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If You Aren’t Already Exfoliating Your Scalp, This Is Why You Should Be

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Exfoliants are often used for your face and body, but did you know they can also be used for your scalp? They sure can, and if you aren't using one already, it should immediately be added to your hair care routine. Why? Well, because after all the styling and coloring you put your hair through, your scalp deserves a break and some extra TLC. Whether you're hunting for the cure to an oily scalp or you're desperately searching for a way to soothe all-too-frequent scalp itchiness, you can't go wrong with scalp exfoliation.

We spoke with two UK-based trichologists, Kate Holden and Dammy Saint Claire, to discover the biggest benefits of exfoliating your scalp and how to do it. Read on for their expert advice, along with a few products we recommend that'll leave you with the healthy scalp you deserve.


About the Experts:

Kate Holden is a UK-based trichologist and an associate member of the Institute of Trichologists. She is also the owner of the Kate Holden Clinic in Manchester.
Dammy Saint Claire is a trichologist and founder of Saint Claire’s Hair in the UK.

What Are the Benefits of Exfoliating Your Scalp?

Your hair puts up with a lot on a regular basis. Between anti-frizz sprays, oil-absorbing dry shampoos, and curly-girl gels, it’s normal for scalps to feel effects such as itchiness and irritation. Obviously, scalp care is essential for healthy strands, but it goes a little deeper than that. We'll let the experts take it from here.

1. It prevents product buildup.

One of the biggest and most notable benefits of scalp exfoliation is its ability to effectively remove product buildup. Exfoliating is the easiest way to give a flaky scalp a fresh start and easily soothe any itchiness. "By removing the buildup from the scalp, you are helping to prevent blocked or clogged follicles, which can impact on the health of the hair overall," notes Holden.

2. It helps with dandruff.

When dandruff flakes start appearing on your shoulders, don’t panic. Simply run a purifying scrub through your hair to remove the dead skin cells and provide some much-needed relief from itchy scalp. Saint Claire shares that "scalp scrubs can be an effective way of tackling" dandruff, eczema, and a dry scalp.

Holden also points out that "dandruff in particular can be helped by exfoliating regularly, not only by removing the loose flakes of skin, but also by reducing the itchiness that can come with it."

3. It keeps oil under control.

It’s not fun to have extra oily skin, and the same goes for your scalp and hair. To keep sebum (aka your body’s natural oil) at healthy hair levels, exfoliate regularly to prevent sebum buildup.

Sometimes your scalp will produce excess oil due to buildup and blockages. Saint Claire notes that when the scalp is clear, your oil production levels will normalize and will be able to "hydrate and moisturize the scalp" as intended.

4. It can make hair appear shinier.

With all the products that get put on your strands, they tend to make your hair look dull and flat. They weigh them down, leaving you with hair that looks rather lifeless. A scalp scrub gets rid of all that and leaves your hair looking shinier. Holden notes that "clearing the scalp from stubborn product can also make your hair look shinier and glossy, as products such as hairsprays, waxes, and dry shampoo can all cause the hair to look dull."

5. It boosts the effectiveness of other hair care products.

When you have a ton of scalp buildup, the haircare products you use aren't going to be able to do their job. There's a lot blocking them from penetrating your scalp and strands. "Exfoliating the scalp can also help the penetration of other products to the scalp," Holden says. This makes them that much more effective. So if you have a new hair mask or serum that doesn't seem to be working, try a scalp scrub first, then apply the product. You're sure to notice a difference then.

6. It helps with hair growth.

One way in which scalp scrubs can aid with hair growth is by stimulating the scalp. Holden points out that "physical exfoliation has the added benefit of massaging the scalp, bringing blood flow to the surface which can promote hair growth." Not only that, but it can also "relieve stress and tension."

Saint Claire mentions that when there is too much buildup on the scalp, "the quality of the hair growing from the follicle is compromised. This means that when hair is emerging from the follicles, it may not grow as strong or as thick and as healthy as it could because of the obstruction faced." To avoid this, start exfoliating your scalp on a regular basis.

7. It makes your hair healthier overall.

This should be a given after reading all the other benefits, but we just want to remind you that the process of exfoliation is incredibly beneficial for your hair's overall health. "Quite simply put, success starts at the scalp so a healthy scalp is free from buildup, produces an adequate amount of sebum, and has a healthy cell turnover rate which then produces luscious strands," shares Saint Claire. As we always like to say, healthy hair starts with a healthy scalp.

