Your body knows how to keep you supplied with new skin cells and get rid of the old ones in a process known as exfoliation. Sometimes, though, your body needs some help with this bit of biological housekeeping. That’s when a scalp massage brush and natural home remedies will come in handy. Let’s start at the top: How do you exfoliate your scalp?
While your hair probably gets lots of attention, happy hair is truly impossible without a happy, healthy scalp. Skipping cleansing can leave hair follicles clogged leading to hair loss, thinning, and weakening of the hair strands. Keeping your hair follicles clear of dead skin cells and built-up hair products is key. But before you rush to scrub your scalp to bust build-up, find out whether a scrub is what the doctor ordered.
Do you need a scalp exfoliant?
Though exfoliating can benefit any hair type, one size does not fit all, and not everyone benefits from using an exfoliant regularly. Here are a few ways to tell whether you actually need a scalp scrub or not.
- If you’re a product junkie, washing your hair may not wash out all waxes, powders, polymers and silicones that mix with your sebum, sweat, and dead skin cells. Scalp scrubs may help, especially if you have finer-textured hair that can be more prone to build-up.
- If your skin type runs more dry or you live in an arid climate and your scalp tends to flake, trying a scalp scrub may be worthwhile.
- If you have developed seborrheic dermatitis (see below) exfoliating can help you control the flaky symptoms.
Scalp Exfoliation DIY 101
There are two types of exfoliants to consider. Physical exfoliants involve a granular substance such as sugar, salt, clay, or pumice. Chemical exfoliants include various types of acids that act as solvents for excessive oil and debris. But here's the rub: Just as different skin types need different skincare products, different hair types require different scalp treatments. Someone with oil-prone skin may use products with stronger acids than someone with dry skin, and the same logic applies to your scalp.
Exfoliating your scalp can feel great. Beyond that, it can have an invigorating effect. The massaging action alone can stimulate blood flow to ensure a steady stream of nutrients to the hair follicles where each strand is born and raised. Scalp exfoliation may be especially beneficial for those with dandruff, dry skin, or oily hair. Individuals that are searching for ways to get rid of dandruff often find that a scalp exfoliation helps reduce symptoms. Scalp exfoliation has a range of benefits for your overall scalp health including:
While shedding skin is a natural process, dandruff is often a result of seborrheic dermatitis, a condition that can occur when oil glands turn the skin oily, red, and scaly. Other times, the cause of dandruff is a fungus called Malassezia that causes skin cells to accelerate their life cycle and shed more quickly. Stress, hormones, lifestyle, and age all influence the pH of your skin, which makes it more or less hospitable to these yeasts. While exfoliation may not address the cause of dandruff, it will help you control flaky scalp symptoms.
Greying, thinning and hair loss are all signs of age. Scalp exfoliation can help increase blood circulation to the hair follicles and deliver supplemental nutrients to rejuvenate the scalp and ensure healthy hair growth.
Dry shampoo, gels, defrizzing serums – especially if silicone-based – can all build up on the scalp and clog hair follicles and compromise hair growth. Here, scalp exfoliation can help dissolve anything that lingers and clarify the scalp.
Adapting to the seasons
Seasonal changes, especially winter, can cause a flaky scalp. A scalp exfoliation treatment will not only buff away the flakes but can also restore moisture and balance to a dry scalp.
Stemming hair loss
Various factors lead to shedding more than usual. However, if you’re not suffering from alopecia areata – total and often sudden hair loss – chances are your problem is caused by oxidative stress as a result of having a deficiency of antioxidants to counteract an excess of free radicals in your body. Oxidative stress damages skin cells and the hair incubating inside the hair follicles. Some vitamins function as antioxidants such as Vitamin C, Vitamin D and Vitamin E.
Combating environmental factors
Environmental factors such as radiation from the sun, pollution, cigarette smoke and other toxic chemicals are also known to trigger the formation of free radicals. New research shows that air pollution has significant effects on our scalps. A study presented at the 28th EADV Congress found that exposure to dust and fuel particles is linked to hair loss in humans. Exposing follicle cells to various concentrations of particles decreased the levels of proteins responsible for hair growth and retention. Researchers also discovered that the greater the level of pollutants, the more these proteins would deplete.
To treat oxidative stress, reduce your exposure to free radicals – easier said than done in today’s dirty world. But a good scalp detox can draw out these molecules before they attack the hair bulb and introduce supplemental antioxidants such as vitamin E to help protect it.
How to exfoliate your scalp
Scalp exfoliation is one part scalp massage, another part skin treatment.
While it is safe to gently massage your scalp every day – you would be doing it a favor – you should not exfoliate more than once a week. Why? Hairstory stylist Wes Sharpton recalls a client whose overly zealous scrubbing led to an abraded scalp, “scrubbing the hair right off,” as he describes it. Those with very fine hair, damaged hair or otherwise fragile hair are particularly vulnerable to cleaning the scalp too intensely. While exfoliation removes oil and debris from the scalp, too frequent or too forceful scrubbing may cause it to shift into repair mode and over-produce oil in the sebaceous glands. We recommend following these steps while exfoliating:
Exfoliate with your product of choice when hair is freshly washed and still wet.
