I’ve been in the skincare industry for over 30 years now, so I’ve definitely seen my fair share of trends come and go. Some of them had merit, but more often than not, they didn’t live up to the buzz and they turned out to be just another passing fad.
The latest trend to come about—which is probably fueled at least in part by social media—is all about scalp care. Skincare brands are launching scalp-specific products and people are sharing their personal scalp care routines on Instagram and Tik Tok. But is a scalp care routine really necessary? Is this just another short-lived trend or is there real value to this?
In this post, I’ll share my thoughts on this topic. I’ll also discuss common scalp issues and answer frequently asked questions with the help of two amazing experts. The first is board-certified dermatologist Dr. Laura Speck, and the second is NYC trichologist, hair health expert, and host of Hair Like Hers Podcast, Shab Reslan.
From a physiological standpoint, the skin on the scalp is thicker than the skin on the rest of the body. It has a lot of blood vessels and capillaries that connect to and supply hair follicles. It also has a lot of sebaceous glands. In fact, it’s one of the most heavily populated sebaceous gland areas on the whole body, which explains why most peoples’ hair will get considerably greasy after it’s not washed for a while.
Even though scalp skin is thicker than the skin on other areas of the body, it’s very delicate. For this reason, it may be more prone to issues than facial skin. Take it from Reslan, who says, “due to the current nature of the environment and our lifestyle habits, our scalps require more attention than ever. Proper scalp care is often overlooked by many people since the focus is mainly on the aesthetic of the hair itself. Due to a rise in hair thinning and hair loss issues, the focus is now shifting to the scalp and the importance of maintaining a healthy scalp microbiome, especially for women. Since the scalp is an extension of our facial skin, it similarly has a pH level, moisture levels, and cells that benefit from exfoliation and regeneration.”
According to Speck, one of the most common concerns (and the issue she sees the most in her own patients) is dandruff. “The medical term for that is seborrheic dermatitis,” she says. “For adults, it typically starts in the late-20s and can ebb and flow over the years.”
Dandruff happens when the skin undergoes rapid keratinization (this is when skin cells reproduce too quickly). Because they’re replicating so fast, they’re not able to harden and become flat and protective. The result? The skin isn’t tight and compressed, so it flakes off easily.
The cause of dandruff has been known for over 50 years. It’s caused by a fungus called malassezia furfur. This fungus feeds on excess sebum on the scalp and then secretes free fatty acids and other byproducts. It’s these free fatty acids that inflame and compromise the skin on the scalp. In other words, it’s not necessarily the fungus itself, but its byproducts.
To address dandruff, antifungal agents like selenium oxide and zinc pyrithione are used. These agents help stop the overgrowth of the dandruff-causing fungi. For more severe cases of dandruff, there are prescription options as well. If you think you have dandruff, Speck says you should use an anti-dandruff shampoo 2-3 times per week. “The key is, that you want to massage it through the scalp and let it sit for 2-5 minutes before rinsing it out. Follow with the shampoo and conditioner of your choice for the length of your hair. If that isn’t cutting it, visit your dermatologist who can evaluate the cause of your flaking and give you a prescription if needed.”
Here’s an interesting fact for you—many times, when people are experiencing scalp flakiness, they’re not experiencing dandruff at all. Instead, they’re experiencing some sort of irritation, whether that’s some kind of dermatitis or even low-grade psoriasis. That’s why I always recommend consulting a dermatologist to get a diagnosis. They have the trained eye and knowledge required to determine the difference between dandruff and dermatitis. And actually, if you try to treat dermatitis or psoriatic skin with dandruff shampoos, you might make things worse!
Another interesting fact about the scalp is that the skin doesn’t change very much with age, aside from skin thickness and dryness. In one study, researchers found that scalp thickness increased, and the ability of the skin to stay hydrated decreased with age. That means transepidermal water loss, and subsequent skin dryness and dehydration, are likely to increase with age.
In this instance, hydrating scalp products might come in handy. You can try using products that contain humectants. These are ingredients that help the skin preserve and retain moisture. They’re beneficial for dehydrated skin, especially if you’re shampooing too often and stripping your skin of moisture (but more on that in a bit).
While there’s no shortage of scalp care products that claim to address almost every issue and concern, I believe they can be boiled down to three main categories. There are scalp serums, scalp oils, and scalp exfoliators (or scalp scrubs). Let’s do a deep dive into each type of product and discuss whether or not they can provide any real benefit for the skin on the scalp!
Just like face serums, scalp serums are marketed as targeted treatments to improve the state of the skin (and hair). While this is a relatively new product category, I think they can be helpful if you have dry skin and they contain the right ingredients. Again, look for humectants. These will help replenish moisture and keep your scalp hydrated.
You can also look for scalp serums that are labeled as “microbiome-friendly” or something to that effect. We’re just beginning to learn about the importance of the microbiome, but what we do know is that it’s important to keep it balanced. I would also look for scalp serums with ingredients that help reduce or regulate oil since that can help keep dandruff-causing fungi in check.
