While it’s common to complete a multi-step skincare routine on your face each day, you probably don’t put much thought into your scalp health—and as a result, you could start to notice some itchiness, flakes, oil, and other uncomfortable issues.
There’s a delicate balance to the health of your scalp’s microbiome, and if that balance tips too far one way or the other, it can cause a host of problems. An unhealthy scalp microbiome causes inflammation, bacteria overgrowth, and even diminishes hair follicle regeneration, which can affect not only your scalp, but your hair as well. So whether you’re struggling with dryness or alarmed by sudden hair loss, we’ve rounded up advice from hair and skin experts to help you address these scalp issues and create the right scalp skincare routine for your particular needs.
Before we jump into the signs of an unhealthy scalp, it’s important to understand what a truly healthy scalp looks (and feels) like. A healthy scalp has most or all of these positive traits:
In general, scalp health is important—but the actual care looks different for everyone. Someone with a particularly dry scalp should not follow the same routine as someone with excess oil, and a person with thick, coiled hair will want to use different products than someone with straight, fine hair. Finding the right balance is a matter of understanding both your hair type and your scalp’s needs, but there are a few key things that everyone can do to take better care of their scalp.
“Oily scalp is a result of extra sebum and buildup that tends to clog the scalp pores,” explains Countiss Miller-Hamilton, Lead Formulation Chemist for House of Cheatham, who specializes in basic skin and hair care needs for people of all ethnicities with a special emphasis on women of color. While the frequency of your washes depends on the texture of your hair, an oily scalp may mean that you need to wash a bit more frequently, regardless of your hair type.
On the flip side, an oily scalp may also be a result of overwashing your hair. “Note that overwashing your hair can also cause production of extra sebum, so washing less is also a way to decrease oily scalp,” Miller-Hamilton explains. “Think about what kind of shampoo you’re using: Is it a clarifying, sulfate-free shampoo? Are you using your conditioner? It’s okay to use a shampoo that cleanses the buildup and a conditioner that restores moisture. It’s a balance.”
For an extra boost of oil absorption, you may also try a mask using bentonite clay. While this is most commonly used as a facial mask, you can also use it in combination with apple cider vinegar to draw out excess dirt oil from the scalp.
“There are many normal reasons to shed hair—50 to 100 hairs per day is an average amount,” explains Dr. Paula Morgan, MD PhD, FRCPC, FAAD, medical consultant for Better Goods. “But if you notice more than that, it can definitely be a reason for alarm.”
Unlike age-related hair loss, hair shedding is typically temporary and can be caused by stress or a deficiency in essential nutrients like zinc or and vitamins B and D. Morgan goes on to explain that for females, hormonal changes like switching or getting on birth control, becoming pregnant, and going through menopause are also common times when women experience hair loss.
“Much like those suffering from dandruff, switching to gentler shampoos without sulfates like SLS can also help some people experiencing abnormal hair loss,” Morgan recommends. “Eating a healthy and balanced diet full of fruits and vegetables can also help. Multivitamins and omega-3 fatty acids—whether from natural foods or supplements—can help boost hair growth.” She also suggests a weekly pre-shampoo scalp treatment to nourish the scalp, and to avoid wearing tight hairstyles, which can cause hair breakage.
Dandruff is a common scalp issue that affects up to half of the world’s population. Morgan says that dry skin is the main cause, and for many, dandruff becomes worse during cold, winter months. “The key here is to moisturize; a moisturizing shampoo—whether medicated or not—is often enough to keep dandruff at bay for most people.”
If the added dose of moisture doesn’t work, Morgan says that you may be suffering from an allergic reaction to an ingredient in your shampoo or other products. “Hair care products are made from a plethora of ingredients (both natural and synthetic) and one of them might be causing contact dermatitis, resulting in dandruff,” she explains. “Cutting out extra hair products and switching shampoos and conditioners is something I often recommend when a patient is suffering from dandruff.”
Antifungal products are also common when treating dandruff, and there are many organic products that tackle fungus naturally. “Tea tree oil, peppermint oil, clove oil, and aloe vera are all considered to have antimicrobial properties that could protect against dandruff,” Miller-Hamilton says. She recommends diluting these oils by adding a few drops into an antifungal shampoo, or creating a nourishing scalp treatment by adding a few drops to a carrier agent (such as coconut oil), massaging into the scalp, and leaving on for 15 to 20 minutes.
To thoroughly exfoliate the scalp and remove dandruff flakes, you may also use a rubber scalp brush in the shower while shampooing or a natural bristle brush on dry hair.
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If your scalp feels dry or tender to the touch, it may be a result of over-processing or using products that are too harsh for sensitive skin. “For some, not adequately rinsing out shampoo or an allergy to an ingredient in a product may be the cause,” Morgan explains. “In this case, figuring out which product is causing the reaction and cutting it out is the solution.”
Try a scalp toner or exfoliant, and start to wash the hair less frequently using unscented shampoo. Make sure to rinse your hair thoroughly after washing to remove buildup. You may also add a moisturizing conditioner and a weekly hydrating hair mask to keep things calm. Take a break from tight hairstyles and chemical processing (like perms or coloring) until your sensitivity is resolved. To help soothe irritation and balance the scalp, try rinsing the hair with diluted apple cider vinegar, which is often found anecdotally to help calm inflammation on the scalp.
“With any persistent scalp issue lasting for more than a few days, talking to a board-certified dermatologist is always recommended,” Morgan advises. “Some issues, [like fungal infections], won’t go away on their own, and will require medical treatment.”
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