What Are the Differences Between Physical and Chemical Exfoliants?

There are two main categories scalp scrubs can fall into: physical exfoliants and chemical exfoliants. Both offer the above benefits, though they work in different ways. Physical exfoliants are often what people picture when they think of exfoliating scrubs. Holden shares that they "usually contain salt, sugar, or beads, so they are usually coarser and thicker."

Saint Claire notes that physical exfoliants "will require manual assistance after application, that might be by way of using the fingers to rub the product into the scalp in a gentle circular motion or using tools that are abrasive and again gently rubbing them into the scalp using a soft touch."

Chemical exfoliants work a little bit differently. They often contain "hydroxy acids (salicylic acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid) or retinoids," Holden says. These types of scrubs also don't require as much effort as their physical counterpart. "A chemical scalp scrub only requires application, whilst the product itself does work to slough off the dead skin," Saint Claire points out.

Both experts share that it comes down to personal preference when deciding which one will work best for you. Each also has their own set of advantages and disadvantages. "With physical exfoliants you are more likely to scrub too hard and cause skin irritation and hair breakage," Holden says. "With chemical exfoliants, you have to wait longer for the product to work, and you are at a greater risk of having a reaction to the product. It’s best to gently try both methods separately to figure out what’s best for you."

How to Exfoliate Your Scalp

There are a handful of methods you can try to exfoliate your scalp. But first, here’s some advice from the pros.

"Because our scalp is very sensitive, it’s easy to cause irritation when you’re exfoliating, either by scrubbing too hard or from having a reaction to an ingredient in a product," Holden shares. "Over-exfoliation can also lead to damaging the hair, causing tangles and breakage." For those reasons, she recommends you start gently with light pressure and focus on under-exfoliation. "If your scalp feels sensitive, sore, red, or tight you’ve gone too far," Holden says. Additionally, Saint Claire recommends doing your research to find the best exfoliant for your scalp. Once you've decided on one, she suggests working in sections and also being gentle with your application.

How often you exfoliate also depends on an array of factors. Ultimately, how often you exfoliate your scalp comes down to you and your routine. Saint Claire recommends not overdoing it as "making this a frequent practice could cause and disrupt the natural flaking process of the scalp and cause imbalances." She suggests using an exfoliant two to three times per year. Holden recommends using an exfoliating product "around once every two weeks." Again, it all comes down to what works best for you.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's dive even deeper into these exfoliating methods.

Method 1: Use an exfoliating shampoo.

Let your shampoo lathering do all the exfoliating work with a sudsy shampoo that strips all the heavy hair products from your strands, while also adding essential nutrients to keep your hair shiny and strong. Holden mentions that "exfoliating shampoos with physical exfoliants (e.g. beads) will likely be too harsh to be your main shampoo" so use them sparingly.

Every few washes, we love to swap our regular shampoo with a charcoal formula like BRIOGEO Scalp Revival Charcoal + Coconut Oil Micro-Exfoliating Shampoo. Not only does it strengthen hair with pantenol, but it also treats itchy winter scalp, saving you from dandruff flakes. Ipster reviewers rave that this shampoo “made my scalp feel so clean! It’s a nice little treat for my scalp.”

Method 2: Use an exfoliating brush.

If you’ve got extra sensitive skin, you’ve probably dreading the idea of adding another beauty product to your hair care rotation. Thankfully, using an exfoliating brush is a stellar option for clarifying your scalp and preserving the strength of your strands. You can even use it dry or wet. Saint Claire suggests using an exfoliating brush before you shampoo, as it "will allow your shampoo to be more effective at cleansing the scalp." If you do decide to use it in the shower to better distribute your shampoo, Holden shares that you should "make sure you are using gentle pressure with an exfoliating brush." Our hair is incredibly fragile when it's wet, so we don't want to cause any potential damage.

We’re also big fans of BRIGOEO Scalp Revival Stimulating Therapy Massager. You can use it on its own to improve scalp circulation and scalp health, or in/out of the shower with your favorite hair products. We love how gentle the rubber tips are too.

Method 3: Use a leave-in treatment.

Leave-in hair treatments are the ultimate “set it and forget it” hair products that work hard, no matter how lazy your day is. Balancing, soothing ingredients with a lightweight formula are key leave-in treatments for your sensitive scalp. "Chemical exfoliants take time to break down the dead skin cells on the surface of the skin, so by using a leave-in product you give the exfoliants longer to work," Holden shares. We love to hear it.

