Your hair care routine may be built around the end goal of having strong, luscious locks, but the key to having a dreamy ’do starts with your scalp. Optimal hair health begins with keeping the hair follicles clean of excess oil or dead skin, so if you struggle with dandruff or a dry, itchy scalp, treating those conditions will help you achieve your hair goals.
The relationship between hair, scalp and skin care becomes even clearer when we take a look at what areas hair care affects, directly and indirectly. “Hair care unintentionally becomes skin care since you literally can’t put something on your hair without it getting on your skin (and not just your scalp),” points out dermatologist and founder of Seen hair care Dr. Iris Rubin, noting that “most people would not knowingly put many of the ingredients in hair care products on their skin, though they do so every day.”
More than that, “the skin on your scalp is just an extension of the skin on your face — and it can age in the same way that the skin on your face does too,” says Adam Federico, R+Co vice president of technical education. “This is important to know because your hair’s health — vitality, luster and density — depends directly upon how healthy your scalp is.”
So whether you have dandruff, a dry scalp, an itchy scalp, an oily scalp or a combination, you can think about scalp care the same way as skin care: It’s about balance and finding the right routine for your needs. From hydration and exfoliation to oil control and serums, the basics of scalp care are all about keeping it clean and conditioned. To help get you started, we spoke to four hair and skin experts about the best treatments and products for common scalp conditions.
Like the skin on your face and body, maintaining a moisturized scalp is important too. “Without moisture, you are more susceptible to a dry, irritated scalp,” says Dr. Daniel Sugai, a Seattle-based dermatologist and Head & Shoulders partner. “It is all about finding balance on your scalp skin where we don’t want excess oil nor a scalp devoid of moisture.”
Ingredients often found in skin care, such as glycerin, hyaluronic acid and shea butter, can also benefit your scalp and keep it hydrated. “Conditioners really help lock in the moisture, so make sure you are following up with one after your shampoo rinse,” Sugai advises.
Sugai recommends this coconut oil-infused treatment for those who need any extra boost of hydration. It’s great for those who have dandruff, and it absorbs quickly, so it won’t leave you with a greasy scalp. “I love it because you can use it at home, on the go and in between wash days,” Sugai shares.
Dermatologist tested, this conditioner is made with sunflower seed oil and shea butter to hydrate and nourish the scalp and hair. It also has UV protection properties to defend your hair from the elements.
Dandruff treatment: What is dandruff vs. a dry scalp?
“Many people don’t know this, but dandruff is actually a predisposition we are born with in our DNA, and not because of lack of hygiene,” Sugai says. “Dandruff is caused by a pesky yeast called malassezia, which everyone has on their scalp. However, the 50% of the population that is born with the predisposition will suffer from an irritated scalp when our natural oils mix with the malassezia, leading to your scalp shedding the cells known as dandruff.”
So while the telltale flakes may seem like they’re caused by a dry scalp, dandruff is actually an oily scalp issue. “The two most common scalp problems are dandruff and seborrhoeic dermatitis (SD), which are oily, flaky scalp conditions,” says Dr. Anabel Kingsley, Philip Kingsley brand president and consultant trichologist. “Malassezia yeasts feed on sebum, or oil, so when your scalp is overly greasy you’ll be more prone to yeast overgrowth and microbiome imbalances.”
If you do have a dry scalp, Kingsley says it is likely transient and linked to seasonal or environmental fluctuations like cold weather, high altitudes, central heating and sun exposure. “A dry scalp is less common,” the trichologist says. “This is because the scalp is a very sebaceous environment, containing hundreds of thousands of oil glands.”
When treating dandruff, Sugai says it’s important to stay consistent with your hair care routine. “The only way to truly fight it is with continued use of an anti-dandruff shampoo and conditioner,” he says. Look for ingredients like selenium sulfide and zinc pyrithione in these products, which are antifungal and fight the malassezia yeast that causes dandruff. “At-home remedies don’t do the trick, and you’ll only be prolonging the itch and irritation,” Sugai continues. “When in doubt, see your board-certified dermatologist, as we can supplement your dandruff shampoos with other topical treatments.”
