How and When to Exfoliate Your Scalp, According to Hair Experts


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Regularly exfoliating your scalp is one of the most important ways to keep both your scalp and hair looking and feeling its best. Neglecting to exfoliate and cleanse your scalp can lead to dry scalp, itchy and flaky scalp, dull hair, clogged hair follicles, and more. On the other hand, when you exfoliate regularly, you can potentially experience hair growth, less oily scalp, and even shinier hair.

Does it sound too good to be true? We got our experts—trichologist Vincent De Marco, board-certified dermatologist Debra Jaliman, and beauty expert Lucy Vincent—to spill the tea on all things scalp exfoliation.

Keep scrolling to learn all about scalp exfoliation, from the benefits to the best exfoliating products.

Meet the Expert

  • Vincent De Marco is a Los Angeles-based hairstylist and trichologist.
  • Debra Jaliman is a board-certified dermatologist based on the Upper East Side in Manhattan.
  • Lucy Vincent is a beauty expert and founder of Sans Ceuticals, a clean and sustainable hair, skin, and body care brand.

What Is Scalp Exfoliation?

Exfoliation refers to lifting away dead skin cells and debris by either a chemical or naturally-sourced product. According to Jaliman, scalp care is crucial as it’s where the hair follicles are and where hair grows from. "Scalp exfoliation makes way for fresh skin and hair follicles to grow healthy hair," she explains. "Many people pay more attention to their hair rather than their scalp, but the truth is that a healthy scalp will produce healthy hair."

Vincent agrees, adding that exfoliation is essential for keeping the hair and scalp in top condition. "It removes scalp buildup, allowing our natural oils to keep the hair and scalp nourished and healthy. Our natural sebum keeps everything in check, preventing dry scalp. It also allows oils to nourish and protect our hair's mid-lengths and ends. On the flip side, an overproduction or buildup of sebum on the scalp can feed the Malassezia furfur yeast that can lead to dandruff, hence exfoliation is key."

The Benefits of Scalp Exfoliation

All of our experts agree that exfoliating the scalp comes with a slew of benefits.

  • Removes buildup: "Not exfoliating your scalp can cause buildup and also dandruff," says Jaliman. "When there is buildup, our hair follicles are blocked and hair does not grow as healthy, but exfoliating helps to keep the scalp free of buildup." Vincent agrees, noting that exfoliation removes product buildup such as hair spray, gel, and other styling products.
  • Encourages hair growth: Using a scalp exfoliator consistently can create a healthy environment for hair to grow: "By removing dead skin cells on the scalp, you're lowering the enzyme population that contributes to the natural shed rate," explains De Marco, who relates scalp exfoliation to dusting your home. "You can't expect to never dust your home and continue living a healthy life. The same is true with your scalp." Vincent also says that removing dead skin cells also encourages cellular turnover on your scalp, allowing for fresh, healthy new cells to surface.
  • Promotes shiny hair: Jaliman notes that when you exfoliate your scalp, you're clearing up the follicles from which the hair grows. "Your hair will grow in healthier, making it look shinier," she says. Plus, scalp exfoliators might help to remove temporary hard water deposits in any buildup from haircare products.
  • Prevents dry scalp/dandruff: Having flakes on your scalp doesn’t always equal dandruff—it could be an indication that the scalp is very dry and/or irritated: "Exfoliating the scalp allows for its natural oils to nourish and keep our scalp and hair healthy," says Jaliman. "This helps keep our hair dandruff-free and prevents a dry scalp."

How to Exfoliate Your Scalp

Ready to slough away that buildup? Our experts recommend being ultra-gentle when using your fingers or a gadget to exfoliate your scalp to avoid irritation. For those with a sensitive scalp or other scalp issues, you should consult your doctor for further guidance. Jaliman recommends steering clear of scalp scrubs if you have skin conditions such as acne, eczema, or psoriasis on the scalp. Below, De Marco breaks down the steps on how to exfoliate the scalp.

  • Start by placing the product directly on the head, avoiding most of the hair shaft
  • Use small circular motions and your fingertips to gently lift the dead skin cells off the scalp
  • Gently rinse with the water.

Avoid using your fingernails to exfoliate, as this might scratch the scalp and set you up for a dependency on a dandruff shampoo.

How Often to Exfoliate Your Scalp

De Marco says that how often you exfoliate your scalp will vary, but the idea is to do it once every seven to 10 shampoos. "With a healthy scalp, it should never be necessarily needed unless you have had an excessive amount of product on your head, or are on medication, which causes the condition," he explains. To get the most out of the process (and to limit the amount of time and energy you’ll need to invest), opt for scalp-friendly products that hinge their formula on natural ingredients, and are as kind to your hair as they are to what’s underneath.

Side Effects of Scalp Exfoliation

As with any form of exfoliation, those who scrub their scalp run the risk of over-scrubbing, which can tear the skin and cause sensitivity or even bleeding. Heed the advice of the experts and do it only once per week (or once every two weeks). And limit it entirely if you notice broken skin or other sensitivity. Avoid over-exfoliation, as Jaliman says this may throw off the pH balance of your scalp.

Physical vs. Chemical Scalp Exfoliants

De Marco explains that a chemical or synthetic exfoliant (like Sunday Riley's Clean Rinse Clarifying Scalp Serum, $48) generally uses an acidic solution that helps to lift away the dead skin cells by introducing acid. "The pH of the acid is low but not low enough to burn the scalp," he says. An alternative is a physical exfoliant or an actual material that helps to remove those dead skin cell flakes, like the charcoal and sea salt in Pacifica's Rosemary Detox Scalp Scrub ($11). "Physical exfoliants include ingredients that physically pry the dead skin cells off as opposed to chemically disintegrating their attachment," says De Marco.

DIY Scalp Exfoliants

There are a few key ingredients to keep in mind when making your own, DIY scalp exfoliant. Sea salt is a go-to exfoliator, for instance. Just be sure to add a product like a peppermint oil for added antibacterial properties. You can also mix salt with sugar, to make the scrub slightly less abrasive.

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