Simple changes to your hair care regimen can make a big difference in the health of your scalp. It can be as easy as being more gentle while shampooing or only straightening your waves on occasion, but there are additional tips.

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Many of us take the health of our scalp for granted and don’t give the skin on our heads much consideration. Instead, when we pick out shampoo, conditioner, and hair products, we tend to focus on how they will benefit our hair.

But it’s different for those with scalp issues. For many, constantly feeling the need to scratch can be distracting, dandruff flakes falling onto clothing can be embarrassing, and finding bumps can be alarming.

Learning how to take care of your scalp can improve its health, give you peace of mind, and maybe even boost your confidence.

According to Dr. Sanusi Umar, medical director and dermatologist at the Dr. U Hair & Skin Clinic, a healthy scalp is free of:

  • itchiness
  • redness
  • flakiness
  • irritation
  • pain
  • acne
  • cysts
  • sun damage
  • excessive hair loss

“Bumps, scabs, and redness signal inflammation,” explains Dr. Sharleen St. Surin-Lord, a board certified dermatologist in Washington, D.C. “If left untreated, this can cause hair loss that can become permanent.”

The health of your scalp determines the health of your hair. “Your scalp is like the soil of a farm. Poor soil will directly affect the well-being of the plants growing in it,” Umar says. “Similarly, anything that would cause scalp inflammation can be harmful to the existence and well-being of hair.”

Our scalp contains about 100,000 follicles, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association. Like a seed sprouting a tree, each follicle contains a single hair that grows. The follicles also produce sebum, or oil, that helps keep the scalp moisturized and protects the skin from infection.

A hair follicle goes deep into the scalp and has its own microbiome. The scalp also has a microbiome. Disruption in the balance of the scalp microbiome has been linked to dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis (a condition that causes dandruff and scaly patches), and atopic dermatitis (eczema).

Scalp issues such as dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis, atopic dermatitis, and psoriasis are linked to rough hair, hair breakage, and reduced hair shine. Additionally, poor scalp health associated with these conditions may also lead to premature hair loss.

If none of the following options help make your scalp healthier, see a dermatologist for advice.

Use gentle hair care products

Avoiding products that contain sulfates, alcohols, or fragrances may help improve your scalp health. “Sulfates strip away natural oils in your hair and remove dead skin cells, which makes the scalp dry and prone to irritation,” Umar explains.

“And since your skin and scalp are already sensitive, using products that contain alcohol and fragrances suck the moisture out of your hair. This will have your hair feeling frizzy, dry, and damaged and will result in inflammation that leaves you with a dry, itchy, irritated scalp.”

Also, avoid any hair care products that contain harsh chemicals and hair treatments such as dye and bleach. These may cause damage to the hair shaft and scalp skin.

Shampoo gently

Rather than scrubbing your scalp when shampooing your hair, massage it. “This will increase circulation and avoid causing abrasions on the scalp,” St. Surin-Lord says.

Wash less often

It’s natural to think that in order to avoid oily hair, you should wash your tresses more often. However, this may backfire. Shampooing your hair too frequently strips away the natural oils. In turn, your scalp may produce more oils in order to keep it hydrated, resulting in oily-looking hair, Umar says.

“Those who already struggle with a dry or itchy scalp would benefit from increasing time between washes to balance out the oil production,” he adds. As a general rule of thumb, Umar recommends washing your hair three to four times a week, tops.

Try an omega-3 supplement

Although the scientific evidence isn’t substantial, many believe that taking a fish oil supplement can help promote hair growth and prevent hair loss.

In a 2015 study, women with self-perceived thinning hair took a fish oil supplement (also containing other nutrients) or a placebo. Those who took the fish oil for 90 days reported increased hair growth and strength.

In another 2015 study, women with female pattern hair loss who took a supplement containing omega-3, omega-6, and antioxidants for 6 months experienced increased hair density and decreased hair loss.

“Omega-3s and fish oils nourish the hair by stimulating circulation in the scalp. They also reduce the inflammation that could be associated with hair loss,” Umar says. Talk to your doctor to be sure a supplement is appropriate for you and to help you find the best one.

Eat more antioxidants

Oxidative stress occurs when the number of damaging free radicals in the body overwhelms the number of beneficial antioxidants. Not only can oxidative stress lead to health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, it’s also believed to affect the health of the scalp and to cause hair loss.

The best sources of antioxidants are fruits and vegetables.

Aim to eat a variety of produce to get the wide variety of antioxidants found in nature. Each has different benefits, and those benefits extend beyond your hair.

Try probiotics

“Taking a probiotic can help improve gut health and balance the gut microbiome,” St. Surin-Lord says. And since our gut health is linked to our skin health — and our scalp is skin — taking a probiotic may improve the skin microbiome and also promote a healthy scalp, she says.

She recommends a probiotic containing at least two strains of bacteria, such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Lactobacillus reuteri, in particular, have been shown to help thicken hair in mice.

Use a scalp scrub

Just like a scrub you’d use on your face, a scalp scrub is a way to exfoliate the skin on your head. Scrubs contain physical or chemical exfoliants and help remove excess skin cells, oil, and dandruff, and may dilate the blood vessels under your skin, potentially boosting hair growth. (They can also simply feel very relaxing and help you de-stress.)

You can DIY a scalp scrub at home with common ingredients or buy exfoliants in stores or online.

Our scalp often lets us know if something is amiss. Common symptoms of an unhealthy scalp include:

  • itching
  • burning
  • bumps on the scalp
  • extreme oiliness
  • extreme dandruff
  • hair loss

If you notice any of the above and the issue bothers you, see a dermatologist. “It’s possible the hair product you’re using or a medication you’re consuming is the cause of the problem,” Umar says. “A dermatologist is able to determine which actions to take.”

If your hair is constantly falling out in large amounts, there may be an underlying health issue that your dermatologist or healthcare provider can help treat, he adds.

A healthy scalp leads to healthy hair, so it’s important to pay attention to your scalp. If you notice any itching, redness, flakiness, irritation, pain, or excessive hair loss and these symptoms bother you, see a dermatologist. They can help determine if there is an underlying health problem or if you should change your hair care routine.

You can also support a healthy scalp through everyday habits. This includes using gentle products and being kind to your hair. Don’t wash your hair every day, if you can. When you do wash it, gently massage your scalp rather than rubbing it. A diet rich in vegetables and fruit also supports a healthy scalp. Taking a fish oil supplement and probiotic may also be beneficial.

Brittany Risher is a writer, editor, and digital strategist specializing in health and lifestyle content. She’s written for publications including Elemental, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, and Yoga Journal.