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Buying a scalp exfoliator may not be as exciting as adding a gloss-giving shampoo or a nourishing mask into your shopping basket, but if you want strong, healthy hair it could be the step you're missing. “The scalp is the bedrock for the hair follicle, and if it's not in good condition the chances of you experiencing problems with hair growth and health increase significantly,” says trichologist, Anabel Kingsley . “In fact, research has proven that a flaky, itchy scalp can cause and/or worsen hair loss in certain individuals."
Why should we exfoliate our scalp?
To remove dead skin cells, debris, product, sweat and sebum, our scalp can benefit from being treated in a similar way to how we treat the skin on our face - and exfoliation forms a key part of the regimen. Providing a deeper clean that goes beyond the realms of a run-of-the-mill hair wash, it increases cell turnover and, by removing build-up, it clears the way for better absorption of the products that you put on top.
"Product, dead skin cells and excess sebum can all build up on the scalp which inhibits the growing phase of your hair cycle (anagen stage), as it blocks the follicle," says Michael Shaun Corby, Living Proof's global creative director. "Using a scalp exfoliator on a weekly or bi-weekly basis could be a good way to deep cleanse and remove any build-up."
It's not just the build-up banishing that helps with hair growth but also the manual massage required when you apply a scrub exfoliator. "The action of 'scrubbing' an exfoliator onto your scalp is like a massage," explains Michael Shaun. "It creates microcirculation which brings nutrients to the follicle which is important in the hair growing stage."
What are the different types of scalp exfoliators?
It’s a category that’s seen noticeable growth over the last couple of years and there's now an impressive breadth of textures and formulas to choose from. Much like its facial counterparts, products range from physical exfoliators (such as scrubs) which you massage in, to chemical exfoliators that contain AHAs (such as glycolic acid) and BHAs (such as salicylic acid). Chemical scalp exfoliators are particularly suited to sensitive scalps, which might be irritated by physical scrubs.
Finding the one that’s best for you depends on your scalp type and personal preference. Scrubs tend to be more abrasive than acids because of their coarse particles (they can also have grains behind that need washing out, although some dissolve) so sensitive scalps are best advised to proceed with caution.
Is there anyone who should avoid scalp exfoliation altogether? "Psoriasis sufferers and those who suffer from some types of eczema," says trichologist, Iain Sallis. "It can stimulate the skin to produce more flakes."
How often should you exfoliate your scalp?
Again, it depends on your scalp type but also the exfoliating product used. For leave-in treatments or masks, a rule of thumb would be once a week. If you have a scalp that tends to get oily quickly though, you might be able to tolerate exfoliating twice a week. Avoid over-use though, as this can end up making flaking worse in some cases. Application recommendations differ from product to product so it’s definitely worth checking the label first.
What else to look for in a scalp exfoliator
Aside from exfoliating beads or grains (biodegradable, of course) for a manual massage, there are other hair-growth supporting elements to look for in your scalp exfoliator. "Look for gentle, nourishing oils such as jojoba, argan and coconut oil to nourish and protect your scalp while the exfoliant element scrubs away impurities," says Yolanda Cooper, founder of Irish hair care brand We Are Paradoxx. "Coconut oil supports hair growth because it's rich in lauric acid which helps fight inflammation around your hair follicles, calming them and encouraging healthy hair growth."
Yolanda also recommends looking for scalp exfoliators with peppermint in, to encourage blood circulation. "This is critical in the anagen phase to support the development of healthy hair follicles and growth," she says.
The best scalp exfoliators
As with Philip Kingsley's famous Elasticizer Intensive Conditioning Treatment, this is to be used pre-shampoo. It's a jelly that cleanses the scalp, removes, build-up and adds a dose of high-strength antioxidant vitamin C to protect the scalp from oxidative stress. It's also an acid that helps remove build-up. You mix one of the four sachets of powder with water in the reusable bottle and shake it for 30 seconds until it turns to pink jelly, which you apply to dampened hair and scalp for five minutes before shampooing. GTG's editorial director Victoria said it made her hair feel baby soft and leaves her scalp feeling really fresh and clean.
