A happy scalp means happy hair, so it pays to invest in a scalp shampoo. Here’s our pick of the newest and the best around
Why would you need a scalp shampoo? Well, hair may be technically dead material, but it emerges from living follicles in your scalp and its strength and condition determines that of your hair. So it makes little sense to look after your hair with products that don’t respect the needs of your scalp, or worse, do your follicles damage.
Over the years, most of us have become aware of how stripping, barrier-damaging cleansers and toners can damage our complexion. As a result, drying body soaps and shampoos with SLS (harsh sulphates) have come under scrutiny as well. So today, the market is (literally) awash with face, body and hair cleansers offering mild surfactants that take away oil and dirt, but leave skin’s protective lipid layer and microbiome at peace.
What to look for in a scalp shampoo
“You need ingredients and measures to stimulate your scalp and ‘feed’ it, just like you do your skin,” says Paul Windle of Windle Lab haircare.
Luckily for us, a new generation of scalp shampoos has been designed to do all of that. Look for the following ingredients that will all help perk up scalp condition, allowing it to produce bouncy, glossy strands.
- Salicylic acid
This pore and follicle-clearing, anti-inflammatory exfoliant regulates both oil production and dry, flaky scalps and can provide a build-up busting, purifying cleanse without the use of aggressive surfactants.
- Essential oils
Anything that stimulates blood flow to the scalp is a good thing, as along with it come oxygen and nutrients to feed the hair and stimulate growth. Rosemary and peppermint rev up microcirculation, as do eucalyptus and tea tree oils, which also have anti-bacterial properties. If you’re sensitive or allergic to essential oils, however, it’s better to use a scalp massager (or just your fingers for a good scalp rub) instead.
Antioxidants are beneficial to the scalp as they protect its cells from future damage, says Windle Lab’s Development chemist Shona Bisset. Look for things like vitamin E, green tea or other tea extracts such as yerba mate and rooibos (“known to promote hair growth”, according to Windle), and (green) coffee: “full of antioxidants and microcirculation-boosting properties,” says Windle.
- Lipids and hydrators
Hair’s natural oils, produced in the scalp, are vital for their health and strength. But with age comes a reduction in the scalp’s production of lipids and sebum (this can also result from prolonged stress), says Bisset. So gloss-giving, smoothing natural oils are no bad addition to your shampoo and neither are humectants such as glycerine and aloe vera.
- Calming agents
Stress is known to interfere with hair’s active growth phase, so any stress-reducing activities are good, as are calming, soothing ingredients in your shampoo – for the scalp (think panthenol and hydrolysed wheat protein) as well as for the mind (such as cedarwood and patchouli essential oils).
A healthy, balanced scalp microbiome helps the scalp, and therefore the hair, thrive. As with the skin and gut, feeding your healthy bacteria with prebiotics (probiotic food) such as xylitol and inulin will ultimately create balance and calm on top of your head.
Our pick of the best scalp shampoos
These all pack a punch while respecting and nurturing your scalp and hair.
The bad bacteria-busting scalp shampoo: Straand The Crown Cleanse Shampoo £20
A gentle, beautiful-smelling foam that deep-cleanses without any tightness. The brand’s USP is a proprietary ‘Defenscalp’ agent that fights dandruff and flakiness by regulating sebum overproduction (which feeds bad bacteria) without upsetting the delicate scalp microbiome. The shampoo hydrates with humectants and plant oils, soothes with hydrolysed wheat protein and panthenol, stimulates blood flow and protects with botanical oils of spearmint, patchouli, rosemary and more, and exfoliates with salicylic acid. Phew.
The growth-boosting scalp shampoo: Scandinavian Biolabs Hair Strength Shampoo for Women £21
Part of a hair growth routine (the accompanying conditioner and scalp serum employ stem cell technology and plant growth factors to encourage follicle health and hair growth), you can also buy this non-stripping shampoo separately. It has amino acids to hydrate the scalp and niacinamide to boost circulation while a turmeric-derived agent helps keep hairs in their growth phase for longer. In a clinical test, 93% of testers of the complete system has a 150% reduction in hair loss after 150 days.
The colour-safe scalp shampoo: Windle Lab Healthy Head Shampoo £25.25
Tingly and cobweb-clearing, this sulphate-free shampoo stimulates, nourishes, protects and soothes scalps with powerful coffee and tea extracts and essential oils and has bond-repairing and colour-protective complexes to boot.
The Tiktok-approved scalp shampoo for oily hair: Redken Amino-Mint Scalp Shampoo, £23.90
A hit on TikTok and featuring a minty tingle, this works to balance the pH of your hair and scalp. It has sodium laureth sulphate (SLS) so is not exactly the mildest of cleansers, but as it’s formulated specifically for oily hair, this may be needed to cut through the sebum. There’s salicylic acid as well to exfoliate and clear out pores, and humectants and amino acids to keep the scalp hydrated.
