Over recent years, the 21st century’s inclusive social media trends have seen a refreshing shift to roots, celebrating and prioritising health. The ideal has moved more to healthy physiques built by exercise; from makeup, to good skincare for a natural glow, and finally in the field of hair care. We definitely love our shampoos, conditioners and in case of curls – countless moisturising and defining products, but now the beauty industry is catering en masse to the root of our hair health – our scalp.
There’s no denying that our scalp plays an important role in our hair health. In fact, a 2015 study published in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science confirms that hair emerging from unhealthy scalps are shown to have more irregular surfaces. Not taking care of our scalps can also result in dandruff, dermatitis, scalp acne and more problems.
Dr Anju K. Balan, specialist dermatologist at Aster Medical Day Centre, Ajman says, “You should always maintain a healthy scalp no matter what age you are.”
On a normal scalp, there shouldn’t be any redness, irritation, loose scales, pustules or pimples, tenderness or foul smell.
As the era of treating the scalp as skin first has begun, a dizzying array of options - including scalp toners, tonics, masks, treatments are more on the market. Building a scalp routine is the next thing on the beauty agenda but how would we know which products to use?
Gulf News speaks to Dubai-based board-certified trichologist Michael Ryan also known as the ‘Dubai Hair Doctor’, with over 17 years of experience in the UK, Japan and the UAE, as well for the essentials we need for scalp health, before hopping on the scalp routine bandwagon.
Does our scalp need skincare?
The skin structure of our scalp is similar to normal skin, except for a dense covering of hair follicles with hair, and more sebaceous and sweat glands. According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, our scalp has around 100,000 hair follicles.
Dr Balan says, “The scalp has the largest concentration of oil glands, other areas being face and upper chest. But, the amount of oil produced on the scalp varies from person to person, with some experiencing much less or much more than others.”
She says that the same basic principles of skincare generally apply to scalp care as well, with common problems being buildup of oil, dirt and hair product residue.
Dr Balan adds, “On a normal scalp, there shouldn’t be any redness, irritation, loose scales, pustules or pimples, tenderness or foul smell.”
Dos for scalp health
1. Regular cleansing
As per your scalp’s needs, this is the single most important thing you can do for your scalp.
Dr Balan says, “Our scalp tends to get oily if proper cleansing is not done. Also during our daily activities at home and work - sweat, dead skin, dust and dirt and debris of hair care products accumulate on the scalp skin, which over time can cause various diseases including dandruff, and infections with bacteria and fungi.”
Ryan adds, “You don’t want to leave that on your head, as it has very little moisturising and conditioning factor in it. So, you know, get it off. The singular most important thing you can do to maintain a healthy scalp is to shampoo daily. Not just with water, use shampoo.”
However, this can be impossible with long or curly hair, that needs to be carefully moisturized, dried and styled after washing. According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, dermatologists recommend washing African American hair once a week or every other week to keep hair healthy.
1. Dr Ryan says that just wetting hair on a daily basis is not enough, shampoo must be used. When using shampoo, apply it to your palms to lather it first, and then massage it into your scalp.
2. Use water that is neither hot nor cold.
3. Use your fingertips to gently and thoroughly shampoo the scalp, but not necessarily the hair.
4. Make sure to give it a good rinse after and break up the hair, so all the water can run down the channels of the scalp and remove the shampoo.
5. For people with longer hair, conditioner should be used from the mid-length to the ends.
He says, “No need to put conditioner on the roots. People with shorter hair sometimes do or don’t use conditioner, it’s a personal choice – but if you’ve got longer hair, certainly a little bit of conditioner is helpful.”
What shampoos would be best? Dr Ryan says that unless you have specific scalp concerns, a good quality shampoo can work well. He says, “The biggest problem with shampoos is the amount of salt content that is put into the shampoos to thicken it. One trick I always tell my patients is that if you look on the back, the higher up on the ingredient list is the sodium chloride or salt, the cheaper the product.”
Dr Balan recommends avoiding products with high sulphate, ammonia and alcohol, or often using very strong shampoo.
• Hyaluronic acid
• Natural oils
According to Medical News Today, sulfates are not considered to be toxic for our scalp, but their effectiveness at removing oil and dirt can be especially counterproductive and drying for people with sensitive skin or skin conditions, people with dry, frizzy hair and people with chemically altered hair and dyed hair.
For specific scalp concerns such as dandruff, Ryan says that juniper tar, ketoconazole, and zinc pyrithione are beneficial. It is best to consult your dermatologist in cases of specific scalp problems such as dandruff, psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis.
Dr Balan emphasises that just like for skincare, following regular cleansing of the scalp, hydration is also important.
She says, “Following shampooing, one should use a good quality conditioner for the hair. Some even use rubbing of oil onto the hair after shower, which is also acceptable, given if you use only very little quantity.”
Should I use toners, essences and other scalp products?
To start with, Dr Balan recommends assessing your scalp’s requirements and getting an expert opinion regarding your type of scalp skin and existing scalp conditions, before using leave-in scalp products such as toners after shampoo.
As for new products for the scalp, all these exfoliating and moisturising things, they're all a little bit of a marketing myth, to be honest.