Sustainable luxury brand Monpure specialises in natural scalp care and has combined moisturising and clarifying in this scrub mask which goes on to damp hair before your shampoo. Argan oil, shea butter and glycerin give it a creamy balm texture and make it easy to massage in without mess – essential as you have to leave it on for about three minutes, just long enough to clean your teeth! The very fine biodegradable jojoba beads help lift off dead skin cells, making it a good option if you have a flaky scalp that’s a little dry or sensitive or prone to eczema or psoriasis (it is mildly scented with lemon oil, do a patch test if you have very sensitive skin).
We found it struck a good balance between nourishing with vitamin E-rich oils without leaving any greasy residue behind. It made our tester’s scalp felt less itchy after two weeks of twice-weekly use – she noticed a mild volumising effect too!
Irish haircare brand We Are Paradoxx is leading the way when it comes to plastic-free beauty. This scalp scrub, which can be used on the body as well as the scalp comes in aluminum packaging, which is infinitely recyclable. The scrub inside is one of the kindest to our scalps we've tried. As well as gently removing the top layer of dead skin cells with Celtic sea salt (invigorating!), it uses macadamia oil to soothe and revitalise, jojoba oil to moisturise and lavender oil to calm irritated scalps. Use on wet hair before washing as normal.
Launched on 12 July, this overnight treatment was designed to give fuller, thicker hair by fighting environmental stressors such as pollution, diet and stress. It acts like a fertilizer for your scalp, strengthening the hair root with yeast proteins and zinc salts, while vitamins restore the barrier function of the scalp to keep it happy. It makes your hair look thicker immediately too, with a peptide blend that pumps hair fibres to stop hair from looking thin.
"Yeast and zinc are vital nutrients for your scalp health," says Michael Shaun. "These support a healthy environment for your scalp to prevent hair loss and to maintain healthier-looking hair."
It should be applied to wet or dry hair, directly to the scalp, then use the built-in rubber massager to work it in. Leave it on overnight - there's no need to rinse it come morning if it's not hair wash day either
One of the best natural physical scalp scrubs around, this award-winning celebrity colourist-brand product is silicone-free, lathers up well and can be used in place of your shampoo. The foaming nature of this salt scrub (it has SLES as a detergent, a gentler form of SLS) makes it feel less abrasive and the brand says it's suitable for sensitive and oily scalps in particular. Drier scalps may prefer a SLES-free option. The salt granules dissolve leaving no grittiness behind. When mixed with water it creates a rich paste that stimulates circulation when you massaged in, helping cut through residue and sebum to leaving our scalp feeling refreshed and rebalanced.
Containing white willow bark extract and bamboo exfoliating particles to physically exfoliate, while pomegranate fruit enzymes shift dry skin, this scrub provides a multi-faceted approach towards scalp exfoliation. Feeling instantly cooling, it paves the way for better absorption of the ingredients from other haircare. Apply it as the first step in your hair-washing routine, on wet hair.
Though this is a physical scalp exfoliator it's safe for sensitive scalps. "It's important to avoid overly abrasive scrubs on the scalp as this can actually cause damage to the follicle," caution Greg Starkman, Innersense's founder. "We use Hawaiian red salt which is a gentle, non-abrasive physical exfoliant." The salt is mixed with volcanic clay, which is rich in over 80 minerals, plus there's peppermint in there too to invigorate the scalp. Massage this into a wet scalp and wash as normal afterwards.
Not only does this look as fancy as you'd expect from Oribe, it's one of our favourites to apply thanks to the slim, precise application nozzle that helps you to apply it in a neat way. It has tiny polymer beads in it for an ultra-gentle physical exfoliation, plus AHAs too. Oribe's signature complex of watermelon, lychee and edelweiss extract is included to protect hair from daily damage while it's busy lifting away grime on the scalp. Scent-wise, there's light peppermint fragrance which you can just detect under a fruity, floral fragrance. Apply to wet hair prior to washing.
