The Lowdown On Scalp Scrub Shampoos

Add them to your lineup, stat.

by Kelsey Stewart
Your guide to scalp scrub shampoos and how they can benefit your hair care routine.
Getty Images/ We Are

Sure, your dry scalp might not be a particularly hot topic of discussion among your close-knit circle in comparison to the rest of your hair woes (see: how to combat frizziness, lack of shine, split ends). But that doesn’t mean it’s any less important. On the contrary, a well-kept scalp is the foundation of healthy hair, which is why exfoliation is a necessary piece of the puzzle — and also why scalp scrub shampoos have been cropping up on the shelves.

Before diving into the product category, it’s important to reiterate why exfoliating your scalp, in general, is crucial. According to Dr. Hadley King, M.D., a dermatologist based in New York City, you want to remove residue from styling products. “This can be particularly helpful for users of lots of styling products, and for those with a flaky or a particularly oily or acne-prone scalp,” she explains. Just as exfoliating the skin on your face helps keep your pores unclogged, scrubbing your scalp prevents buildup from blocking your hair follicles — and this is key for healthy growth and shine.

Although your scalp naturally sheds dead skin cells and replaces them with new ones, King says exfoliating can expedite the process. And this can be done using either physical or chemical exfoliants (just like with your face). Scalp scrub shampoos fall into the physical category — keep reading for intel on how they can upgrade your hair care routine.

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What Is A Scalp Scrub Shampoo?

Scalp scrubs are pretty standard in the hair care aisles — so how does a scalp scrub shampoo differ? Basically, Martine Langsam, IAT, WTS, a certified trichologist, says it’s like using a face scrub compared to a face cleanser. “Your face cleanser is going to be more gentle, but the scrub is going to remove a lot of dead skin and debris that can be a problem for the skin,” she explains. In this case, Langsam says a scalp scrub shampoo is a bit more diluted than your regular scalp scrub, and these newer shampoo formulas have created a more lathering effect.

What does that mean for your routine? Essentially, the allure of a scalp scrub shampoo is that it gives you a one-two punch: It washes your hair as it exfoliates your scalp, all in one step. “They’re easier to use than scalp scrubs because the shampoo and exfoliant are combined,” says Langsam. These multitaskers are also more gentle than a scalp scrub, she explains. So if you have sensitive skin or don’t like the abrasion a scrub gives you, a shampoo would be a good alternative.

How Do You Use It?

You’ll use a scalp scrub shampoo like a regular shampoo: Wash, lather, and rinse. When you’re using one, it replaces your traditional shampoo, says Dr. Malini Fowler, M.D., FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist. “These products are massaged into the scalp and roots with your fingertips or a scalp brush, then worked into a lather throughout the hair like regular shampoo, and then followed by conditioner after rinsing,” adds Dr. Jessie Cheung, M.D, a Chicago-based board-certified dermatologist. Just make sure to thoroughly rinse to prevent further buildup, Fowler cautions.

Cheung says these products can be used weekly, though you can use them more frequently if you’re sweating or regularly using heavy styling products. Langsam echoes that once a week is a good rule of thumb and can help with everything from product buildup to mild dandruff. “If you don’t have either of those, however, once every two weeks should be fine to keep a healthy scalp,” she tells Bustle. “If you have seborrheic dermatitis or heavy plaque yellow dandruff, you can use it twice a week.” Overusing a scalp exfoliant can lead to unwanted woes (similar to facial exfoliation) — think dryness and irritation, says Fowler, so avoid everyday use.

One thing to note: Cheung recommends those with curly hair textures find a scrub shampoo that won’t overly dry out the scalp. “Look for hydrators in the formula such as botanical oils, or gentle exfoliators such as fruit enzymes instead of salicylic acid and glycolic acid,” she explains. “Charcoal is also a gentle, non-irritating scalp detoxifier that removes oil.”

While they’re still fairly new to the beauty world, below are five scalp scrub shampoos that are leading the pack.

Shop Scalp Scrub Shampoos

For Flaky Scalps

Langsam recommends this shampoo from Briogeo, which uses microcrystalline cellulose to exfoliate. “A cellulose is a naturally occurring substance that almost feels like a plastic,” she explains. “It has some texture to it, but a little give as well.” It’s also infused with tea tree oil, which Langsam notes is an anti-fungal — so it’s particularly helpful if you’ve got flakes.

For A Stronger Scrub

Besides sea salt, the star exfoliant, this scrub shampoo is formulated with essential oils like linalool and limonene, which Langsam says stimulate circulation, help calm the scalp, and remove buildup. Her pro tip? Sea salt can be damaging to the hair, so rinse it off after a few seconds.

An Invigorating Treatment

R+Co’s Submarine is made with bilberry extract to calm the scalp, fermented radish root to improve circulation, and tomato extract, an ingredient that can help promote healthy hair growth. The romantic smell, Dark Waves, might be enough to sell you on this shampoo.

For A Sensitive Scalp

For those looking for a gentle scrub, meet La Labo’s Scrub Shampoo. The cooling menthol effect it brings is great for those dealing with scalp irritation and is also known to promote growth. Plus, the plant-based formula is infused with ingredients like black sea salt and olive, grapeseed, and jojoba oils, the latter two Cheung recommends in a scalp health-boosting product.

For A Hair Refresher

Made with California sea salt and tea tree oil (two ingredients Langsam recommends), Playa’s scrub shampoo works to exfoliate while also restoring your scalp’s natural oil balance. After using, your hair will feel lighter and more invigorated.

Studies referenced:

Choi, J-S. (2014). Effects of Lycopersicon esculentum extract on hair growth and alopecia prevention. Journal of Cosmetic Science. 64(6):429-43

Detchanamurthy S. (2018). Studies on the Addition of Activated Charcoal in Herbal Shampoo. Chem Technol Ind J. 13(1):119

Lee, B. H. (2016). Hair Growth-Promoting Effects of Lavender Oil in C57BL/6 Mice. Toxicological Research.

Li, J. (2015). Identification of didecyldimethylammonium salts and salicylic acid as antimicrobial compounds in commercial fermented radish kimchi. J Agric Food Chem.

Oh, J. (2014). Peppermint Oil Promotes Hair Growth without Toxic Signs. Toxicol Res.


Dr. Hadley King, M.D., a dermatologist based in New York City

Martine Langsam, IAT, WTS, a certified trichologist

Dr. Malini Fowler, M.D., FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist

Dr. Jessie Cheung, M.D, a Chicago-based board-certified dermatologist