A Trichologist Discusses the Root Causes of An Unhealthy Scalp (And How to Combat It)

scalp health
photo by paulynn/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Repeat after me: healthy hair starts with a healthy scalp. This is just one of the many things Dr. Kari Williams, licensed cosmetologist, board-certified trichologist and member of DevaCurl’s Expert Curl Councilemphasizes with her clients and colleagues on a daily basis. Here, she's sharing the root causes of an unhealthy scalp, products to avoid, how to gently broach scalp health with a client and much more. 

First and foremost, what defines an unhealthy scalp?

An unhealthy scalp is characterized by dryness, flaking, itching or excessive build up. The hair may break easily, fall out or the texture of the hair may change.

YOUR WEEKLY NEWSLETTER - FREE

Enjoying this story? Subscribe to the American Salon Newsletter

Get inspirational trends, techniques, tips, education and the latest beauty news delivered right to your inbox! To read on the go, sign up today to get weekly beauty news and updates.

What steps can a client take to ensure a healthy scalp at home? 

Clients should cleanse their scalp regularly. Shampooing the hair is an important part of hygiene, and part of the shampoo process should include: applying shampoo directly to the scalp and using the pads of the fingers to gently lift and remove dirt and build up from the scalp. Clients often forget that the scalp is an extension of the skin, and the same care we give the rest of our body, we should also give to our scalp. So additional healthy scalp practices should include massaging the scalp to increase blood circulation, limiting the use of chemicals on the scalp, using products that are hydrating to help keep the scalp moisturized and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. 

Relating scalp care to skincare, how can clients incorporate scalp care into their daily wellness routines? 

On a daily basis, the easiest thing clients can do for scalp health is to gently massage the scalp regularly to maintain healthy blood circulation and deliver nutrients to hair follicles that will promote hair growth. Additionally, focus on activities that promote overall health and well-being such as boosting nutrient intake with supplements, exercising, drinking lots of water and eating lots of healthy foods.

Are there certain products to avoid on the scalp? Certain must-haves?

Avoid products that contain mineral oil, parabens, formaldehyde, alcohol and sodium hydroxide. Always read the ingredient label and make note of any ingredients that you may have sensitivity to, like sulfates and fragrances. Be mindful of products that cause build up and leave residue on the hair. A lot of scalp conditions result from dirt and build up on the scalp. Products that contain humectants like glycerine and aloe vera are definite must-haves. Additionally, products that contain oils like jojoba, argan, coconut, and olive oil are great to help keep the scalp hydrated and lubricated. Vitamin E and B5 are also great to help keep the scalp healthy and have anti-inflammatory properties.

Which scalp conditions are caused by internal vs. external factors and how do you advise clients to address them? 

Scalp conditions can be caused by a number of internal and external factors, so it’s difficult to classify them. Dry scalp and dandruff can typically be related to external factors like climate changes, product changes or changes to a hair care regimen, but may also be connected to dietary changes and stress. When clients are experiencing any changes in their scalp health, I like to do a full assessment of lifestyle and hair care regimens making note of any changes within six months of the client experiencing any scalp discomfort or hair loss. Factors like stress, medications, dietary changes or hormonal fluctuations can create a delay in the onset of symptoms in the scalp. So some clients can mistake the use of a new product they’ve been using for a couple of weeks as the cause of a scalp condition, when ongoing stress or deciding to become vegetarian three months prior is the real culprit.

Recommendations for clients on how to address their scalp condition will vary based on the cause. Sometimes it’s as simple as incorporating a medicated shampoo into the hair care regimen for a month to relieve symptoms, and sometimes I recommend they consult with a Dermatologist for further medical analysis or a prescription.

How can a hairstylist gently approach the topic of scalp health with a client? 

I like to remind hairstylists that they are their client’s personal hair expert. The client trusts their leadership and guidance when it comes to their hair health. So when it’s time to talk about scalp health, a hairstylist should rely on their experience and training to give them the confidence they need to talk to their clients; keeping in mind that the information they share is beneficial for the overall health of their clients’ hair and scalp.

One way to help guide the conversation about scalp health is to have a couple of questions listed on a consultation form such as: Are you currently experiencing any discomfort in your scalp? Do you experience any itching, flaking or dryness in the scalp? Have you experienced any hair loss or thinning? These types of questions will give a hairstylist much needed information about the current health of their client’s scalp and create an opportunity to discuss causes and recommendations in more detail.