If you’ve been on TikTok lately, chances are you’ve come across one of the many strangely obsessive, scalp care trends. There’s the current “hairline check”, where you bring your phone to the top of the head to check out the thickness of your part. There’s the trending use of rosemary oil, applying it daily to the scalp to promote hair growth. There was even a teenager who went viral for discovering the very well-known scientific fact that hair grows from our scalps instead of the ends of our hair. Needless to say, social media has a newfound obsession with all things scalp care.
While scalp care techniques like applying oil have roots across many different cultures, including in the 5,000-year-old Indian science of Ayurveda, Western beauty has largely ignored the scalp, focusing instead on the hair strands. However, the growing interest in skin care has come to the natural conclusion that the scalp should be considered with similar attention as the face as it, too, is susceptible to skin issues like dryness and irritation. In fact, our scalp is very to the rest of the skin on our body with a little extra density of oil glands and more hair follicles (of course).
To clear up the confusion, we asked two experts to break down everything we should be thinking about when it comes to the care and keeping of our scalps.
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What is a healthy scalp?
If you’ve tried the scalp check trend on TikTok for yourself, you might have noticed your hair part is not entirely straight, something some TikTokers have expressed concerned over. This is completely normal. However, what you do want to be on the lookout for is tightness, irritation, dry patches, or flakes, advises Lisa Nurczyk, director of education at cosmetology, barber, and esthetics school, Tricoci University of Beauty Culture. An easy way to tell? “When brushing or shampooing there shouldn’t be any pain associated with touching the scalp,” she says.
Lian Mack, M.D. a board-certified dermatologist practicing in New York City and Scarsdale, says a healthy scalp should feel smooth to touch and free from product build-up. “With the naked eye, you should be able to see tons of follicular ostia (a.k.a the openings from which strands of hair come out of the scalp), each with a single hair coming out.” If your hair follicles are damaged, you might also notice extreme dryness, irritation, and hair loss or thinning.
What are the basics of scalp care?
As much as we can love dry shampoo and making a hairstyle last through the week, Nurczyk says shampooing regularly is a must for the scalp. “Irregular or less thorough cleansing can be the perfect breeding ground for bacteria that can lead to scalp issues,” she warns. While it varies from person to person, she generally recommends cleansing the scalp two or three times a week. For those looking to go another step further, she also recommends doing scalp massages using oils to promote your own oil production. “Oil production is not a bad thing,” Nurczyk explains. “It keeps the scalp hydrated and prevents it from becoming dehydrated,” which can lead to flakiness— a clear giveaway of a less-then-happy scalp.
What to avoid
Nurczyk says to avoid scratching the scalp aggressively with nails, brushes, or combs as this can lead to abrasions on the scalp and therefore damaged hair follicles. Mack also includes excess heat and tight-fitting hairstyles as potential culprits for scarring alopecia and hair loss. “Avoiding products that contain sulfates, alcohols and fragrances will also prove helpful in maintaining good scalp health,” she says, as they can be irritating. “Lastly, too many hair products can cause excess buildup surrounding hair follicles leading to unhealthy scalp skin,” and effectively blocking the follicle.
How can scalp care promote hair growth?
Think of your scalp like soil and your hair like the plants it grows, you can’t grow healthy plants from poor soil. Our scalp contains about 100,000 follicles, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, each follicle containing a single hair that grows. The condition of your hair is inherently linked to the condition of your scalp. Which makes sense that scalp issues such as dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis, atopic dermatitis, and psoriasis can often lead to premature hair loss.
Along with the basics of scalp care, there are other ways to give your scalp a little extra boost to promote healthy growth, like exfoliation and oils. However, for extreme hair loss or other scalp concerns, it’s best to seek personalized advice from a dermatologist. Mack says common options include, “supplements like Biotin. There are also topical serums and solutions including minoxidil,” she says. As with all skincare, what works for one scalp won’t be what’s best for another. It’s also important to set realistic expectations, as healthy hair still only grows at the rate of about a half an inch in a month.
Should you exfoliate your scalp?
Just like people swear by exfoliation as part of their facial skin care routine, exfoliation is also something that others swear by for their scalp. Exfoliating your scalp is a great way to remove any buildup and allow the natural oils to hydrate the scalp. Removing the layers of dead skin and unclogging the follicles can also help hair to grow normally.
But also like facial exfoliation—you don’t want to overdo it. Think about exfoliating once every week or every two weeks per your product use and hair needs. Options range from chemical exfoliants like Sunday Riley's Clean Rinse Clarifying Scalp Serum, to physical exfoliants like Briogeo’s Scalp Revival Charcoal + Coconut Oil Micro-exfoliating Scalp Scrub Shampoo, to exfoliating brushes. But remember to be gentle and not to press too hard.
What about oils for hair growth?
Remember when Nurczyk said that we should make friends with oils and oil production? Other than generally hydrating the scalp, some essential oils are thought to promote hair growth, including rosemary and lavender. Rosemary oil recently went viral on TikTok, with many people sharing their hair growth results online. Some people use a few drops of essential oils during their scalp massages, others mix it into their shampoo, and many people swear by boiling water with rosemary essential oil added, allowing it cool and then spraying it on your scalp. Or if your’e not into a DIY moment, try a pre-made oil containing rosemary extract like JVN Hair Pre-Wash Scalp Oil.
Amala oil from the gooseberry plant has also been used as a hair treatment in Indian communities for centuries to promote a healthy scalp and hair growth due to it’s antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. Consider adding a weekly moisturizing treatment massaging an oil into the scalp and strands to condition and strengthen hair. We like Squigs Beauty Gooseberry Delight Hair Oil.
TL;DR: How important is scalp care, really?
As it turns out, TikTok is onto something. Scalp care is important for the overall wellbeing of your hair. However, this doesn’t mean you must build an entirely new routine or that you’re doing something wrong if you don’t have a 12-step skincare routine for your head. It’s more important to be aware of your scalp, keeping it clean, hydrated, and healthy. So make sure you wash your hair regularly, avoid letting too many products build up on your hair and scalp, and occasionally use a clarifying shampoo or scalp scrub when you need to remove build up. Find the products that work for you, and be kind to your scalp balancing your use of dry shampoo, heat, and tight hairstyles, which can be damaging.
Treating yourself to a scalp massage (with or without oils) is also an easy (and free) way to promote blood circulation, and therefore hair growth. “The health of your scalp is directly connected to the health of your hair,” says Mack. “The two go hand in hand. Keeping scalp skin hydrated, clean, protected, and uninflamed is key to proper hair growth.”