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What does scalp serum actually do? Experts sound off on its benefits

Because your scalp deserves to be as happy — and healthy — as the rest of your skin.
TODAY Illustration/ Kara Birnbaum/ Amazon

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At the first sign of dry skin, we turn to a trusted moisturizer. Concealer acts as a quick fix for dark circles. We utilize hairspray to keep curls bouncy and long-lasting. There’s plenty of beauty products we consistently keep at an arm’s length for everyday emergencies, but a scalp serum should be included in the mix.

Along with a boost in overall self-care thanks to the pandemic, more individuals began to prioritize scalp health like they do their skin care regimen. Exfoliating with a scalp scrub has become a popular practice thanks to social media platforms like TikTok, but scalp serums have also started to gain some traction thanks to their unique properties and benefits. In fact, according to Google Trends, the product has seen an 80 percent increase in search interest in the last 12 months.

We talked to dermatologist Dr. Mitchell Mandel and certified trichologist Chasity Shipman to dive into the nourishing benefits of this buzzing product, including the potential to encourage hair growth and assist with keeping your skin happy and healthy.

What does scalp serum do?

While there are hair serums designed to reverse or prevent sun damage or assist with growth, utilizing a basic scalp serum each day (or every couple of days) has benefits that will show beyond the bird’s eye view.

“Scalp serums, just like base serums or body serums, help to rejuvenate the skin, clean the skin, nourish the skin and help in cell turnover and cell multiplication,” Mandel said.

They can also act as an effective solution for dry or oily scalps, featuring some of the same ingredients anti-dandruff or anti-inflammatory shampoos and conditioners have. However, this hair product isn’t recommended for everyone, according to Shipman.

“I definitely would not recommend [oil-based serums] to someone who has overactive sebaceous glands,” she said. “If someone has an overactive sebaceous gland, putting the serum on there would cause more of a problem because they don’t have a moisture issue. They have too much oil, so they want something on the opposite end of the spectrum. But someone who has dry scalp, it will be a major boost of moisture for them. If they suffer hair loss because of the dry scalp, it would keep the follicles in your hair strands more hydrated.”

What ingredients should you look for in a scalp serum?

Natural ingredients found in products we use each and every day on our skin such as apple cider vinegar, tea tree oil and aloe vera can be found in scalp serums, as well.

Each of the ingredients above serve a different purpose when it comes to hair, skin and scalp, which is why you can find them in most natural and organic skin care and hair care products. For example, apple cider vinegar works to balance your hair and scalp’s overall PH; tea tree oil helps to manage and prevent the buildup of chemicals on your scalp and within your hair; and aloe vera can help strengthen the hair and works to control greasy hair.

If you're aiming to mellow out an oily scalp, look for ingredients like charcoal (which pulls out drying toxins) and witch hazel (which contains antioxidants like tannins to dry out the skin).

On the other hand, when combatting a spell with a dry scalp, if there’s an oil, it’s most likely going to be in a serum, according to Mandel. Base oil ingredients such as avocado, Moroccan, rosemary and argan oils are more likely to be included in a serum’s formulation.

One ingredient that is “semi-unique” to hair care products, according to Mandel, and is commonly used in anti-dandruff products is zinc. (Zinc works to repair hair tissues and aid in their growth.) In addition, Mandel encourages scalp serum first-timers to choose a product with vitamin C, as it helps to produce elastin and collagen, which works to keep skin firm and durable.

What ingredients should you avoid in a scalp serum?

When shopping for the appropriate serum for your scalp, be aware of products that you have a sensitivity to, Mandel recommends.

“You want to be sulfate-free, preservative-free, or low preservatives, natural preservatives...you [also] want to stay away from the parabens,” Mandel said.

Chemicals such as parabens can alterthe hormone balance in one’s body, making them an ingredient to look out for. While found in small amounts naturally in unfiltered water, sulfates are also connected to a number of negative side effects including stripping hair of too much moisture and causing irritation.

When should you use a scalp serum?

Mandel has a few key pieces of advice for those wanting to start incorporating a scalp serum into their daily routine.

“Take an all-around approach,” Mandel said. “Most of the serums will do many things. For example, if you don’t have any hair loss, you don’t have dandruff, you don’t have a real big problem in any of those respects but you just want to nourish the scalp, help the scalp, there are so many different [serums].”

However, you are looking to target a specific problem such as dandruff, irritability, dry or oily skin, then you should seek out a serum that targets those problems rather than going with a basic nourishing serum.

While you don't have to throw out or replace any of your current hair care products, there are some steps in your routine that may need to be altered now that you have introduced a new product.

“It coincides with everything,” Mandel said. “I tend to tell patients, unless you absolutely need to use a hairspray or a hair gel on the days you’re using the serum, kind of stay away from that. Some people use their hair gels or hairsprays during the day, and I recommend using the serum in your hair before you go to sleep, and then washing your hair in the morning.”

At the end of the day, with any new product you are starting to use for the first time, it all comes down to trial and error, according to Mandel.

“What feels good on one person’s scalp might not feel good on another, and generally I tell [patients[ to start with a very light serum to go with because the heavy ones can clog the skin,” Mandel advised.

Top-rated scalp serums to shop

The Ordinary Multi-Peptide Serum

An affordable and basic option in the scalp serum realm, The Ordinary’s Multi-Peptide Serum boosts overall hair and scalp health, with goals of enriching hair so it looks thicker and fuller. While this is a relatively recent release, several shoppers on the brand's site with a variety of hair woes already swear by it.

Pattern Beauty Scalp Serum

Meant for “curlies, coilies and tight textures,” Pattern Beauty’s scalp serum for natural hair includes ingredients such as lavender, peppermint and rosemary oil that are known to soothe bothersome, dry scalps.

Bread Scalp Serum

Bread's scalp serum doesn’t need much convincing, as the product — and its various accolades — speaks for itself. With an easy-to-read list of ingredients, their standout stars are extracts of chinaberry, eucalyptol and mandelic acid, which all have anti-inflammatory, skin improving qualities.

Divi Scalp Serum

Divi's scalp serum is a highly-rated, lightweight option full of antioxidants and peptides, proving its superhero strength in helping your scalp. While most reviewers recommend using the product to assist with hair growth and prevent hair loss, other reviewers raved about how enhanced the texture of their hair was after use.

Sunday Riley Clean Rinse Clarifying Scalp Serum

Sunday Riley’s "clean rinse" serum works hard to cleanse the scalp and rid it of dead skin, product buildup, everyday pollutions and excess oils. In addition, this serum is jam-packed with trending AHAs and BHAs including glycolic and salicylic acids and niacinamide.

dpHUE ACV Daily Scalp Serum

Reviewers note that this scalp serum from dpHUE (a Shop TODAY reader fave!) has made them feel "cleaner and healthier" since starting use. Consider this serum a double whammy — working to encourage hair growth and moisturize yr oudry scalp.

Ouai Scalp Serum

Specifically designed to help hair grow into its best, voluminous version, according to the brand, this thinning hair scalp serum was created to help decrease shedding and soothe irritation. Peptides within the serum promote thicker hair, while red clover flower extract assists with the discomfort often brought on by styling.

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