During the colder months, we tend to use thicker, more moisturizing hair-care products. Add to that the fact that many of us have been layering on dry shampoo (because who wants to wash their hair when it's zero degrees outside?), and our scalps are more than ready for a spring refresh. The best way to blast through all that buildup, derms say, is to use products packed with gently exfoliating alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids.
"If you have either products or dead skin cells built up on your scalp, just like you can exfoliate your facial skin, you can do that for the scalp," says Ivy Lee, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Pasadena, California. This can be achieved by using exfoliating shampoos or scalp-care products.
Look for formulas made with glycolic acid (an AHA that melts the "glue" that holds dead cells to the surface of your skin) or salicylic acid (a BHA that gets way down deep into your pores to clear away dirt and grime). "These ingredients are keratolytics, meaning they break down the keratin and the skin cells," says Dr. Lee.
Because these strong acids can be drying to strands, be sure to keep your exfoliating treatments concentrated on your scalp instead of slathering them through your strands. "Your hair shaft is made of keratin, so oftentimes the way that [these keratolytic ingredients] are meant to work can cause the brittleness or the kind of crunchiness of our hair that we don't always like," says Dr. Lee. If your scalp is generally healthy and just needs a bit of a refresh, a scalp serum should do the trick—you only really need an acid-packed shampoo (which is more likely to drip from your scalp to the rest of your hair) if you're dealing with dandruff, scalp psoriasis, or seborrheic dermatitis.
Once you get your scalp nice and clean, it will be better able to absorb the products you put on, leading to healthier and happier hair. Follow up the exfoliating treatment with your favorite hydrating and nourishing products to finish off your refresh.
AHA and BHA scalp serums for a scalp refresh
This lightweight scalp serum is formulated with moringa oil, biotin, AHAs, and poly-hydroxy acids (PHAs) to gently remove product buildup and dead skin. Use the nozzle to apply it to your scalp before you shampoo. Let it sit for 10 minutes and rinse.
Made as a scrub for the scalp and the body, this product combines both physical and chemical exfoliants. It uses AHAs derived from plants like kiwi to gently exfoliate your skin. Just section wet hair and apply the scrub to your scalp. Gently massage it through and rinse it out before following up with shampoo and conditioner.
This scalp serum uses glycolic acid to exfoliate the surface of the scalp and salicylic acid to help dissolve sebum buildup inside the follicle. Plus, it’s got niacinamide to promote hair growth. Apply the serum to your scalp, and leave it on for at least three minutes but not more than 30. Rinse it out and continue with shampoo and conditioner.
This scrub is perfect for breaking down buildup. It uses biodegradable, gentle exfoliating beads to physically exfoliate your scalp while a blend of glycolic, tartaric, lactic, and citric acids chemically exfoliate. Massage the scrub onto a dry scalp and let it sit for at least 10 minutes. Rinse, shampoo, and condition.
This treatment combines rosemary oil, menthol, salicylic acid, and ginger extract to soothe irritation and redness while removing dead skin. Since this is designed as a leave-in product, shampoo and condition your hair and finish off by applying this serum to your scalp.
AHA and BHA shampoos for a scalp refresh
This is Dr. Lee’s favorite shampoo for people with mild dandruff or scalp psoriasis. Just remember that the acids can be drying to the hair, so don’t use this daily. “For my patients with breaking and scaliness of the scalp, I have them use it maybe two or three times a week at most.” The formula uses coal tar extract and salicylic acid to manage excess dead skin cells and buildup while soothing itch.
This dandruff shampoo combines charcoal (to unclog the hair follicle), salicylic acid (to reduce scalp itching, irritation, redness, and flaking), and lactic acid (to hydrate, gently exfoliate, and lift away excess oil, product buildup, and dirt). It’s a triple threat that will leave even the angriest scalp feeling clam and cool.
Watch one of our editors complete a deep-cleaning scalp treatment at home:
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