Looking for bouncy, voluminous hair? Consider adding a scalp exfoliant to your hair-care routine, especially if you’ve got product buildup, sweat a lot, or your scalp feels a little itchy. Similar to the exfoliants you’d use on your face, “scalp exfoliants aim to remove a buildup of dead skin cells, which are a result of normal cellular turnover and hair-care products,” Ivy Lee-Keltner, MD, board-certified dermatologist and medical director of Direct Dermatology in California, tells SELF. Below, hair-care experts explain all the nitty-gritty (pun intended) details about scalp exfoliation, and share the best products to make your shower feel more luxurious.
Why is it important to exfoliate your scalp?
Good hair starts with a healthy scalp. “There are so many factors, including sweat, pollution, oil, and product buildup, that can cause bacteria to fester, leading to discomfort, dryness, and itchiness throughout the scalp,” Helen Reavey, celebrity hairstylist and founder of hair- and scalp-care brand Act+Acre, tells SELF. “I always try to tie scalp care back to skin care. Can you imagine layering on makeup and leaving it on your skin for three or more days without washing it off?”
And, just like the skin on your face, your scalp is home to lots of oil-producing sebaceous glands. A little bit of oil (aka sebum) is a good thing—it keeps your hair looking hydrated, shiny, and healthy. But too much oil can lead to buildup, which feeds the malassezia yeast that naturally lives on your scalp (and skin in general). When this yeast thrives, you may develop dandruff or seborrheic dermatitis, a skin condition that can lead to inflamed, greasy patches, itching or burning skin, and flaking, as SELF previously reported. Gently exfoliating your scalp can potentially help keep excessive flaking at bay.
From a styling standpoint, you might notice your hair feels weighed down and oily if your scalp needs a (very gentle) scrub. “If you don’t wash your hair that often and you’re [using] dry shampoos or texture sprays and other styling products, that sticks around in your scalp, so an exfoliant gives a nice refresh every once in a while,” Nikki Ferrera, hairstylist and owner of Nikki Ferrera Hair Color, tells SELF. An exfoliant is generally a good idea for all hair types, according to the experts we spoke with, but the one that suits your needs best depends on your hair density and scalp’s oil production.
What’s the difference between a physical and chemical scalp exfoliant?
There are two different kinds of exfoliants: chemical and physical. Physical exfoliants include things like scrubs that physically remove dead skin cells, dirt, and other impurities; chemical exfoliants, on the other hand, dissolve the bonds between skin cells, helping to reveal newer, smoother skin cells underneath, as SELF previously reported.
Many scalp exfoliation products are physical scrubs formulated with ingredients like sea salt, sugar, or dissolving rice beads. They tend to be a bit abrasive for some people, but physical exfoliants have their benefits, especially for folks who have a hefty amount of buildup on their scalps, prefer fewer wash days, or have coarse, thick, or curly hair. You just have to be gentle as you massage them into your hair, Mariel Materek, a New York City–based hairstylist at Spoke and Weal, tells SELF.