Everything You Need to Know About Exfoliation for Your Scalp

Medically reviewed by Cynthia Cobb, DNP, APRN on January 23, 2018Written by Rachel Nall, RN, BSN, CCRN on January 23, 2018

What is scalp exfoliation?

Although the body naturally replaces dead skin cells with new skin cells, sometimes it can use a little help in the form of exfoliation. This is true even for the scalp.

Scalp exfoliation involves using physical or chemical exfoliants to remove excess skin cells, oil, and dandruff. Many hair experts maintain that regular scalp exfoliation is the key to healthier, shinier hair from the roots to the tips.

Keep reading to learn more about the benefits of scalp exfoliation, how to make a scalp exfoliant at home, and which products to buy.

What are the benefits of scalp exfoliation?

Scalp exfoliation can be a soothing and stress-relieving way to invigorate the scalp. In this way, exfoliation can benefit almost anyone who wishes to do it.

However, scalp exfoliation may be especially beneficial for those with:

  • dandruff
  • dry skin
  • oily hair

Although the hair itself is made of dead skin cells — which is why it doesn’t hurt when you get a haircut — the scalp is a living piece of your skin. It requires care and maintenance just like the rest of your body.

How to exfoliate your scalp

Scalp exfoliation can be one part scalp massage, another part skin treatment.

Although it’s safe to massage your scalp every day, you shouldn’t exfoliate your scalp more than once or twice a week. Exfoliation removes oil from the scalp, and more frequent exfoliation may cause the scalp to panic and over-produce oil.

Scalp exfoliation is usually performed on wet, just-shampooed hair. After you comb through and separate sections of your hair, you can apply the scrub with your fingertips. You can also use a brush or glove designed for exfoliation. If you’re using a physical exfoliant, rubbing in a gentle, circular motion can help.

In some cases, scalp exfoliation can make the scalp feel more sensitive. You may wish to apply a protective spray-on sunscreen formulated for hair to protect against sun damage and reduce sensitivity.

Natural exfoliants you can make at home

You can often make your own scalp exfoliant using household products.

Brown sugar and oatmeal scrub

To make a brown sugar and oatmeal scrub, mix:

  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons oatmeal, finely ground
  • 2 tablespoons of a hair conditioner of your choice

The sugar-oatmeal combination creates a physical exfoliant that will help slough off dead skin cells. After you shampoo, apply the mixture to your wet hair. Use gentle, circular motions to reach the scalp, and rinse thoroughly when done.

Aspirin scrub

To make an aspirin scrub, mix:

  • 6 to 8 aspirin
  • 4 tablespoons warm water

Aspirin contains salicylic acid, a chemical exfoliant. You can take things up a notch by using a toothbrush to apply the mixture to your scalp. Light scrubbing will help physically remove the dead skin cells. Rinse thoroughly when done and follow up with your favorite conditioner.

Physical exfoliants (scrubs) that you can buy

Physical exfoliants contain ingredients that create friction against the scalp, which helps remove dead skin cells. Physical exfoliants require massage against the scalp to work at their best. When shopping for a physical scalp exfoliant, look for words like “scrub” to identify them.

Some popular options include:

L’Oreal Paris EverFresh Micro-Exfoliating Scrub

This scrub is budget-friendly and uses apricot seeds as a physical exfoliant. Because the scrub is free of sulfates, it’s less likely to strip color-treated hair.

dpHUE Apple Cider Vinegar Scalp Scrub

This scrub uses pink Himalayan sea salt as a physical exfoliant. This finely ground scrub also contains avocado oil and aloe vera to help soothe the scalp and prevent irritation.

Christophe Robin Cleansing Purifying Scrub with Sea Salt

This sea salt scrub is marketed toward those with sensitive skin and contains sweet almond oil to help soothe the scalp.

R + Co Crown Scalp Scrub

This sugar-based scrub is both vegan and sulfate-free. The product receives high marks for its smell, as well its added protection against the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

Chemical exfoliants (peels) that you can buy

Chemical exfoliants contain active ingredients that work to exfoliate the scalp without the need for mechanical exfoliation. Always read the label to determine how long you should leave the product on for and whether it’s safe to style as you normally would after use.

Some popular options include:

Phillip Kingsley Exfoliating Scalp Mask

Phillip Kingsley has a full line of products aimed at treating not only the hair, but also the scalp. This chemical exfoliating scalp mask contains active ingredients like betaine salicylate to break up dead skin cells. The mask also contains zinc, which helps reduce excess oil production.

Briogeo Scalp Revival Charcoal + Tea Tree Scalp Treatment

This scalp treatment uses tea tree oil to loosen the bonds of dead skin cells and promote chemical exfoliation. Those with itchy scalps will also enjoy the soothing peppermint and spearmint oils in the treatment.

Paul Mitchell Tea Tree Hair and Scalp Treatment

This scalp product also uses tea tree oil to exfoliate and clarify the scalp. Nourishing ingredients like vitamin E and shea butter will leave you with a soft scalp and shiner hair.

Potential side effects and risks

You shouldn’t exfoliate your scalp if you have:

  • an active infection, such as ringworm
  • an open cut or sore
  • lice

In some cases, people with sensitive skin may find that certain chemical or physical exfoliants are too harsh for their scalp. If you experience discomfort, swelling, or irritation while exfoliating, you should discontinue use. Talk to your doctor if the discomfort persists.

The bottom line

Scalp exfoliants are an excellent way to see healthier hair from the root down. Start small with a once-weekly scalp treatment, then expand to twice-weekly if desired.

You should avoid exposing your scalp to direct sunlight after exfoliating. If you need to go outdoors, make sure you wear a hat or spray a SPF formulated for your scalp and hair.

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