How To Do A Scalp Detox + 7 Signs You Need It
Your scalp is even more susceptible to product buildup than your face, given the presence of hair and all of the sticky products many people use daily. It only makes sense that you'll need to give it a good reset, aka, detox your scalp every once in a while.
All this term means: Deeply cleansing your scalp to get rid of buildup, and dead skin, and restore the scalp to a healthy state. There's more than one way to do it, so here's what the experts recommend.
6 signs you need a scalp detox.
Not sure you need this step? Here are a few signs it could be good for you:
You haven't washed your hair in a week.
If your hair hasn't been washed for seven (or more) days, then you could definitely use a detox, Trichologist and founder of Colour Collective Kerry Yates tells mbg. This may seem outlandish for some, but to others, seven days is a typical wash schedule.
When you skip cleansing for this long, you'll start to see and feel the buildup in your hair. This could be from oil, product, or dead skin. A typical shampoo will help, but you should go for a full reset with a detox treatment if it's been this long since your last cleanse.
You use a lot of heavy or silicone-based products.
Those with dry hair often gravitate toward heavy products in hopes they'll deliver more moisture than lightweight formulas. This could be true in some cases (like conditioner), but more often heavy products just lead to buildup.
Silicones are another common culprit, as they can build up on the scalp and the strands. Haircare products with silicones in them may help your hair feel soft temporarily, but in the end, they're not benefiting your hair.
You use dry shampoo often.
Not all dry shampoos are made to be tacky, but plenty of them are. If you're using one of these sticky aerosol products to ease the appearance of dirt and oil, keep in mind that it could lead to more buildup.
Even relatively natural, powder-style formulas can build up on the scalp with consistent use, which is why it’s best to only use dry shampoo when absolutely necessary and schedule a scalp detox wash if you know you've been overdoing it.
You're experiencing flakes.
If your scalp is flaky, it could be dry or you could have dandruff. They will look different, so you'll have to get up close to your flakes to see what's going on (can be cringy but necessary).
"Dandruff flakes tend to be large, individual scale-like flakes on the scalp or base of the hair," board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D., once told us about how to I.D. your flakes. As for dryness? Those flakes look similar to traditional dandruff flecks, just a bit smaller and more white (dandruff can look a bit yellowish, especially if you have large, oily scales).
A dry scalp can use the classic detox methods noted below. Those with dandruff, however, will want to look to dandruff shampoos specifically formulated for this condition.
You're experiencing shedding.
If you haven't been washing your hair much lately and start to see shedding, you may want to consider moving up your next cleanse. "Shampoo eradicates styling product deposits, environmental pollution, and dirt," dermatology nurse practitioner Jodi LoGerfo, DNP, tells mbg. This will allow the hair follicle to be cleared and ready to grow.
Your roots lack volume.
If your hair is lacking more volume than usual, especially at the root, then it may have trouble holding a style. Your hair will fall quicker than you're used to and look a bit flatter at the top. If this is the case, then you may be dealing with product buildup and thus, need a detox treatment.
Your scalp itches.
An itchy scalp is another sign that you may need a detox treatment, certified trichologist and founder of haircare brand Alodia Isfahan Chambers-Harris tells mbg. The itch could be caused by product buildup or dry skin, but a detox treatment will help restore your scalp in either instance. (For more information and remedies for an itchy scalp, read this.)
How to do a scalp detox.
If any of the above apply to you, then consider one of the following methods of scalp detoxing below:
Use a chemical exfoliator.
You know the AHAs and BHAs you use on the face? Ingredients like salicylic acid, glycolic acid, and the like all help to refresh the skin and slough off dead skin cells—which is why they're a great addition to scalp products as well.
For those with oil buildup, or if you find your hair is getting oily quicker than you'd like, look for salicylic acid, like The INKEY List Salicylic Acid Exfoliating Scalp Treatment. This ingredient is a beta-hydroxy acid that works to plunge into the pore, clearing out oil and dirt buildup.
For a dry scalp or itchy scalp, opt for something with AHAs like glycolic or mandelic acid as found in the Bread Beauty Supply Scalp-Serum: Cooling Greens Exfoliating Scalp Treatment. AHAs will help get rid of buildup in a gentle manner, perfect for those prone to sensitivity or a dry scalp. Each treatment will have unique directions, so follow the suggested steps closely to avoid irritation or overuse.
Best chemical exfoliant scalp products
The INKEY List
Salicylic Acid Exfoliating Scalp Treatment
Bread Beauty Supply
Scalp-Serum: Cooling Greens Exfoliating Scalp Treatment
Act + Acre
Cold Processed Scalp Renew
Use a scalp scrub.
