A Healthy Scalp Is the Key to Gorgeous Hair—A Nutritionist And a Skincare Expert Share How to Care For Yours

Clarify from the inside out.

By Caitlin Clark
curly hair, scalp care, getting ready

For far too long, our scalps have been overlooked. It’s an out of sight, out of mind situation that’s certainly understandable. But despite about 100,000 hair follicles, the skin on our scalp should really be treated as an extension of our face. Thankfully, some of the beauty industry’s best brands are starting to create innovative products that keep our scalps (and our hair) healthy—from oils and exfoliating scrubs to soothing serums. And, of course, the best shampoos for a dry scalp.

It’s a move that was surprisingly long in the making. Studies have shown that a healthy scalp leads to better hair growth and stronger, shinier locks. And dry, flaky scalps are incredibly common, especially in the winter. Simply put, scalp care is hair care. “What I love about scalp health is its ability to heal and rejuvenate when you pay attention to it,” Natanel Bigger, founder and CEO of Monpure, told us previously. “It’s amazing how good scalp skin and hair can transform how a person looks and feels.”

There are all kinds of sources and stressors that might lead to an irritated scalp. From anxiety or cold weather to a lack of fatty acids in our diet, a dry situation up top could lead to frustrating follicle damage. We tapped our resident nutritionist, Edie Horstman and Emilie Holt, founder of California skincare company Lather, for a deep dive into how to keep scalps happy and healthy from the inside out. After that, get ready to dig into the best shampoos for a clarifying clean.

Featured image by Chanel Dror.

woman in nature by riley reed_best shampoos for dry scalp
Image by Riley Reed

First Thing’s First: What Are the Signs of an Unhealthy Scalp?

While the severity of the situation may vary, there are a few surefire signs that the skin on your scalp is in need of a little TLC.

  • Dryness
  • Irritation
  • Redness
  • Itching
  • Aging
  • Accumulation of dandruff and scale
  • An unpleasant odor
  • Hair loss

What Causes a Dry or Irritated Scalp?

As mentioned above, there are plenty of factors that can cause our scalps to become unbalanced. First, we’ll address the external factors…

Cold Weather. “A lot of people tend to suffer from a drier scalp during harsh winter months, so it’s important to both exfoliate and nourish your scalp with non-toxic ingredients,” Holt shares. For scalp exfoliation, you’ll want to apply the same rule of thumb you use with skincare—if your skin is naturally dry, avoid over-stripping its essential nutrients with harsh scrubs.

Color and Chemical Treatments. Since these naturally cause scalp irritation, Holt stresses avoiding shampoos with additional sulfates that might further strip the scalp. 

Now for internal factors…

Our Diets. “Typically, a dry scalp is caused by not getting enough essential fatty acids,” explains Horstman. “We need to consume adequate amounts of dietary fat to help it absorb fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K). Not getting enough healthy fats—nor these essential vitamins—can cause a dry scalp. In other words, it’s two-fold: We need to be eating enough omega-3 fatty acid-rich foods and make sure we don’t have vitamin deficiencies. In terms of vitamins, specifically, low levels of B Vitamins and zinc are correlated with scalp issues.”

Stress. “Stress has a harmful effect on everything in your body, so your hair and scalp are no different,” Holt says. “Stress can increase hormones in the body that can cause everything from itchy scalp to hair loss or thinning.”  

What Ingredients Should We Have in Our Diets to Improve Scalp Health?

Horstman shares her favorite foods that pack key, healthy-scalp ingredients:

For omega-3 fatty acids:

  • Wild-Caught Salmon (“Any fatty fish, like sardines, is also great,” Horstman adds.)
  • Ground Flaxseeds
  • Chia Seeds
  • Raw Pumpkin Seeds
  • Raw Walnuts

For a healthy dose of B Vitamins, Horstman suggests:

  • Leafy Greens
  • Eggs
  • Oysters
  • Legumes
  • Pasture-Raised Beef
  • Wild-Caught Salmon

For zinc:

  • Oysters
  • Beans
  • Avocados
  • Pumpkin Seeds
  • Pine Nuts
  • Cashews
  • Pecans

“Getting enough protein is really important too,” Horstman adds. “After all, hair is made of protein!” As for what ingredients to avoid to prevent scalp irritation, Horstman warns against most pro-inflammatory foods, such as sugar, vegetable oils, and grains stripped of their fiber. “Too much alcohol can also lead to an itchy, dry scalp as it reduces the amount of zinc in your body,” she shares. “And zinc is fundamental to a healthy scalp and hair growth.”

What Ingredients Do the Best Shampoos for Dry Scalps Have in Common?

For Holt, it’s not so much what to look for, but what to steer clear of. “Avoid sulfates, synthetic fragrances, and parabens,” the wellness entrepreneur explains. “These chemicals can do more harm than good and tend to add more dryness to your scalp.”

tousled hair, brown hair, healthy shiny_shampoos for healthy hair
Image by Rachel Shuttleworth

The Best Shampoos for Dry Scalps

Stocked with ingredients that nourish, soothe, and gently exfoliate, these scalp-first products get right to the root of it.

Christophe Robin Hydrating Shampoo with Aloe Vera for Dehydrated Hair

Hero Ingredient: Aloe vera

Why It Works: Soothing and strengthening aloe vera is gentle enough to treat the scalp as often as you need.

