help to promote hair growth (even in the face of damage) and perhaps even unclog follicles and sebaceous glands.
Blood flow is the only way to keep the follicles alive.
This is why so many hair growth formulations include menthol and other blood pumping ingredients.
But there are manual techniques you can utilize that direct more blood to the scalp and perhaps even break down blockages and build up.
The easiest method is massage.
It has also been shown to thicken hair via stretching forces to the dermal papilla cells (14).
What does this have to do with clogged follicles?
Gentle stretching of the skin can help to dislodge any blockages. It may also reduce inflammation.
Massage isn’t the only way to stimulate blood flow. Another approach is microneedling.
Microneedling is a technique that involves puncturing the skin using small needles. When the wounds heal, they induce collagen and the production of new cells (15).
And while microneedling can help to increase blood flow and help with follicle blockages, it can also induce hair growth (16). In fact, it may even work to grow hair in those men who didn’t respond to the usual medications (17).
If you suffer from follicle blockages, you know all about the pain and discomfort they can cause. But did you know that clogged follicles can also lead to hair miniaturization and balding?
Hair follicles are delicate structures and, as such, there are many chances for them to become dysfunctional.
In severe cases, the dysfunction can even lead to permanent damage. This is why you must unclog your follicles as soon as possible.