Taking care taking care of your scalp with a serum is a good idea if you want to support healthy hair growth and a flake-free scalp. We’ve selected the best

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Scalp serums have appeared out of practically nowhere to become a staple in most hair brands’ offering, and a welcome addition to our haircare routines. With the current focus on holistic beauty and self-care, they make sense: by nourishing, calming and stimulating the scalp, they encourage healthy hair growth from the very root, and they offer a chance for a little mindful head-massage every time you use them.

But are they a treat or a necessity? And with many claims being made, what can they realistically do for you?

Why do you need a scalp serum?

“Scalp health is closely linked to hair health and has a huge impact on it,” says dermatologist and hair loss expert Dr Alia Ahmed. “Just like with facial skin, bad things happen when scalp skin gets dry and inflamed and its moisture barrier gets compromised.” Not only is this uncomfortable, she says, but it can affect hair growth and diameter. She adds that the scalp is also home to specific fungi that attack the moisture barrier, which can lead to flakiness and dandruff.

“There are plenty of external stresses that can affect scalp health, including pollution, humidity or lack thereof, cold weather and even hard water,” says Alex Brownsell, co-founder and creative director of Bleach London. “These factors, along with heat styling and colourant chemicals, are stressful on your scalp, and in the long run can make it play up.” A good scalp serum, he says, can help solve these issues but can also prevent them, so haircare experts recommend using them in the same way you brush your teeth to prevent caries. “We have found that clients are more consistent with, and aware of, having a good haircare routine, just like they are with their skincare routine,” says Brownsell. “A scalp serum fits the picture well.”

What does a scalp serum do?

Plenty of things, depending on the type of scalp serum you choose.

  • Hydration
    Just like with skin (and life), hydration is essential if you want your scalp to work properly. Humectants such as hyaluronic acid, betaine and glycerine will quench tight, itchy scalps without making them oily.
  • Barrier repair
    Compromised barriers lack lipids, will lose moisture and need anti-inflammatory ingredients to fight irritation and soreness. Look for ceramides and essential fatty acids to restore the lipid barrier and lock in moisture, pre and postbiotics to re-balance the scalp microbiome which can be particularly affected by regular hair bleaching, and soothing agents such a bisabolol, allantoin and certain peptides to calm.
  • Purification
    Certain silicones, conditioning agents and thickening resins in styling products, dry shampoos and conditioners can stick to the hair and scalp. This can suffocate the scalp and weigh hair down, dull it or worse, cause hair loss. A scalp serum with gentle chemical exfoliants such as salicylic or lactic acid can help; it will also balance oily scalps and minimise greasy hair, which can in turn lead to lighter, more voluminous-looking locks.
  • Fighting dandruff
    “To fight flakiness caused by dandruff-causing fungi at the root, you need a serum with piroctone olamine,” says Ahmed. Other antifungal and flake-reducing ingredients include tea tree oil and salicylic acid.
  • Protection
    Anti-oxidants may play an important role in scalp care, says trichologist and Philip Kingsley brand president Anabel Kingsley, because oxidative stress is in part responsible for the reduction of scalp’s integrity as we age, as well as for hair greying. So, she says, “scalp serums containing anti-oxidants may help with the scalp ageing process which, in turn, can promote the growth of healthy, vibrant hair.”
  • Boosting growth
    Many scalp serums contain extract of pea sprouts. These, Brownsell says, are rich in phytonutrients that protect the plant from diseases, damage, UV light and pollutants and “the extract has been found to help reduce hair loss by prolonging hair’s growth phase and increasing hair vitality after three months' use.” Peptide complexes are also popular for supporting hair growth, in the same way that they are used in lash boosters.

How do you use a scalp serum?

You just massage the required amount into you scalp – since any massage boosts oxygen and nutrient flow to the follicles, it’s worth spending a little time doing this. Water-based serums can be left to air-dry or blow-dry, while oil-based serums, which are of course particularly rich in fatty acids for barrier repair and also nourish the lengths of the hair, should be washed out after a set amount of time (unless you like your hair ‘slick’).

Are scalp serums better than scalp scrubs?

They have different purposes, but some experts strongly come out on the side of scalp serums. “We have long since stopped scrubbing our face with harsh physical exfoliants such as walnut shell particles and salt crystals,” says Ahmed. “It’s too harsh on skin, and can do more harm than good. You should think of your scalp in the same way.” While a good scrub can be invigorating and very effective at getting rid of serious product build-up, so can an apple cider vinegar shampoo or a scalp serum with gentle acids. “They’re the better choice,” says Ahmed.

The best scalp serums for your issues

7 scalp and hair serums to soothe dry, upset scalps

1. Our top pick: Virtue Refresh Topical Scalp Supplement, £53

Vitamins, peptides and prebiotics strengthen and rebalance scalp while chamomile, lavender and white tea calm, lots of humectants and ceramides heal the moisture barrier and Virtue’s proprietary protein complex fixes hair breakage. The water-based, weightless drops offer immediate relief and can be left in post-wash and before styling your hair.

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2. Larry King Spoilt For Choice Hair Oil, £55

A gorgeous-smelling, nurturing blend of plant oils to restore hair and calm the scalp. Leave on for as long as you like and double-shampoo out

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3. Monpure Hydrate & Soothe Scalp Serum, £60

Calming allantoin, witch hazel and vitamin B5, humectants and light lipids in weightless leave-in drops.

