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The hair care industry tends to focus on the health of your hair — and for obvious reasons. Your hair can dry out, break, frizz, get greasy and more, and you need a good regimen to keep it strong, soft and presentable. But that’s also a shortsighted focus. Yes, you need a few products to ensure the maximum number of good hair days, but that’s not getting to the root of the problem.
The root of the problem, both literally and figuratively, lies in the scalp. That’s where your hairs are anchored and that’s where they grow. And if the scalp is uninhabitable, then you can kiss your strands goodbye. On the other hand, if you utilize a regular scalp treatment that creates a balanced, hospitable environment for those follicles while proactively stimulating and nourishing both scalp and follicles… well, then you’ll have the requisite hair needed to enjoy those good hair days.
That’s not to insinuate that regular scalp treatment is the primary way to retain and regrow your hair. Far from the truth — and we’d hate to add to the long list of hair loss myths out there. But a healthy scalp plays a profound supporting role in growing the strongest, thickest hairs possible — and the most anchored follicles at that.
But don’t just take it from us. Here is what Atlanta-based trichologist Nina Ross has to say on the topic (a trichologist is a certified scalp specialist, by the way): “A lot of unhealthy scalp conditions, such as inflammatory scalp conditions, folliculitis, dermatitis, even psoriasis or not shampooing your hair consistently, can lead to various forms of really bad scalp conditions and also hair loss.”
Read on for more insight on scalp care as it pertains to growing healthy hair, as well as advice from Ross.
How to Know If Your Scalp Is Healthy
The only real way to know if your scalp is healthy is to have a board-certified dermatologist or certified trichologist get up close and personal. That’s because having a healthy scalp goes beyond the baseline of having a dry or oily scalp; people with both conditions can still have a healthy scalp, it’s just that they have to tailor their products towards these particular conditions. Having a diagnostically healthy scalp, though, is better understood through close examination by one of the aforementioned professionals.
Trichologist vs. Dermatologist: Which One Should You Visit?
When it comes to scalp care and growing stronger hair while preventing hair loss, you have to decide what kind of approach you prefer. And that makes deciding between a trichologist and a dermatologist a bit easier. You could visit both, but you need to know what to expect from each type of expert. Here is how Ross differentiates the two professions.
- Dermatologists: Dermatologists are doctors, thus “their approach is to calm down symptoms,” be it hair loss or scalp irritability, Ross notes. Dermos might give you steroid injections, finasteride and minoxidil to help grow stronger, fuller hair, or a medicated shampoo to counter dandruff. They can order a biopsy if something seems dire. And if you need immediate relief, then a dermatologist is probably your first stop. You’ll also rely on them for supervision throughout any hair regrowth journey, particularly if you are taking something they prescribed, like finasteride. But because they are skincare generalists (for the most part, since many exceptional dermatologists are out there), you might look elsewhere for a 360-degree scalp wellness plan. Again, that’s no knock on dermatologists; their solutions work for the vast majority of people.
- Trichologists: Think of trichs as the true scalp specialists, taking a more holistic approach to scalp and hair health. “A trichologist will get to the root of the problem,” Ross says. “We use various forms of cosmeceuticals that have growth factors, vitamins, amino acids and treatments.” Their efforts aren’t solely external, either: Trichs can assess hormone levels to see if that’s a contributing factor to hair loss. They should be your first stop if you want to truly understand what’s causing your hair loss — and not just male-pattern loss. “If you want a more in-depth detail of what’s happening with your hair, and you want to treat it both inside and out, then I would say seek help from a certified trichologist.”
What Trichologists Look For
These are the most common ways trichologists get a better idea of your scalp and hair conditions, and how to best move forward with treatments:
- Scalp analysis: Otherwise known as a trichoscope, this is a non-invasive imaging process that gives the professional a microscopic view of your scalp, hair and follicles.
- Hair analysis: By sending a hair sample to the labs, trichologists can order a mineral exam to determine which nutrients are deficient, as well as note possible exposure to heavy metals.
- Blood Labs: Trichs will often look at blood levels and specifically hormone levels to see what is or isn’t in balance. That includes testosterone, estrogen, progesterone and how testosterone is converting to DHEA/DHT (Dehydroepiandrosterone/dihydrotestosterone), both of which can inhibit hair growth at the follicle.