Comb through and separate your hair into several sections (fewer if fine, more if thick).
Apply a scrub (recipes below) as close to the scalp as you can with your fingertips and rub in a gentle, circular motion. A shower brush will help. Think of polishing or buffing rather than scouring.
Leave in for several minutes and rinse thoroughly.
Scrubbing can aggravate certain conditions. Avoid exfoliating your scalp if you have:
an active infection, such as ringworm
an open cut or sore
The skin on the scalp is already more sensitive than elsewhere on your body. If you experience any discomfort, swelling, or irritation, stop and rinse. Exfoliation may not be for you. Avoid exposing your scalp to direct sunlight after exfoliating and wear a hat or a sunscreen formulated for the scalp and hair.
Selecting a scalp exfoliant
Next, determine which type of scalp exfoliant is best for you: a physical or chemical exfoliant.
Physical exfoliants use small grains to dislodge buildup on the scalp. However, be absolutely sure to use your gentlest scrubbing motions, whether using a scalp brush or your fingertips, to avoid damaging the skin.
Chemical exfoliants, on the other hand, remove debris without having to massage or scrub. Naturally exfoliating acids and enzymes do the work for you, but if you’re chemically sensitive, you might want to avoid commercial products and make your own with ingredients you’re sure you can tolerate.
Those with an oily scalp may benefit from ingredients such as charcoal or kaolin clay to absorb excess oil, while those with more buildup may choose sugar or sea salt. If you have a dry scalp, use moisturizing coconut, argan, or jojoba oil as a base to mix your granules of choice into. Try selecting your scalp scrub by your hair type.
Thick hair & oily scalp
If you have thick hair and an oily scalp, chances are you're prone to some buildup. Go for a scrub, especially if you wash your hair less frequently than average or you co-wash. Sometimes, a gentle wash just won't cut it.
Fine hair & sensitive scalp
Sensitive scalps and finer strands may be better off with a gentle, chemical exfoliant from time to time, but you might want to stick to a clarifying shampoo and call it a day or incorporate a gentle scalp exfoliant every other week.
If you regularly exfoliate your face, you know your skin better than anybody, and how sensitive it is, how often you can exfoliate, or do a peel. Be just as conscious when it comes to your scalp as you would your face.
Scalp Scrub Recipes
Brown Sugar + Conditioner or Oil
3 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp coconut/olive oil or conditioner
Sugar gently buffs away sebum and product buildup while hydrating the scalp.
Mix well, apply to the scalp and massage gently with the pads of your fingers or a shower brush. DO NOT SCRATCH. Rinse thoroughly to remove all residue and follow with your normal shampoo regimen.
Conditioner + Brown Sugar
¼ cup favorite silicone-free hair conditioner
¼ cup brown sugar
4 tbsp. warm water
Part your hair and gently scrub all of the areas of the scalp with the pads of your fingers or a shower brush. Rinse, cleanse, and condition as usual.
Aspirin + Water
6 to 8 aspirin
4 tablespoons warm water
Aspirin contains salicylic acid, a chemical exfoliant. Place aspirin tablets in a bowl. Pour warm water to dissolve tablets. Use a toothbrush to stir the mixture and to apply to your scalp. Massage gently and rinse well.
Shampoo + Cornmeal + Essential Oil
Your favorite shampoo
Cornmeal or ground almonds
Peppermint oil or tea tree oil
Thoroughly blend equal parts of cornmeal or ground almonds and shampoo in a bowl. Add a few drops of essential oil like peppermint to stimulate the blood or tea tree oil, a natural antiseptic. Massage the mixture into your scalp for three minutes with your fingertips. Rinse and condition.
Coffee + Oil
4 tbsp. of your favorite carrier oil (coconut or olive preferred)
6 tbsp. very fine coffee grounds (previously brewed is fine)
A few drops of tea tree oil
Coffee has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties ideal for skincare. Mix all the ingredients well and store in an airtight container. Scoop out enough to apply to scalp and massage for about five minutes before rinsing well and washing hair. This is an excellent recipe for a face scrub too.
Typically available in powder form and loaded with pore-purifying and oil-zapping minerals, use Bentonite Clay as your granular ingredient.
Exfoliating your scalp regularly, but not excessively can be just the thing to keep your scalp happy. Another scalp-positive decision involves shampoo: We suggest rejecting it in its traditional form because of the detergents it contains. Instead, New Wash is an Aloe-based formula with a special blend of essential oils and extracts designed to clean and condition hair and scalp in one step with none of the potential dryness or irritation. Give it a try. Your scalp will thank you.