Why You Should Exfoliate Your Scalp, According to Experts

Plus, the right way to do it.

The key to healthy hair is a healthy scalp. Think of your scalp as an extension of your skincare routine. It requires all of the same steps your skin needs to appear healthy and radiant, such as cleansing, moisturizing, and the occasional exfoliation. Exfoliating your skin removes any dirt, oil, and debris that may be wreaking havoc on your complexion's appearance. Scalp exfoliation works the same way. However, if you're new to exfoliating this area, it can be a little tricky to navigate.

There's a lot to consider, such as your hair type, scalp concerns (such as dryness, dandruff, or acne), and the type of product you'll need. Scalp exfoliation is a buzzy topic in the beauty industry, so there's no shortage of formulas available. From scrubs, tools, and even chemical formulas that promise to dissolve any flakes, you're sure to find something that works best for you and your concerns. We spoke with two trichologists to learn how to exfoliate the scalp and its benefits.

woman with itchy scalp
Getty Images

Scalp Exfoliation Basics

Gretchen Friese, a certified trichologist for BosleyMD, says scalp exfoliation is the process of cleansing the scalp to rid it of dry, flaky skin, product build-up, and debris. You can exfoliate the scalp physically by using a tool, like a scalp massager, or scrub with granules to help buff away any dead surface skin cells that contribute to feelings of itchiness, tightness, and excess oil production. Alternatively, you can use a chemical exfoliant formulated with active ingredients, such as glycolic or salicylic acid, to lift away any dirt, dead skin surface skin cells, or debris. One of our favorite shampoos, ORIBE Serene Scalp Anti-Dandruff Shampoo, uses salicylic acid as an exfoliant to slough off dead skin cells.


"Scalp exfoliation helps to create a healthy environment for the hair to grow by cleaning out anything that might be clogging or blocking the follicles," explains Friese. It also helps to remove buildup caused by products and helps with oiliness, dryness, or flaky scalp issues.

Penny James, a certified trichologist at Penny James Salon, says exfoliating the scalp massages the area, too. This not only feels great, but also helps loosen tight muscles, release stress, and promote healthy hair growth.

Proper Exfoliation Technique

The first step to scalp exfoliation is choosing your method. "A physical exfoliant will require scrubbing action and is easy to do in the shower," says Friese. After shampooing, apply a scalp scrub evenly all over your head, and gently massage it in before rinsing and following up with conditioner.

You can also use a tool, like a wet brush, says James. When doing so, she recommends applying the product to your scalp and using the tool to massage the formula into your head. "This is a great way to distribute the product all over and give your scalp a wonderful massage," she says. After you rinse out the formula, follow up with a conditioner.

Chemical exfoliants work a bit differently: After applying them all over your scalp, they need to sit for five to 10 minutes before you wash them out with shampoo and conditioner. If you have some extra time, try this method to see if it works better for you and your scalp. When in doubt, always read the directions on the product packaging for the recommended application method.

How often should you exfoliate? According to Friese, that will depend on the person, but a good rule of thumb is to start with once a week and increase to twice a week if you have oiliness, dryness, dandruff, or flakes. You can also bump it up to twice a week if you use a lot of hair products or get sweaty at the gym. Be careful not to over-exfoliate your scalp, though, as it can cause irritation, itchiness, or worsen pre-existing scalp conditions.

Was this page helpful?
Real Simple is committed to using high-quality, reputable sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts in our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we fact check our content for accuracy.
  1. Koyama T, Kobayashi K, Hama T, Murakami K, Ogawa R. Standardized scalp massage results in increased hair thickness by inducing stretching forces to dermal papilla cells in the subcutaneous tissueEplasty. 2016;16:e8

Related Articles