What to Know About Scalp Exfoliation

Medically Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on May 20, 2023
4 min read

You may know about the importance of skincare and hair care, but do you know about scalp care? The skin under your hair plays a critical role in how your hair looks. Keeping the scalp's skin healthy and free of buildup from styling products can make your hair look great and your scalp feel clean.

Exfoliation is one way to give your scalp some special treatment. Learn more about what you should know about scalp exfoliation.

Anyone can exfoliate their scalp. You can scrub your scalp gently to get the benefits of removing debris from your skin and hair. The feeling of thorough cleaning is enjoyable, and you may find that it makes your hair easier to style. Occasional exfoliation may take care of mild itching caused by the sweat and oil that builds up if you don't wash your hair for a few days. In addition, there are skin conditions that affect your scalp that might make you want to be especially attentive about exfoliation, including:

Product buildup. If you use a lot of hair styling products, you may find that they cling to your hair and scalp. The residue can cause your hair to look dull, greasy, or limp and weighted down. Buildup on your scalp may accumulate on your skin and appear as flakes or grease. In some cases, it can affect hair growth. The buildup of products can trap dirt and oil to make your scalp feel itchy or irritated.

Dandruff. Doctors don't know precisely what causes the white flake of dandruff, but it's a common scalp condition. People with dandruff notice a dry, itchy sensation on their head as well as white flakes on their hair, clothing, or pillowcase.

Psoriasis. Psoriasis is an immune condition that causes the skin to grow too quickly. The result is red, raised patches called plaques. They can develop on your scalp, and they may be itchy or flaky. Psoriasis requires medical treatment to manage the condition.

Seborrheic dermatitis. This is a skin condition that causes a thick, greasy, or scaly rash on the scalp. It's called cradle cap when it occurs on babies. Unlike babies, who outgrow the condition naturally, adults with seborrheic dermatitis need treatment to clear it up.

There are two main ways to exfoliate the skin on your head. There are physical exfoliants that use friction to scrub away dry skin and buildup. There are also chemical exfoliants that dissolve dead skin cells that might be lingering on your scalp. You may be familiar with some of these ingredients, such as alpha-hydroxy acids, which are used in skin care products.

Textured scrubs. There are various over-the-counter products that you can use as a scalp scrub. These products contain mildly abrasive ingredients like sugar, sea salt, or charcoal. The gritty texture loosens dirt, oil, dead skin, and built-up hair products so that you can rinse them away.

Scrubbing combs. You can find a variety of scalp exfoliating brushes and combs. Some are meant to be used in the shower. Others are for dry hair. They help scrub away product buildup, dirt, oil, and dead skin cells as you gently massage your skin with them.

Chemical exfoliants. Shampoos labeled for relief of dandruff and itchy scalp usually contain ingredients that dissolve dead skin cells. Salicylic acid, coal or wood tar, zinc pyrithione, selenium sulfide, and ketoconazole are all approved for over-the-counter use on your scalp. Make sure to read the directions to get the best benefit from these products.

If you find that exfoliation irritates your scalp or you have an allergic reaction to a new product, stop immediately. You can talk to your doctor about other options for caring for the skin on your scalp.

The skin on your scalp is delicate, so you should take care not to irritate it. Too much exfoliation can be painful, and it might damage your hair. Exfoliation brushes might break or pull strands of hair, resulting in hair that looks thinner. If you have certain hair types, the ingredients in medicated shampoos could be drying or damaging.

If you are seeing a doctor for psoriasis, seborrheic dermatitis, or other skin conditions, talk to them about any products you want to use on your scalp. If you have questions about exfoliating your scalp and how to do it safely, talk to your doctor or a licensed cosmetologist about what would work for you.