Scalp Scrub Benefits and Drawbacks, According to a Cosmetic Scientist

Before you whip up a DIY scalp scrub or hit up the hair-care aisle, here's what you should know about scalp exfoliation.

Hair Health Hotline: Scalp Scrubs
Courtesy of Frank Body.

Hair Health Hotline is your direct access to dermatologists, trichologists, hairstylists, and other beauty pros. Each story in this series tackles a common hair or scalp concern and offers science-backed solutions to care for your strands.

Scalp scrubs have an obvious appeal: The act of massaging a gritty product onto your skin is always satisfying, and the products promise a healthier scalp and better hair. At the same time, scalp scrubs may sound unnecessary, particularly if you're a minimalist who's been satisfied with a simple shampoo-conditioner routine for years.

Before adding another product to your routine, you can get to the bottom of whether scalp scrubs are worth your money and effort. Heleen Kibbelaar, a P.h.D candidate who focuses her research on hair and runs the Instagram account @sciencemeetscosmetics, shares the products' benefits and drawbacks, below.

Q: My scalp gets dry and flaky and I'm curious about scalp scrubs. Are they helpful and how can I choose the best scalp scrub?

A: Scalp scrubs can exfoliate skin, which may benefit those with a dry, flaky scalp, but they may also contribute to breakage, says Kibbelaar.

Any scrub for the scalp (or face or body, for that matter) provides physical exfoliation, meaning they contain small beads that help mechanically remove dead skin cells. Brands typically recommend using the products once a week or less frequently, as an addition to a regular hair-washing routine. As with any type of beauty product, scalp scrubs have their pros and cons.

What are the benefits of using a scalp scrub?

An exfoliating scalp scrub may be helpful if your scalp is dry and prone to small flakes, says Kibbelaar. Those tiny flakes are dead skin cells, and the occasional use of a scalp scrub may help prevent them from piling up. "In general, skin has a constant renewal process of skin cells," says Kibbelaar. "But you might [want to] help the process a little bit if you have these dry flakes."

Dry is a key word here. If you're experiencing larger, more oily and yellowish flakes, a scalp scrub won't fix the issue, says Kibbelaar. Rather than a scalp scrub, you'll need dedicated anti-dandruff products to target the concern, she says.

The act of massaging your scalp, when you're using a scalp scrub and just in general, may increase circulation and promote healthy hair growth. However, research suggesting as much is limited — one commonly cited study only had a subject group of nine people, notes Kibbelaar. In another study with a larger subject pool of 340 people with androgenetic alopecia (male or female pattern baldness), 69 percent of subjects self-reported that their hair loss stabilized or improved after they massaged their scalps twice daily over the course of several months. That study had its limitations as well: Researchers noted that it didn't include a control or placebo group, and that self-reported data isn't objective.

What are the drawbacks of scalp scrubs?

Your hair is at its most fragile state when it's wet. Therein lies the main drawback of scalp scrubs: They're meant to be used mid-shower when your strands are drenched. "Especially around the roots, where hair is not yet damaged, you are now applying lots of friction," says Kibbelaar. If you use physical exfoliation with a scalp scrub containing a "really granular material, you are creating a lot of friction around the hairs, which might also induce damage," she says. Damaged hair is more likely to break off, she says.

Contrary to popular belief, scalp scrubs aren't effective for removing product buildup, according to Kibbelaar. "On the internet, a lot of people say that scalp scrubs help to remove excess buildup and that they work really well as cleansers," she says. "I don't really agree with that, because if you have a lot of product buildup and you really need this intense cleansing of the hair near your scalp, a shampoo will do it better than a scrub, because a scrub doesn't contain surfactants which are able to remove the oil and dirt from your scalp." (Refresher: surfactants are ingredients included in shampoos and other products which make the removal of oil and grease easier.)

Hair Health Hotline: Scalp Scrubs
Courtesy of Heleen Kibbelaar.

Should you use a scalp scrub?

Scalp scrubs won't be a worthwhile addition to your routine unless you're prone to dry flakes, and even then you can take advantage of a better alternative, believes Kibbelaar. Products containing chemical exfoliants — ingredients that dissolve the proteins that act as the "glue" that holds dead skin cells together — are a superior option, since they don't carry the same risk of excessive friction on wet hair, she says. Look for shampoos with salicylic or glycolic acids, she suggests.

If you're hoping to get in on the potential benefits of scalp massage, better to apply an oil to dry hair first rather than using a scrub to massage your scalp while your hair's wet, says Kibbelaar.

A scalp scrub may be a beneficial addition to your routine if you deal with tiny, dry flakes, provided you treat your hair gently. "I would really say if you use a scalp scrub, be very gentle with it and don't go overboard with massaging," says Kibbelaar. That said, chemical exfoliants serve the same function, and they won't be as aggressive toward your wet and fragile strands.

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