Some beauty truths have traditionally gone largely — and confusingly —unacknowledged for years, even if they're nearly universal. One example? Healthy hair relies on a healthy scalp, and no number of fancy deep conditioners or diligent regular trims can do much good if there are issues at the literal roots that go unresolved.
Of course, scalps aren't among the sexiest of subjects, nor are the common gripes with which they tend to be associated: oiliness, flakiness, irritation, dryness, patchiness, build-up and so on. But the reality is that plenty of hair concerns, from thinning to curl pattern to moisture retention, can be solved with proper focus on caring for the skin of the scalp. It's only recently that a broad range of skin- and hair-care brands alike have begun to speak more directly about scalp care as a concept — and we're now seeing a boom in the category, with a wide variety of scalp serums and treatments that cater to a laundry list of concerns.
"Your scalp is skin and benefits from a similar routine to the skin on your face," Anabel Kingsley, brand president and consultant for Philip Kingsley, tells Fashionista. "Your scalp will give you signs if it's in need of extra TLC. Watch out for flakes, pimples and redness, and be tuned into how your scalp feels, or whether it's itchy or irritated."
While Kingsley advises anyone experiencing a painful or "very inflamed" scalp to visit a dermatologist for medical care, she also notes that certain milder concerns can be easily addressed at home with the right product arsenal.
For a flaky scalp, gentle exfoliation is crucial, says Kingsley: "I prescribe our Flaky Scalp Mask to my clients, which is formulated with exfoliating salicylic and lactic acid, as well as hydrating hyaluronic acid."
Dr. Barbara Sturm, founder of the popular eponymous skin-care brand, has recently turned her attention on the scalp, developing a range of products focused on preventing "hair fall" and promoting overall hair health. As with her approach to skin-care, Dr. Sturm's general scalp-care philosophy looks at things holistically.
"The key to healthy hair growth is using products that support the scalp's microbiome and do not attack it," she says. "The scalp's surface provides a distinct microenvironment for microbes called the scalp microbiome... which extends into the dermis to deliver nutrients essential for healthy hair growth. A balanced scalp microbiome can prevent specific inflammatory skin problems and help avoid altered cuticles, surface pitting, roughness, cuticle rigidity, breakage and hair follicle constriction. It can even influence the volume, shine and vitality."
The idea of the scalp microbiome is also crucial for Jules Miller, founder of The Nue Co., which also recently introduced its own topical and ingestible scalp-supporting supplements. "We tend to forget about scalps, yet our scalp health is integral to the quality of our hair. An unhealthy scalp can lead to hair loss, hair breakage and lack of hair growth," she tells Fashionista. "The scalp is home to a complex and delicate host of microbes. This forms your scalp microbiome; when healthy and diverse, this can act as a protective shield — however, when out of balance, its protection against environmental stressors like pollution is weakened, which can induce hair loss and scalp irritation."
Miller suggests incorporating products with probiotics, prebiotics and postbiotics into scalp care, which "will help to balance the scalp's microbiome, protect the scalp from external environmental aggressors, as well as help to improve scalp dryness and dandruff." She also points to rosemary and peppermint oil as more traditional ingredients found in scalp care, which are lauded for their circulation-boosting properties: "They stimulate blood flow to the scalp and to undernourished hair follicles, promoting hair growth and preventing hair loss."
On the topic of hair loss, it can be a somewhat elusive concern because it can have a variety of causes that can differ greatly from one person to another. "It's really important to know that hair loss can be a complex issue, especially for women, and often a holistic multi-pronged approach is needed," says Kingsley. "Treatment will also depend on the type of hair loss you have — sometimes serums won't play a role in treatment; in other instances, they will be essential."
Minoxidil, an over-the-counter drug found in Rogaine, is the only FDA-approved treatment for female pattern hair loss, but it's not effective for excessive daily hair shedding, says Kingsley: "At our Center in New York, we formulate bespoke scalp drops that we only prescribe after taking a full medical, family, dietary and hair care history, but non-medicated ingredients that can be helpful include zinc, azelaic acid, menthol derivatives, caffeine and saw-palmetto."
In the gallery below, we've rounded up a handful of our favorite scalp serums and treatments for a range of different hair types, skin types and concerns. Click through the gallery to see (and shop) them all — at every price point.
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