Air Travel and Oily Hair

Traveling woman with luggage at the airport
Q: My hair always looks greasy when I travel by plane. What causes this, and what can I do about it?
A: I understand the frustration of oily hair during air travel, but it's not possible for me to tell you exactly what is causing oily hair in your specific case. Greasy hair during flights can be caused by one factor or a combination of different factors. I'm happy to provide an overview of possible causes and solutions.
The cabin environment in an airplane typically has low humidity, which can dry out your skin and, consequently, your scalp. This leads to an overproduction of sebum by the sebaceous glands on your scalp as they try to compensate for the lack of moisture. This excess sebum can make your hair oily.
A lot happens in an airplane. You're in a confined space with many people, and even though the air is regularly refreshed and purified, various types of small particles still circulate through the cabin. Food is served, other passengers use products, and inevitably, some of these small, sometimes oily particles end up in your hair.
It's also possible that you wash your hair less frequently while traveling, resulting in a different look and feel than you're used to. Some flights can be very long, with the need to arrive at the airport well in advance, followed by a lengthy flight, sometimes with layovers of several hours. Upon arrival, it may take a significant amount of time before you can leave the airport. Many hours pass without you really noticing. If you're accustomed to washing your hair daily, breaking this routine can result in a different, sometimes oilier, appearance and feel.
Additionally, the stress factors associated with air travel, such as changes in altitude, air pressure, and adjustments to the time zone, can affect your body's hormonal balance. Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, releasing cortisol. Elevated cortisol levels can lead to overstimulation of the sebaceous glands on your scalp. This overstimulation results in increased sebum production, which may lead to a greasier scalp and hair.
Individual responses to stress vary, and not everyone will experience a noticeable impact on scalp sebum production due to stress. However, for some people, especially those already prone to an oily scalp, stress-induced changes in cortisol levels can exacerbate this condition.
Airplane cabin
Let's look at some possible solutions to address oily hair:
It's a good idea to carry travel-sized dry shampoo in your carry-on. Dry shampoo is a quick solution to absorb excess oil, add volume, and refresh your hair without using water. Apply it gently at the roots, let it sit for a few minutes before massaging and brushing it through your hair. Ensure moderate brushing to minimize static electricity.
Proper hydration is crucial, not only for your well-being during the plane journey but also for the health of your scalp. Drink enough water to counteract the drying effects of the cabin environment. This can help control the oil production on your scalp. Resist the temptation to consume a lot of caffeine or alcohol, as they can have a dehydrating effect.
During the flight, try to avoid touching or combing your hair with your fingers. This can transfer dirt and oil from your hands to your hair. Many people experience static hair in the plane, making it tempting to comb it with fingers to make it look neater. Sometimes we do this unconsciously. Opt for a hairstyle that minimizes the chance of touching. A bun, a ponytail, or braids are good choices.
If you have long hair and wear it loose, consider gently combing it with a wide-toothed comb. This can help distribute natural oils along the length of your hair. When the natural oils produced by your scalp don't stay close to the scalp but spread along the length of your hair, your hair will immediately appear less oily. However, keep in mind that combing your hair on the plane can generate static electricity, which may lead to another hair issue. So, comb in moderation.
I hope my answer helps resolve your issue with oily hair and makes your travel more enjoyable. You're not alone in dealing with this problem, and it's not a disaster if your hair looks slightly less perfect during travel. Perhaps we should all be a little less hard on ourselves and accept that we can't always look perfect.
See also: More about hair care