Beauty buffs usually have no problem caring for the skin on their faces, but when it comes to the scalp, that particular patch of skin is often neglected. Whether or not you have a scalp care routine already, the fact remains that a healthy scalp is the key to lustrous, commercial-ready hair. But given the amount of products you likely use on your hair, and the exposure to the environment, problems like redness, flaking, and irritation can often pop up to ruin your good hair day. Luckily, TZR has uncovered the four main signs that your scalp is unhealthy to help you know when it’s time to visit a professional.
“A healthy scalp is important to promote optimal hair health,” explains Dr. Iris Rubin, board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of haircare brand SEEN. “The scalp, specifically the hair follicles, are the manufacturing plant for your hair. Thus, it’s best to keep the scalp happy and healthy to optimize hair health.”
If you’re committed to doing more for your scalp, it’s important to consider its overall health. For example, that flakiness you’re seeing could just be an annoying sign of a long, dry winter, but in some cases it warrants a visit to a trichologist. That redness you glossed over the other day? It could be a symptom of a more chronic condition. But don’t be alarmed — once you know what to look for, you’ll be able to address the problem quickly and maintain a healthier scalp moving forward. With that, find four warning signs your scalp may be in trouble ahead — plus, how to fix it.
Sign Of An Unhealthy Scalp #1: A Patch Of Scales
“A flaky scalp [or a patch of scales] is often due to seborrheic dermatitis — commonly known as dandruff — and is linked to a yeast called malessezia on the skin,” Dr. Rubin tells TZR. “It can also be due to contact dermatitis, which is a sensitivity to hair products.” In the case of seborrheic dermatitis, dandruff shampoos — especially ones that contain ketoconazole, selenium sulfide, salicylic acid, or zinc pyrithione — can be a big help. Sulfate-free shampoos and shampoos with milder surfactants that won’t strip the skin of natural oils are also beneficial for those experiencing flakiness. And remember, if you have a lot of flaking on your scalp, the dead skin cells can mix with sebum and can clog pores, so it’s best to treat it as soon as you see it. Clear pores means healthier hair.
Sign Of An Unhealthy Scalp #2: Itchiness
An itchy scalp is frustrating at best and a sign of a medical scalp condition at worst. According to certified trichologist Bridgette Hill, here’s how to tell: “Scalp pruritus, or itchy scalp, can be as simple as your scalp communicating that there’s an irritant affecting it. It could also be a sign of a simple scalp condition (such as dryness-related dandruff), or a more severe medical scalp condition like dermatitis, psoriasis, Lichen planopilaris, or eczema.”
And while it’s true that hair product buildup can sometimes cause itchiness, Hill says this doesn’t necessarily mean your scalp is unhealthy. “Hair product buildup isn’t caked on to the scalp, and a deep cleansing shampoo will easily remove product buildup,” she explains. “More serious scalp conditions, however, will not be able to be managed by simply exfoliating or shampooing the scalp.”
So, how does one know if their itchiness is something to take seriously? Hill says that if you have a scalp condition that’s lingered for more than three months, it’s time to pay your certified trichologist a visit. “A certified trichologist serves as the gateway between your medical provider and hair stylist. They’ll be able to suggest individualized treatments and offer nutritional advice, as well as recommend certain lifestyle changes to improve the health and appearance of the scalp,” she says.
Sign Of An Unhealthy Scalp #3: Redness
Notice some redness on your scalp while attempting Dutch braids or switching to a middle part? It could be the result of something more innocent — an irritation or allergic reaction from an ingredient in a particular hair care product, recent trauma from excessive heat, a hairstyle that created too much tension on the hair follicle, or even a sunburn. Sometimes, though, redness can occur if the scalp is inflamed by a skin condition. “Redness on the scalp accompanied with other visible characteristics [like flakiness or scaly skin] can be signs of more serious conditions like chronic inflammation, bacterial or fungal conditions, psoriasis, or eczema,” Hill tells TZR. Significant inflammation on the scalp can, in some cases, contribute to hair loss, so it’s best to visit your dermatologist if you’re concerned.
Sign Of An Unhealthy Scalp #4: Excessive Hair Shedding
Shedding 50 to 100 hairs a day is expected, especially if you wash your hair less frequently, according to Hill. But if you’re seeing trails of hair in your car, on the floor in your home, or on your pillow, this is your scalp’s way of telling you that something bigger way be wrong with your body. “By design, our bodies are made to survive. So when the body is lacking, it will take nutrients and energy from the system of hair growth in order to sustain itself,” says Hill. If you’re noticing hair loss in a pattern (for example, on the temples or on crown of the head), consult with your dermatologist. They’ll be able to identify whether there is a more serious issue (like alopecia areata) or if you’re experiencing something like stress-related hair loss.
Below, find a few products that your scalp and hair will love.
We only include products that have been independently selected by TZR's editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.
Suffering from dry roots and a dehydrated scalp? Use this nutrient-packed lotion from scalp brand Headquarters as the finishing step of your haircare routine. It offers one final boost of moisture, and as an added bonus, will balance your scalp over time to really kick dryness to the curb.
If your scalp is stressed (be it due to a new protective style or excess heat styling, among other issues), opt for a CBD scalp oil to offer some much-needed relief. This one from Philip B is a winner since it immediately calms redness and irritation (plus, you can use it on the body, and who doesn’t love multi-tasking?).
For a total scalp refresh, try this three-part hair kit, which includes a shampoo, conditioner, and serum, that all work to soothe the scalp, strengthen the natural scalp barrier, and simultaneously thicken the hair (because honestly, your lengths need some love, too).
A healthy scalp is to be celebrated, which is where this champagne-infused scalp scrub comes in handy. On a mission to eliminate dead skin, oil, sweat, dirt, and product buildup, this scrub uses sugar (versus salt) to moisturize and work harmoniously with your shampoo.
Hill recommends using an oil-based scalp mask, like this one from Advanced Clinicals which harnesses the detoxifying power of tea tree oil to hydrate, prevent buildup, and create a healthy environment for hair growth.
If your scalp is red and irritated, this creamy conditioner checks every box to help reverse your discomfort. Climbazole and piroctone olamine eliminate dandruff while rosemary oil, menthol, and ginger extract work together to calm and soothe.
PHYTO’s Phytopolléine Scalp Treatment is small but mighty. Think of it as a facial, but for your roots: A 100% botanical blend of essential oils work to exfoliate, detoxify, balance, and energize even the driest of scalps.