Every now and again, there is a beauty product trend that feels like it sweeps the industry. And, ladies and gents, 2020 is the year of the scalp scrub. With such a heavy emphasis on skin, it’s no surprise that everyone’s focus has shifted upwards. Just like you’d exfoliate your face or body, scalp scrubs help remove dead skin cells, product build-up, and excess oil often trapped in your scalp.
“We have come to view the treatment of our scalp equally as important as the skin on your face,” explains co-founder of Mark Ryan Salon, Mark Debolt. “I believe this also reflects the huge success in the skincare category in recent years. Many scalp scrubs contain ingredients from the skincare world (i.e. salicylic acid or AHAs) that are able to rapidly break down and dissolve dead skin cells or product buildup. In a word borrowed from skincare: exfoliate, exfoliate, exfoliate.”
But before you moan and groan about having to buy another product, there’s good news—you can totally create a DIY scalp scrub at home. We caught up with four experts to spill more on all things scalp scrubs, including exclusive “recipes” for you to try.
Why Are Scalp Scrubs So Popular?
It’s no secret that scalp treatments have been around for a while—especially as an add-on service at the salon. But recently (especially in the midst of stay-at-home orders) brands have done a great job of making and selling scrubs to already loyal consumers. However, they are also relatively easy to make on your own (more on that below).
“For many years hairdressers have taught their clients to shampoo less, pointing to hair powders and dry shampoos to reduce the amount of thermal damage we put upon our hair,” explains Debolt. “Shampooing less often means more build-up on the scalp, which can interfere with the best of hair growth.”
How Do You Know If You Need a Scalp Scrub?
The benefit of using a scalp scrub is to provide a deeper cleansing for the scalp by removing sweat, product build-up, dandruff, and any other residue that can stay on your scalp that may prevent hair growth.
“There are a few signs to know when you should start using a scrub,” explains Fitzpatrick. “If you have a flakey scalp, using a scrub will help exfoliate the excess skin. If you have excess oil, a scrub will help break down any oil build up left on the scalp that a regular shampoo sometimes misses.”
How to Apply Use a Scalp Scrub
“I would suggest using a scalp scrub about once a week depending on how much oil or build-up you tend to get on your scalp,” explains Fitzpatrick. “A post shampoo is necessary to rinse away any residue left from the scrub.”
On the flip side, Scalp scrubs aren't for everyone. “I would say that they are beneficial to anyone who has product buildup or an excessively oily scalp,” shares Cleveland. “On the other hand, if you already have a fairly healthy scalp and you [use] too strong of a scrub, you can actually create a problem where one didn't exist.”
Traditionally, scalp scrubs should be used right before shampooing. For example, here’s what your routine could look like according to Morton:
Step one: Use your favorite DIY scalp scrub (p.s. we have recipes below!).
Step two: Shampoo as usual.
Oily hair should opt for a clarifying shampoo 2x per month, where dry/textured hair should opt for 1x per month.
Step three: Apply conditioner.
If you have dry hair, swap in a moisturizing treatment or a hair mask.
Can All Hair Types Use Scalp Scrubs?
Unfortunately, according to Bergamy, most scalp scrubs do contain sodium (salt) as a base ingredient, which doesn't serve every hair type well. “This is usually designed to remove any build-up and oils from the scalp, which can be a problem for the 4C ladies,” she explains. “[But] that does not mean 4C ladies are exempt from using one—textured hair types just need ingredients that are more gentle and moisture based that will add softness to the hair.”
Her advice? “I suggest looking for a scalp scrub that contains less salt and is more sugar-based. Although salt will pull out impurities, sugar provides moisture that will help to soften the scalp,” she explains.
Debolt is also a fan of adding a mask post-treatment. “Because these products can be drying, it is important to moisturize the hair afterwards,” he explains. “Follow with a moisturizing hair mask to nourish the mid lengths and ends of hair. I love the Shu Uemura Urban Moisture Hydro-Nourishing Treatment ($69) and also the Christophe Robin Color Fixator Wheat Germ Mask ($43).”
