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Scalp scrubs are very different from shampoos — removing dirt, buildup and oil from your head that shampoos can't handle, they help create what board-certified dermatologist Jessie Cheung, MD, calls “an optimal environment for healthy hair.” Similar to face and body scrubs, you’ll find scalp scrubs in one of three forms: physical, chemical or a combination of the two. Despite their differences, you apply a scalp scrub just like shampoo — you can also grab a scalp brush to massage the scrub onto your head.
They’re designed to help people with a flaky or oily scalp, infrequently shampoo or sweat often. Limiting how often you scrub is essential: Using it more than twice a week might cause inflammation, said board-certified dermatologist Marisa Garshick, MD. If you’re especially concerned about excessive scrubbing — or simply don’t get the results you want at home — your best move is consulting a board-certified dermatologist. Regardless, you should follow up with a deep conditioner to rehydrate your hair, Garshick recommended.
To help you find the right scalp scrub for your hair, we asked dermatologists what you should know about chemical and physical scrubs — and got some expert recommendations.
SKIP AHEAD Best scalp scrubs
Chemical scrubs vs physical scrubs
We asked doctors about the differences between physical and chemical scalp scrubs, what they’re made from and how they work.
- Physical scrubs, also called mechanical exfoliators, use sugar, charcoal, salt or nut granules to help buff dead skin cells and oil on the surface of your scalp. Chemical scalp scrubs utilize alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) such as lactic and glycolic acids or beta-hydroxy acids like salicylic acid to help dissolve gunk on your scalp.
- Some brands make hybrid scalp scrubs that combine the granules found in physical exfoliators with chemicals that can dissolve debris.
There are no functional differences between physical and chemical scrubs — Garshick recommended physical exfoliators, but only based on whether you like the feeling of a scrub. Physical scrubs, however, can be abrasive if you apply too much pressure, noted Cheung, who advised using a chemical scalp scrub, adding that chemical scrubs "penetrate deeper into the skin" to help slough off impurities. If you have sensitive skin, Cheung recommended chemical scalp scrubs with low concentrations of fruit acids as a "safe" starting point.
Best scalp scrubs, according to experts
Beyond shopping for scalp scrubs at popular beauty retailers — Sephora, Dermstore and Ulta — you can order scalp scrubs directly from brands like Virtue Labs, Ouai and Nature Lab Tokyo. To help guide your search for scalp scrubs, we asked experts for their product recommendations, all of them available at reputable retailers like Nordstrom, Walmart and Target.
Best scalp scrub overall: Briogeo
As its name suggests, Briogeo's scalp scrub is made with charcoal, which removes impurities from the scalp and coconut oil which moisturizes your strands, highlighted hair stylist Courtney Foster. Shopping contributor Rebecca Rodriguez is also a fan of the brand’s scalp scrub and Hydration Scalp Mask to relieve her dry, itchy scalp. This scrub boasts a 4-star average rating from nearly 2,280 reviews at Sephora.
Best affordable scalp scrub: L'Oréal
Garshick recommended L'Oréal's color-safe scalp scrub for those who want to "help control excessive flaking." This "gentle formula" utilizes apricot seed to remove product buildup and "soothing" menthol. The L'Oréal scalp scrub garnered a 4.5-star average rating from more than 1,230 reviews on Amazon.
Best clean scalp scrub: Drunk Elephant
This scalp scrub earned the Clean at Sephora seal of approval, meaning it is free of 50 ingredients like parabens and mineral oils. Both Garshick and Cheung recommended this option because it combines chemical exfoliators (AHAs and BHAs) and physical exfoliators ("gentle and biodegradable" exfoliating beads) with soothing marula and mongongo oils. It received a 4.4-star average rating from nearly 200 reviews on Amazon.
Best scalp scrub for curly hair: Ouidad
If you have curly hair, you'd benefit from using a moisturizing and gentle scalp scrub free of dehydrating salicylic acid, advised Cheung. She noted Ouidad’s salicylic acid-free scrub bubbles into a foam “for easy penetration through thick hair” while “gentle” pineapple enzymes unclogs hair follicles and charcoal removes oil. Ouidad's Heavy Lifting Bubbling Scalp Mask earned a 4.5-star average rating from 30 reviews at Ouidad.
Best color-safe scalp scrub: dpHUE
Foster is a fan of this "deep cleansing" scalp scrub because it is made with apple cider vinegar to help detox the scalp and pink Himalayan sea salt. There’s also soothing aloe vera extract and moisturizing avocado oil. dpHUE claims its scalp scrub boasts a color-safe formula and is free of parabens, sulfates and gluten. It earned a 4.3-star average rating from more than 190 reviews at Ulta.
Best splurge: Kérastase
Jojoba beads gently exfoliate the scalp while madecassoside (sometimes called tiger grass or centella asiatica) calms itching, noted Foster. It also contains hydrating vitamin B5 and smells like sweet orange peel, she added. This scalp scrub garnered a 4.2-star average rating from more than 70 reviews at Sephora.