At a time when skincare is so central to beauty, how could we so obviously neglect our scalps? Believe it or not, the skin on our head is just as responsive as the skin on our face. You may have heard from your hairstylist + colorist that caring for your scalp could save your hair’s appearance –– as well as prevent irreversible shrinkage and hair loss.
So, what signifies an unhealthy scalp? Flaking, hair loss, acne, excess oil and itching/burning are all signs that something is up at your roots. Luckily, improving your scalp health has many at-home solutions. With haircare brands such as Nioxin and Unwash centering their products around scalp health and extending beauty beyond strands, we’ve learned that getting hair that’s thick, shiny and healthy takes going to the follicles directly.
Facilitating a healthy scalp actually starts before the hair even starts to grow. Many environmental triggers like hormones, stress and trauma, illness, heat and pressure, chemicals and age can impact the state of your follicles and hair growth. The same way a super stressful week at the office can show its face with a massive break out, changes to your normal routine can have huge impacts on your scalp.
As silly as it might sound, reducing stress with practices like meditating, journaling or working out also poses huge benefits to your beauty routine. Plus, lowering stress and cortisol levels also improves your immune system –– another factor that affects your scalp.
Also, remember that your hair (like us) needs the proper support system to do its best work. Having a diet rooted in proteins (salmon, nuts and legumes), healthy fats (avocados) and vitamins (fatty omega-3s, zinc, and iron) supports follicle health and makes existing strands especially strong and shiny.
If your current eating habits leave you without a specific nutrient, supplements are always an option. Some brands have even developed mixes specifically for hair health! Look for formulas containing keratin, biotin (appropriate levels) and Vitamin Bs to give your body the nutrients it needs to support growth and motivate follicles to do their job well.
This is perhaps the most well-known issue affecting scalp health, and where you will likely realize there’s an issue. Follicles can become blocked by built-up sebum, product or dead hair. The effect is flaking, a lack of growth and severe shedding caused by overactive sebaceous glands thrown off balance by this build-up.
The key to avoiding blockage is preventing build-up to keep follicles clear. Two of the most important steps to this change include toning and exfoliating. Yes, toner works wonders for your scalp, too! You can search beauty stores for formulas including tea tree oil (an especially potent and effective ingredient) or make an at-home wash with apple cider vinegar.
When selecting an exfoliant, look for fine textures, like sugar –– or if you’re feeling a little #extra, seashells –– but avoid microbeads, which can wind up in bodies of water and affect aquatic life. After shampooing, massage the exfoliant in gentle, circular motions around your scalp and rinse thoroughly. Include in your routine one to two times each week to clear build-up without irritating your scalp.
Another method of physical exfoliation is one you’re already likely doing: regular brushing! Your hairbrush isn’t just for untangling snarls and perfectly placing styles. It also stimulates blood flow and evenly distributes oils to avoid build-up at the roots. The trick is having the right tools that avoid applying too much pressure, while still working effectively to clear potential build-up. Olivia Garden has a number of scalp-hugging brushes with gentle ballpoint tips to stimulate the scalp.
If left blocked and unmaintained, acne can manifest on the scalp. And in more serious cases, bacterial or fungal infections, such as folliculitis, can develop within the follicle. In its simplest form, folliculitis simply causes an annoying razor burn. In more extreme instances, however, it can jeopardize long-term state scalp health with permanent hair loss and scarring.
Preventing infection relies heavily on having an appropriate wash routine. Per your scalps current (and evolving) needs, be sure not to over or under washing. Most stylists suggest starting with a wash every other day. In most cases, a healthy scalp will naturally regulate itself with oil and nutrients. Because shampoo is applied directly to the scalp, this product obviously has a huge impact on its health. Next time you’re shopping, search for a healthy formula that isn’t overly harsh and stripping.
Common scalp-irritating and inflammatory ingredients include sulfates, parabens, alcohol, and mineral oils. These cleansing agents and preservatives often cause extreme dryness and irritation to the scalp. Another rule to follow is nixing ingredients that end in “-cones,” including silicones, dimethicones and trimethicones. Formulas add these ingredients to make hair feel softer, more supple and moisturized. However, their weight poses an especially high risk when it comes to blocking the scalp and causing infection.