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The 2 things everyone should be doing for a healthier scalp, according to experts

Just like your skin, your scalp needs attention too.
Vivian Le / TODAY

We spend a fair amount of time taking care of the skin on our face, which makes sense because it's one of the first things that we see when we look at ourselves in the mirror. Our scalps, on the other hand, which are hidden underneath strands of hair, tend to get a whole lot less love.

But the truth is, the area deserves some TLC. Especially because maintaining a healthy scalp environment is key to growing healthy hair. Dr. Ranella Hirsch, a board-certified dermatologist in Boston, says she tells patients to think of it like a garden. "If you want to grow healthy flowers and vegetables, [you] need to tend to the surrounding ground and soil."

So how exactly do you tend to the area? We tapped three experts to get all the information on how to create a scalp care routine.

How should you care for your scalp? | How should you clean your scalp? | How to protect your scalp from the sun | Shop scalp oils and serums | Shop shampoos | Shop scalp sunscreens | How we chose our products | Meet our experts

How should you care for your scalp?

Unsurprisingly, the way that you should go about caring for your scalp isn't all that different from your skin care routine.

"Overall, they actually should be treated very similarly," says Dr. Christine Shaver, a board-certified dermatologist at the Bernstein Medical Center for Hair Restoration in New York City. "The scalp skin is just skin, like any other location."

While a lot has been said about scalp care, and there are an almost overwhelming number of products on the market now that promise to help you do that, when it comes to caring for your scalp, from a medical standpoint, Shaver says there are really only two vitally important things that you need to be doing: cleaning and protecting it from the sun.

If you're not taking these steps, the experts say that it can lead to things like sun damage, buildup, fungal overgrowth and more.

How should you clean your scalp?

So, let's start with the first step, cleaning. If you're new to scalp care, the easiest place to start is by creating a ritual out of something that you likely already do. "I think shampooing is an easy way to make a connection to [your] scalp. And reimagining what shampooing means for you individually is important. It's a great place to begin as a ritual, first and foremost," certified trichologist Bridgette Hill says.

To start, she recommends beginning with a scalp oil or serum that caters to your scalp type or potential conditions, as a way to treat and protect the skin barrier. In order to do this, you want to first identify your scalp type. While an expert, like a dermatologist, trichologist or stylist can help you do this, it's also decently easy to identify the signs yourself. If you notice your hair gets greasy quickly after a wash, you likely have an oilier scalp, whereas if you notice irritation or redness, it could be due to a dry scalp. While this pre-shampoo treatment isn't necessary for those who have normal scalps, it still can be a helpful preventative measure, Hill says.

With any targeted treatments, one mistake that people make is using products for things like acne or dandruff all over their scalp when the issue is only in a specific area. "Make sure that you're spot-treating," Hill says. "Do not treat your entire scalp for a condition that's not over your entire scalp. It should be addressed in a concentrated, direct way."

If you have the time in your process, she adds that you can even apply your shampoo on your dry dirty hair after your oil or serum to give it time to work. When you're applying the shampoo, Hill suggests sectioning the hair or using a bottle with a nozzle to ensure that you are getting the formula onto your scalp, before massaging it in, rinsing, doing a double cleanse (if needed) and following with conditioner.

How often you should be washing your hair depends on the person, but experts previously told us that you should typically leave between two to three days between washes. "If you are someone that only shampoos once a week, every shampoo should be that way," Hill says. "And if you are a frequent shampooer, try to give that to yourself at least in one of your shampoos."

How to protect your scalp from the sun

The other key factor is keeping your scalp protected from sun damage. "You can get skin cancers on the head and neck, just like you can elsewhere on the body," Shaver says. "So, absolutely, the number one most important [thing] is protecting your scalp from the sun."

Wearing a hat (especially one with UPF+ protection) can help. Though they're not appropriate for every occasion, so your first line of defense should be sunscreen.

"The most important thing is to apply it to the right regions," Shaver says. "So along the part for women is the most essential area or at the frontal hairline. Those are the areas that often have the most sun exposure directly. For men who are balding, you may need to apply across the whole top of the scalp. I would say a lot of men also don't know that their crown at the back of the head is thinning when their front looks very thick and full, so you have to know what regions on your scalp are actually hit by direct sunlight."