Christophe Robin Hydrating Shampoo With Aloe Vera for Dehydrated Hair, $34

Act+Acre Cold Processed Hair Cleanse

Hero Ingredient: Apple amino acids

Why It Works: Horstman, a Colorado dweller who deals with dry conditions, swears by this innovative product for gentle exfoliation and pure, clarifying hydration.

Act+Acre Cold Processed Hair Cleanse, $28

Dove DermaCare Scalp Anti Dandruff Shampoo

Hero Ingredient: Pyrithione zinc

Why It Works: As mentioned above, zinc is vital to a healthy scalp and hair growth. It’s also highly effective against dandruff and general skin irritation.

Dove DermaCare Scalp Anti Dandruff Shampoo, $9.99

Briogeo Scalp Revival Charcoal + Coconut Oil Micro-Exfoliating Shampoo

Hero Ingredients: Binchotan charcoal and coconut oil

Why It Works: This hardworking product draws out any impurities with charcoal while nourishing the scalp for a well-balanced cleanse. A touch of peppermint tops things off with a pleasant cooling effect.

Briogeo Scalp Revival Charcoal + Coconut Oil Micro-Exfoliating Shampoo, $42

R+Co Acid Wash Cleansing Rinse

Hero Ingredients: Apple fruit extract and aloe vera leaf juice

Why It Works: The apple fruit extract acts as a natural exfoliant to slough off dry skin, while aloe vera soothes and strengthens strands.

R+Co Acid Wash Cleansing Rinse, $30

Briogeo Be Gentle Be Kind Aloe Oat Milk Ultra Soothing Shampoo

Hero Ingredients: Aloe vera and oat milk

Why It Works: With the potent power of anti-inflammatory aloe and oats (rich in omega-6 fatty acids), this soothing, fragrance-free shampoo will get you back to healthy, stat.

Briogeo Be Gentle Be Kind Aloe Oat Milk Ultra Soothing Shampoo, $26

Oribe Serene Scalp Anti-Dandruff Shampoo

Hero Ingredient: Salicylic acid

Why It Works: More than just a pretty bottle, this purifying shampoo features 2% salicylic acid, a tried-and-true ingredient when it comes to gentle sloughing.

Oribe Serene Scalp Anti-Dandruff Shampoo, $46

Biolage All-In-One Shampoo & Body Scrub

Hero Ingredient: Colloidal oatmeal

Why It Works: Turns out, oatmeal is as beneficial for your skin and scalp health as it is for your diet. The gentle exfoliator also detoxifies for ultra-soothing results.

Biolage All-In-One Shampoo & Body Scrub, $24

TPH by TARAJI Master Cleanse Scalp Treatment Wash

Hero Ingredient: Witch hazel water

Why It Works: Packed with nourishing ingredients, this treatment works on all hair types, including weaves, wigs, and extensions. The applicator also helps you target the product directly to your scalp.

TPH by TARAJI Master Cleanse Scalp Treatment Wash, $14.99

Hairstory New Wash Rich

Hero Ingredient: Cetyl alcohol

Why It Works: I’m a big believer in Hairstory. I’ve been using it for almost five years, and while it hasn’t completely replaced shampoo and conditioner for me, it’s a great sulfate-free option to use on days when my hair isn’t too dirty, but just needs to feel healthy and balanced. (Be sure to double cleanse!) For dry hair and scalps, the brand makes a “rich” version of their cult-favorite product.

Hairstory New Wash Rich, $40

Virtue Recovery Shampoo

Hero Ingredient: Grapefruit extract

Why It Works: In addition to its nourishing ingredients, this restorative shampoo features grapefruit extract, which is loaded with Vitamin C and antioxidants to revitalize the scalp.

Virtue Recovery Shampoo, $40

Shu Uemura Urban Moisture Shampoo

Hero Ingredients: Moringa extract and red micro-algae extract

Why It Works: In Shu Uemura we trust. This particular product targets pollutants that can cause dryness while stimulating cell regeneration with red micro-algae extract.

SHU UEMURA Urban Moisture Shampoo, $49

Goop G.Tox Himalayan Salt Scalp Scrub Shampoo

Hero Ingredient: Himalayan pink salt

Why It Works: This rosy scrub sits pretty on your shower shelf, but the sulfate-free, salt-rich shampoo lathers into a mouse-like foam and works hard to exfoliate and cleanse impurities. It also works beautifully with all hair types.

goop G.Tox Himalayan Salt Scalp Scrub Shampoo, $42

Kevin Murphy Scalp Spa Wash

Hero Ingredient: Coconut oil

Why It Works: While celery root extract and micellar water work to cleanse the scalp, coconut oil moisturizes the hair and scalp for top-to-bottom hydration.

Kevin Murphy Scalp Spa Wash, $32.91

Sisley-Paris Soothing Rebalancing Shampoo

Hero Ingredient: Cotton proteins and provitamin B5

Why It Works: Though not exactly cost-effective, I can attest to how gentle and balancing this luxurious, sulfate-free shampoo is. Bonus points for lasting forever.

Sisley-Paris Soothing Rebalancing Shampoo, $83

Kimberly Snyder morning routine_best shampoos for dry scalp
Image by Michelle Nash

Last But Not Least, How Often Should We Wash Our Hair?

The eternal question, and an impossible one to answer definitively. But we’ll settle for a rule of thumb. “Most of the time, every three days is the sweet spot,” Holt shares.

Do you experience dry scalp? Share which foods and products you can’t wait to bring into your routine!