Kingsley likes to approach dandruff treatment holistically, as stress, diet and other lifestyle habits can cause dandruff flare-ups. “Stress can increase oil production on your scalp and disrupt your skin’s barrier function — both of which can trigger or exacerbate dandruff,” she says, adding, “Certain foods can cause flaking and itching too. They aren’t the same for everyone, but generally full fat dairy products like cheese are the worst offenders.”
And lastly, Kingsley says to fight the urge to scratch. “Easier said than done, but when you scratch you get caught up in an ‘itch-scratch’ cycle,” she warns. “Scratching can also damage your scalp and introduce bacteria into your skin.”
“For those suffering with severe dandruff, I recommend Head & Shoulders Clinical Dandruff Defense Collection, as it’s dermatologist tested and clinically proven to combat stubborn dandruff and itch,” Sugai says. “In addition to recommending it from a dermatologist perspective, I also can tell you from personal experience, as I have been using their shampoos for many years!”
Fight dandruff and scalp irritation in between washes with this leave-in serum. Made with zinc pyrithione to reduce flaking and niacinamide to help control oil production, the product comes in an easy-to-dispense tube that allows you to apply it directly to the scalp before massaging in.
$30 at Dermstore and Philip Kingsley
Kingsley recommends this mask formulated with antimicrobial piroctone olamine, antioxidant-rich green tea, hydrating hyaluronic acid and gentle salicylic and lactic acids to ease an itchy scalp and boost the efficacy of other products too. “It reduces inflammation, helps balance the scalp’s microbiome and lifts away accumulated dead skin cells, creating the perfect canvas for your scalp to receive actives in other topical products,” she explains.
Dry and itchy scalp treatment
“A dry scalp occurs when the skin cells in the scalp’s natural moisture defenses are damaged,” Sugai says. “When these cells are damaged, moisture is able to escape, and the scalp becomes dry.”
Since a dry scalp isn’t genetic, it’s most likely external factors — like the environment, the weather or a reaction to products — causing the dryness. “If your scalp is dry, it’s best to avoid irritants and ingredients that can overdry the skin,” advises Rubin. “Look for a shampoo that is free of sulfates, which tend to be more harsh cleansers that can strip the skin of its natural oils.”
Seen’s hair care line is made with the skin in mind too. ““Many Seen products have bisabolol, a naturally derived skin-soothing ingredient,” Rubin shares. Seen’s shampoos are free of sulfates, silicones, phthalates and parabens, and they’re clinically tested to be noncomedogenic, which helps with skin clarity, scalp health and hair strength and shine.
$34 at Bluemercury and Philip Kingsley
“This leave-on, invisible water-based toner instantly soothes and relieves irritated scalps with camphor, piroctone olamine and benzalkonium chloride,” Kingsley shares. “Apply after you shampoo, or even before bed, for overnight relief and a balanced scalp. The smaller size is a great handbag essential, as it can also be dabbed on throughout the day with the nozzle attachment or cotton pad whenever itching strikes.”
Sugai loves this nourishing serum ”because it allows you to get itch relief, even when it’s not wash day! All you have to do is put a few drops directly on your scalp, and let the vitamin E and argan oil formulation work its magic and refresh your scalp.”
An oily scalp can be uncomfortable and make your hair look greasy. Some oil is normal and healthy, but if you can’t go more than a day without your hair looking weighed down and stringy, then your scalp is producing excess sebum.
Luckily, if you only have an oily scalp — and not more serious conditions tied to an oily scalp like dandruff or seborrheic dermatitis — then treatment is fairly easy.
“Most of my clients with oily scalps simply aren’t cleansing their scalp (i.e., shampooing) often enough,” Kingsley shares. “If you have fine to medium textured hair, aim to shampoo at least every other day.”