You want to follow the same rules as you do for your body or face, using a sunscreen that offers both UVA and UVB protection, is SPF 30 or higher (ideally higher) and applying it prior to sun exposure, Shaver says.

Now, there are plenty of options made specifically for your scalp. But when it comes to choosing the right one, the most important thing is that you "pick one that you like, and stick to it and use it," Shaver says.

With all of that guidance in mind, we rounded up some top-rated scalp oils, shampoos and SPF formulas that you can add to your scalp care routine.

Scalp oils and serums

Mielle Organics Rosemary Mint Scalp & Hair Strengthening Oil


Key ingredients: Rosemary oil, castor oil, jojoba oil | Size: 2 ounces

This customer-favorite oil blends biotin and other essential oils and nutrients, including rosemary oil, to help increase circulation, combat dandruff and strengthen and lengthen hair, the brand says. The bestseller is designed to be used on both the scalp and strands.

NatureLab Tokyo Perfect Clean Scalp Balancing Sake Rinse


Key ingredients: Ginseng root, apple cider vinegar, rice ferment, castor oil | Size: 6.7 ounces

Commerce partnerships associate Klay Drageset says that she's "obsessed" with this rinse from NatureLab Tokyo. "It feels a little tingly and cooling on your scalp so it feels like it's working."

The Ordinary Multi-Peptide Hair Serum

Key ingredients: Glycerin, caffeine, tripeptides, glycine | Size: 60ml

This Shop TODAY Beauty Award winning multi-peptide serum not only fixed one editor's hairline and breakage, but also she says that she felt relief from an itchy scalp. According to the brand, the serum is formulated with tri-peptides and glycerin to offer hydration and a healthy scalp environment to stimulate hair growth.

Straand The Crown Fix Prebiotic Scalp Serum

Key ingredients: Glycerin, lactic acid | Size: 1.76 ounces

Associate editor Shannon Garlin says she is plagued with a dry and itchy scalp during the winter months and likes using this prebiotic scalp serum for instant relief. The brand says the star ingredients are lactic acid and glycerin that can help combat irritation, dryness and more.

"I started using this serum recently and it's really helped calm any itchiness. The dropper applicator makes it easy to target certain areas, so you don't have to apply it to your whole scalp if you don't want to," says Garlin.

JVN Pre-Wash Scalp Oil & Hair Treatment Oil


Key ingredients: Rosemary extract, tumeric extract| Size: 1.7 ounces

Made to be used 10 to 15 minutes before your wash, this oil is said to promote healthy circulation, reduce inflammation and help remove product buildup. According to the brand, it can be used by anyone, even those with dry, itchy scalps.

Briogeo Scalp Revival Rosemary Pre-Wash Scalp and Hair Oil

Key ingredients: Rosemary oil, castor oil, tea tree oil | Size: 3.4 ounces

One Shop TODAY writer says this rosemary scalp oil has helped her oily scalp look "less flakey," without leaving any residue or greasy feeling. The brand says it contains rosemary oil, castor oil and biotin, which San Miguel wrote that it left her dry ends instantly quenched.

Sunday Riley Clean Rinse Clarifying Scalp Treatment Serum


Key ingredients: Glycolic acid, salicylic acid | Size: 4 ounces

Struggle with buildup, oil or scalp flakiness? This clarifying serum promises to help clear away all those things to leave your scalp feeling cleaner and healthier. It combines glycolic acid and salicylic acids (yes, you can use those on your scalp, too!) along with vitamins and oils.

DpHue ACV Exfoliating Scalp Detox


Key ingredients: Glycerin, niacinamide | Size: 4 ounces

SEO senior editor Jess Bender is a fan of this formula from DpHue. It features ingredients like apple cider vinegar and salicylic acid, which the brand says helps exfoliate the scalp and remove product build-up to promote healthy hair growth.

"I’ve heard about all the beauty benefits tied to apple cider vinegar, but I never used the ingredient for my hair care routine until I came across this scalp product," Bender says. "While the initial benefits were immediately noticeable on my oily scalp I didn’t see any signs of hair growth until about three months of usage. I have some bare patches on my head on account of over-itching, but I’m starting to feel [and] see some bits of new hair coming in!"