Some scalp serums claim to reduce or reverse hair loss, but I’m not sold on that. In fact, I would caution against using any of these in your at-home scalp care routine. That’s because there are many reasons for hair loss, and generally speaking, a scalp serum won’t address the root causes. That is unless it contains an ingredient called minoxidil, which is the only approved ingredient in the United States and Canada to help regrow hair. If anything, most of them are probably helping to reduce breakage, which can be beneficial, but they won’t necessarily target hair loss directly.
“If you are experiencing hair loss or symptoms such as an itchy or flaky scalp, see a dermatologist to have them diagnose the cause,” Speck says. “They will guide you through what regimen would be most beneficial for you.”
Scalp oils are just that—plant oils used to nourish, moisturize, or treat the scalp in some way. Personally, I think scalp oils can be beneficial since they moisturize the hair and prevent breakage as new hair enters the growth cycle. This can be especially helpful for people who have curly, coily, and textured hair since it reduces breakage and keeps fragile hair lubricated.
Scalp oils are also beneficial for anyone who has a dry scalp or is experiencing transepidermal water loss. They can provide a barrier between the skin and the air and help reduce flaking and irritancy. However, just like when you’re dealing with the skin on your face, you would need to hydrate your scalp first and then put oil on afterward. (Make sure you know the difference between dry and dehydrated skin.)
Again, if you’re prone to dandruff or have any other scalp condition, I wouldn’t recommend using oils. If you do, it could imbalance your microbiome even further, exacerbating the issue. I would also avoid scalp oils if you’re prone to scalp odor. They could potentially make it worse.
Exfoliating products are a popular part of many at-home scalp care routines. The idea is that the skin on the scalp requires regular exfoliation, just like the rest of the skin. Like all other exfoliants, they can be split into two categories—physical and chemical.
The most popular scalp exfoliants seem to be salt or sugar-based scrubs. I’m not a big fan of these for a couple of reasons. The first is that it’s difficult for these tiny particles to get past strands of hair. In fact, many of them never make it to the scalp at all. So, they can’t roll across the skin and slough away dead cells like they’re supposed to.
The second reason is that both salt and sugar dissolve in water. This means they’ll dissolve rapidly on wet hair. Again, this means they might not slough away dead cells as effectively as some people think.
Recently, though, there’s been an increase in chemical exfoliants for the scalp. While I think these can be beneficial, they should be used sparingly. After all, the scalp is a delicate area. You don’t want to over-exfoliate it or expose it to too many active ingredients. “Low concentrations of exfoliating acids are safe for the scalp and should not be used daily but instead used as supplemental weekly treatments much like your facial exfoliant,” Reslan says. “The two most popular exfoliating acids and safe percentages for the scalp being used today are salicylic (around 2%) and glycolic (around 7%).”
If you do use chemical exfoliants on your scalp, make sure you’re protecting it from the sun. If you’re not protecting new, vulnerable cells, you could incur damage. Over time, sun damage could lead to an increased propensity for abnormal cells. I always recommend dusting an SPF-infused powder along your hairline, seeking shade, and wearing a hat when you’re outside.
A big part of any scalp care routine is shampooing. However, with all the talk of “training” your scalp and the “no-shampoo” movement, many people are confused about how frequently they should be cleaning their hair and scalp.
According to Speck, “the ideal interval to wash most hair types is every 2-3 days. More or less frequently can lead to over or underproduction of oil. That being said, someone with fine straight hair would err on the more frequent side (ex: every 2 days), whereas African American hair is more fragile and should be washed only once every 1-2 weeks.”
The way you shampoo also matters. According to Reslan, “The biggest mistake people make when washing their hair is not sufficiently cleansing the scalp and leaving product and/or sebum (natural oil) residue behind. This is why scalp care products are essential in maintaining a healthy and balanced scalp environment that can grow healthy and strong hair without any interruptions or hindrances.”
That’s why she recommends shampooing twice. “I recommend two shampoos every time you wash your hair,” she says. “You should focus the shampoo on your roots and massage gently in circular motions to truly help remove build-up. I recommend only running the shampoo down your ends if you use styling products regularly.”
Reslan says people often overlook the nape of the neck and the sides of the head above the ears. That explains why it’s common to find flaking and irritation in those areas. “If you shampoo your hair infrequently, it can be more challenging to sufficiently cleanse your scalp due to the increase in product and sebum build-up,” she says. “You really need to be your own judge and ensure that whenever you’re washing your hair, you’re removing all the build-up, and your hair isn’t left feeling waxy or looking greasy as it dries.”
In my opinion, scalp care products, and a scalp care routine, aren’t absolutely necessary. And actually, I would argue that most people don’t need to do much to care for their scalps, aside from using shampoo and conditioner. However, if you’re experiencing dryness or you’re interested in testing out this ever-expanding product category, go for it! There are a lot of interesting products out there, and you should test them out if you’re curious. At the end of the day, if they make a difference for you, that’s great!
As Reslan puts it, “our scalp is an extension of our face and just as unique for each individual. Just like we treat the skin on our face, our scalp deserves to be washed, exfoliated, nourished, and moisturized using a topical.”
If you’re experiencing a diagnosable scalp concern, though, I recommend skipping the scalp care products and consulting a doctor. Even if it’s a condition that doesn’t require medication, you can rest assured knowing a professional has checked it out. It’s always better to be safe than sorry!
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”
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