Your Scalp Would Like Some Attention, Please

A new wave of serums and exfoliators highlight the importance of creating a good foundation for healthy hair.

Article by Megan Bradley

15-TMAG-SCALP-ATTENTIONClockwise from top left: René Furterer Complexe 5 Stimulating Plant Concentrate, $50,; Dr. Barbara Sturm Balancing Scalp Serum, $100,; The Nue Co. Supa Thick, $45,; Augustinus Bader The Scalp Treatment, $80,; Innersense Organic Beauty True Enlightenment Scalp Scrub, $42,; Verb Ghost Exfoliating Scalp Nectar, $20, Photography by Mari Maeda and Yuji Oboshi.

Hair is a powerful marker of identity, and its loss is almost always charged with intense emotion. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that scalp-focused remedies — of both the moderately effective and snake oil varieties — have been around for millenniums. Ancient Egyptian women would rub a mixture of castor and almond oil into their scalps in the hopes of promoting hair growth. Likewise, Ayurvedic practitioners in India have long prescribed massaging the head with oil, a practice that British colonists eventually brought back to England. Harking back to these treatments, a new crop of products — featuring some technological advancements and updated ingredients — has emerged, with an eye toward if not restoring lost locks, then at least supporting growth by affording the scalp the same care and attention we give to the rest of our skin.

Since the pandemic began, Michele Green, a cosmetic dermatologist based in New York, says she’s seen a marked uptick in the number of patients coming to see her for hair loss. And in many cases, she has had difficulty differentiating between classic baldness patterns and stress-related shedding, something she attributes to the pressures of the moment. “My patients don’t feel back to their normal selves,” Green says. “Because the pandemic hasn’t ended, it’s a never-ending stress that’s affecting people.” Covid infection can directly contribute to hair loss, says Penny James, a trichologist based in New York, through fever, which causes the hair follicle to shift from its growing (anagen) state to its resting (telogen) state. This change, called acute telogen effluvium, can cause the loss of “from 500 to 1,000 hairs per day,” James says, rather than the typical 100. Outside of infection, greater levels of the stress hormone cortisol can also result in hair shedding.

A personal experience of Covid-related hair loss inspired Jules Miller, the founder of the wellness brand the Nue Co., to develop the company’s Supa Thick Scalp Serum ($45). “I was struck by how much of an emotional impact it had on me,” Miller says of the hair thinning she noticed. “Coming from a Colombian family, our hair is intrinsically tied to our identity and how we present ourselves to the world.” The serum, which she began to develop shortly after recovering, incorporates pre- and probiotics with the goal of restoring the microbiome — the balance of life-forms on the skin’s surface that contribute to its health — as well as a patented technological complex called Redensyl that aims to stimulate the anagen phase of hair growth. “Hair loss is an issue that affects so many women at different points in their lives,” Miller says, “and my hope is that we’re much more open about it in the future.”

Thinking about the scalp as skin also informed Dr. Barbara Sturm’s new Molecular Scalp Collection, which the eponymous founder and chief executive of the brand spent nearly two years fine-tuning. Sturm began with her Scalp Serum ($35), a hydrating treatment to boost overall scalp health. “The scalp is an extension of our skin,” she says, “but we often don’t give it the same attention as our faces and bodies.” Each product in the collection is formulated with a particular scalp problem in mind: the Balancing Scalp Serum ($100) is intended to reduce irritation and hydrates with lavender extract, the Super Anti-Aging Scalp Serum ($100) contains sand oat seed extract to smooth brittle texture, and the Anti-Hair Fall Scalp Serum ($100) nourishes follicles with Japanese camellia. Augustinus Bader’s The Scalp Treatment ($80), meanwhile, delivers vitamins including zinc, magnesium and B5 to revitalise the skin. And looking back to the oil-centric origins of scalp care, René Furterer’s popular Complexe 5 Stimulating Plant Concentrate ($54) aims to improve circulation with orange and lavender essential oils.

Keenan Beasley, a onetime college athlete, founded his hair-care brand, Sunday II Sunday, with consumers with active lifestyles and textured hair in mind. Because those with textured hair tend to wash it less frequently — the shape of the hair follicle means that oil distributes less evenly and the scalp is typically drier — Beasley’s company aims to bridge the gap between washes with products like the peppermint-infused Soothe Me Daily Scalp Serum ($28), which offers relief for stressed scalps. And Beasley has recently noticed an expansion in his customer base: “We’re seeing straighter-haired women adopt a lot of the behaviours of textured-hair women through their self-care routines,” he says, “especially washing less frequently.”

Exfoliation can also be beneficial for the scalp, James says, because “just like our face, the skin on our scalp ages over time.” Products like Verb’s Ghost Exfoliating Scalp Nectar ($20) clear blocked hair follicles with exfoliating acids — AHAs and PHAs — and Innersense Beauty’s True Enlightenment Scalp Scrub ($42) features Hawaiian red salt as a physical exfoliant. While many scalp products haven’t been studied by dermatologists, any soothing ritual, Green suggests, should help alleviate at least one cause of hair loss: stress. Taking time for a calming head massage, for instance, “allows us to slow down,” she says, “at least for a moment.”