The luxe scalp shampoo for dry hair: Augustinus Bader The Rich Shampoo, £43 (launching 21 Feb)
Bader’s TFC8 amino acid complex has been credited with all kinds of regenerative boons for the skin, so it makes sense to deploy the technology, which features vitamins and natural moisturising factors as well, to support and healthy scalp. This rich shampoo is an extra-hydrating version of the original Bader shampoo, and effectively moisturises and calms the scalp while boosting volume and smoothing even the driest and most brittle strands.
The stress-busting scalp shampoo: Ilapothecary Head Space Shampoo 52, £38
A natural, very mildly foaming shampoo based on a blend of organic essential oils chosen for their anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antibacterial properties, it also speeds up microcirculation in the scalp and leaves frazzled brains uplifted and soothed with its scent. Meanwhile, aloe vera, polysaccharides and amino acids correct moisture loss.
The oily roots and dry ends shampoo: Garnier Ultimate Blends Balancing Shampoo Charcoal & Black Seed Oil, £5.50 (launching Feb)
Created for ‘combination’ hair with oily roots and dry ends, this shampoo relies on a mild surfactant and dirt magnet charcoal to deep-cleanse your scalp and strands while nourishing your ends with nigella seed oil.
The scalp-friendly co-wash: Arkive All Together Now Co-Cleanse, £13
If your hair is particularly dry and brittle, it will benefit from a co-wash or oil-based cleansing system that conditions hair while ridding it of grime in the gentlest of ways. These washes do risk over-loading the follicles with conditioning agents and thereby suffocating them if they’re not well-formulated, but there’s no such risk with superstylist Adam Reed’s sweet-smelling Arkive products. Hydrolysed jojoba oil to helps boost shine and moisture, while sugar-based glycolipids remove dirt and build-up. Baobab oil and protein maintain scalp suppleness and boost hair resilience, elasticity and shine. Just don’t expect foam – there isn’t any!
The balancing scalp shampoo: Ffør Re:Balance Shampoo, £18.50
A minty-zesty blend that tackles flaky and irritated scalps, it has no sulphates but it does have proven anti-dandruff agent piroctone olamine and hair conditioner quaternium-80. Meanwhile, it protects the scalp with antioxidant sunflower seed extract and hydrates with glycerine.
The flake-slaying scalp shampoo for curly hair: Briogeo Scalp Revival Megastrength Dandruff Control Shampoo, £36
The curly-hair specialist isn’t messing when it comes to exfoliating the scalp to clear away flakes: not only does this shampoo boast 3% salicylic acid (the maximum allowed level for the face is 2% in the UK, so this is a lot), it also has peeling and hydrating lactic acid plus deep-purifying charcoal. It’s all in order to leave the scalp super-purified and oil-free for the lightest, bounciest ringlets. Tingly peppermint oil, hydrating humectants, calming panthenol, moisturising coconut oil and conditioning biotin are also in attendance.
The anti-dandruff scalp shampoo: Head & Shoulders Bare Soothing Hydration Anti-Dandruff Shampoo, £9.99
All the dandruff and flaky scalp-busting power you’d expect from Head & Shoulders (it relies on piroctone olamine which is guaranteed to work) without any off the stuff you don’t want if your scalp plays up, such as drying sulphate surfactants and potentially suffocating silicones. Also has an anti-inflammatory salicylic acid derivative and a moisturising conditioning agent.
The prebiotic scalp shampoo: Gallinée Hair Cleansing Cream, £23
Another co-wash type shampoo, this cream has only the mildest, non-foaming surfactant but manages to make the scalp and your hair feel completely clean thanks to added lactic acid and fermented rice water. Feeds the scalp with a blend of prebiotics (inulin, alpha-glucan oligosaccharide), plant lipids and antioxidants and leaves hair glossy, light and soft.
The clarifying scalp shampoo: Ameliorate Clarifying Shampoo £9.60
Gently cleanses, protects and replenishes hair’s natural moisture and relieves flaky, itchy, dry scalps. Ameliorate’s proprietary hydrating, exfoliating lactic acid-based LaH6 complex is deployed alongside scalp microbiome-balancing prebiotics lactitol and xylitol to calm an irritated scalp and polish away flakes. Meanwhile, conditioning actives help maintain hair's volume and shine.
The nutritious scalp shampoo: Act + Acre Cold-Processed Cleanse Shampoo, £28
A scalp-nourishing shampoo indeed, featuring tons of botanical extracts (which make the stuff smell gorgeous to boot) and plant stem cells to condition and hair, all supercharged, says the brand, by the fact that the extracts are from cold-pressed oils which should be doubly rich in nutrients. Apple amino acids and other gentle surfactants will cleanse without stripping while glycerine will help keep your scalp quenched.
The budget shampoo: L'Oreal Elvive Hydra Pure 72h Purifying Shampoo, £7
Not the gentlest shampoo given that it features SLS sulphates – this is off-set by added hydrating hyaluronic acid but it has to be said that experts aren’t convinced about whether that ingredient does anything to hydrate hair. Either way, there is salicylic acid in here as well so just concentrate on your scalp when washing and your will leave it deeply cleansed.