- Biofeedback: This is a body scan. “We scan to see if the body is going to tell us if there’s anything that’s out of balance, and we compare that to your labs,” says Ross. “Most of the time, it’s 90% in line with what the blood labs say. If there’s any inflammation that’s on the body, like candida, it’s going to show up on testosterone results and your stress levels.” It can explain irregularities in your labs and spotlight the real problem.
How to Create a Scalp Treatment Routine
If you’re not worried (or remotely curious) about your current scalp state, then you can at least take a few measures to ensure you achieve and/or maintain the healthiest scalp balance possible. Ross recommends five things, all of which can be instantly implemented:
- Shampoo Regularly: A clean scalp will always be top of the list. You should be washing every other day or every third day because the shampoo also detoxifies the scalp itself. Regular exercise leads to a buildup of salts on the scalp and should be flushed away regularly. “If you are someone who has a dry scalp that suffers from psoriasis or dermatitis, then you will want to make sure that you’re using the right type of shampoo for that,” Ross adds, suggesting a zinc-powered shampoo (And do your hair a favor: Always condition the hair after shampooing!)
- Audit Hair Products: The scalp can often experience a buildup of hair products, which either settle onto the skin during styling or steadily deposit themselves there throughout the day. Ross says to avoid products with parabens (most commonly, methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and ethylparaben) as well as added/artificial fragrance. Make sure that the base of these products — be it a wax, butter or oil — isn’t comedogenic or occlusive, which can suffocate the follicle or clog the pores. If you take minoxidil for hair loss/growth and it’s drying out your scalp, it could be due to a high alcohol concentration. There are alcohol-free options on the market. Pro tip: Try the ingredient decoders at INCI and EWG to check the safety of the ingredients list. If they don’t have your product in their database, then find an ingredient list of that specific product online and paste it into these decoders for a custom report.
- Assess Water Intake: From the water you drink to the water you shower in, the quality of H2O in your home plays a large role in your hair and scalp health. But beyond that, Ross says that merely staying hydrated with clean, quality water is one of the best things you can do for your hair and scalp. “Water helps flush out any excessive cell debris that your body is holding on to,” she says, adding that you should drink half your body weight in ounces of clean, distilled water or spring water every day.
- Prioritize a Healthy Lifestyle: From the quality of food you eat to the amount of sleep you get (hopefully seven to eight hours nightly) to the rolling back of vices (like drinking and smoking), choosing the healthy option will lead to a healthier body, which in turn ensures your hair follicles receive the necessary ingredients and the scalp is not experiencing dryness, irritation or microbial buildups.
- Holistic Alternatives: As a trichologist, Ross of course endorses a holistic approach to wellness, like supplementing certain medicinal measures (like minoxidil) with topical saw palmetto or nettle root formulas, since those two ingredients are both known to slow DHT, which can shrivel the hair follicle. On a more studied level, a trich might prescribe oral options for both based on known hormone levels, or even magnesium, which is also effective at suppressing DHT.
Scalp Treatment Products to Consider
In addition to a scalp-friendly shampoo, there are a few grooming products you can add to your daily or weekly rotation that can ensure a balanced scalp. And when we talk about grooming products and scalp balance, we often mean balanced oil levels as well as pH levels. The latter refers to the natural chemical acidity of skin; anything out of balance leaves the skin irritated or inflamed.
Scalp Balancing Serum
This could be serum infused with tea tree extract to balance oil levels and neutralize bacteria or even something like witch hazel to simultaneously temper sebum and pH. Some scalp serums also focus on detoxification or inflammation; make sure you get whichever one suits your needs.
Scalp Detox Mask
Typically used directly before or following a shampoo (depending on the brand), this will deep clean the scalp and extract excess sebum from the pores while also neutralizing microbial proliferation. Think of it as a shampoo that seeps deeper into the skin for a layered refresh.
Scalp Hydrating Cream
Different brands suggest varied frequencies of use, but a hydrating cream is like a moisturizer for the scalp. It might also be delivered as a serum or a nutrient mask. It can be used seasonally (like in winter, when you’re itchier and drier) or for perennial dry scalps. Many people will benefit from using one after a deep detox shampoo, too.
Scalp Exfoliating Scrub
This lifts away dead skin cells, which prevents clogged pores and blocked follicles as well as dandruff. Once weekly should suffice. It won’t dislodge any hairs unnecessarily, either; what you lose will have fallen soon anyway. As a bonus, it also stimulates circulation in the scalp and boosts nutrient delivery to the follicles.