Scalp care is hair care. Commit it to memory. Your hair follicles are nested in the second layer of your scalp—the dermis—and so, the health of the scalp is directly connected to all facets of hair growth and quality (strength, anchoring, density, and so forth). Compare it to plants growing from soil: Poor, unwatered, nutrient-parched soil makes for uninhabitable plant conditions. The same can be said of your scalp and hair.
So, when building your hair care regimen, you’ve got to make sure that the shampoo does more than just flush away oil and grime. You also should make sure that your conditioner and stylers (as well as your styling regimen) aren’t a detriment to the scalp itself. On top of that, you should incorporate active ingredients that tone, condition, and calm the scalp—perhaps even in a standalone, once-weekly scalp mask—to simply foster optimal hair growth conditions.
It might mean swapping out a product or two in favor of a scalp-friendly pick, as well as adding a new product or two to the mix. We won’t leave you scratching your head, though: Below are our tips for incorporating scalp care into your hair regimen, once and for all.
1. Fear not the scrub
Scrubbing the scalp can seem counterproductive to hair health—“Won’t it aggravate the hair and lead to premature shedding?” you wonder. On the contrary: It will stimulate circulation in the scalp, which boosts nutrient delivery to the follicles and in turn fortifies hair as it grows.
You can give yourself a daily or nightly scalp massage in the shower as you apply haircare products—a gentle massage will do the trick—but you can also incorporate a once- or twice-weekly scalp scrub to really get in there. It also exfoliates dead skin to prevent flaking, and many scrubs incorporate soothing, stimulating ingredients that simultaneously tone oil production and nourish the scalp.
One we love is Kérastase Purifying Scrub ($51).
2. Prioritize tea tree oil, charcoal, and salicylic acid
With scalp care, there are many good ingredients to watch for, but a few “hero” ingredients stand out most prominently. These three are the ones we suggest most often:
Tea Tree Oil: Known for its antimicrobial properties, tea tree oil can nix bacteria and fungus, while also helping to tone overactive sebum production. You can find it in many shampoo, conditioner, mask, and treatment formulas.
The Tea Tree brand makes a terrific assortment.
Charcoal: This is a detoxifying, purifying workhorse. Charcoal soaks up oil, grime, toxins and the like, creating a harmonious environment for hair.
Briogeo’s scalp treatment serum ($32) combines charcoal with tea tree oil.
Salicylic Acid: A common skincare ingredient for acne-prone individuals, salicylic acid also helps temper oil production and bacteria on the scalp, while simultaneously dissolving dead skin cells. It’s best avoided by sensitive skin types, but will work wonders on oily domes.
Virtue’s exfoliating scalp treatment ($48) champions the ingredient.
3. Find the right shampoo balance
No two people have the exact same hair care needs. Your oil levels, hair texture and density, and styling goals all dictate how frequently you need to wash and condition your hair. But make sure you keep your scalp top of mind as you build out the regimen—and not just when it comes to oil buildup.
Yes, you will need to wash more if you have an oily scalp, but the type of shampoo you use doesn’t need to blanch your dome. If you prefer a daily shampoo—against the advice of most professionals—then consider what’s called a “co-wash,” which is almost like a 2-in-1 product in that it primarily conditions the hair, but has slight cleansing properties. (Get a custom co-wash from Function of Beauty).
Then, every second or third day, you can bring in the more detoxifying, flushing shampoo. However, always, follow a shampoo with a conditioner. This nurtures both hair and scalp alike, delivering nutrients that calm and hydrate.
4. Do a weekly treatment
Whether it’s a serum or pre-shampoo mask, a weekly scalp treatment will help neutralize any critters while also soothing and calming the entire dome. It’ll nourish hair follicles, balance pH levels and oil production, and everything in between. You can self-prescribe one based on a particular need (like proneness to flaking, or irritation, or oil buildup).
We like First Aid Beauty’s anti-dandruff serum with salicylic acid ($32), as well as JVN’s pre-shampoo scalp and hair oil treatment ($28).
5. Use water-soluble hair stylers
A water-soluble hair product will rinse cleanly out of hair, without leaving behind any residue or buildup on the strands or scalp. Make this a baseline requirement for any styling product you use.
The main thing to know is that many silicone-based products are not soluble, but those with “PPG” or “PEG” in front of their ingredient name will rinse clean, rather than leave a suffocating buildup on your scalp.
6. Rinse nightly (if you aren’t otherwise washing)
On the topic of rinsing: Make sure you always go to bed with a clean scalp. That is, make sure to at least rinse everything out before you slumber, even if it’s a non-shampoo evening. By slushing away the product you used during the day, you prevent any buildup on the scalp.
A co-wash or conditioner rinse will also flush away excess oil and grime that has accumulated throughout the day. But bottom line, don’t just pass out with your hair product, or an oil and sweat accumulation up there. It’s a recipe for irritation, fungal buildup, and compromised hair growth.
7. Have a go-to remedy for flakes
You know how your hair feels extremely dry and especially dead after using an anti-dandruff shampoo? That’s because the active ingredients take a toll on the strands despite targeting the scalp. While all of the above products and habits should help prevent the onset of flakes and itching, that doesn’t mean that you are invincible.
Have an anti-dandruff shampoo at the ready, for those extremely rare instances (or common instances, in some people’s case). Just make sure to follow it with a minutes-long conditioner soak, and possibly even a hair mask to revive the strands.
Dove’s ($6.49) is a terrific low-cost pick that promises to condition as it cleans. Still, consider it a shampoo and follow it with a dedicated conditioner.
And don’t forget, your scalp can get sunburned, so protect your dome.