Then again, you might want to check the label on your hair care products, as they could be the culprit of your oily scalp. The same sulfates that can cause the dehydration of the scalp and hair can then trigger the scalp to produce extra sebum to overcompensate for dehydration. In addition, Rubin says that styling products can also contribute to oiliness.
“Many hair care products bind to your hair in order to give you the desired function. These products can also leave a residue on your skin (including your scalp) and cause product buildup,” Rubin explains. “Buildup from styling products is more likely to occur with less frequent washing, which can also contribute to oiliness.”
According to Kingsley, other factors that can affect scalp oiliness include stress, if you have fine hair and if you’re approaching menstruation. “Certain medical conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome can also cause excessive scalp oiliness — as can puberty and early pregnancy, as both impact sebaceous secretions,” she adds.
For those who do have dandruff or SD, look for anti-dandruff products that also help control oil production. “Avoiding excess oil on the scalp is key to avoiding irritation,” Sugai says. “The yeast malassezia thrives off of it, so we do not want to feed it any extra.”
While Kingsley says that shampooing more often with your regular shampoo is usually enough to get an oily scalp under control, the trichologist suggests using a scalp toner or dry shampoo containing an astringent ingredient (an ingredient that soaks up excess oils) if you need extra assistance.
For those struggling with a dandruff-riddled oily scalp, Sugai says this clinical strength shampoo “works to clean the scalp, remove oil and relieve dandruff symptoms.”
This serum combines organic meadowsweet flower — a natural astringent to help control excess sebum — with spearmint and peppermint to bring a soothing, cooling effect to the scalp.
Made for oily hair and scalps, this scrub combines BHA and sugar for chemical and physical exfoliation in a pH-balanced formula that removes buildup and excess oil.
Federico recommends exfoliating once or biweekly, depending on your scalp’s needs. He likes this scalp scrub, which “is formulated for use on sensitive and oily skin, so you don’t have to worry about excess irritation.”
Best scalp shampoos and cleansers, scrubs, treatments and serums
This cleansing rinse features apple cider vinegar, which helps banish buildup, soothe the scalp and add luster to the hair. “Not only does [this] leave hair looking healthy and shiny, it also soothes and restores balance to an irritated scalp,” Federico says. “But then, I could go on and on about the internal and external benefits of apple cider vinegar. It’s just wonderful, really.”
Formulated with piroctone olamine and climbazole (antifungal agents that help fight dandruff) along with rosemary oil, menthol, salicylic acid and ginger extract, this shampoo gently exfoliates and rebalances the scalp.
This treatment combines a scalp scrub and shampoo and is made with Bolivian salt and papaya enzymes to purify and cleanse the hair and scalp. Reviewers love it, with one saying, “This is my absolute favorite scalp product — it’s both soft and gentle, has the most satisfying whip to it and leaves my hair feeling super healthy and clean. I use it religiously every single Sunday.”
R+Co’s butter-like CBD and CBG-infused treatment features ingredients that hydrate, condition and tone — including lemon oil, hyaluronic acid, aloe vera and lemon water — to restore scalp health.
$80 at Sephora and Augustinus Bader
For those experiencing hair thinning and breakage, this scalp serum boosts growth and reduces shedding. It contains Augustinus Bader’s patented TFC8 mix of skin-loving ingredients (also found in its cult-favorite skin care) to treat the scalp, plus L-arginine and mineral actives to support hair health.
This leave-in spray contains hair-loving ingredients like peptides, amino acids and caffeine to treat the scalp, promoting hair growth and healthy hair follicles.
Whether you have a dry, itchy scalp or struggle with oiliness, this clay and quartz mask helps bring balance to your head. Packed with nutrients and antioxidant-rich broccoli extract, it detoxifies and refreshes, and it’s especially great for those with curly hair.