Our go-to leave in scalp treatment is ORIBE HAIR CARE Serene Scalp Soothing Leave-On Treatment. It’s especially great for color-treated hair that needs extra nourishment, because the formula won’t mess with your gorgeous dye job. One Ipster wrote, “This felt really good, super fresh, and also helped with dandruff.”

Method 4: Use a DIY alternative.

If you’re feeling especially creative, Holden mentions that you can concoct your own exfoliating shampoo scrub "by adding equal amounts of finely ground oatmeal and sugar to your shampoo or conditioner." The sugar and oatmeal are gentle enough to use on all hair types, whether you’ve got sleek and straight hair or voluminous curly hair.

Saint Claire shares that you can also add fine salt or sugar to a carrier oil (sweet almond or jojoba oil) to create an "oil-based scalp scrub." She does share that this DIY alternative "wouldn’t necessarily be advisable for those who suffer from dandruff, as the oil content could be problematic."

Fruit is another great DIY alternative. As Holden points out, "fruits that contain protein-digesting enzymes (such as papaya, pineapple, and pumpkin) can exfoliate the skin. You can mash up and incorporate the fruit within a DIY mask."

However, with these DIY methods, Holden does note you shouldn't use anything you know you're allergic to and to test out the DIY product on a small patch of skin before applying it all over your scalp.

The Best Scalp Scrubs for Exfoliating Your Scalp

For even more exfoliation power, make sure to check out our complete guide to the best scalp scrubs. We’ve got a solution for every hair woe, from dandruff flakes to oily strands.

1. Best All-Over Scrub: OUAI HAIRCARE Scalp & Body Scrub

OUAI Scalp & Body Scrub

Healthy hair starts with a dollop of this sugar scrub on your scalp and the ends of your hair. Created by Jen Atkin, aka Kim Kardashian’s beloved hairstylist, this scalp and body scrub is gentle enough to use on dyed strands, yet powerful enough to scrub away dead skin cells and product buildup. It’s hard to find an Ipster review that doesn’t use an excessive amount of exclamation points, that’s how much people are obsessed with this product. And you can literally use it on every inch of your body. What's not to love?

2. Best Scalp Scrub for Dry Scalps: KOSETTE Salt Scalp Scrub

KOSETTE Salt Scalp Scrub

Formulated with relieving bamboo charcoal, mineral-rich gray sea salt, and soothing tea tree oil, this scalp scrub is perfect for those who struggle with dry scalps and dandruff. Any dryness and itchiness you experience will be relieved almost instantly after using this scrub. Be sure to section your hair so you can better apply it to your scalp to ensure you reap all its benefits.

3. Best Scalp Scrub for Oily Scalps: CHRISTOPHE ROBIN Cleansing Purifying Scrub with Sea Salt

CHRISTOPHE ROBIN Cleansing Purifying Scrub with Sea Salt

If you haven't already, it's time to get on the CHRISTOPHE ROBIN train. With products that are color-safe and created with naturally-derived ingredients, there's something that works for everyone. When it comes to this scrub, those with oily scalps and strands will immediately notice a difference after massaging the product onto their scalp. Exfoliating sea salt gently removes product buildup and excess oil to keep your scalp balanced. It also utilizes soothing plant oils that help to reduce sensitivity and flakiness.

4. Best Scalp Scrub for Sensitive Scalps: IGK HAIR Low Key Cleansing Walnut Scalp Scrub

IGK HAIR Low Key Cleansing Walnut Scalp Scrub

We understand the hesitance in using a scalp scrub if you have a sensitive scalp. No matter how beneficial they are, you're likely only thinking about the irritation they'll cause. We have a solution, and it just so happens to be this scalp scrub right here. Soothing ingredients like apple cider vinegar, walnut oil, sugar, and peppermint oil work to purify sensitive and irritated scalps. It's even free from all the bad stuff that could possibly bother your scalp.

Want these scalp exfoliation products and other hair care items delivered directly to you in our IPSY Glam Bag? Take our Beauty Quiz now to get started. Already an Ipster? Refer your friends to earn points, which you can use toward products. Either way, don’t forget to check us out on Instagram and Twitter @IPSY.

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About the author
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Ashley Locke
Ashley is a Long Beach-based freelance writer who loves sharing beauty and skincare hacks with her fellow “lazy girls” out there. When she isn’t writing, you can find her crying while listening to The Maine or watching "The Office".
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Article Last Updated January 13, 2022 12:00 AM