What is a Scalp Detox and Do I Actually Need One?

Lately we’ve been seeing a lot of products that claim to “detox” your scalp, which got us thinking: What exactly is a scalp detox and how does affect the health of our hair?

“Healthy hair starts with a healthy scalp, because it gives your hair the best possible foundation from which to grow,” explains Diane Stevens, a hairstylist and owner of Cole Stevens Salon in Maryland. “A scalp detox is essentially a deep cleanse of your scalp to free the follicles of any debris and rebalance the pH of the skin to create a better environment for healthy hair,” she adds.

Just as you want to exfoliate the skin on your face from time to time, you also want to show the same care to the skin on your head (aka your scalp).

“When there is inflammation in the scalp it can cause hair to shed. Perhaps the most common cause of scalp inflammation is seborrheic dermatitis (dandruff) which is typically due to an overgrowth of yeast on the scalp,” explains Blair Murphy-Rose, MD, FAAD, and a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. “The yeast thrives in an oily environment so keeping your scalp clean and free of product buildup can reduce scalp inflammation, therefore reducing the risk of associated hair shedding. Aside from that, clearing away buildup can make your hair more manageable and restore its luster,” she adds.

OK, so put simply, what is a scalp detox?

Both Stevens and Murphy-Rose define a scalp detox as “a deep cleanse of your scalp.”

Its primary function is to “reduce any residue leftover from hair products, pollution, hard water, oils and dead skin cells, which is achieved by using treatments that exfoliate and remove the ‘gunk’ thereby unclogging your hair follicles,” says Murphy-Rose.

Again, this is important because having clear follicles creates a better environment for healthy hair to come in.

What are some signs you might need a scalp detox?

“Buildup and debris can cause flaking and itching, which may be signs that a deeper clean is in order,” says Murphy-Rose. “Also, if your hair has started to feel waxy or doesn’t seem to be responding as well to your regular hair washing routine, it may mean it’s time for a detox.”

How do you detox your scalp?

“There are many ingredients that can help clean your scalp and they work best when used in combination with each other,” advises Murphy-Rose. Some common ingredients that are used in scalp cleansing treatments include:

  • Surfactants, which bind to debris and allow them to be washed away.
  • Chelating agents, which remove hard water buildup on your hair.
  • Activated charcoal or clay, which absorb excess oils.
  • Physical exfoliators (i.e. scrubs), which rid the scalp of old skin cells.

Murphy-Rose recommends using a clarifying or exfoliating shampoo and doing a double-cleanse. “Wet your hair before working a quarter-sized amount of clarifying shampoo into the scalp to create a lather.” Take care to really massage the shampoo in using the pads of your fingertips. “People tend to focus on shampooing their hair instead of focusing their attention to the scalp, which is where any buildup tends to sit.”

Rinse out the suds, then repeat, but this time leave the shampoo on for a few minutes before rinsing. Condition your mid-lengths and ends and rinse with cool water to help seal off the hair cuticles.

How often should you detox your scalp?

“For optimal scalp health, I recommend doing a scalp detox every four to six weeks,” says Stevens. For some people, you might find that you require a deeper clean one to two times a month. Again, if you notice more flaking, itching or weighing down of your hair, you’ll know when it’s time.

As Murphy-Rose explains, “The frequency at which you might need a scalp detox depends on a few factors that will differ from person to person like how frequently you wash your hair, how oily your scalp is, whether you live in an area with high levels of pollution and how much hair product (if any) you typically use.”

Are there any precautions to consider for detoxing your scalp?

“Some of the ingredients that detox your scalp can be irritating and overly drying—especially if you have sensitive skin,” cautions Murphy-Rose. “Salicylic acid, for example, is a great ingredient for exfoliating the scalp but may be too harsh for some. The first time you try a new product, do a patch test on a small area of skin prior to using it all over your scalp.”

“Don’t do a scalp detox on the same day you dye your hair,” says Stevens. It can strip the dye from your strands. Stevens also advises that you don’t wear a hairstyle that creates too much tension on your scalp (i.e., a tight bun, high ponytail or braids) the day you do a detox.

What are some natural ingredients that are good for detoxing your scalp?

“Peppermint oil, tea tree oil, rosemary oil, castor oil are natural ingredients that can help cleanse and balance your scalp,” shares Stevens. “But remember to use these oils within the 24 hours prior to shampooing, as you don’t want to leave them on your scalp any longer.”

Other natural ingredients that can help cleanse the scalp include:

  • Apple cider vinegar, which has anti-inflammatory properties and has been shown to balance the pH of your skin and help with any irritation caused by dandruff.
  • Aloe vera, which also has anti-inflammatory properties, as well as proteolytic enzymes that clear old skin cells and promote healing.
  • Bentonite clay, which binds to oils, heavy metals and impurities on your scalp and hair so they can be rinsed out more easily.

What are some salon treatments for detoxing your scalp?

You can go into a Nioxin salon for a Dermabrasion treatment, which is like a chemical peel for the scalp,” says Stevens. “It removes dead skin cells on a deeper level with the help and supervision of a professional stylist,” she adds.

What are the best scalp scrubs or products to buy?

In addition to clarifying shampoos, there are many different scalp scrubs and treatments that are available, which we’ll walk you through now.

1. Ouai Detox Shampoo

Murphy-Rose likes this detox shampoo because it contains apple cider vinegar to clarify your scalp plus keratin to help strengthen your hair.

2. Living Proof Perfect Hair Day™ Triple Detox Shampoo

“This shampoo is a clean product that’s safe for chemically-treated hair and it even comes with a hard water test strip,” shares Murphy-Rose.

3. Nioxin Scalp Relief System Kit

“This kit is great for people who have a sensitive and flaky scalp. It contains aloe to soothe,” says Stevens. The three-part system includes a shampoo, conditioner (that you use on both the scalp and lengths of your hair) and a leave-in serum.

4. Briogeo Scalp Revival Charcoal + Coconut Oil Micro-exfoliating Scalp Scrub Shampoo

Detoxifying charcoal and hydrating coconut oil work together to remove buildup without drying out the scalp. Add to that a trifecta of peppermint, spearmint and tea tree oils to help soothe any itchiness and irritation (and clear any annoying dandruff that comes with it).

5. Dphue Apple Cider Vinegar Scalp Scrub With Pink Himalayan Sea Salt

If you’ve ever tried an apple cider vinegar rinse, this scrub is sort of like that, but you won’t smell like salad dressing for the rest of the day. It’s formulated with ACV to clarify and balance the scalp pH and sea salt to gently exfoliate and remove any buildup that’s sitting on the surface. (Rest assured, it won’t strip out color in the process.)

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Beauty Director

Jenny Jin is PureWow’s Beauty Director and is currently based in Los Angeles. Since beginning her journalism career at Real Simple magazine, she has become a human encyclopedia of...