Exfoliation is the cornerstone of a gorgeous complexion, but it may also be the root of lustrous, healthy hair. And while it's easy to overlook what you can't see, the health of your scalp can have highly visible results. Neglecting to exfoliate might lead to dull hair, clogged follicles, and itchy, flaky skin. On the flip side, exfoliating regularly can help hair grow naturally thicker, shinier, and less oily, according to our experts. Sounds dreamy, right?
Most people give all their TLC to their lengths, but we're here to tell you that the scalp deserves your undivided attention, too. To experience the cleanest, healthiest scalp—and the stunning hair benefits that come along with it—we consulted with trichologist Vincent De Marco, board-certified dermatologist Debra Jaliman, and beauty expert and founder of Sans Ceuticals, Lucy Vincent.
Keep scrolling to learn all about scalp exfoliation, from the benefits to the best exfoliating products.
What Is Scalp Exfoliation?
According to Jaliman, scalp care is crucial as it’s where the hair follicles are and where hair grows from. Exfoliation refers to lifting away dead skin cells and debris by either a chemical or naturally-sourced product. "Scalp exfoliation makes way for fresh skin and hair follicles to grow healthy hair," explains Jaliman. "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.
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 peppermint oil for added antibacterial properties. You can also mix salt with sugar, to make the scrub slightly less abrasive.
Shop Our Favorite Scalp Exfoliation Products
Below, find our favorite hand-picked scalp exfoliators.
Ban flakes from your scalp for good with this detoxifying pick from John Masters Organics. A blend of organic sugar cane, pumpkin enzyme, and AHA botanical fruit extract make up the formula, which effectively rids the scalp of excess sebum and dull buildup.
Alpha-hydroxy acids are a group of acid compounds, most often derived from plant-based sources. There are a variety of different ones out there, some of which include glycolic (derived from sugarcane) and lactic (derived from sour milk). While they all act on the surface of the skin as chemical exfoliants, they differ in size, and subsequently penetration and potency.
Have straight or fine hair? Add a scalp exfoliating brush like this one from Aveda to your arsenal. To use, simply massage the bristles on the scalp while the hair is dry, using circular motions, to press firmly but gently.
Shampoo not cutting it? Opt for a serious scalp treatment that soothes and moisturizes all while removing dry flakes. This pick from Lush has earned a spot in our repertoire—it's made with coconut oil and candelilla wax meant to calm the scalp as well as salicylic acid meant to offer relief from dry buildup.
If greasy residue has found a permanent home on your scalp, this exfoliating shampoo will be your new go-to. It's gentle enough not to irritate the scalp yet deeply cleansing to rid away dirt, external stressors, and toxins.
Tang SC, Yang JH. Dual effects of alpha-hydroxy acids on the skin. Molecules. 2018;23(4):863. doi:10.3390/molecules23040863