The sebaceous gland: Oil shortage or overdrive?

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frizzy greasy limp hair

If you’ve ever experienced excessively dry, or possibly oily hair and scalp,  it’s more than likely the sebaceous gland played a part in it. Tasked with providing moisture and lubrication to our skin and hair, it holds the key to that healthy glow everyone raves about.

While trying to achieve your own definition of balanced hair greatness, discover the challenges you may face, ways to combat them and means to support healthy production from the sebaceous glands.

Skin deep source of moisture

Sebaceous gland anatomy

The sebaceous glands are microscopic multi-lobed glands, which attach to the hair follicle’s duct beneath the surface of the skin. One or more glands may surround each hair follicle. Their purpose is to produce a waxy, oily substance called sebum, which is regularly deposited into the follicle where hair is being produced.

The glands deposit sebum into the hair follicle duct on the hairs, and bring it to the skin’s surface along the hair shaft. Located all over the human body, with the exception of the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet, this process is dominating your square footage.

The rate at which the sebaceous gland produces sebum varies from one person to the next and is subject to certain hormonal influences. For example, in children, the sebaceous gland is not active until the onset of puberty. Presence of androgens, male sex hormones like testosterone, increase sebaceous gland production, whereas the presence of estrogen is reported to inhibit sebaceous gland production. Since both men and women have their fair share of both these sets of hormones, over production is not gender specific.

Also known as a lipid, sebum is composed of triglycerides, wax esters, squalene, and metabolites of fat-producing cells. There are a number of responsibilities the sebum performs:

  • moisture for the hair fibre – as the sebum is deposited into the hair follicle duct, it naturally coats the hair, as it travels with the growth of the hair out to the skin’s surface.
  • lubrication of the skin – sebum keeps your skin waterproof since lipids don’t dissolve in water. Not only does it protect you from taking on too much water, it also protects you from excessive water loss. The film sebum makes on your skin regulates the passing of water so that dehydration is kept at bay. This property comes from the wax esters in the composition of sebum.
  • protection from wayward bacteria – a very fine, slightly acidic film forms on the surface of the skin as a result of the sebum, and acts as a barrier to bacteria, viruses, and other potential contaminants that might penetrate the skin
  • distribution of vitamin E – as a fat-soluble antioxidant, vitamin E is brought to the skin to protect tissue from damage caused by substances called free radicals, which can harm cells, tissues, and organs. They are believed to play a role in certain conditions related to aging. Vitamin E: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia

Sebum overload

If you have an overly active set of sebaceous glands, you may experience either greasy looking hair, clogged follicles or at times both.

Greasy hair tends to be associated to fine hair types and the fair-haired. When this plagues you your hair will appear limp and oversaturated or heavy. It will not respond well to styling efforts.

Although this is not a typically natural occurrence for black hair, you could experience these symptoms from overuse of products and build up of applied oils and creams.

If you hair is particularly greasy, find a cleansing product that will support the rebalancing and distribution of oils on your scalp and hair shaft. Be cautious here. You don’t want to completely strip your head of oil. When you dry out your scalp, the sebaceous glands read that signal as requiring more oil to be produced and do the opposite of what you want.

Your scalp will display excessive oil in another way. It can cause scaly patches, red skin and stubborn dandruff. This is often referred to as seborrheic dermatitis. Excessive build up on the skin’s surface can also lead to plugged or clogged follicles. If not treated, the plugged follicle may stop producing hair and you may experience temporary hair loss.

In a dry spell

If you hair is looking dry and flyaway, you may or may not have under-producing, or blocked sebaceous glands. With curly hair, the sebum will not necessarily travel along the hair shaft because of the twists and turns. It’s possible you have normal sebum secretion, which is unable to travel without assistance. When that happens it sits on your scalp, potentially waiting to be reabsorbed.

Dry scalp is also directly related to a reduction in the production of sebum. As a result, the skin can become tight and itchy. The reduction in production of sebum may be due to blockage of the sebaceous glands, but that is not always the case.

Sometimes the scalp becomes itchy due to contact with allergens. Contact dermatitis is caused by irritants in soaps and shampoos. The difference here, contact dermatitis will flare up immediately after contact with the offending substance.