Scalp scrubs are another way of exfoliating the scalp. You should be mindful when shopping for scalp scrubs and look for fine granules the size of sugar rather than large salt chunks—unless you have loads of product in your scalp (like hardened gel).
If your scalp is sensitive, look for thick, cream-based scalp scrubs like the Christophe Robin Hydrating Cream Scrub With Aloe Vera. These formulas will help slough off dead skin cells and protect your skin barrier at the same time.
Apply these scrubs once your hair is wet and before you shampoo. Gently massage the scrub onto your scalp with your fingertips (not your nails). You don't need loads of product, just enough to ensure each area of your scalp is touched by the scrub at some point.
Thoroughly (and we really mean that) rinse your hair before shampooing. Always follow up with a conditioner and consider adding a hydrating scalp serum to your hair after you get out of the shower to replenish moisture.
Best scalp scrub products
Papaya Scalp Scrub
Hydrating Cream Scrub With Aloe Vera
The Cleansing Scalp Scrub Shampoo
Try a scalp oil or serum.
Scalp serums can also have a detoxifying function, depending on what ingredients are inside. Products like the Vegamore GRO Scalp Detoxifying Serum contain seed oils, zinc, and caffeine to gently cleanse and stimulate the scalp without stripping your natural moisture barrier.
Or you can opt for the Carter+Jane ScalpFix, a healthier alternative to dry shampoo that will help regulate oil on the scalp, refresh the skin, and soothe irritation.
These products aren't as strong as a scalp scrub or chemical exfoliant, but they'll get the job done for those who need upkeep between more intense detox treatments. Plus, adding a bit of hydration to your scalp is never a bad idea.
Best detox scalp serums
Nighttime Scalp Serum
Carter + Jane
GRO Scalp Detoxifying Serum
Add a clarifying shampoo (optional).
Say your strands and your scalp feel tacky—in this case, you may want to add a clarifying shampoo to the mix. Certified trichologist Shab Caspara once told mbg that these products should be reserved for the hair, not the scalp.
Those with color-treated hair should be extra cautious when choosing a clarifying shampoo as some ingredients will strip the color right off—just look for "color-safe" on the bottle.
Apply this product to your strands while your chemical or physical scalp exfoliant is in and voilà—two jobs done at the same time.
Best clarifying shampoos
Innersense Organic Beauty
Detox Hair Mask (pre-shampoo treatment)
How often to use scalp detox products.
Each product is different, but in general, you should use a scalp detox product once or twice a month depending on how often your scalp craves it. This doesn't need to be a strict schedule, either. Simply listen to your scalp and deep cleanse it whenever you notice buildup or itch.
As for clarifying shampoos, you can stick with once a month as well. You'll know you should revisit this wash if your hair looks dull, tangles easily, or you feel actual sticky buildup on the strands.
Why scalp buildup happens.
As a refresher, this could be why you're experiencing so much buildup in the first place:
- You're using a sticky dry shampoo.
- You haven't washed your hair in a week.
- You're more prone to an oily scalp.
- You have dandruff.
- Your scalp is dry, which leads to flakes.
- Your products have silicones or heavy oils in them.
How can I detox my scalp naturally?
You can detox the scalp by using chemical exfoliant treatments with ingredients like salicylic and glycolic acid, or opt for a gentle scalp scrub.
Is it good to detox your scalp?
Yes, it’s a good idea to give your scalp a detox treatment every month. If you begin to see buildup or your scalp itches, then reach for detox serums or treatments with chemical exfoliants or use a scalp scrub.
How do I break up the buildup on my scalp?
Use a scalp scrub with fine granules that look more like sugar and less like salt. Or, you can use serums with chemical exfoliants in them like glycolic and salicylic acid.
Overusing products and skipping wash days can lead to scalp buildup. To clear out the residue and dry skin, opt for chemical exfoliant treatments or gentle scalp scrubs. If your strands feel sticky or tangle often, you may want to add a clarifying shampoo to your routine as well. For more tips on maintaining a healthy scalp, check out this breakdown.
Hannah Frye is the Assistant Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.S. in journalism and a minor in women’s, gender, and queer studies from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Hannah has written across lifestyle sections including health, wellness, sustainability, personal development, and more. She previously interned for Almost 30, a top-rated health and wellness podcast. In her current role, Hannah reports on the latest beauty trends, holistic skincare approaches, must-have makeup products, and inclusivity in the beauty industry. She currently lives in New York City.