Initial signs of dandruff tend to show up during puberty when your body's oil production starts to change; however, they can become exacerbated later in life, thanks to oxidative stress (more on this is a second). "We see people as early as 13 starting to experience scalp issues like flaking, dryness, and itch, and those are all signs that your scalp is beginning to be unhealthy," says Rolanda Johnson Wilkerson, PhD, a beauty scientist. "It doesn’t mean that you’ve gone down the road of no return, but it does mean that you need to be aware of how you care for your scalp."
All the while, oxidative stress can create a host of problems to contend with that show up over time as you age. Oxidation happens due to chemical reactions taking place all around you. Interactions between your body and polluted air or water with particular metals in it can cause electrons within the skin to become unbound (electrons that are stable like to be in pairs). Once these electrons are loan agents, they become microscopic PacMans that scavenge your skin, creating damage that includes collagen depletion, hyperpigmentation, and even a disruption of the skin barrier and scalp homeostasis.
"A scalp that is under oxidative stress can be itchy, dry, and flaky," says Dr. Wilkerson. "These are all symptoms of dandruff, but an aging scalp has similar symptoms." Studies have shown that oxidative stress is directly linked to dandruff, and can cause increased flare-ups as you age. However, it's worth noting that not everyone will wind up with a flaking scalp by the time they hit 60. "There is a certain group of women who will experience symptoms more than others," says Dr. Wilkerson. "We all have the presence of [dandruff-causing] fungus on our scalp, which causes oxidative stress on the scalp, but not everybody responds to the presence of it. Genetic susceptibility, habits, and practices tend to drive this response."
Since your scalp is (literally) linked to your hair, the effects of oxidative stress will also show up in your strands. "Since the scalp's unique microbiome doesn't live exclusively on the surface—it also lives within the follicle of your hair—this can also cause oxidative stress in your hair," says Dr. Wilkerson. "When this happens, it means your hair is already damaged before it even emerges from your scalp." This, she says, can result in more porous hair strands that feel dry and brittle and are constantly frizzing.
It's important to practice proper scalp care throughout your entire life—and it's never too late (or too early) to start. "Just as people can care for their facial skin to mitigate early signs of aging, the same thing can happen with your scalp," says Dr. Wilkerson. "When you integrate that earlier care on the scalp, we do see evidence of better quality hair."
The most important ingredient to look for to maintain the health of your scalp—particularly if you're prone to dandruff—is zinc. "Caring for your scalp with products that have zinc actives in them can reduce the oxidative stress on the scalp," says Dr. Wilkerson. She's a fan of Head and Shoulders Supreme Nourish and Smooth Scalp Shampoo ($9) and Conditioner ($9) which is formulated with zinc and designed to keep hair healthy from roots to ends. For women with natural hair, she recommends a zinc-infused leave-on treatment like Royal Oils Daily Moisture Scalp Cream ($9) for best results. She also suggests avoiding heat on your scalp as much as possible (so, no more scalding hot showers or blowdrying at the root), and keeping products that aren't specifically meant for your scalp away from the area, since these can lead to buildup that will exacerbate flaking and itching.
"It’s never too late to start to mitigate or avoid ongoing problems moving forward," says Dr. Wilkerson. "For a more mature person who has not cared for their scalp and is starting to see signs of hair thinning, itching, or unhealthiness, scalp care can help to avoid the ongoing problems that could occur as a result of ignoring these signs and symptoms." In other words, treat your scalp like your skin and you'll be GTG.
Need some more convincing on the importance of taking care of your scalp at any age? Press play on the video below.
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