Be honest: When’s the last time you thought about your scalp? While many of us make a conscious effort to care for the skin on our face and body, our scalp—which is also skin—often gets neglected. Sure, you shampoo. But are you really giving your scalp the attention it needs to thrive and keep your hair healthy and lustrous?
I wasn’t … until I had the opportunity to write a handful of articles on the topic through the years, interviewing hair and scalp experts along the way. Here’s why and how to make scalp care part of your beauty routine!
Meet Your Scalp
Hello, scalp. Yes, it’s where your hair grows, but its main role is to act as a barrier against the outside world, which means everything from the weather and bacteria, to physical impacts. In terms of structure, it’s similar to the skin everywhere else on your body in that it is composed of an epidermis and a dermis.
The scalp’s main role is to act as a barrier against the outside world, from the weather to bacteria. It also has a lot more sebaceous glands than other areas on the body.
But there are a few key differences: For example, the scalp has a higher concentration of hair follicles, and the type of hair produced is (obviously) different. It also has a lot more sebaceous glands than other areas on the body, and the sebum they produce helps to moisturize and protect your strands. Another interesting thing to note is that the scalp has a lot of nerve endings, which explains why head massages feel so good!
Why is Scalp Care Important?
The short answer: to keep it—and your hair, by proxy—healthy! The long answer is that it gets exposed to environmental factors like the cold, the sun, and pollution, not to mention any hair styling products you might use. A lot of us likely stick to shampooing and conditioning our hair, but don’t necessarily spend much time making sure to cleanse and exfoliate our scalp properly. This can lead to or exacerbate things like dandruff, oiliness, and product buildup. Apparently, an accumulation of dandruff and sebum can even eventually lead to hair loss or thinning!
The same way you take the time to cleanse your face before proceeding with the rest of your routine (as opposed to simply rinsing it and piling on the serums and moisturizers), taking extra measures to deep clean, exfoliate, and stimulate your scalp should be the foundation of your hair care routine.
How to Care for Your Scalp
In recent years, more and more types of scalp care products have been cropping up, and that’s a good thing! It means there are options for pretty much any hair or scalp type out there, that can be found everywhere from the drugstore to high-end department stores. Whether you opt for an essential oil complex, exfoliating acid product, or scalp scrub, the goal is to deep cleanse, promote blood flow, and clear up any imbalances.
How often you use them depends on each person’s needs, but a good rule of thumb is once a week or once every two weeks. If you’re currently experiencing issues with your scalp like dandruff or excess oiliness, consider applying a pre-shampoo scalp treatment more frequently until the situation is resolved. Here’s an overview of different types of scalp-specific products.
Whether you opt for an essential oil complex, exfoliating acid product, or scalp scrub, the goal is to deep cleanse, promote blood flow, and clear up any imbalances.
Essential oil complexes
Despite certain people’s misgivings about the presence of essential oils in beauty products due to their fragrance, they do have benefits: Some are antibacterial or rich in antioxidants, for example. In the case of essential oil complexes meant as pre-shampoo treatments, the idea is that they penetrate deep inside the scalp to cleanse it, as opposed to simply working at the surface.
I’ve been using either the René Furterer Complexe 5 Stimulating Plant Concentrate or the PHYTO Paris Phytopolléine Botanical Scalp Treatment once every two weeks for years now, and wouldn’t go without them! I usually apply the elixir to my scalp and give myself a nice little massage before heading to bed when I’ve planned to wash my hair in the morning. Bonus: They smell nice and herbal, and remind me of spa days. The soothing scent really helps enhance my whole nighttime ritual. If you find the scent to be too strong, you can simply apply it to your scalp 15 or 20 minutes before heading into the shower.
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These are the equivalent of using a physical exfoliant on your face to slough off dead skin cells. Many brands have added scalp scrubs, and even hybrid scalp scrub-shampoos to their hair care lines. Use these on wet hair before you shampoo, about once a week.
Acid scalp exfoliators
Some people have taken to using AHAs on their scalp as a way of ridding it of dead skin cells. Chemical exfoliants like this can be especially useful if you use a lot of styling products on your roots (hello, dry shampoo and volumizing mousse!). Think of it the same way as you would about exfoliating your face once a week.
There are AHA products designed especially for your scalp, but you can also test the waters with different AHA toners. Use acid exfoliating products similarly to how you would use the essential oil complex: Apply onto your scalp, massage the product in, and let it sit for about 20 minutes before rinsing it out and using your regular shampoo and conditioner.
Basic Scalp Care Routine
Some of these steps might seem basic at first glance, but doing them properly can make a huge difference in terms of effectiveness!
Step 1: Scalp treatment
Apply your scalp treatment according to the product’s instructions, massage it onto your scalp, and then let it sit a little and work its magic. Essential oil complexes and acid exfoliants are applied on dry hair, while scalp scrubs work best on wet hair.
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Step 2: Shampoo
There are differing opinions as to how many times you should shampoo, with some experts claiming that lathering up twice is necessary, while others maintain that one can be enough if you’re using an effective formula. Proponents of shampooing twice argue that the first lather’s purpose is to break up and lift away dirt and grime, while the second round helps treat the hair and scalp, and get rid of any residue.
I usually shampoo twice (since I only wash my hair every few days), and I find that the second lather really foams up a lot more since there is not as much dirt, oil, or styling product residue to get rid of. Whether you shampoo once or twice, experts agree that you should massage your scalp with the pads of your fingers to ensure it gets cleaned thoroughly, and not just focus on your lengths.
Step 3: Rinse
I’ve included this as a separate step, because many experts I’ve interviewed have insisted that most people don’t spend enough time rinsing out hair products before moving on to the next step in their routine. You really want to rinse thoroughly to ensure there is no residue left on your scalp or in your hair!
Step 4: Conditioner or hair mask
Whereas conditioner can be used every time you wash your hair, a hair mask is typically used once a week to really help repair and moisturize your mane. The basic method is to apply the product to wet hair after squeezing out excess water to avoid diluting the formula. This step is really meant to condition, detangle, smooth hair, and reduce frizz. Ideally, conditioner wouldn’t be applied to your scalp or roots, so as not to weigh down your hair.
Step 5: Rinse (again)
Finally, don’t forget to rinse thoroughly, once again. And voilà! Your scalp and hair are all clean (and happy).
Do you have a scalp care routine? Have you tried essential oils, acid treatments, or scalp scrubs before? I’d love to know if you saw a difference in your hair afterward!