You may have noticed an influx of new scalp care products available lately, like pre-shampoos, special serums, and exfoliating masks. If you ask hair experts, these offerings aren’t just a way for hair care brands to get you to buy more of their products. Instead, these scalp-focused formulas are actually efficient, necessary methods to nurture your scalp’s unique microbiome. “Maintaining its balance can be a bit different than the skin on the rest of the body,” says Aegean Chan, board-certified dermatologist in Santa Barbara, California, of these various scalp treatments. She adds that when that balance is off, your scalp can become inflamed, itchy, and so uncomfortable that its daily functioning could be negatively affected.
Because of this, proper scalp care is just as important as a consistent skin care routine, says Bridgette Hill, a certified trichologist. This regimen doesn’t require the same daily commitment, but it shouldn’t be overlooked, she notes. Plus, when you remember that your scalp is a defensive barrier, as Hill points out, in addition to being the foundation for healthy hair growth, taking care of it starts to seem even more important.
“A healthy scalp is at the root of having healthy hair and promoting healthy hair growth,” Karly Cerrone, a colorist at New York City’s Suite Caroline Salon, tells TZR. So feeding your scalp the ingredients it needs and treating it with care will allow your hair to flourish.
There are a multitude of things that can result in abnormal scalp conditions according to Hill, including stress, medication, hormones, genetics, hair styling, eating habits, and overall health. However, keep in mind that, “Scalp health is affected by a combination of factors, so it is often challenging to isolate one particular cause,” she adds.
With all that in mind, TZR spoke with scalp experts to share their tips for troubleshooting common scalp concerns at home — regardless of your hair type — and advice for creating a proper scalp care routine to help prevent them. Of course, it’s always best to talk to your dermatologist or a trichologist if you are having concerns about the health of your scalp, too, Cerrone notes, but these ideas are an excellent place to start.
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Scalp Treatments For A Dry Scalp
Signs: Tight, sore scalp and parched, brittle hair
Cause: Scalp dryness is typically due to harsh, drying hair-care products, particularly shampoo, Dr. Chan says. It can also be attributed to overuse of hot tools and overall body hydration, which can cause a depletion of sebum production says Hill.
Treatment Plan: Because a dry scalp is a result of a “depletion in its moisturizing agent,” as Hill puts it, adding more hydration to your hair care routine will help remedy the situation. Dr. Chan recommends switching to a more moisturizing shampoo and adding a scalp oil or conditioning treatment to your scalp care routine.
Scalp Treatments For A Flaky Scalp
Signs: Scaly and peeling
Cause: If you’re noticing flakes falling from your hair, you might have a scalp condition, such as dandruff or psoriasis.
An easy way to figure out what’s ailing you is by analyzing the shape and size of the flakes. Hill likes to compare them to seasonings — if the flakes from your scalp look like salt granules, they may be a result of a dry, dehydrated scalp. “Dandruff and flakes produced as a result of scalp medical conditions look more like dried onion flakes,” she explains.
True dandruff has nothing to do with a dry scalp, though. It actually occurs when your scalp overproduces yeast and creates abnormal fungal growth called malassezia, says Hill. Dr. Chan adds that dandruff typically flares seasonally during fall and spring. Psoriasis, on the other hand, creates pink, scaly patches on the scalp which can sometimes bleed.
Treatment plan: Mild flaking can be treated with scalp care products formulated with peppermint, eucalyptus, tea tree, rosemary, and aloe, Hill says. Full-fledged dandruff will need stronger ingredients, like sulfur, selenium sulfide, zinc pyrithione, salicylic acid, and alpha hydroxy acids, she adds.
You can also seek out over-the-counter, antifungal dandruff shampoos, like classics Head & Shoulders and Selsun Blue, Dr. Chan says. Be sure to wash your hair with it two to three times a week, “even when your scalp is not scaly,” she adds. “This helps keep the yeast population on your scalp at bay and will reduce how often you flare.”
She notes that psoriasis won’t be responsive to antifungal shampoos, however. In that case, you’ll need to make an appointment with your dermatologist to talk through the right treatment options for you, as prescription products may be required.
Scalp Treatments For Itchy Scalp
Signs: Irritation, scabbing, and redness
Cause: Itchiness and irritation are symptoms of both inflammatory scalp disorders and common scalp conditions, Hill says. If you don’t have any lesions, you probably are experiencing allergic contact dermatitis. This commonly strikes after coloring your hair with a dye spiked with paraphenylenediamine (PPD), Dr. Chan says. Alternately, you may be allergic to an ingredient in one of your hair care products.
Lesions combined with severe itchiness and irritation are an indicator of seborrheic dermatitis, which is a common scalp form of eczema. It produces dandruff, scaling, redness, and itchiness, Hill explains.
Treatment Plan: One of the simplest ways to reduce and prevent scalp irritation is to avoid wearing your hair in a tight ponytail or bun for extended periods of time, Cerrone says, adding that, “It can oftentimes suffocate the scalp.” Switch up your style with a claw clip and a loose updo every once in a while.
Cerrone also suggests steering clear of scalp and hair care products packed with fragrances and instead seek out ones that are fragrance-free and gentle. “An easy way to begin thinking about hair product ingredients is to compare to the ingredients in your skin care,” she explains. “Why would you put something on your scalp if you wouldn’t put it on your face?”
Those with dandruff can refer to the treatment options listed under Flaky Scalp. However, once an onset of seborrheic dermatitis arises on the scalp, the condition most likely never will be cured. Hill stresses that it can be successfully managed, however, adding that “it [is] mandatory that a proper scalp care routine is adhered to for it to be controlled.”
Signs: Greasy hair, stringy texture
Cause: Greasy hair may be a result of product buildup, Cerrone says. The sebum your scalp naturally creates is likely getting trapped under layers of leave-in creams, gels, dry shampoos, and sprays.
Treatment Plan: Try a purifying or balancing shampoo, mask, or other clarifying treatment, Cerrone says. Make sure to fully saturate your hair with water before lathering it up with the product and properly rinsing it out (after all, you don’t want to layer onto the product buildup). This will help your scalp to breath again after removing any buildup.
You can also give yourself a scalp massage, either with your fingers or a brush, Cerrone says. “This should help to lift debris and build up off of the scalp, redistribute oil, and help stimulate and circulate the blood circulation,” she explains.
For those with healthy, normal scalps, caring for them is still imperative, Hill says. She recommends doing some sort of scalp treatment at least once a month, but “biweekly is ideal,” she adds.
Create new beauty habits over time and work scalp care into your self-care rituals. If you put on a face mask before hopping in the shower, load your hair up with a mask (or pre-shampoo treatment), too. Slather on a scalp serum after layering a serum onto your face. These are “simple ways to help keep the scalp happy and balanced,” Cerrone says. “Your scalp will feel so much cleaner, and your hair will feel fuller, lighter, and look shinier.”
Dr. Chan also suggests paying closer attention to how your scalp feels. If you’re sensing slight dryness or irritation, you can switch up your go-to shampoo to one that is more moisturizing, she says.
Although they may seem tempting, be sure to avoid scalp masks that are formulated with harsh exfoliating grains or exfoliants that don’t dissolve. Hill explains that “they can cause more irritation and get stuck in the root of the hair and create other triggers and problems if not used properly.”