“Hair care is the new skincare” is a saying that’s been floating around the beauty industry over the last year and it’s easy to see why: The hair care business is booming, and classic skincare brands such as Omorovicza, Sisley-Paris and Drunk Elephant are getting into the hair game. With all this attention on long, hair, it’s no wonder the focus is also starting to include the skin *underneath* your hair. The latest crop of scalp masks, scrubs and serums are officially making us reconsider how we spend our time in the shower.
As with a lot of the skincare trends we’ve seen in the last few years, scalp care originated in South Korea. “The borders between East and West have really come down and scalp health has been huge in Korea for decades,” says Caroline Ruggiero, a certified trichologist (a hair and scalp specialist), and the COO of Truly You Hair and Scalp Clinic in Mississauga, Ont.
We wanted to dig a little deeper into the importance of scalp care and discover how closely linked it is to hair health, so we enlisted the help of two experts to figure out whether all these new scalp products are the real deal.
Why is scalp health important?
Newsflash: the skin on your head is an extension of the skin on your face and should be treated accordingly to optimize hair growth. “In the same way that your skin has oil glands and sweat glands, so does your scalp,” says Ruggiero. Due to the unique environment of your scalp (it has the highest number of hair follicles and oil glands on the body), it’s typically the first area to show signs of changes within your body. “It’s like a barometer for what’s happening inside you,” explains Ruggiero. For example, if you switch up your diet or go on a new medication, even before you feel any differently, you’re going to see a difference in your scalp and in your hair.
How does scalp health contribute to healthy hair?
It’s no surprise to hear that a healthy scalp leads to healthy hair. Ruggiero compares the scalp-hair relationship to that of soil and its crop. “When the soil is healthy, the crop will be healthy,” she says. Because your scalp is living tissue, the state that it’s in will directly impact how your hair grows. Ruggiero goes on to explain that no matter what hydrating masks and conditioners you use on your hair, if your hydrolipidic film (the protective layer on the surface of the scalp) is imbalanced, your hair will not grow properly.
So, if it’s a long mermaid-esque mane you’re after or if you want to improve the strength of your hair, you gotta start with the scalp.
What are the signs of an unhealthy scalp?
According to Dr. Benjamin Barankin, a Toronto dermatologist and the medical director of Toronto Dermatology Centre, signs of an unhealthy scalp include itchiness, flaking, blemishes and other forms of inflammation that can result in hair loss. While these symptoms are often self-diagnosed, Ruggiero suggests visiting a trichologist or another medical professional who can take a closer look. “[Sometimes] it takes a micro camera analysis to look at the hair follicle to see if it’s inflamed or clogged. The more inflammation that’s there, the more oil will build up around the area, the slower the hair will grow and the dryer the ends will be.”
How often should you wash your hair for optimal scalp health?
When dry shampoo flooded beauty aisles a few years ago, hair washing habits began to change. For a lot of people (especially those with colour treated or damaged hair) washing their hair every single day or every other day turned into once or twice a week thanks to dry shampoo’s oil absorbing powers. Whether you use dry shampoo or not, there isn’t a hard and fast rule for how often you need to wash your hair for optimal scalp health, but our experts agree that you need to listen to your scalp to help determine your best lather, rinse, repeat routine.
“We all have different skin types and we all have different scalp types,” says Ruggiero. She points to the example of a more mature woman not needing the same skincare as a teenager. She advises looking at your scalp the same way: If your scalp naturally produces more oil or you’re going through hormonal changes or stress that’s making your hair oilier, you need to wash more frequently because that oil will harden on the scalp, causing blackheads and inflammation. On the flip side, if your scalp is dry, you can wash your hair less frequently and go longer between washes. It’s also important to note that while dry shampoo does sop up oils, it’s still leaving residue on your scalp which can contribute to build-up and eventual irritation, so regular washing is still important to maintain a happy scalp.
Barankin notes that regardless of your scalp type, if you’re very active and often working up a sweat, you should be washing that moisture away with frequent shampoo sessions to maintain optimal scalp health. Hair type also plays a role as fine hair tends to produce more oil versus coarser curly hair, and therefore needs more regular washing.
What treatments are best for a healthy scalp?
Barankin suggests looking for treatments that are targeted to your concerns like excessive oil production or dry, flaky skin, and seeing which one works best for you. Even if you don’t have a specific scalp concern, adding a gentle weekly or monthly treatment to your hair routine can help to boost scalp and hair health. Here, we’ve broken down how the buzziest scalp products work to help you pick your next purchase.
Just like putting on a mask before a big event to deep-clean, brighten or exfoliate your skin, a mask can work wonders on a tired, lacklustre scalp. Ruggiero suggests clay for oily scalps, as the powerhouse ingredient has amazing capabilities to extract sebum from within the hair follicle and draw out dirt, grime and dead skin that’s often caused by product and oil build-up.
While scalp serums are often associated with hair loss, there are many that are great for helping with hair strength and general hair growth. Often these serums contain known skincare ingredients like salicylic or alpha hydroxy acids to exfoliate, caffeine to increase circulation or biotin to boost growth.
In her clinic, Ruggiero uses scrubs that contain natural ingredients like apricot seeds and even diamond particles to help gently buff away build-up and debris from the scalp. They can work for all scalp types, but she advises looking for something that won’t be too rough (so steer clear of scrubs with large grains) and to stay away from sugar as it can cause yeast to grow on the scalp. To incorporate a scrub into your hair care routine, Barankin recommends using it once a week to whisk away grime.
One of the best things you can do for your scalp is give your head a good massage, Ruggiero says. “Don’t be afraid to massage and touch your scalp,” she adds. While your hands will get the job done, using a scalp massager will help get right in there. Frequent scalp massages are great for your hair, but if you can’t fit a daily head massage into your schedule, try once a week. It’s an ultra-relaxing ritual, plus regular scalp massages increase blood flow and circulation, which helps boost hair growth.
Below, we’ve rounded up a few of our favourite scalp products.
Infused with charcoal to draw out impurities and witch hazel to curb oil production, this serum can be massaged onto your scalp post-shower as a leave-in treatment or used pre-shampoo.
Briogeo Scalp Revival Charcoal + Tea Tree Scalp Treatment, $41, sephora.ca.