According to Cleveland, your hair type shouldn't play the only role in choosing a scalp scrub. “The condition of your scalp should be the most important evaluation when choosing the type of scrub,” she explains. “You can still use a scrub if you have a sensitive scalp; however, you would just need to choose more natural and milder ingredients. Typically, a pre-made one has more chances of containing unknown or unfamiliar ingredients or perfumes [that could further irritate your scalp].”
Byrdie beauty and wellness review board member and trichologist Sophia Emmanuel recommends using scrubs without abrasive exfoliating ingredients (like salts or sugars) if you have a sensitive scalp. "They are going to increase sensitivity," she says. "If the sensitive scalp has no abrasions, use a cream-based scalp mask that has exfoliating properties but is gentle on the skin like Philip Kingsley Soothing Scalp Mask ($30)."
What’s the Difference Between a Clarifying Shampoo and a Scalp Scrub?
Scalp scrubs and clarifying shampoos fall into two different categories. “A scalp scrub focuses on exfoliating your scalp and promoting a healthy base, where a clarifying shampoo focuses on a deep clean to the hair,” explains Fitzpatrick.
Debolt explains that, essentially, scalp scrubs are a more intense version of a clarifying shampoo. “The greatest difference is that scalp scrubs are designed with ingredients from the skincare world and will specifically increase scalp health,” he explains.“Clarifying shampoos will achieve some of the same results but are more of an overall high detergent cleanser.”
Scalp scrubs are great for scalp stimulation, but be sure not to over-use as this will make the scalp sore and tender. “Over-scrubbing can do more harm than good. Remember: a healthy scalp produces healthy hair,” continues Bergamy. “Neither product should be used daily. It’s like going to a spa to get a facial. I suggest these products no more than twice a week. For those with a more sensitive scalp, aim to use a hair scrub once a month,” she adds.
How to Create a DIY Scalp Scrub, According to Stylists
Coconut Oil and Honey Scrub
- 1/4 cup of coconut oil [Note: Swap in sweet almond or jojoba oil for finer hair textures]
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 5-6 drops of peppermint oil
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar [Note: If you have dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis, psoriasis, use apple cider vinegar with caution as it can cause an itchy scalp due to its acidic properties.]
- 1 tablespoon Manuka honey
Morton breaks down why this is her winning combo. “First, the sugar acts as a natural exfoliant—I prefer sugar over salt because the texture is softer,” she explains. “An essential oil, like peppermint, is a natural inflammatory, plus calming to the scalp. Next, ACV helps to maintain the pH balance of the skin thanks to antiseptic and antibacterial properties. Finally, adding soothing Manuka honey helps soothe the scalp while minimizing dandruff, eczema, and psoriasis.”
Avocado and Himalayan Sea Salt Scrub
- 1 tablespoon Himalayan or sea salt
- 1 teaspoon raw sugar for exfoliator
- 1 tablespoon avocado oil for moisture
- 1 teaspoon coconut oil for moisture
"Overall, with DIY masks, the molecules of raw ingredients are so large that they often don't penetrate the hair strands to offer maximum benefits,” he explains. “But, when making a DIY mask, look for exfoliating and nourishing ingredients that you see in your favorite hair masks. A little bit goes a long way, so start with the above and add as you go along.”
Avocado and Tea Tree Brown Sugar Scrub
- 1/2 teaspoon brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon avocado oil
- 2 drops of tea tree oil
“For textured hair, if your scalp scrub is rough on the scalp or hair, you can mix a hair oil to it,” she explains. “My favorite one is Contents Earth Silk Glossifyer ($30). It works Incredible as a hair oil treatment and is great to include in your favorite hair mask.” She notes to skip out on tea tree oil if your current shampoo already includes it.
“There are tons of products out that promote a healthy scalp and target specific needs,” shares Fitzpatrick. “Just like the skin on your body and face, your scalp might require specific needs that differ from person to person. Do some easy research and find what treatment works best for you because beautiful hair starts with the scalp."