Dry hair will look dull and be more susceptible to breakage. If you are unable to stretch your hair without it snapping in two, you have overly dry hair. Intervention is required. You can try oils that are compatible with the chemistry of your hair and easily absorbed by your scalp without causing build up.

One of these oils is coconut oil. It has been discovered that the chemical makeup of this oil,  encourages penetration into the hair strand and passes with ease through the cuticle’s defense system. The lauric acid naturally occurring in coconut oil has a low molecular weight, and is able to penetrate the hair shaft, nourishing the hair with vitamins, minerals and the medium-chain fatty acids.

Aside from that, coconut oil is rich in antioxidants, and has antiviral, antifungal, and antibacterial properties. When used on hair, it improves scalp health, fights infections and fungus, supports hair growth, all while adding volume and shine without the common harmful chemicals.

Another good oil is olive oil. Olive oil is a source of squalene, one of the lipids found in human sebum. Squalene is said to assist in anti-oxidation, generates oxygen, stimulates immunity and regulates fat. Olive oil is an emollient, which means it’s able to penetrate the shaft to create a shinier appearance and improve elasticity. This is a great option that you may already have on hand in your kitchen.

Somewhere in between

The quest for normal hair is one pursued by many. Much attention is usually given to the problem areas relating to healthy hair growth, but we can’t forget the “normals” out there.

If you have regular or average sebum production along with strong, resilient and shiny hair, make note of your maintenance routine, give thanks and move on. You have been given a gift. Just stay on top of any changes as your hormonal balance begins to shift and adjust accordingly. You are the envy of many.

But what if you’re in between, but in a bad way. Schwarzkopf calls this a mixed condition. You may be experiencing overactive sebaceous glands, poor scalp condition and an overabundance of sebum. Best case scenario, this can be absorbed back into the scalp without clogging any follicles or preventing hair growth. However, you still have an issue with excessively dry, frizzy ends, subject to breakage. A dry hair/oily root situation is not ideal and requires a divided approach.

First, you need to apply some oil to your dry ends, ideally prior to washing. If you can allow your hair’s cuticle to absorb some moisture 2 to 12 hours prior to washing, it will protect it from further depletion. Then when washing your hair, focus your attention on the scalp area. Cleanse to remove excess oil but not to strip to the point of dryness.

Application of coconut oil post-wash may be the best course of action. In the case where the oily build up on your scalp is due to bacteria, the coconut oil has a built-in ability to fight infections and fungal deposits.

How to support healthy sebaceous glands and sebum production

It was stated earlier that male sex hormones, or androgens, stimulate sebaceous gland production. If you want to keep your sebaceous glands operating at their best, you can try including some of the following vitamins and supplements or eating a balanced diet of healthy foods. reports Vitamins A, B1, C and E, chromium, folic acid, and Ginkgo biloba are believed to increase androgen. There are also supplements like L-arginine, L-tyrosine, magnesium, nitric acid, selenium, and zinc, which have positive effects, as well. Androgen production is also believed to be stimulated with the inclusion of bananas, figs, and raw oysters.

Sebum production is believed to be supported with the inclusion of apricots, foods rich in antioxidants, beta-carotene, brewer’s yeast, legumes, liver, natural fruit and vegetable juices, nuts, papaya, persimmons, potatoes, sweet potatoes, wheat and whole grain products.

Common allergens and some poor food choices can lead to the wrong type of oil production and skin inflammation. These include certain dairy products, foods containing iodine, processed foods, refined carbohydrates, salt, seaweed, shellfish and trans-fats. Ingesting these can cause clogged pores or allergic reactions, if you are susceptible to them.

One of the best things you can do for yourself is drink plenty of water. Clean, filtered water will keep skin pores hydrated and flush away toxins that can lead to skin issues.

A healthy relationship

Buried in the skin, the close relationship between the sebaceous gland and hair health is undeniable. Good things grow from good ground. Keep your skin and pores healthy  and the subsequent hair will thrive and also be healthy.

Have you ever faced any challenges with out of balance or oily hair? Do you have irregular sebum production? In the comments below, let us know your hair type and what you did to combat these issues.

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