You Should Be Exfoliating Your Scalp—Here's Why


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Believe it or not, the journey to beautiful hair starts with your scalp. While having a haircare routine filled with serums, oils, and masks can help, taking care of your scalp can seriously improve the look and feel of your hair, considering it's where new growth begins. The skin on top of your head, though, is very delicate, which is why it requires special attention—especially when exfoliating. Which brings us to the question, how do we exfoliate the scalp? Ahead, we tapped three experts to learn all about scalp exfoliation, its benefits, and how to do it.

What is scalp exfoliation?

Scalp exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells and buildup caused by hair products such as shampoos, conditioners, and styling products. Similar to skincare, removing that surface level of dead skin cells helps improve absorption so that you're getting the most out of your products and fostering healthy new growth. "Exfoliating draws out impurities on the scalp, opening up the follicle to let the active ingredients in and strengthen the skin and hair," explains Penny James, trichologist and founder of Penny James Salon.

What are the benefits of scalp exfoliation?

Aside from allowing for better product absorption, exfoliating your scalp has many hair health benefits. "Scalp exfoliation is helpful to remove dead skin cells, debris, and oil from the scalp that may clog the pores and trigger scalp inflammation," says Rina Allawh, M.D., a Pennsylvania-based board-certified dermatologist. She explains that when the oil-producing glands on the scalp become clogged, it can lead to a range of skincare concerns on the head such as excessive dryness, dandruff, itchiness, and brittle hair.

Board-certified dermatologist, Robyn Gmyrek, M.D., agrees and adds that products that are typically applied at the root, such as dry shampoo, mousse, and hairspray, often cause buildup. When these accumulate, she says that it can lead to an overgrowth of bacteria and yeast and potentially cause redness, irritation, flakiness, and folliculitis, which is similar to scalp acne. Routinely exfoliating the scalp helps to keep it healthy, prevent further skin concerns, and promote healthier looking hair.

How do you exfoliate your scalp?

There are two ways to exfoliate the scalp, which are known as physical and chemical exfoliation. Physical exfoliants work to manually scrub away dead skin and buildup on the scalp. Dr. Gmyrek recommends being very gentle when using a scrub to prevent damage. "I do not recommend roughly scrubbing your scalp as it can damage your hair," she says. "When wet, your hair shaft is even more susceptible to breakage, so if you use a physical exfoliant, I recommend [you use] one that has very fine grains." One you can try is the Frank Body Caffeinated Scalp Scrub, which is suitable for all hair types and has a refreshing minty scent.

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On the flip side, you can choose a chemical exfoliant over a physical one. "Chemical exfoliants contain ingredients such as glycolic acid and lactic acid to promote healthy skin cell turnover," says Dr. Allawh, explaining that they chemically remove the dead skin cells rather than having to scrub them off. Other ingredients to look for that help chemically dissolve dead skin cells are salicylic acid, citric acid, and fruit acids like apple cider vinegar. Chemical exfoliants usually come in the form of hair serums or gels, like the Act + Acre Cold Processed Scalp Renew. It works to gently exfoliate the scalp while providing a soothing and refreshing feeling thanks to its peppermint oil-infused formula.

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How often should you exfoliate your scalp?

How often you exfoliate your scalp depends on your concerns and skin type. "If you have a healthy scalp with no skin concerns, I recommend doing it once every two weeks," says James. "If you're more oily or prone to dandruff, then I would exfoliate once to twice a week."

In addition to exfoliating, other ways to maintain a healthy scalp are eating a nutritious and balanced diet, managing your stress levels, avoiding overly thick or waxy styling products that can cause excess buildup, and don't skip too many washes. "Remember that your scalp is skin, and like the rest of your body and face, you need to take care of it," says Dr. Gmyrek.