Raise your hand if you neglect your scalp during your skin and hair care routines (same). When you’re focusing on the health of your strands, the oiliness of your hair, and keeping your skin barrier intact, getting to the literal root of things can slip your mind. But experts say it’s definitely important to learn about scalp exfoliation in order to accomplish all of those goals.
It’s easy to forget this, but — even though it’s typically covered in hair — your scalp is part of your skin. So it’s also key to exfoliate it, as you do with your face, to stimulate circulation and slough off dead skin cells to keep everything fresh and healthy.
The same skin care rules basically apply to the area on top of your head. “With scalp exfoliation, you’re removing the residue from products used on hair and environmental debris,” says Bridgette Hill, a certified trichologist. Congestion and buildup can happen from everyday products like shampoo or styling creams. “The skin turns over on the scalp like it does on the rest of the body,” Dr. Purvisha Patel, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Visha Skincare, says, adding that regular exfoliation keeps hair follicles from being clogged. To put it simply, Hill says to think of scalp exfoliators as cleansers — they go beyond traditional shampoos to target and cleanse the area. And when you have a healthy exfoliated scalp, you can expect thicker, healthier, and more hygienic hair.
To keep your strands in tip-top shape, here’s what the experts say on how to exfoliate your scalp.
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How Often Should You Exfoliate Your Scalp?
Your scalp exfoliation routine all depends on your lifestyle and hair type. So frequency, according to Patel, could be as regular as every two weeks. New York City-based hairstylist and colorist Juliana Ohlmeyer echoes this as a good starting point. “Try exfoliating every other week and see if that helps,” she tells Bustle. “If your hair doesn’t improve, try once a week.” And, fun fact: Having an oily scalp doesn’t mean you need to exfoliate it more frequently, she says. This can lead to inflammation. “A dry scalp that gets flaky should also exfoliate about once every two weeks,” she says.
If you have sensitive skin or a condition like eczema, however, it’s best to consult an expert to determine the best regimen for you.
What Should You Use For Scalp Exfoliation?
There has been an uptick in scalp-specific hair care products in recent years, and these range from pre-shampoo oils, serums, or creams.
To find an appropriate scalp exfoliant, Hill and Patel recommend looking for ingredients that aid in cell turnover, reduce inflammation, and have anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties. Hill points to ingredients like citrus and rosemary, though tea tree oil and chemical exfoliants also do the job. You could also use a physical-based exfoliant (aka a scalp scrub) to scrub away buildup. Patel suggests formulas that use sugar or salt. Pro tip: Patel recommends adding a coarse salt or sugar to your shampoo to slough off dead skin cells.
You can also DIY a scalp scrub at home, with a few caveats. Patel suggests using African black soap because it has sulfur and ash, the latter of which is anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory. With your recipe, just be sure to avoid “coconut oil and olive oil on your scalp,” warns Patel. These can cause forehead acne and also increase the growth of microorganisms, which can lead to inflammation or even more oil production.
How Do You Exfoliate Your Scalp?
Now for the process itself. “Start by properly and liberally applying your selected oil, serum, scrub, or cream onto the scalp with your fingers and massage it in,” says Hill.
Once the product has been thoroughly massaged, you can reap more benefits by using a scalp brush. “When used with a proper [exfoliant], a brush increases circulation, cellular turnover, and stimulates the scalp to keep its muscles firing,” says Hill. So, basically, the bristles work to deliver more oxygen to your scalp, which feeds your hair and results in thicker, healthier strands. If you have straight to wavy hair, Hill recommends using the brush in circular motions, while wavy to tightly coiled hair should use half-moon shaped strokes. Either way, try doing the treatment for about five minutes for best results.
After you’re finished exfoliating, all you have to do is rinse and go on with the rest of your hair care routine. Keep scrolling to shop scalp exfoliators.
The Self-Care Buy
If you’ve ever run your comb against your scalp and thought, “How does this feel so good?” then treat yourself to this scalp massager. Aside from the euphoric feeling, the bristles help promote circulation for a healthier head of hair. This specific massager can also be used on a wet or dry scalp.
A Multitasking Serum
A skin care serum treats specific issues and goals. This product from Collective Laboratories does the exact same thing but for your hair. The serum stimulates circulation in the scalp, strengthens your strands, and balances oils thanks to its nourishing formula that includes ginseng and biotin.
A Celeb-Fave Scrub
Catherine Deneuve uses this salt scrub for her always lustrous and thick hair, so that really says it all. The Christophe Robin product is one of the mainstays of the category for good reason, and is perfect for those who like a gritty texture.
A Satisfyingly Fizzy Scalp Treatment
The texture of this Bumble & Bumble product is fizzy and foaming, which is immediately fun. But the formula is equally great: This pre-shampoo treatment only needs to be left in the hair for three minutes for the micellar water-based formula to take effect and remove your buildup.
Altuner, E. (2010). Investigation of Antifungal Activity of Ononis Spinosa L. Ash Used for the Therapy of Skin Infections as Folk Remedies. Mikrobiyoloji Bulteni. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21063975/
Koyoma, T. (2016). Standardized Scalp Massage Results in Increased Hair Thickness by Inducing Stretching Forces to Dermal Papilla Cells in the Subcutaneous Tissue. Eplasty. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4740347/
Trueb, R. (2018). Scalp Condition Impacts Hair Growth and Retention via Oxidative Stress. International Journal of Trichology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6369642/
Dr. Purvisha Patel, board-certified dermatologist
Juliana Ohlmeyer, New York City-based hairstylist and colorist