Back to Your Roots: A Scalp 101
Oily? Dry? Flaky? Scalps can give you more mixed signals than that date who keeps ghosting you. Kate Pasola does the decoding so you don’t have to
Do you make a habit of exfoliating your scalp? Because I, for one, certainly don’t. In fact, last year, when the topic of scalp health began to capture the imagination of beauty brands and their customers, the whole thing felt slightly exasperating. Fantastic – a new body part to worry about! Wasn’t nailing a 12-step skincare regime, finding the ultimate broad-spectrum SPF, dry-brushing my entire body and rolling in CBD oil before booking my next session of lymphatic drainage enough to appease the gods of beauty? Somehow I’m now expected to cleanse, tone and moisturize my scalp, too?
The modern cosmetics industry, with its hundreds of new launches per month and billions in profits per year, can often feel as though it’s one big Ferris wheel we can’t escape. There’s a constant, low-level panic to stir up trends and invent new genres of beauty to fill our shelfies (while depleting our bank accounts), so who can blame us for rolling our eyes and tuning out? But is the next big thing really as, er, flaky as it seems?
On this occasion, the answer is no. Percy & Reed’s consultant trichologist Nicola Smart compares the link between a healthy scalp and good hair to a flowerbed. “Think of the scalp as being the soil, and the hair follicles being the flowers. If you don’t nourish the soil, you can’t grow healthy flowers.”
With scalps being assaulted left, right and centre by pollutants, stressful lifestyles, restrictive diets, braiding, hair relaxing and colour trends that prioritise aesthetics over skin health, conditions like itchy scalp, dandruff and eczema are colonising more and more of our collective heads. The bad news is that in some more severe cases, a GP or specialist’s help might be required. But the good news? There are certainly a few easy ways to ensure your scalp is as happy as possible.
First things first, take a look at how frequently you’re washing your hair. Too often and – in the words of microbiome wizard and Gallinée founder Marie Drago – your scalp will be stripped of healthy oils and “good” bacteria. Not often enough and Smart warns of sticky or viscous oils on dirtier scalps attracting dust and pollution, possibly leading to bacterial infections, itch-scratch cycles and even hair loss.
And if you’re keen on your co-washes (conditioning products often used by those with curly or afro hair between shampoos, now becoming a staple for many people regardless of hair type), use them carefully. Although co-washing has helped many people replenish their hair’s natural oils, wash it less frequently and generally make it more manageable, hype and misinformation have led to many consumers mistaking them for a shampoo replacement.
“Co-washes are focused primarily on conditioning, not cleansing,” says Dr Rolanda Wilkerson, principal scientist at Head & Shoulders, who is particularly concerned about this common mistake. “You wouldn’t only moisturise your face without ever cleansing it. The same holds for the scalp and hair.” Her advice? “Use a co-wash on non-hair-wash days. It is not meant to be a replacement for a shampoo and conditioner.”
Your scalp’s pH also plays a part in keeping things chill near your follicles. Skin and scalps are slightly acidic by nature (around pH 5.5) but, Drago warns, if your scalp becomes more alkaline, the strain of bacteria responsible for making your hair greasy becomes more trigger-happy, creating an overload of sebum. If that happens, you can
enlist the help of rebalancing products to keep things in check (read on for some recommendations).
ON THE DEFENSIVE
It’s also important to protect your scalp from strain or infection while styling the hair. For those who wear their hair in braids for long periods of time, Smart’s advice is to scrunch your face while they’re being installed, in order to prevent tightness at the roots. She also recommends keeping the hair and scalp clean, steering clear of moisturisers or oils (which all risk congesting follicles).
Plus, if you’re using a hair relaxer, Smart warns against “irritating” the scalp within four days of the treatment (this includes shampooing, conditioning and scratching). Instead, allow your sebum to build up, which will create a natural barrier against chemical burns. It’s also important to use a scalp protectant during the application of relaxers (we recommend Leonor Greyl’s Huile Apaisante, £29). Try to avoid heat styling following these treatments, wait at least a week before applying colourants, and regularly condition the hair over the following weeks using protein-rich products.
Last but not least, take stock of your lifestyle. According to Judy Nguyen, a chemist at Living Proof, these peripheral factors can also contribute to an unhealthy scalp. “Try to manage the stress in your life, as it can affect hormone levels and cause disruption to the scalp’s microbiome, which can lead to irritation and flaking,” she advises. “Diet also has an effect, so try to cut down on processed foods and sugars.”
All of that said, everyone’s scalp is unique, and sometimes one that’s misbehaving needs a little extra help. So keep reading to find out how to spot some of the most common scalp problems and stop them in their tracks…