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Irritated, greasy or dry scalp? How to find out what's going on underneath your locks

Step 1: understanding your scalp. Step 2: finding the right products to treat it.
Maya Chisem / EyeEm / Getty Images

Let's get to the root of our hair problems — the scalp. Tons of products out there seem to target oily and dry hair, but most stray away from figuring out what's going on underneath. Scalp care is at the top of 2022's hottest beauty trends list — Cosmompolitan's beauty director even stopped by to chat about it. So why is the scalp so hard to understand and target?

Shop TODAY spoke with dermatologist Dr. Angela Lamb about how to determine your scalp type and what you need to take care of it.

What determines your scalp type?

Lamb clarified that there aren't necessarily scalp "types," but rather characteristics of your scalp that depend on how much sebum the scalp produces. "Sebum is a natural oil and protectant for your skin," explained Lamb. "How fast and how much you produce dictates how oily [or not] your scalp will be."

People who produce a lot of sebum will have a more oily scalp — they tend to have greasier locks and may feel like they need to wash their hair one to two days after the last wash, explained Lamb. On the other hand, those who don't produce a lot of sebum will have a drier scalp. "When they wash their hair, the scalp may feel irritated or tight," said Lamb.

She also noted that having a dry scalp is different than dandruff, explaining that, "[dandruff] is an allergic reaction to a natural yeast that lives on the scalp's surface," whereas a dry and itchy scalp doesn't necessarily warrant flaking.

If you don't fall in either of those categories, Lamb would describe your sebum production as "just right." Those with normal scalp types still produce sebum, but not an excessive amount resulting in greasy hair or an underwhelming amount causing dryness.

How to nourish your scalp

Lamb said that those with dry scalps are going to want to look for products with more emollients in them or a hydrating treatment that's applied directly to the area. Those with greasier scalps, on the other hand, will need to look for shampoos, conditioners and treatments that target oily hair and scalps. Besides nourishing the roots, those with high sebum production can wash their hair more frequently to remove excess oil, while those who have less can spread out washes a bit more, advised Lamb. When shampooing or using other scalp-related products, make sure to really focus on massaging your scalp and not your hair. This will help target the root of the problem that we discussed earlier.

There are tons of great hair products on the market that can treat your scalp based on its characteristics. However, Lamb warned that a lot of products are targeted towards hair types instead of scalp types, so we put in extra work to find you options specifically based on these three levels of sebum production.

Depending on where you fall, we've found the best products catering to every kind of scalp type, based on Lamb's guidance and passionate shopper reviews.

Products for oily scalp types

dpHUE Apple Cider Vinegar Scalp Scrub

Apple cider vinegar has a bounty of beauty benefits, especially for your scalp. When Lamb mentioned dpHUE's scalp scrub as a great option for those with greasy scalps, we knew it was going to be a soothing winner. It not only exfoliates and demolishes buildup, it even works for dry or normal scalp types, too.

Sunday Riley Clean Rinse Clarifying Scalp Serum

Glycolic acid, salicylic acid, niacinamide, rose clay and jasmine essential oil team up to create this exfoliating and buildup-busting hair serum. It can be used several times a week, depending on how much oil your scalp gathers.

Moroccanoil Oily Scalp Treatment

Tons of Sephora shoppers touched on how this Moroccanoil treatment greatly improved their oily scalp and extended the days between necessary washes. We can thank ginger root oil that helps regulate oil production, plus argan oil and biotin peptide complex that work together to promote healthy hair follicle growth, for those satisfying results.

Products for dry scalp types

Derma E Scalp Relief Treatment

This after-wash treatment is water-based and best suited for those with dry scalps. Blue algae, sea kelp extract and alma oil work as moisturizing elements, while tea tree oil brings a healing, cleansing component to your scalp.

JVN Complete Pre-Wash Scalp Oil

Since this pre-wash scalp oil is designed to be used once a week (or whenever you feel like your scalp could use a boost), it's sure to last you a while. Bisabolol calms the scalp and hemisqualene smoothes your actual hair.

Mizani Scalp Care Calming Dry Scalp Lotion

Remember that itchy, tight feeling Lamb described? This lotion is perfect if you're experiencing those symptoms. Avocado oil and eucalyptus soothe your scalp, while aloe vera reduces itchiness and dandruff.

Living Proof Scalp Care Dry Scalp Treatment

This is a leave-in treatment that tackles itchy, flaking and irritated scalp. A hyaluronic acid base offers hydration and comfort, as the Vitamin-B3-based microbiome complex supports the benign microorganisms on your scalp to prolong the relief.

Act+Acre Scalp Detox

Baobab and basil leaf are anti-inflammatory plants included in this scalp detox — they soothe your skin while encouraging and protecting a natural moisture balance. To use: simply apply to your dry scalp before washing, massage and let sit for 20 minutes. This pick also works for those with a normal scalp.

Products for normal scalp types

Davines The Purity Circle Scalp Mask

Hair masks are a beauty must-have, but have you heard of scalp masks? You can use this option from Davines before or after showering to detoxify your scalp.

Prose Custom Shampoo

If there's one way to ensure a product will work for you, it's to make sure it was made for you. Maintain your balanced sebum production with a custom shampoo from Prose. This sulfate-free shampoo will keep your scalp in check.

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