8 Scalp Exfoliants That Melt Away Build-Up and Dead Skin That Shampoo Misses

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Photo: W+G Creative
I'm going to share an unpopular opinion: I hate scalp scrubs. In addition to leaving my head feeling raw, the granules get stuck between my strands, creating knots that need a fistful of conditioner to detangle; however, because I hate having a stinking scalp, even more, I use them anyway. The good news? The best scalp exfoliants completely do away with the scrub-induced mess we've become accustomed to.

Enter: Alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) scalp exfoliants, which use acids to achieve the same effect as sugar and salt in traditional scalp scrubs. "Manual exfoliators work by using gritty particles to remove excess cells from the skin's surface, while chemical exfoliators like hydroxy acids work by dissolving connections between dead cells on the surface of the skin so the cells can be shed," says Joshua Zeichner, MD, a New York City board-certified dermatologist. "AHAs can help improve flakes and reduce oil on the scalp, which translates to less greasy hair and improved flaking and even dandruff."

Experts In This Article
  • Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology and associate professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital
  • Michelle Henry, MD, board-certified dermatologist at Skin & Aesthetic Surgery of Manhattan
  • Shab Reslan, trichologist and hair health expert at HairClub.

Because of this, AHAs, such as glycolic and lactic acid, are great for exfoliating away dirt and debris without irritating your scalp (though, it's worth noting, you still shouldn't use them every day). "Glycolic acid, in particular, is a humectant, so it exfoliates and draws in hydration at the same time," says Michelle Henry, MD, a New York City-based board-certified dermatologist. "They're good for more sensitive skin types who want to incorporate gentle exfoliation into their scalp care regimen."

While these types of products can work on all hair types, NYC-based trichologist Shab Reslan explains that they tend to be best for fine or medium strands. "Some scalps are prone to oily or dry flakes while others are just oily or dry and tight," she explains. "For those with thicker hair densities and flakiness, I recommend the physical scrubs that can provide a deeper and more aggressive removal of build-up."

Before you start slathering your favorite glycolic serum all over your scalp, it's important to note that you probably won't get the same results as if you use a product that's specifically designed for your head. "Formulations for hair and scalp can differ from skin care as they tend to work within a shorter period of time," says Shab. "You need the product to deliver the ingredient and act fast since products like scalp exfoliants are rinsed out shortly after being applied. I would not recommend using any facial products on the scalp."

Luckily, there are plenty of AHA-infused scalp products on the market to try. Scroll through for a few of our faves.

1. Malin and Goetz Detox Scalp Mask, $35

Photo: Malin and Goetz

With a combination of salicylic acid and AHAs, this detoxifying mask will exfoliate and purify your scalp in five minutes flat—allowing you to say a brisk "goodbye" to any build-up, excess oils, and impurities hanging around up there. It foams on contact to release its active ingredients and also delivers fatty acids to nourish and condition your newly-cleansed scalp.

Shop now: Malin and Goetz Detox Scalp Mask, $35

2. Drunk Elephant TLC Happi Scalp Scrub, $36

Photo: Drunk Elephant

Skin and hair pros alike are in love with Drunk Elephant's first foray into scalp care and for good reason. "It's an effective yet gentle product as you don’t want to irritate or over-exfoliate the scalp, much like your facial skin as that can cause over-stimulation and exacerbate scalp issues," says Shab. Put it on dry hair for 15 minutes before you shampoo to let it work its magic.

Shop now: Drunk Elephant TLC Happi Scalp Scrub, $36

3. Sunday Riley Cleanse Rinse Clarifying Scalp Serum, $48

Photo: Sunday Riley

Think of this as a serum, but for your scalp. It combines AHAs and BHAs to slough off gunk, plus niacinamide to soothe your skin. It can be left on for up to 30 minutes pre-shampoo, which pro tip is a great time to treat yourself to a DIY scalp massage.

Shop now: Sunday Riley Cleanse Rinse Clarifying Scalp Serum, $48

4. Neutrogena Exfoliating Shampoo for Oily Hair & Scalp with Pink Grapefruit, $9

Photo: Neutrogena

Neutrogena's new hair-care line is all about the scalp, and this clarifying sudser is one of the best of the bunch. "It has grapefruit extract, which is an AHA, and helps to gently reduce oil and debris," says Dr. Henry. Plus, it smells amazing. 

Shop now: Neutrogena Exfoliating Shampoo for Oily Hair & Scalp with Pink Grapefruit, $9

5. Omorovicza Revitalizing Scalp Mask, $79

Photo: Omorvicza

Formulated to help you do away with flakes, this pre-shampoo mask combines exfoliating salicylic acid with detoxifying Hungarian moor mud and cooling menthol. It's also got conditioning oils, which means that your extra-clean hair will also feel soft, shiny, and hydrated long after you lather and rinse.

Shop now: Omorovicza Revitalizing Scalp Mask, $79

6. Oribe Serene Scalp Exfoliating Scrub, $52

Photo: Oribe

If you do like the feel of a physical scrub, but want the benefits of a chemical exfoliant, this formula offers the best of both worlds. It's made with tiny, soft granules that won't clump up when you apply them to your scalp, plus natural AHAs derived from lemon, orange, bilberry, and sugar cane that will exfoliate your scalp without stripping it completely.

Shop now: Oribe Serene Scalp Exfoliating Scrub, $52

7. Glycolix Elite Glycolix Shampoo 10%, $33

Photo: Glycolix

Get your glycolic fix with your shampoo through this product, which is formulated with a 10 percent concentration of the stuff. Lather it all over your scalp, then let it sit for three to five minutes before rinsing and conditioning.

Shop now: Glycolix Elite Glycolix Shampoo 10%, $33

8. Ameliorate Transforming Scalp Serum, $24

Photo: Ameliorate

Lactic acid—which this product is formulated with—has a reputation for being the gentlest AHA, making this tube perfect for even those with sensitive scalps. It will melt away dead skin cells and balance your pH, while oat and celery seed oils will aid in keeping it hydrated.

Shop now: Ameliorate Transforming Scalp Serum, $24

Want to watch a scalp get detoxed IRL with all the *gross* things that entails? Click below.

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Our editors independently select these products. Making a purchase through our links may earn Well+Good a commission.

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