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You’ve probably been washing and conditioning your hair for as long as you remember.
After a certain time, it’s second nature to just reach for the shampoo bottle as soon as you hop into the shower.
But hair health and scalp health are very different — and it’s important to not skip out on taking care of your scalp.
That’s exactly where scalp scrubs come into play.
They’re exactly what they sound like: scrubs for your scalp.
Just like the body scrubs you use to exfoliate your legs and arms, scalp scrubs remove product buildup, dirt, excess oil, and dead skin cells that inevitably gather at the root of your hair.
The glands on your scalp function similarly to the glands on your face: They produce oil (sebum) that maintains the health of your hair and skin.
But if this oil builds up to excess, shampoo may not be enough to clean it all away. That’s where a physical or chemical exfoliant comes in.
In this way, scrubs help reduce potential irritation and dandruff caused by excess oil.
If you don’t take care of your scalp by removing dead skin cells and buildup, your hair growth could be stunted. This could lead to early hair loss.
Even more, scrubs can get rid of buildup caused by hair products — particularly if you don’t wash your hair every day or use dry shampoo.
So you’re ready to buy a scalp scrub? First you need to determine your scalp type so that you can tailor your scrub to your needs.
Not to mention, some ingredients that work for oily scalps might not be the best for those with dry scalps.
Find your individual scalp concern or hair type below to learn more.
If you identify with more than one scalp situation, you may find it helpful to alternate with or rotate the appropriate products in your routine.
For an oily scalp
Does your scalp feel like a greasy slice of pizza by the end of a long day? You probably have an oily scalp.
The Philip Kingsley Exfoliating Weekly Scalp Mask is a popular choice. It contains BHA chemical exfoliants and zinc that target excess oil.
For a dry or flaky scalp
If you tend to notice flakes at the root of your scalp and rarely get oily, you probably have dryness.
Try the Kerastase Fusio-Scrub, formulated with vitamin B-5 to nourish your hair and prevent dryness.
For an itchy, irritated scalp
For itchiness, you’ll need to address the flakes and soothe at the same time.
Try the Briogeo Scalp Revival Charcoal + Coconut Oil Micro Exfoliating Shampoo for the best of both worlds.
The charcoal will scrub away the flakes while peppermint, spearmint, and tea tree oil soothe itchiness.
For a sensitive scalp
If your scalp is sensitive, you’re probably already wary of using a harsh physical exfoliant.
The R+Co Crown Scalp Scrub uses ultra-fine Ecuadorian ivory palm seed powder to physically exfoliate, plus salicylic acid for further prevention.
For fine hair or hair prone to buildup
Fine hair types tend to collect product buildup faster than other hair types. For this, you’ll want a slightly coarser exfoliant.
The Ouai Scalp & Body Scrub uses sugar crystals to help unclog hair follicles and wash away product buildup.
For thick or coarse hair
For those with thick hair or coarse curls, you might find that your scalp gets oily while the ends of your hair remain dry.
SheaMoisture Green Coconut & Activated Charcoal Exfoliating Hair Mud helps tackle this problem with a multitasking formula that hydrates with coconut and white tea and exfoliates with activated charcoal.
For color treated hair
Those who regularly color their hair will want to stay away from scrubs that use harsh chemical exfoliants or sulfates that could dull color.
The Kristin Ess Instant Exfoliating Scalp Scrub is safe for color and keratin treatments. It’s also free of sulfates, parabens, phthalates, and silicones.
For a “normal” scalp or hair
Not noticing any of the above scalp situations? You can probably use any scrub you’d like.
The Christophe Robin Cleansing Purifying Scrub is a popular pick across all hair and scalp types. It uses sea salt to physically exfoliate alongside sweet almond oil to soothe and hydrate.
Exfoliants can be boiled down to two major categories: physical and chemical.
These are made with ingredients that physically scrub the surface of your skin or scalp.
This includes, but definitely isn’t limited to:
- plant extracts
- fruit pits
The larger the exfoliant pieces, the more aggressive the scrub will be.
This is why some worry that more abrasive scrubs could cause micro-tears in the skin if used vigorously.
On the other hand, some find that smaller physical exfoliants (like finely ground sugar or clay) are gentler on the skin than anything else.
These are made with ingredients that chemically slough off dead skin cells.
The major chemical exfoliants you’ll find are alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs).
These ingredients will sometimes appear in the form of:
- glycolic acid
- lactic acid
- salicylic acid
Not sure you want to invest in a scalp scrub from the store? You can easily make your own mixture at home.
But you’ll want to be careful with what you use — DIY body scrubs are usually too harsh for the scalp, so pay attention to the ingredients.
Ingredients to use
The following are all okay to use as exfoliants:
- finely ground salt, including sea salt, sel gris, and Himalayan salt
- brown or granulated sugar
- activated charcoal
Just make sure to pair them with an oil base to lessen the abrasiveness. For example:
- sweet almond oil
- jojoba oil
- argan oil
- coconut oil
You can also add honey or aloe to help soothe irritation.
Ingredients to avoid
Overly coarse salts, nuts, and seeds could create micro-tears.
Undiluted essential oils can cause burns or irritation.
If your hair is colored, be careful to not use anything acidic, such as lemon juice, that could alter your dye.
Talk to your doctor before using a scrub if you have:
- open cuts or sores
- seborrheic dermatitis
These conditions can make your scalp more sensitive to exfoliation, resulting in more irritation and inflammation.
Your provider might suggest a prescription topical instead.
Use your scrub in place of or before you shampoo in the shower.
Use your fingers to lightly massage the scrub at the roots of your hair and rinse out with water. Make sure to follow up your scrub with a conditioner or hair mask.
How often you apply your mask is entirely up to you and how your scalp feels.
If you wash your hair often, you might only need to exfoliate once every few weeks.
If you use a lot of hair products or you don’t wash your hair regularly, try exfoliating once a week.
Avoid exfoliating more than once or twice a week, as this could end up irritating your scalp.
You can also add an exfoliating brush into your routine.
Similar to dry brushing your body, this hair brush is used on a dry scalp before you shower to loosen up product and dead skin cells so that scrubs can better penetrate.
The Aveda Pramasana Exfoliating Scalp Brush is a popular choice for fine to medium hair types, while the Briogeo Scalp Revival Stimulating Therapy Massager is common among thick or coiled hair types.
Scrubs, both physical and chemical, slough off the product buildup, excess oil, and dead skin cells that shampoo isn’t able to.
While great for some, scalp scrubs may not be your best bet if you have an underlying skin condition. Always consult with a doctor if you have any questions or concerns.
If the scrub causes irritation, discontinue use until you’re able to speak with a dermatologist or other healthcare provider.
Jen Anderson is a wellness contributor at Healthline. She writes and edits for various lifestyle and beauty publications, with bylines at Refinery29, Byrdie, MyDomaine, and bareMinerals. When not typing away, you can find Jen practicing yoga, diffusing essential oils, watching Food Network, or guzzling a cup of coffee. You can follow her NYC adventures on Twitter and Instagram.