The One Thing You Might Be Neglecting in Your Haircare
“Scalp care is an essential step of hair care,” Sakuma said. “Almost every salon in Japan has a head-spa menu.” In the States, we’re just catching on, with similar treatments generating buzz in L.A. and NYC. Mine began with a shampoo and gentle-but-firm scrubbing to unclog the skin. Next, a tingly exfoliating gel was applied to my scalp and a 25-minute shiatsu head massage got underway. “Shiatsu means ‘finger pressure’ in Japanese, and it stimulates nourishing blood circulation to the hair follicles,” said Sakuma, who then swaddled my head in a hot towel and poured warm water over it in a weird-but-wonderful steam-bath moment called waterfall. After a rinse and towel-dry, Sakuma put a watery moisturizer on my head, then blow-dried my hair. Zero styling products were used, yet I marveled at my fuller head of hair. The after photos revealed why: The sand dunes had vanished—nothing was weighing down my hair. Turns out, the one area of skin that most of us neglect really does have next-level hair powers.
“The scalp is the foundation of healthy hair,” says NYC dermatologist Ilyse Lefkowicz, MD. “Think of it as proper soil nourishing a plant so it can grow healthy.” But this ecosystem can easily get out of whack. First, there’s the yeastlike fungus called Malassezia that naturally lives on the scalp, feeding on the oil there, says Dr. Lefkowicz. “An overgrowth of this fungus can trigger inflammation and irritation, causing skin cells to turn over faster than normal—the flaking we know as dandruff,” says Melissa Piliang, MD, FAAD, a dermatologist at the Cleveland Clinic. It’s estimated that half the population has this common scalp problem, and research shows that new hair emerging from an irritated, unhealthy scalp can be thinner and damaged from the get-go. Even if that’s not your issue, Dr. Piliang notes that buildup, in general, can lead to itching, inflammation, and flaking. The upshot: If the scalp is soil for your strands, then working the land will help grow a stronger crop.
TIME TO COME CLEAN
The solution starts with washing, of course. But in an effort to extend my blowout, I live for dry shampoo— and I’m not alone. According to a 2018 market-research report published by Statista, the global market value of the product is about $3 billion and soaring (North America is the largest market)—and this no-poo craze is doing a number on our scalps as well as weighing down our hair, since oily roots act like a magnet, attracting pollution and product residue. “Imagine piling on face powder and not washing it for days,” says Dr. Piliang. “For the average person, not shampooing for more than two or three days can set you up for problems.”
All that being said, a lot of people prefer to wash less frequently. Felicia Leatherwood, a celebrity stylist who specializes in natural hair, appreciates that many women with delicate strands, such as those of African descent, won’t shampoo every other day. “Women who wear braids, for example, may wash every week or two,” she says. “That’s when an astringent like witch hazel can be used to reduce oil.” Many brands have launched similar leave-on elixirs meant to refresh between washes.
And for those, like me, who shampoo only twice a week, tops? A smarter, deeper clean is in order. Enter a new wave of scalp cleansers, scrubs, and pretreatments that use skin care–inspired ingredients like micron- ized apricot seeds, clay, binchotan charcoal—even chemical exfoliators like lactic and salicylic acid—to help loosen stubborn buildup and de-gunk the roots.
The proper shampooing technique can also help, so if your how-to is dropping a dollop of shampoo on top of your head, then mushing it around and rinsing, it’s time for a reboot. “The phrase washing your hair is somewhat of a misnomer because you need to cleanse the scalp,” says NYC hairstylist Stephen Thevenot.
Many people don’t even make contact with the skin when they shampoo, “and they skip over areas like the nape of the neck and sides of the head,” says Thevenot. Leatherwood recom- mends this ultra-thorough cleansing method: “Dilute your shampoo with a little water, and put it on your scalp when your hair is dry, before you get in the shower. Massage it in, then jump in the shower and get your hair wet—just enough to fur- ther activate the cleanser. Work it into your scalp with the pads of your fingers for two to three minutes before rinsing it out thoroughly.” That head spa–like scrubbing not only sloughs the scalp, but it also stimulates blood flow to feed the follicles. Good old brushing can do the trick too. Thevenot suggests using a mixed- or boar-bristle brush to go over the scalp for at least two minutes. “It’s a little like dry-brushing your skin to exfoliate and rev up circulation,” he says.
Another idea: Rethink your shampoo entirely. Many derms recommend that an antidandruff formula be used on the regular. “It’s a good go-to for anybody, even if you don’t have dandruff, since zinc pyrithione has anti-inflammatory and anti-androgen properties, which calm the skin and help prevent thinning, respectively,” says Dr. Piliang.
When it comes to conditioning, we have the hair part down— using oils and creamy masks to moisturize strands. But should we be applying these things to our scalp? The skin actually does benefit from a different, lightweight formula—similar to a hydrating toner you’d apply after washing your face. The scalp produces natural lipids, explains Rolanda Johnson Wilkerson, PhD, principal scientist at P&G Beauty, but shampoo can clear them away. “Applying a leave-on scalp toner or serum with hydrators like glycerin, hyaluronic acid, or niacinamide will add back moisture and soothe the skin,” she says. A caveat: “If you use a medicated shampoo with zinc pyrithione [like Head & Shoulders, above] to fight dandruff, it’s recommended that you apply the companion medicated conditioner afterward directly onto your scalp to optimize the antidandruff benefits.” (Research shows that using a nonmedicated conditioner may wash away up to 50 percent of the active ingredient.)
Consider me converted. While I may not go so far as using a multistep regimen on my head every night, I’m giving dry shampoo a rest and shampooing three times a week with head-spa zeal. Wash and go indeed.