Moroccanoil Dry Scalp Treatment


Key ingredients: Argan oil, salicylic acid, vitamin E | Size: 1.5 ounces

Commerce partnerships coordinator Sydney Weber says that she loves this scalp treatment from Moroccanoil. According to the brand, it's designed to be applied five to 10 minutes before shampooing to help soothe dryness and gently exfoliate your scalp.

Shampoos

L'Oréal EverPure Sulfate Free Clarifying Shampoo

Key ingredients: Salicylic acid, Glycine | Size: 6.8 ounces

This clarifying shampoo is the newest addition to L'Oreal's Ever Pure collection. According to the brand, it contains glycine and vitamin C, to help remove buildup, especially if you're exposed to hard water.

Nexxus Ultralight Smooth Shampoo


Key ingredients: White flower jasmine, almond protein | Size: 13.5 ounces

This formula was named the best shampoo for frizz-prone hair during the 2023 Shop TODAY Beauty Awards. Perfect for summer (it's said to keep hair smooth for up to 72 hours), one editor who tried the product said that she "instantly saw the difference in how [her hair] felt after the first use."

R+Co Dallas Biotin Thickening Shampoo


Key ingredients: Biotin, coconut oil, pro vitamin b5 | Size: 8.5 ounces

Another Shop TODAY Beauty Award winner, this shampoo is made for those with fine or thin hair. "I love that my hair genuinely feels smooth after each wash — something that doesn’t often happen," Shop TODAY editor Vivien Moon says. "My hair is thin and gets oily fast so any product that’s too heavy instantly shows on my hair (yes, this has happened with shampoo too) and this shampoo is not only a quality product but something I know I will repurchase."

Redken Detox Hair Cleansing Cream Clarifying Shampoo


Key ingredients: Salicylic acid, lemon peel extract | Size: 8.5 ounces

For a deeper clean, experts recommend opting for a clarifying shampoo, which can help further remove product residue or substances found in hard water. This one from Redken previously came recommended to us by hair stylist Adam Reed.

Scalp sunscreen

Not Your Mother's Beach Babe Sunscreen Scalp and Hair Mist

Key ingredients: Sunscreen SPF 30 | Size: 2 ounces

If you've ever experienced a painful burnt hairline or part, you're in luck, this SPF mist will provide UVA and UVB protection for both your hair and scalp, says the brand. "I have wanted something for my hair and particularly my part when I am in the sun for long periods of time. This spray works fantastic and is super easy to apply without any residue or buildup," wrote one Ulta reviewer.

Sun Bum Original SPF 30 Sunscreen Scalp and Hair Mist


Key ingredients: Sunscreen SPF 30 | Size: 2 ounces

Hate the idea of putting a dollop of liquid sunscreen on your scalp? Try this mist, which is designed to be lightweight, fast-drying and non-greasy, to keep you protected without weighing your hair down.

Coola Organic Scalp Spray & Hair Sunscreen Mist


Key ingredients: Sunscreen SPF 30, algae extract, glycerin | Size: 2 ounces

Another favorite of Bender's is this pick from Coola, which is another mist option that's made especially for your scalp and hair. According to the brand, it's water-resistant for up to 80 minutes and can even help prevent UV-related color fade.

"I tried out a few products with varying degrees of dissatisfaction until I came across this sunscreen mist last summer. It applies easily, stays intact even when I’m outside during longer stretches and it smells great," says Bender.

Supergoop! Poof 100% Mineral Part Powder


Supergoop! is best known for its face SPF options, but it also makes a sunscreen specifically for your scalp. It goes on as a powder and can be seamlessly blended into your scalp with your fingertips, without leaving behind any greasy residue, the brand says.

How we chose the best products for scalp care

We selected the best products for scalp care based on interviews with top dermatologists' and trichologist, and recommendations from Shop TODAY editors and staffers. Other scalp care product picks are sourced through verified shopper reviews.

Meet our experts

  • Dr. Ranella Hirsch, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist in Boston.
  • Dr. Christine Shaver, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist at the Bernstein Medical Center for Hair Restoration in New York City.
  • Bridgette Hill is a certified trichologist and scalp therapist.