How to Exfoliate Your Scalp, Depending on Your Skin Type
If you want strong, shiny, generally healthy hair, then you can't neglect your scalp. Applying products to the lengths of your hair is worthwhile, but by keeping your scalp in top shape you can create an ideal environment for healthy hair growth.
You've likely heard all about the benefits of exfoliating your face, and they extend to the real estate beyond your hairline as well. "Scalp exfoliation is the process [of] removing dead skin cells [and] loosening up build-up," says Devin Graciano, a professional hairstylist and co-founder of Goldie Locks. It's helpful for those who want to encourage natural hair growth and help prevent premature hair loss, since build-up can foster an unhealthy scalp environment and inhibit growth, she explains. Exfoliating your scalp can also help combat existing concerns, including excessive oil and dandruff, says William Gaunitz F.W.T.S., a certified trichologist and founder of Advanced Trichology.
Just don't get too enthusiastic. Generally speaking, all scalp should exfoliate no more than twice a week, to avoid creating or exacerbating scalp concerns, says Graciano. "When you over-exfoliate the scalp, you will create a thinner layer of the epidermis which can create inflammation and create an excessive immune response, which leads to flaking and damage to the scalp," adds Gaunitz.
If you'd like more details on how to exfoliate your scalp and the products you should use, keep reading. Ahead, experts break down how to exfoliate your scalp, based on your skin type.
How to Exfoliate Your Scalp
If your scalp doesn't tend to get oily or dry, then you have a "normal" and balanced scalp. In this case, how you exfoliate is mostly a matter of personal preference. You can opt for a physical exfoliator, such as a scrub or a scalp massager, which physically dislodges build-up from your scalp, making it easier to rinse away. Or, you can choose a chemical exfoliant, a product formulated with an acid ingredient(s), often alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) or beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). The acids dissolve the "glue" between dead skin cells so that they're more easily shed, according to Loretta Ciraldo M.D. F.A.A.D., a Miami-based board-certified dermatologist and founder of Dr. Loretta Skincare.
"Physical exfoliators are a good remedy to remove a few layers of [surface] dead [skin] cells," says Dr. Ciraldo. You may want to use a chemical exfoliator if you're dealing with a lot of product build-up and need a deep cleanse, she says.
Additionally, you can use a scalp brush or massager, such as the Sachajuan Scalp Brush, on days when you're not feeling up to washing your hair. "A big advantage of a brush exfoliator is that you don't have to wash your hair, so this can work for a daily or every other day routine for mild scalp build-up," says Dr. Ciraldo.
How often you wash your hair and how many styling products you use will factor into how often you should exfoliate your scalp. However, once a week is standard for those who have balanced scalps but use a lot of styling products, says Graciano. "For those who aren't heavy-handed on product use and just need a healthy reset without having to treat a condition, two times a month or every other week is ideal," she says.
If you struggle with itchiness and flaking and your scalp doesn't produce a lot of oil, there's a good chance you have a dry scalp. In this case, it's best to go with physical exfoliants, since they can gently lift away flakes and are less likely to further dry out your scalp compared to chemical exfoliants, explains Dr. Ciraldo.
"Treating a dry scalp should be seen in two phases, gently lifting away the dry white flakes, then ensuring that you are providing the skin on your scalp with enough hydration," says Graciano.
To tackle both steps, start by brushing your scalp before you get in the shower to loosen up any flakes on your scalp, says Graciano. Once you're in the shower, shampoo as usual and apply a hair mask such as the Goldie Locks Ultra Hydrating Hair Mask, she recommends. "Once you have applied the hair mask on the mid strands through ends, ensure you have excess on your hands and fingertips and [use the remaining product to] indulge in a relaxing and hydrating scalp massage." (Related: The Best Conditioners for Dry Hair)
If you have excessive flaking, you may want to use a scalp scrub with salt or sugar abrasives in lieu of the brush, since scrubs offer more powerful exfoliation, says Graciano. "When choosing a physical scrub, start on wet hair and section your hair in two to three-inch sections," she says. Make sure to apply the scrub directly onto your skin. Start at the top of your head and work your way down towards the ears. Then, apply the scrub from the crown of the head down to the nape of your neck. "Once [it's] applied, give yourself a nice scalp massage while the exfoliant works to remove the dead skin cells," says Graciano. Once you've exfoliated, you can follow up with shampoo and conditioner. No need to apply the hair mask in this case, since many scrubs (e.g. Briogeo Charcoal + Coconut Oil Micro-Exfoliating Scrub) contain moisturizing ingredients. If you have a dry scalp, plan to exfoliate no more than once a week, says Graciano.
Those with an oily scalp struggle with hair that gets greasy quickly. If that sounds like you, opt for a chemical exfoliant product such as Inkey List Salicylic Acid Exfoliating Scalp Treatment, a serum that you apply as a pre-shampoo treatment. "Products with AHAs or BHAs are known to remove dead skin, unclog hair follicles, and remove excess oil," says Graciano. (Related: How to Get Rid of Greasy Hair — Besides Using Dry Shampoo)
"I advocate using a chemical exfoliator product if you have thick, scaly build-up or a very oily scalp," adds Dr. Ciraldo. In addition to topical serums, you can also opt for a shampoo formulated with exfoliating acids, which are typically recommended for use a few times per week in place of your regular shampoo. Dr. Ciraldo often recommends Neutrogena Therapeutic Shampoo-Scalp Build-Up Control to those with oily hair. Typically, if you have an oily scalp, it's safe to exfoliate up to twice a week, says Graciano.
Whatever method of exfoliation you choose, make sure to follow the instructions on the packaging of your product to avoid over-exfoliation or general misuse. If you're dealing with more severe scalp concerns, it's best to consult with a dermatologist for a treatment plan.
All in all, exfoliation is key to healthy hair. If you aren't already incorporating it into your routine, consider this your sign to start.