It was bound to happen.
The so-called “skinification of haircare” — which brings active ingredients and product types from facial care to hair and scalp care routines and has grown in the past few years — is a concept, one that feels perfectly intuitive to a generation who came of age with the normalization of seven-to-seventeen step facial skin care routines and encyclopedic knowledge of ingredient lists. The approach has even proved pandemic-proof, with market research firm NPD Group showing that even as other sectors of the beauty industry stalled in 2020, hair treatments and masks captured top market share gains for the year.
So it’s little wonder that as the haircare landscape has exploded with more product types than ever, — including pre-shampoos and micellar washes for double cleansing, toning vinegar rinses, exfoliating salt scrubs and serums and masks for hair and scalp — so have our hair and scalp care routines.
But is building out elaborate scalp and haircare to mirror what we do for our faces really the no-brainer that it seems? Craig Ziering, M.D., a dermatologist, transplant surgeon, and hair restoration specialist who practices in New York, Connecticut, Las Vegas and California, signs off on the idea of bolstering scalp and haircare routines with a few key products because, “basic cleansing is not enough to guarantee optimal scalp health and environment for hair growth,” he says.
The dermatologist generally suggests adding a scalp scrub or a serum before or after cleansing to optimize care and cites well-known skin care ingredients to help do the job. His picks? Salicylic acid to reduce flakes; witch hazel and niacinamide to help manage oil production; tea tree oil and evening primrose to moisturize, soothe and calm; hyaluronic acid to prevent water loss and dehydration, among others. Zeiring himself has studied the scalp-supporting properties of colostrum, which is rich in proteins and lipids, humectants, proline-rich polypeptides and growth factors and FDA approved for topical usage.
It’s tempting to take these cues and run with it: if hyaluronic acid, salicylic acid and other banner skin care actives are purported to help hair and scalp health, then why not use other skin ingredients proven for facial care (like vitamin C or retinol) above the hairline, too? But no matter how versed we may be at calibrating a skin care session to meet a host of facial care needs (including dryness, acne and uneven tone), much of this knowledge doesn’t translate directly to scalp and haircare. That’s because there are key differences between the skin on our scalp and the skin on our face.
To start, the skin on our scalp is thicker, with an average of 100,000 follicles that are larger and of varying shapes. “Our scalp has a lower barrier function and is not actually as proficient in self-protection, since it’s [often] covered with hair,” says Dr. Ziering. “This and the potential for a dark, damp environment also invites a potential host of [skin issues] that differ in nature from other parts of the body.” Bacterial imbalances, flaking, itching, and irritation often manifest if skin on the scalp is thrown out of whack.
This also means using something like retinol or vitamin C (thought of as hero ingredients for facial care), can cause more harm than good when used on the scalp and hair. “You don’t want to be doing something that will potentially cause damage to the scalp and hair,” notes Corey L. Hartman, M.D., a dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Alabama School of Medicine. “For example, a retinoic acid or retinoid is going to help to normalize cell turnover but it could also strip your hair of oil and reach the cuticle to weaken the hair, which in turn can result in hair damage and breakage — and who wants that?”
Assembling an optimized scalp care routine isn’t just about landing on the right combination of active ingredients. It’s also about balancing the number of products we add to the mix, says Iris Rubin, M.D., a dermatologist who developed her own haircare line, Seen Hair Care using ingredients that don’t create buildup, and therefore, won’t clog the pores on the forehead, shoulders, back and other hair-adjacent skin.“Layering a lot of products can cause irritation and pose a real risk for hair health” she says. “It’s not that you need more products, it’s just that you need the right ones.”
Dr. Ziering backs this idea, adding, “Some of these extensive 10-step programs will not only have much impact or benefit, but they can also disrupt the delicate microbiome balance, cause inflammation and irritation, and create a less optimal environment for healthy hair growth.”
Since researchers have not made as much headway in learning about scalp and hair-related inflammation as with other parts of the body, it may be harder than we anticipate to bounce back from product-related irritation. As trichologist and scalp therapist Bridgette Hill notes, many hair follicles have their own unique DNA/RNA makeup, so it’s hard to pinpoint what a particular follicle may need versus another (something that largely accounts for the mystery of hair loss patterns and abnormal conditions).
There are other significant scientific unknowns, such as how the microbiome on our scalp differs from elsewhere on the body — and therefore, the best way to keep bacterias in balance. “We do not have all the necessary studies on the matter for a full range of data endpoints differentiating the scalp to face or body,” Dr. Ziering says. “However, there have been several abstracts on how our scalp with its larger, deeper more tubular follicles and the darker, often more moist surface may result in a significantly different variety of microorganisms with distinct immunology and defenses.” These scientific voids not only make it harder to declare which skin care actives will send the scalp’s microbiome out of whack, it can make it harder to nurse back to health.
“Sometimes, it’s about simplicity and not making a problem where there isn’t one,” Hill says. “I don’t think everyone needs to have an extreme regimen. I think we do need to think about hair care as more than using a shampoo and conditioner … But some people may not need to do anything at all. We have to be okay with recognizing bodies are naturally cleansing and healing and turning over.”
And therein lies the trick: how are we to know whether our scalp and hair can benefit from the increasing number of serums, scrubs and other supplementary care products that go beyond shampoo and conditioner or when it’s best left alone? To confuse matters even more, Hill notes that like with facial skin care, our scalp care needs are a moving target that shifts with changes to lifestyle and within the body, among other factors. “An optimal scalp care routine should be based on your hair type and texture, lifestyle, hormones and internal health, and scalp abnormalities — and that’s going to change at different times,” she says. “So we should be thinking about how to approach our scalp care from a standpoint of what our skin needs at certain times.”
It can be a lot to figure out, particularly for a swath of skin covered by hair. But here’s the good news: though we live in an era flooded with self-declared expertise, we don’t have to resort to guesswork to come up on #hairgoals. Hill suggests consulting with a professional before leaping into a self-styled scalp and hair care routine, just like we do with facial skin care. A reputable trichologist will assess cellular and tissue function by examining bloodwork and health records; use diagnostic tools like a capilliscope; and/or ask deep health questions pertaining to diet, stress levels, autoimmune and gut issues, menstrual cycles and more, she says. Dr. Ziering cosigns on a professional consult, saying, “A physician-approved approach to elevated scalp and hair health is ideal for ensuring that your hair care routine is not diminishing your scalp help or damaging your hair follicles.”
Ultimately, our instinct to treat scalp and haircare with as much attention as we do facial skin care is right, our pros say. But before adding every conceivable scalp and haircare product to cart, book an appointment with a scalp and hair professional for a customized approach — it may not only save you hundreds of dollars in unneeded products, but protect you from creating scalp dryness, flakiness and irritation, too.