This exfoliating detox scrub with apple cider vinegar has the texture of a body scrub – you wet it in your hands and apply it to damp hair to form a rich exfoliating lather with AHAs, in which you can marinade like a mask. The sugar granules gently buff and dissolve leaving no gritty residue - you won’t be picking out grains for days afterwards as with some scalp scrubs. To remove build-up there’s pink clay and a compound of moisturising ingredients. One teaspoon is enough to do the scalp and hair (it replaces your shampoo). GTG's editorial director Victoria praises this for soothing her itchy scalp.
This creamy textured scrub is made with biodegradable exfoliating cellulose beads, which work to break down and dissolve dead skin cells. As with all Drunk Elephant products it includes marula oil, along with mongongo, baobab and maracuja antioxidant oils, combined with a quick-absorbing multi-amino acid blend to help protect the scalp and rejuvenate the skin, helping to stop future flakes from forming. It should be used on dry hair, before washing.
The whole aim of stylist Michael Van Clarke's Three More Inches haircare is to help you get more length out of your locks and this fits into his regime nicely, to be used pre-shampoo on damp hair. It has a handy nozzle to dispense product so it's easy to use. There are AHAs in the formula to clear flakiness as well as gently active ingredients to stimulate blood flow for that all-important growth stage.
This flake controlling serum should be used as a pre-shampoo treatment a couple of times a week to slough away dead skin cells, balance oil and reduce redness on the scalp. Two per cent salicylic acid exfoliates the scalp and restores oil levels.
Best scalp scrub for physical and chemical exfoliation: Coco and Eve Deep Clean Scalp Scrub, £33.90 for 150ml
Coco and Eve is best known for its Super Nourishing Coconut and Fig Hair Masque and this follows in the same path, using natural ingredients to create great, healthy hair. It includes ash from Balinese volcanoes to absorb excess oil, while AHAs, BHAs and coconut shells exfoliate. Peppermint in the mix soothes irritation and caffeine creates the perfect base for a healthy head of hair. It smells like pineapple and passionfruit for a shower-time trip to the tropics. The brand recommends using this pre-shampoo, then washing your hair as normal. GTG's commercial projects manager Catherine loves this for swishy, clean feeling hair that needs washing less.
This foams-on-contact five-minute mask is a good option if you find other scrubs on the heavy side. It works on a dry scalp using AHA acids and salicylic acid to remove oil build-up and dead cells which can make the scalp feel clogged and itchy. You can distribute it throughout the head, leaving on for five minutes, or apply it topically to a greasy parting, for example (the nozzle helps you place it where it's needed). We love the foaming feeling as it oxygenates the scalp. There and there are enough nourishing oils for it to condition the scalp too without heaviness. You can either rise off shampoo off for a fresh feeling.
In an ice-cream style tub, this includes caffeine and black coffee seed extract to stimulate circulation, while organic pea sprout extract is in there to encourage hair growth and extend the life cycle of the hair. It also removes product buildup and dead skin. It includes a cleansing agent so should be used in place of shampoo.
This nifty brush, which you use at shampoo stage, was awarded highly commended in the Best Hair Tool category of our 2019 Get The Gloss Beauty and Wellness Awards . Massages your hair product in with this promotes blood circulation for less hair loss, as well as effectively removing dandruff and protecting the scalp from scratchy fingernails. We loved the flexible bristles. It feels like a gorgeous head massage and two of our testers reported 'insane volume' afterwards.
From coconut water brand Vita Coco comes a new 95 per cent natural haircare collection without silicones (there's also shampoo, conditioner and a mask), created to gently massage away flaky skin with a tropical scent. It's unexpected to see haircare from a drink brand, but this has been met with rave reviews, including from our tester (it's great value too) so well worth a try. Guava and coconut are both anti-inflammatory to take down irritation, while aloe vera soothes. This scrub should be applied to wet hair pre-shampoo, then followed with your usual routine. The packaging scores points too as it's 50 per cent recycled plastic.
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