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What to do about oily hair?


My 13-year-old daughter has lovely long, brown hair, but suffers terribly with dandruff and the ends of her hair are very dry. She has an oily scalp and skin, and her hair needs washing very regularly because of the oil. She can’t use fragrances on her skin as she gets eczema from it, although essential oils have been fine for her. Any suggestions?
Naturopath and western herbalist Teresa Mitchell-Paterson responds:

Firstly, at age 13 we have to suspect hormones are involved, and hormonal imbalances with skin and hair that develop in both sexes lead to excess sebum production. These hormonal changes are referred to as adrenarche, as opposed to menarche, because it’s an influence of androgen (male) hormones in young females.

Other contributors are:

  • Incorrect diet
  • Lack of nutrients
  • Condition of the gut flora
  • Appropriate hair care

All are intertwined, so each issue needs to be addressed.


Because those androgens promote excess production of sebum, you may choose to see your GP to have serum levels of dehydroepiandrosterone sulphate tested.

Excess sebum  production is also related to higher-sugar diets and slow detoxification of the hormones.


Diet is the difficult part because teenagers tend to eat with their peers and consume large amounts of sugar and/or foods that increase insulin: pizza, pasta, carbonated drinks, lollies, etc.

  • High glycaemic index (GI) foods drive quite a high level of insulin growth factors from about age 15 to 35, and sometimes earlier. So we need to encourage teenagers – as best we can – to consume whole grains. If they’re having pizza they can order a wholegrain base, and wholegrain pasta made from wheat, spelt and other grams is now readily available.
  • Encourage consumption of low-starch vegetables – typically those you find in salads – along with green beans, radish, cucumber, cabbage and broccoli. So five servings a day, plus two serves of fruit, which aligns with Australian dietary guidelines.

Eating whole grains and low-starch vegetables reduces insulin production, which in turn reduces female oestrogen changing to androgen hormones via the aromatisation process.

  • Milk and other dairy products need to be reduced because casein and lactose have an influence on insulin growth factors. This, too, is a bit tricky because teens need to get sufficient calcium. One option is to swap dairy products with soy or almond alternatives containing added calcium, and/or to eat high-calcium foods such as tahini.
  • Include some lean, hormone-free sources of protein. This is another important factor because androgen hormones in animals can actually transfer to humans through the meat we consume.
  • It’s also important to lighten the liver’s load by reducing saturated fats and hydrogenated fats, which means no chips, no deep-fried foods. Teenagers love their chips, so consider an air fryer, which works by producing the Maillard reaction (browning). The chips come out crunchy and crisp exactly as they would if fried. Or make oven fries tossed in a little olive oil.
  • A diet low in essential fatty acids has been proven to result in skin problems – and particularly dandruff. So use good olive oil, have fish oil supplements or cod liver oil, have oily fish three times a week, and eat avocados. Alternatively, supplement with vitamins A, D and E.

Mineral deficiency

The brittle and dry hair your daughter is experiencing is linked to mineral deficiency. Because our soils are lacking in minerals, a mineral supplement may be beneficial. While some speculate that silica is the main mineral for skin and hair, the reality is all minerals assist in hair growth and prevent brittleness. However, silica is important because it’s present throughout the skin and hair. Silica-rich foods include cucumber, mango, rhubarb, green beans, oranges, almonds, oats and apples. Silica is also present in our water supply.

Good flora

Gut flora is easily disrupted in teenagers for many reasons. Imbalanced gut flora affects the skin as well as the gut: if lactobacillus is missing or overwhelmed in the gastrointestinal tract, there can be a lack of it on the skin.

Personal-care products containing sodium laureth sulphate (SLS) also disrupt the natural skin bacteria.

A lack of good flora can lead to a growth of fungus on the scalp, and this is what causes the dandruff. Scientists have isolated a number of different fungi that grow on the scalp, one of which is the genus Malassezia, which has many species. Candida albicans can also be found in scrapings from dandruff.

Improving gut flra counteracts this:

  • Avoid pickles and yeasty foods such as Vegemite and soy sauce.
  • Eat clean as discussed earlier.
  • Probiotics repopulate gut flora, which then migrate to the skin. Either use a probiotic supplement before bed, or eat 60mls plain yoghurt with live bacterial content. Kefir is an alternative, perhaps with some fruit to make it more interesting.
  • Fermented foods contain lactic acid, which helps that gut to produce its own flora.

Hair care

I advise my patients to massage a little coconut oil into their scalp, as trials have shown it to be 100 per cent successful in repelling candida albicans. We know it’s really good for getting rid of fungus and it seems to work very well for dandruff. You do need to rinse it off in the morning, though, or else scrape your hair back into a pony tail.

Avoid scrubbing the scalp when shampooing because this can irritate the scalp, which causes more oil. The more you irritate the scalp this way, and strip your head of oil by using products containing SLS and washing the hair too often, the more the fungus grows and the more sebum is produced.

So choose an SLS-free shampoo, or alternatively use a beaten egg white, which foams a little and does not strip your hair of its natural oil. It’s also very nourishing and the albumen and the proteins in the egg benefit your hair.

Use a minuscule amount of coconut oil as a conditioner. Rub a quarter teaspoon of the oil onto your hands and smooth it through the ends of your hair to condition it before drying.

Other factors

Hypothyroidism may be implicated, so use iodised salt. Vitamin B6 on its own, 50mgs, helps manage hormonal condition.

Finally, stress must be reduced because the Malassezia globosa form of fungus is associated with neurogenic responses – stress, in other words. Stress can also cause hair to lose its shine, and become a little greasy and sticky. Moreover, it increases the release of glucose, which then increases our insulin growth factors.

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