I’ll put this right up top: Scalp products are the least enjoyable part of my hair routine. I have thick hair and getting a mask to actually make contact with my scalp results in a predictable ride on the struggle bus. I’ve tried sectioning off small, manageable areas with a tail comb, using gels or lotions instead of thicker textures to make it easier, and even used my spousal privileges to get my husband to rub goo into my scalp. A few products have worked, but they’ve all required way more effort than I want to put in.
That’s why I hesitated to say yes when beauty brand The Inkey List offered me a professional scalp facial using their newly-launched specialized formulas for the skin on top of the head. I was pretty certain I’d never be able to replicate the results at home, but I figured it couldn’t hurt. Three weeks after getting the treatment and then using the products consistently for three weeks, my scalp has been transformed. The standout product within the collection: The Inkey List’s Salicylic Acid Exfoliating Scalp Treatment. Read on for how it’s changed my hair care game.
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- Price: $14.99
- Best for: Relieving scalp flaking and buildup
- Rating: 4.5/5
- Brand: The Inkey List
- Clean/Cruelty-Free?: Yes
- What we like: Ease of application, quick results
- What we don't like: The packaging nozzle can let too much product out
The Inkey List Salicylic Acid Exfoliating Scalp Treatment
The Inkey List treatment is a liquid exfoliant that will slough off dead cells from the surface of the scalp, which it does with the help of salicylic acid, a beta hydroxy acid known for its exfoliating prowess and its other skin and scalp benefits. “This product delivers 2% salicylic acid to your roots to help regulate oil production and banish flakes and buildup,” says Shab Reslan, a trichologist based in New York City who performed the scalp facial. She adds that the ingredient also provides antibacterial capabilities, so it helps clear the scalp of buildup that hinders hair growth.
How It Works
The true perks of the treatment come from its star ingredient, salicylic acid. “Salicylic acid is an oil-soluble ingredient that is keratolytic, meaning it can loosen dead skin cells that build up on the scalp, which can help conditions like dandruff, scalp irritation, and itching,” says cosmetic chemist Lalita Iyer. SA’s mode of action is the same on the hair as it is on the skin. In both cases, salicylic acid penetrates the skin and removes excess skin buildup as well as unclogs pores filled with debris and excess oil, says Iyer.
Apart from flaking, the product is aimed to target a few other issues which dandruff sufferers often face, like irritation, redness, and excess oil production. “In 2% concentrations, salicylic acid has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, so it could help soothe and calm redness and irritation associated with various scalp conditions such as dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis,” says Iyer. And the ingredient’s lipophilic nature means that it’s able to dissolve oils and remove excess sebum and debris which can build up on the scalp, and thus help regulate oil production.
Anyone struggling with flakiness, itchiness, and excessively oily roots can benefit from a weekly salicylic acid scalp treatment. The exfoliant is formulated to be applied to the scalp before you shower, left in to break down product, sebum and environmental buildup, before shampooing it all out, Reslan explains.
My Scalp Issue
I’m currently suffering from dry patches, and I’ve struggled between balancing my scalp’s natural oils, removing buildup, and drying it out even further. Some products I’ve used dry my scalp out too much while clearing buildup, whereas the products that have performed well are of a thicker consistency — and it takes way too much effort to work them into the roots, like I mentioned above.
Apart from the annoyance, if flaking becomes a regular occurrence, it can affect hair growth. Chronic scalp flakiness, product buildup, and excess sebum negatively impact the scalp and hair in two ways, according to Reslan: “You get weaker hair growth due to clogged follicle openings where the hair grows out of, while redness and itchy inflammation can damage the follicle and result in hair loss over time,” she explains. It was all the more reason I wanted to get this problem in check.
The packaging and the consistency of The Inkey List’s Salicylic Acid Scalp Exfoliating Treatment product are what make a winning combination in my eyes. The thin, slightly oily liquid is a touch thicker than water, and is dispensed from a squeeze bottle attached to a nozzle. The narrow shape of the nozzle makes it convenient to drag it through the hair while in contact with the scalp, and the liquid exfoliant reaches the scalp effortlessly.
My only issue, however, is that there is a learning curve with the nozzle: If it’s open all the way too much product gets out, so you really have to jig the dial to get to a sweet spot.
How To Use
It’s as basic as any scalp product can get. You apply the product directly to the scalp — either all over or on the spots where you have flaking, let it sit for 10 minutes, then shampoo it out. Reslan recommends giving yourself a mini scalp massage with your fingertips while you wait, and I actually enjoyed giving myself a head rub while the product was soaking in.
Ideally, this is a once-a-week treatment for people with mild dandruff or buildup. After the flaking has reduced, you can dial back usage and use it less frequently. “If someone is experiencing serious scalp buildup and flakiness, I recommend using it before every other shampoo day until the buildup is clear, then continue on a regular weekly or biweekly schedule to maintain a balanced, healthy, and clear scalp environment ideal for your best hair growth,” Reslan says.
This was the easiest to apply of all scalp products I’ve ever used. I don’t need to section my hair and create channels for the liquid to be applied — I just systematically move the nozzle over my scalp, ensuring I’ve targeted the whole area. It was super easy to hit even the back of my head, and just takes a few minutes instead of the 15 or 20 minute time suck I normally need for scalp scrubs or masks.
I left it on for the prescribed 10 minutes, and then shampooed and conditioned as per usual. I found that it’s also easy to wash out, and, most importantly, I felt no dryness or tightness during or after air drying my hair. That could be the effects of the FluidiPure 8G in the formula, a special complex of humectant and conditioning ingredients “that could help in targeting sebum production and reduce scalp irritation,” according to Iyer.
My scalp feels and looks clearer, and I can feel no rough spots. It’s eliminated minor flaking and even banished one recurring flaky spot that I had near my hairline. Reslan had advised me to pay specific attention to the hairline while washing both my face and my scalp — it was the no man’s land that I washed gently while face cleansing so as not to ruin my blowouts, but Reslan recommended I really get in there and make sure the day’s makeup and sunscreen were well cleansed. I’ve been doing that conscientiously, and combined with the scalp treatment, it’s made all the difference in my hair health.
In the three weeks I’ve used it, I’ve found The Inkey List’s scalp treatment has worked really well to get rid of flaking as well as to balance my scalp’s oils. I no longer have to struggle between a parched scalp or a greasy one, which is a satisfying feat. You could say my scalp is finally in its Goldilocks era.
Arif T. (2015). Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology, 8, 455–461. https://doi.org/10.2147/CCID.S84765
Leyden, JJ. (1987). Effects of sulfur and salicylic acid in a shampoo base in the treatment of dandruff: a double-blind study using corneocyte counts and clinical grading. Cutis. 1987 Jun;39(6):557-61. PMID: 3301220.
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/
Vasconcelos, R.M. (2012). Synthesis, acute toxicity and anti-inflammatory effect of bornyl salicylate, a salicylic acid derivative. Immunopharmacol Immunotoxicol. doi: 10.3109/08923973.2012.694891.
Shab Reslan, a trichologist based in New York City
Lalita Iyer, cosmetic chemist