Is Your Scalp Actually Healthy? Experts Explain How to Know For Sure

They get to the *root* of this question.

Woman looking at her scalp by sectioning her long black hair
Photo: Getty Images

When going about your skincare routine, do you ever stop and think about your scalp? After all, that's skin, too, just on your head. Have you wondered if it's healthy or not? While there are usually a few easy red flags that indicate your scalp needs some TLC (i.e. dandruff and pimples), it might be hard to determine exactly how healthy your scalp is when no major issues are showing up.

The good news is, there are many variations to having a healthy scalp — and it just depends on your skin type. And if you are experiencing any scalp issues, it usually means there's an imbalance occurring.

"Unhealthy scalp comes in many shapes and forms, just like for example, unhealthy skin does," certified trichologist and Rhyme and Reason expert circle member, Angela Onuoha, tells InStyle.

But how can you figure out exactly how healthy your scalp is, and why is it important to know this in the first place? We talked with a few trichologists to get to the root of this problem.

What Does It Mean to Have a Healthy Scalp?

According to Dr. Rachel Nazarian, a board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology, a healthy scalp is "one that feels good — no itch, no pain — and also one that looks good: no redness, no flaking or scaling. Healthy scalps are generally accompanied by healthy hair."

Many scalp conditions can be uncomfortable or make people self conscious, especially with flaking and scaling. But just like the skin on your face, you have different types of scalps (i.e. dry, normal, and oily). "Having, for example, an oily scalp doesn't have to mean that it is unhealthy, but it is something to keep an eye on," Onuoha explains.

Why Is It Important to Have a Healthy Scalp in the First Place?

Onuoha thinks of the scalp as the soil for healthy hair to grow. Like plants, if your hair has a healthy scalp (soil), then it has the right environment to thrive — and when it doesn't, it can be very difficult for your hair to look and feel its best. "'Poor soil' will affect the hair's condition long-term resulting in weaker hair that is more prone to damage or can even fall out," she explains. "A clean scalp promotes good cell turnover, and that promotes healthy hair and optimal hair growth."

How Can I Get a Healthy Scalp?

Remember: Your scalp is part of your skin, says head of product development at Hairstory, Jackie Gilbert Bauer. So you should think of it as the foundation for promoting healthy hair, which means taking care of it the right way and "feeding" it what it needs to thrive. "When I was struggling with scalp psoriasis, I knew that something was disturbing my scalp's ecosystem; it was throwing it out of balance and that imbalance was having an effect on my hair," Gilbert Bauer explains. "I saw more breakage than usual, it was dryer, growth seemed stunted, and it was all because of what I was using on my scalp; it wasn't what my ecosystem needed to thrive."

Aside from making sure your scalp is receiving enough nutrients and vitamins, Gilbert Bauer says try not to strip your scalp of its natural oils. "You are depriving the follicles from getting what they need to thrive," she says. "I know that oil is a scary word when it comes to hair; however, you need some natural oils to give the hair what it needs to grow and remain hydrated and radiant."

What Are the Signs of an Unhealthy Scalp?

"I think an unhealthy scalp can be characterized by dryness, itching, flaking, sometimes discharge, and excessive build-up," says Gilbert Bauer. "This then can lead to unhealthy hair, and in some cases, hair loss." And one of the reasons why your hair may become unhealthy is because your scalp goes through a lot (i.e. build-up from products, sweat, outside radicals, and dead skin cells), which can cause an imbalance to occur.

"The first sign that most people tend to notice is flaking or dryness," says Gilbert Bauer. "And, this can be caused by a variety of things including climate or nutritional changes, stress, and the products we use."

According to Nazarian, in terms of how often to wash for healthy hair, this is highly variable based on the type and texture of your hair. 

How Can I Fix an Unhealthy Scalp?

Depending on the issue, there are many ingredients that can help an unhealthy scalp. Nazarian recommends ketoconazole and pyrithione zinc for flaking and itchiness, such as with conditions like seborrheic dermatitis and hyaluronic acid for dry scalp. "Dermatologists can recommend many topical solutions that can be placed on the scalp to decrease itch or irritation. Sometimes the scalp condition is temporary, and limited to once-in-a-while, but many scalp conditions can be chronic and repeatedly flare," she says. However, some scalp conditions, such as psoriasis, seborrheic, dermatitis, or other inflammatory conditions, may require oral medications or other prescription options if topical ointments do not treat the issue.

If your scalp is going through a tough time, Onuoha says one of the ways you can treat an unhealthy scalp is by simply changing your haircare products, routine, or if more severe, changing your diet or medical treatments. However, if you believe you are dealing with something that is a little abnormal, Onuoha suggests seeing a board-certified trichologist.

But before you head to the doctor, Gilbert Bauer suggests looking at the cleanser you're using.

"The number one thing to note when it comes to your cleanser is to make sure it's detergent-free," she explains. "Detergents are found in all shampoos and are super harsh cleaners that strip, irritate and throw the scalp's ecosystem out of balance."

Best Products to Help With Scalp Health

Maintaining a healthy scalp and hair follicles can be a delicate balance. If someone has dry hair, but leads an active lifestyle, they may be forced to wash their hair more regularly than is healthy for their hair type, says Nazarian. Remember to use all tools available to keep your hair in its best shape: deep conditioners are available to repair and replete hydration if you need to wash more than you like. "Likewise, deeper cleansing shampoos are available to ensure effective washing if you produce more oil or wish to wash less often. There are even dry shampoos that can be used infrequently and allow you to clean the scalp without drying out strands too aggressively," adds Nazarian. Below, she shares her favorite products to help maintain a healthy scalp.

"Neutrogena T/Sal Therapeutic Shampoo is one of my favorites, and contains salicylic acid to minimize scalp build-up and clean effectively," Nazarian says. "It’s a great option for people who suffer with dandruff or seborrheic dermatitis."

Nazarian also recommends SheaMoisture's Aloe Butter Scalp Moisture Cream, for dry scalp because "it's formulated with vitamin B3 and aloe butter and is an easy way to direct moisturization to the scalp."

And for people who have scalp itch, Nazarian says the pyrithione zinc in Dove Dermacare Dryness & Itch Relief Shampoo is "combined with shea butter and coconut oil to address itch, but also hydrate and address dryness, making it a great multitasking product."

If you're looking for a cleaner option, Native's Coconut and Vanilla Moisturizing Shampoo is vegan and is sulfate-, paraben- and silicone-free. "It's hydrating and cleanses well, but is suitable for sensitive skin," says Nazarian.

Regardless of your hair type, scalp condition, and lifestyle, there’s the right combination out there. Just remember: you know your skin best, so examine what is going on with your hair and speak to your board-certified dermatologist or a hair expert if you’re having a hard time finding your balance.

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