It's an area of beauty that’s been much neglected – by companies and consumers – unless issues arise.
“The scalp skin has historically been out of sight and out of mind when it comes to hair health,” explains Dr Sharon Wong, London-based Consultant Dermatologist & Hair and Scalp Expert, who describes a healthy scalp as similar to needing good soil to grow flourishing plants.
“Recently there’s been increasing focus on the health of the scalp and appreciating its role in providing a healthy foundation to grow healthy hair. The pandemic has also seen more people presenting with hair issues. This attention has resulted in high-quality actives conventionally used for facial skincare being incorporated into hair and scalp products, otherwise known as the ‘skinification’ of hair.”
That means the arrival of road-tested ingredients from niacinamide and salicylic acid to caffeine and glycolic acid into scalp-specific products. But rather than being straight copies, they need to be carefully selected and finessed as the scalp has unique properties.
With an average 100,000-150,000 hair follicles, each with grease glands, the scalp has its own specific microenvironment with natural organisms living on it – the microbiome – which differ from those elsewhere on the body, explains Dr Wong.
“The ageing process that affects your face is also relevant to the scalp, as it can become exposed to UV and environmental pollution, plus suffers from DNA damage and collagen loss. Seeing your scalp as an extension of your facial skin is the best way to think of it when wanting to ensure your hair remains as healthy as possible.”
Skin it may be, but as the scalp is also covered in hair, the natural exfoliation process is more difficult: it’s not being washed as frequently or as thoroughly as the face, meaning dead cells can’t flake away so easily and stick to the styling products you apply.
Add naturally produced sebum from hair follicles into the mix and a build up quickly amasses. When left unattended, this can lead to the scalp becoming itchy and irritated while the hair shaft becomes sticky, with lengths looking lank and dull. Long term it could even cause folliculitis, inflammation and hair thinning as the roots are deprived of oxygen.
So as a dedicated skincare regime is essential for good skin heath, why not introduce a cleanse, exfoliate, treat and hydrate plan for your scalp into the bathroom for a healthy scalp and hair.
Cleanse“The scalp is essentially just skin so it should come as no surprise that it needs looking after just like skin on any other part of the body,” advises Robin Parker, Director of Research & Development at LHG Labs, who create premium hair and skincare in the UK, and a former President of the Society of Cosmetic Scientists. So taking cues from skincare, just as gentle but thorough facial cleansing is the foundation of a healthy complexion, the same can be said of the scalp.
Your regular shampoo will of course cleanse your scalp, but as residue from pollution, dirt, flaky skin and styling products mount up, it’s good to have a wardrobe of shampoos on hand. Think one for everyday, and one that has a more clarifying effect.
Clarifying versions are specifically formulated like a super-charged shampoo to cut through that grease and build up more easily. Bumble & Bumble Sunday Shampoo is a cult classic, loved for it’s light texture plus rosemary and sage scent that makes hair and scalp feel refreshed and squeaky clean.
ExfoliateIntroducing a clarifying shampoo into your routine is a good start; dedicated treatments that offer a deeper clean to target the scalp more intensely should come next.
The build up of dead cells is more pronounced on the scalp and therefore a gentle scrub is always a good idea to remove the flakes of dead skin,” explains Parker.
We rate and recommend Christophe Robin Purifying Scrub with Sea Salt, which is ideal for oily and sensitive scalps as an effective but gentle, regular detox. Although it comes as a thick paste, it’s been formulated to work like a non-lathering shampoo, massaged into scalp and hair weekly to remove skin and styling product build up.
For non-mechanical exfoliants, Dr Wong regards both glycolic and salicylic acids as gentle, effective chemical alternatives, with each suited to specific scalp types and needs. “Glycolic acid is one of the smallest of the alpha hydroxy acid molecules, making it highly effective in penetrating the stratum corneum to disintegrate and lift away dead skin cells,” she says. “It’s also small enough to get into the hair shaft and has been shown to interact with its keratin structure, improving strength, hydration and heat resistance.”
As glycolic is less drying than salicylic acid, it’s a more suitable option for normal and dry scalps. Salicylic acid, meanwhile, is oil-soluble, so can penetrate deep into the pores to remove excess oil and unclog the follicles, explains Dr Wong. “It’s also a highly effective descaling agent as well as having anti-itch and antimicrobial properties, making it particularly helpful for scaly and oily scalps. I recommend using one once a week for a more thorough cleanse and to keep a healthy cell turnover, as you would do with your face.”
The Inkey List make great options: Glycolic Acid Exfoliating Scalp Scrub suits every scalp and hair type, while Salicylic Acid Exfoliating Scalp Treatment is aimed at itching and flakiness as well as controlling oil.
TreatAfter cleansing and exfoliating, targeted formulas that play up skincare ingredients come into their own. “In most cases, if it works on facial skin, it’s likely to work on the scalp,” comments Parker. “Concentrate on tried and tested ingredients that we know are multifunctional like niacinamide or hyaluronic acid. There’s probably not much benefit in using an expensive peptide aimed at wrinkle reduction on the scalp!
"It’s beneficial to think about what scalp concerns you may have, for example itching, dryness or redness and target that problem with a product specially designed for the purpose.” Always check the instructions – Parker suggests that many are best applied before bed followed by shampooing in the morning.
Niacinamide, for example, is becoming popular in skinification as it not only hydrates but helps with oil control, too. And just as they are being used to feed the healthy bacteria on the microbiome of the face and keep it in check, prebiotics on the scalp foster a healthy microbiome which in turn, cultivates healthy hair follicles for stronger and more resilient future hair growth. Grow Gorgeous Scalp Care Volumising Niacinamide 10% Booster + Prebiotic combines both and also helps add lift and volume to hair at the roots.