Flakes, be gone.
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Welcome to Asking for a Friend, a bi-monthly column where our beauty editor goes deep (with the help of some of the industry’s leading experts) to answer your most pressing hair, makeup, and skin-related questions.
I’m not sure if it’s the change in season or what, but my scalp has turned into a bit of a problem child recently. It’s tight, dry, and flakey, yet my strands appear greasy and dull at the same time. What gives? I’ve tried washing my hair a few extra times a week, but it doesn’t seem to be doing anything beyond drying out my ends. I know scalp exfoliators are a thing, but I’m not sure how to use them or which ones to try: salt scrub, chemical exfoliant, or a brush? Any advice?
– Scalp Conscious
Dear Scalp Conscious,
When it comes to hair care, we tend to reserve all of our TLC for our strands, but your scalp deserves attention too. Whether you’re dealing with tightness, dryness, and flaking or greasy residue and buildup (or all of the above), treating your scalp to a gentle exfoliating treatment can be the ultimate gamechanger. Ahead, we tapped a handful of the industry’s leading haircare experts to break down everything you need to know about exfoliating your scalp and the best products to use.
What is Scalp Exfoliation?
Our scalps are no different from the rest of our skin. When left untreated, they can become overrun with dead skin cells, clogged pores, and product buildup, all of which can mean unfortunate things for our hair (lack of volume, greasiness, dullness, you name it). While frequent shampooing can help prevent this buildup, sometimes more drastic measures are needed.
“Scalp exfoliation is the process of removing [or lifting away] dead skin cells and debris so that newer, healthier cells can rise to the skin’s surface,” explains Franck Izquierdo, co-founder of IGK Hair Care. “Exfoliation can be either chemical (AHAs and BHAs) or physical (scrubs and brushes); the point is to remove the excess oil, buildup, and dead skin cells that might be clogging your pores and preventing your hair from looking its best.”
Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Angela Lamb adds that “when done with the right ingredients and at the correct frequency, scalp exfoliation can also improve overall scalp health and even help treat certain scalp conditions, such as seborrheic dermatitis.”
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The Benefits of Exfoliating Your Scalp
Scalp exfoliators are not only satisfying to use but also provide a host of hair care benefits.
- Encourages hair growth: According to R+Co. Collective member Marwa Bashir, when the hair follicles become clogged, hair growth may “slow down or stop in some areas completely.” Scalp exfoliators help combat this by lifting excess sebum and product residue, removing flakes, and stimulating blood and oxygen flow to the hair follicles, thereby keeping the optimal environment where hair grows balanced and nourished.
- Enhances volume and shine: Although we often turn to volumizing sprays and creams to inject some life into dull, limp strands, Izquierdo suggests reaching for a scalp exfoliator instead. “Exfoliating your scalp removes that buildup and weight, so your hair appears bouncier, shinier, and more voluminous.” Think of it as the ultimate deep clean for your strands.
- Alleviates itchy and flaking: Like a good body scrub, scalp exfoliators are not only great at lifting away oil and dirt but also relieving dry, itchy, and flakey skin. By sloughing away dead skin cells, they make it possible for healthy new cells to surface, leaving your scalp feeling calmer and less irritated. According to Dr. Lamb, when done correctly, scalp exfoliation may even treat mild forms of dandruff.
How Often Should You Exfoliate Your Scalp?
There’s no right or wrong answer here. How often you exfoliate your scalp will vary depending on your hair texture, styling techniques, and how often you exercise. For instance, if you have thicker hair, frequently use styling products like dry shampoo and oils, or workout daily, you may want to consider exfoliating your scalp more regularly to help remove buildup (think twice a week). That said, our experts agree that on average you should aim for no more than one to two times a week, and even less if your hair naturally produces less oil. Any more, and you may risk “stripping the scalp of its healthy oils and damaging its outermost layer,” says Izquierdo.
Who Shouldn’t Exfoliate Their Scalp?
Although scalp exfoliants are generally safe, experts agree that individuals with certain scalp conditions may want to proceed with caution. “This treatment can be slightly intense, so people with skin conditions such as eczema, excessive dandruff, and psoriasis should not try scalp exfoliation,” says Izquierdo. “When in doubt, I recommend asking your dermatologist before proceeding with any scalp treatment.”
How to Exfoliate Your Scalp
While the instructions may vary, depending on the product you choose, Dr. Lamb recommends making scalp exfoliation the first step in your hair care routine. “You should exfoliate your scalp before washing your hair and then follow up with a good moisturizing shampoo,” she says. “Massage the exfoliant into your scalp for a few minutes and then rinse. The Malin + Goetz Scalp Detox Mask is one of my favorites because it contains both glycolic and salicylic acids, which promote scalp cell turnover while simultaneously functioning as a purifying shampoo.”
If you prefer physical exfoliants, Bashir suggests using a regular boar bristle brush to brush loose any flakes or buildup. “I’ll then apply castor oil as a scalp treatment, as it’s amazing for encouraging hair growth, moisturizing the scalp, preventing dandruff, and helping to treat scalp infections,” she says. “I let that sit on my scalp for 20 minutes and then proceed to the shower, adding shampoo onto my dry hair to break up the castor oil before rinsing (remember oil and water don’t mix). I’ll then shampoo twice or use an additional in-shower scalp scrub, like R+Co.’s Crown Scalp Scrub.”
For those with more sensitive skin, Izquierdo also recommends IGK’s Low Key Cleansing Walnut Scalp Scrub. “It’s a gentle salt-free formula that uses sugar and finely ground walnut to physically exfoliate the scalp and remove dirt, oil, and product buildup,” he says. “It also has apple cider vinegar to naturally clarify and peppermint oil to rebalance the skin.”
Ready to reveal cleaner, healthier-looking hair from root to tip? Shop the experts’ picks and more of our favorite scalp exfoliators below.