She says, “Scalp-specific preparations are advisable rather than going for general use, as their inappropriate application can itself lead to scalp disorders or exacerbate existing scalp diseases.”
For the general consumer without specific scalp problems, Dr Ryan says, “As for new products for the scalp, all these exfoliating and moisturising things, they're all a little bit of a marketing myth, to be honest.”
Here’s a quick roundup of the main families of scalp products:
• Scalp toner: Scalp toners, like skin toners add a thin layer of protection and moisture to the skin.
Dr Balan says, “When you use a toner in your hair care regime, it helps cleanse and tone the scalp which supports a healthy environment for the follicle which then has a positive effect on the growth and health of the hair.”
She adds that scalp toners are for those with oily hair, especially those products containing salicylic acid.
• Scalp tonic: Ryan says, “The pores may be opened on the scalp after cleansing so a scalp tonic will just do the same as a skin toner. There's no real need for them unless you like the feel of them. That's the way they make your hair feel on your scalp.”
• Scalp essence: Similar to a scalp tonic, scalp essences are formulations that are used for targeted concerns.
• Scalp scalers: Scalp scalers are products that remove oil and dead skin build-up just like a shampoo. Dr Balan explains that the main difference between scaler and scalp shampoo is that scalp shampoo bubbles while scaler is a liquid that doesn't lather when you rub into your scalp.
She says, “Hence preferable in those with a dry scalp and hair.”
• Scalp exfoliating shampoo: These shampoos exfoliate dead skin cells, get rid of product build-up and fight off excess oil. “Hence, it is useful for an oily scalp,” says Dr Balan.
However, Dr Ryan warns against using harsh scalers and exfoliating shampoos that aggressively scale the scalp when suffering from dandruff. He says, “When you have dandruff, your cells are turning over too quickly, so if you then go away and strip those cells off aggressively, your body will re-produce to put the barrier back on. So then it becomes a vicious cycle and you make the dandruff effectively worse when you stop using the shampoo, so with dandruff you must always remove the scale gently but effectively.”
Moreover, he adds that aggressive exfoliation when dealing with lifting heavy scale on the scalp, can sometimes cause hair follicles to be taken along, causing permanent hair loss in some cases.
• Scalp mask or facial: Masks that work to soothe scalps could be a beneficial addition if you are experiencing itchy, dry or flaky scalps. You can also reap benefits by the scalp and neck massages for at-home scalp facials.
Dr Balan says, “A scalp massaging brush can help you get that spa experience at home and stimulates the scalp and hair follicles, allowing your hair to grow stronger and healthier.”
However, she warns against using it too much as that could ultimately cause inflammation, more redness, swelling and can be counter-productive. Gentle massages while applying even slightly warm oils is found to stimulate hair roots and promote hair growth, and can be beneficial.
She says, “You may use any vegetable oil of your choice like coconut, almond oil and castor oil.”
Dr Ryan recommends that these hair massage tools should be firm, smooth and soft and should feel just like a finger massage. He says, “A scalp massage done correctly is quite effective, but you don’t want anything too abrasive or aggressive on the scalp.”
Don’ts for scalp health
1. Excessive styling treatments
Dr Balan says, “Too frequent hair treatments like chemical treatments from salons, smoothening and straightening, hair colouring, bleaching, ironing and other hair styling procedures can lead to excessive hair fall.”
She advises that these should be done with a minimum of three to six months gap and must be followed by hair spa or other after-care treatments. Too much use of hair styling brushes and blow drying may also cause breakage of hair shafts at weakened areas, and should be avoided.
2. Very frequent use of strong shampoos
Dr Balan says, “Too frequent use of very strong shampoos with high sulphate content as well as hair dyes with high levels of ammonia can make your hair dry as well as weak and in turn lead to hair fall.”
3. Leave-on oil on scalp
“Never use oil as a leave-on product on scalp skin,” says Dr Balan.
4. Tight hairstyles
Wearing tight hairstyles over long periods can pull on your hair follicles, eventually causing permanent hair loss called traction alopecia. This is common in African American hair if protective hairstyles such as box braids are worn for long.
The bottom line is – when worried about your hair and scalp health due to a specific problem, it’s best to consult a dermatologist for targeted care so you can build your perfect scalp routine.
This is as common problems such as hair loss can happen not only due to scalp related conditions as well as due to other causes like nutritional deficiencies, hormonal causes as well as other severe diseases affecting other organs of the body like cancer, says Dr Balan.
She says, “Hence hair loss requires a comprehensive care, that includes blood tests for detecting any deficiencies, anaemia, hormonal - especially thyroid - imbalances, underlying diseases, as well as their correction. It also includes proper scalp and hair care, in addition to use of hair growth peptides, lotions and oral hair supplements.”
Finally, Dr Balan directs us to take care of our general health as well: “Our overall good health is reflected in the health of our hair. So one should eat healthy, stay hydrated, maintain a regular sleep pattern, avoid stress and smoking. Diet rich in healthy proteins such as eggs, greens, vegetables, especially peas, spinach, avocado, fish and nuts will ensure proper hair growth.”