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4. L’Oreal Professionnel Serie Expert Scalp Advanced Anti-Discomfort Hair Treatment, £24.60

A soothing gel that nourishes and hydrates the scalp (and conditions hair) with niacinamide. Massage into a wet scalp, leave for five minutes and rinse.

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5. Living Proof Scalp Care Dry Scalp Treatment, £32

A host of hydrating, calming and antioxidant ingredients in a leave-in calming and strengthening scalp cream

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6. The Ordinary Hair Care Natural Moisturising Factors and HA, £12.60

Hyaluronic acid with amino acids, lactic acid and electrolytes mimic skin’s own moisturising factors to effectively lock in moisture for a calm, quenched scalp. Massage in a few lightweight drops daily.

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7. Kerastase Nutri-Supplement Scalp Serum, £45.80

Milky and non-greasy with fatty acids and glycerine, this absorbs fast for a comfortably supple scalp while leaving hair light and glossy.

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4 scalp serums to minimise itchy, flaky scalp and dandruff

1. Our top pick: Head & Shoulders Derma Xpro Anti-Dandruff Scalp Balm, £10

A light cream that you massage into scalp and leave on for three minutes before rinsing out, this hydrates with hyaluronic acid, aloe and vitamin E, seals in moisture with collagen and soothes itchiness and fights off dandruff with piroctone olamine.

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2. Rahua Founder’s Blend Scalp Treatment, £40

A beautiful-smelling mask (leave in for 15 minutes or overnight) that actively soothes upset scalps whether they’re flaky or not – but the microbe-balancing, rainforest-grown Palo Santo oil (it eliminates dandruff-causing bacteria but promotes scalp-caring ones) makes it an anti-flake treatment as well. GTG’s Victoria Woodhall loves that is also works as a hair conditioner.

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3. Noughty Care Taker Scalp Soothing Tonic, £9.99

Oat and bisabolol give rapid relief from itchiness and soreness while piroctone olamine fights itchiness and flakiness. A water-like tonic to leave in.

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4. Centred En-Root Scalp Oil, £36

Anti-microbial and antifungal tea tree, decongesting salicylic acid and rosemary and peppermint essential oils to boost cell growth in a blend of healing plant oils. Apply to dry hair, two hours before washing out.

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2 scalp serums for greasy hair and oily scalps 

1. Our top pick: Philip Kingsley Overnight Scalp Barrier Serum, £27

Lactic acid, humectants, oat extract and witch hazel will decongest, hydrate and soothe the scalp – and a settled scalp won’t over-produce oil. Piroctone olamine prevents dandruff. Apply a pipette overnight to wake up with a refreshed scalp and wash in the morning – although it’s so weightless, you could leave it in.

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2. The Inkey List Salicylic Acid Exfoliating Scalp Treatment, £14.99

Weightless and hydrating, a pipette deeply exfoliates to get rid of congestion and settle oil production

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4 scalp serums for more volume and reducing breakage

1. Our top pick: Grow Gorgeous Scalp Care Volumising 10% Niacinamide Booster + Prebiotic, £25

Tackles oiliness with a whopping 10% balancing and calming niacinamide while prebiotics help reset a confused microbiome. As a result, volume at the roots is restored and hair becomes more bouncy.

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2. Gallinee Scalp and Hair Serum, £28

Hydration, lactic acid and a prebiotic complex settle the scalp while volumising agents give oomph to your hair.

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3. Percy & Reed Give Me Strength Strengthening Scalp Concentrate, £28

Peptides and vitamins condition both scalp and hair to reduce breakage by 68%. A light leave-in serum that leaves hair smelling lovely

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4. JVN Hair Complete Pre-Wash Scalp Oil, £25

Let the plant oils infuse into scalp for 15 minutes before washing out for stronger, longer hair: neem extract will soothe and purify and basil extract will prevent hair loss.

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4 scalp serums to boost hair growth

1. Our top pick: Bleach London Reincarnation Scalp Treatment, £15

A very light serum-gel that restores a balanced scalp microbiome and settles itchiness with probiotics, ceramides and peptides, while pea sprout extract enhances hair growth. Comes in a squeezy tube to let you apply the gel directly to the scalp. Massage it in for five minutes and leave in.

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2. Hair Gain Leave-In Scalp Treatment, £32

Biotin, panthenol, amino acids and pea sprout extract in an airy mousse that can be massaged into a dry or towel-dried scalp and left in to promote thickness and reduce shedding over time.

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3. Necessaire The Scalp Serum Fragrance-Free, £60

A water-like serum that hydrates, calms with green tea extract and promotes hair growth with a 5% blend of peptides that mimic those naturally found in the scalp.

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4. The Nue Co Supa Thick Hair Treatment, £35

There are impressive consumer trials on this 20-minute pre-wash or overnight hair serum, which has boosters such as rosemary oil for hair growth and a probiotic complex to balance the scalp microbiome. The serum was developed after the founder developed post-Covid hair loss.

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A scalp serum to minimise greys hair

Our top pick: Vegamour Gro Ageless Anti-Gray Hair Serum, £78

Well, there’s only one scalp serum that aims to reduce greys, as long as you don’t have more than 30% of them (hair colour is less able to return the longer hair’s been grey). Hair is said to re-grow with much of your hair colour back in place after 90 days of daily use (as well as being glossier and less brittle), thanks to a blend of caffeine, peptides, vitamins, glycoproteins and a nourishing bark extract. The ingredients aren’t that different from other scalp serums but 64% of users do report fewer greys and better condition from this leave-in serum.

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