The microbiome is an ecosystem of bacteria, fungus, and parasites (not as gross as it sounds, I promise) that lives on the surface of your skin, as well as your scalp. “Your scalp microbiome is very similar to your skin microbiome, but the only difference is that the inside of hair follicle itself technically has its own microbiome,” says William Gaunitz, a trichologist certified by the World Trichology Society. He explains that your follicles push out sebum (the natural oil that makes your hair greasy when you go a few days without washing it)—which the bacteria and fungus on your scalp will feed on. “Collectively, this can layer up,” he says.
Like your skin microbiome, your scalp’s microbiome is its first line of defense against the outside world, which means that keeping it in check is critical to your overall hair health. “Keeping the microbiome balanced basically means fighting off the negative microbes that harm the skin or scalp while preserving and nourishing the positive, beneficial microbes,” says Brian Oh, co-founder of VENN, whose skin- and hair-care products are specifically designed to keep your microbiome healthy. “When this balance is disrupted, where the negative microbes become dominant and overpower the positive microbes.”
There are a number of things that can lead to this sort of disruption, most of which start with your daily hair-care rituals. “Some common causes include product buildup, dead-cell, and dirt accumulation, stripping the scalp from over-washing hair, and not properly drying the hair after you shower, since the damp environment is ideal for bacteria to grow,” says Oh.
The products you use on your hair and scalp can, understandably, have an impact on what’s going on up there too. Though you won’t be able to see any sort of imbalance on the microscopic level, it will eventually show itself on a larger scale that will be hard to miss. Studies have shown that a disruption of the microbiome can alter your scalp’s immune response, which can lead to issues like seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis. “With respect to scalp, it would mean dried and irritated scalp, rashes and acne, and premature scalp aging, all of which then result in weak, fragile hair,” says Oh. One of the biggest side effects of a disrupted scalp microbiome, adds Gaunitz, is dandruff. “It’s directly related to a flare-up of the Malassezia furfur fungus on the scalp.
In order to avoid all of this, you’ll want to take a holistic approach to keeping your scalp microbiome balanced. “The whole body is represented by how your scalp works,” says Gaunitz. “More than anything else, nutritional deficiency and lifestyle factors lead more to scalp microbiome issues like inflammation of the scalp.” H
As far as your routine goes, Gaunitz suggests using a shampoo supplementary ingredients like tea tree oil or neem, which will promote further scalp health. “I recommend this type of shampoo for general scalp health to reduce inflammation, negative microbial load, and scalp hydration,” says Gaunitz. “In general, even if you don’t have dermatitis or dandruff you should be using something that would be more natural and cleansing like those products that do not have harsh chemicals that will kill the good bacteria and fungus.” However, if you are dealing with a condition such as seborrheic dermatitis, dandruff, psoriasis, or something else, talk with your dermatologist to get a shampoo recommendation that can help you address the condition without completely stripping the scalp of good microbes.
You could also opt for a product like VENN Symbiotic Polyamine Shampoo ($58), which uses a combination of probiotics and prebiotics (known as “synbiotics”). Studies have shown this ingredient combo can help keep the scalp microbiome balanced, though Gaunitz notes that more research needs to be done to confirm its effectiveness. “We can apply beneficial, dominant microbes to the scalp (probiotics) together with their food source (prebiotics), so that these beneficial, dominant microbes overcome the negative microbes,” says Oh. “The prebiotics triggers the probiotics to release enzymes that convert proteins into amino acids, and fat into fatty acids with respect to the negative microbes and thereby eliminate them.”
The verdict? Keeping your scalp microbiome balanced, could be the key to getting rid of some of your most frustrating scalp concerns when shampoo and conditioner can’t get the job done on their own.
Want an up-close-and-personal view of what happens when your scalp gets out of whack? Check out the (totally disgusting, but very much worth it) video below.
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