Sometimes after an especially sweaty workout, my brain and body feel great, but my hair looks like it was dragged through a slice of pepperoni pizza. Then, in the cold winter months, when my dry scalp gets itchy and flaky, it gets a nice sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. Is this visual super gross? Or do you want pizza?
But seriously, washing my hair after a workout isn't always feasible (hello, 8 a.m. class right before work), and there's only so much I can reasonably expect dry shampoo to do. On a mission to get to the (literal) root of the problem, I decided to ask the experts for their advice on keeping my sweaty scalp happy.
What actually happens to my hair when I work out?
When you work out, you sweat (I know, I did a ton of research to come to that conclusion, huh?). But while sweat is a good thing for the body, Dendy Engelman, M.D., of Medical Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery in Manhattan, says it can lead to less than awesome skin conditions, including scalp acne.
"Generally speaking, our bodies like to be balanced (we call it homeostasis). When we sweat, it's our body's way of regulating the changes that threw it off balance. Sweat isn't bad for the body; in fact, it's necessary! But sitting in sweaty hair traps bacteria against the scalp."
If that has you thinking you should wash your hair the second you finish your cool-down, hold tight: You may actually be washing your hair too much after working out, which can cause your scalp to swing from dry to greasy.
"Detergents and water weaken your outer hair layer's ability to function by reducing components of the natural oil in your skin," says Sandy Skotnicki, M.D., dermatologist and best-selling author of Beyond Soap. "This is why we use conditioner—to replace what detergents remove. I suggest dry shampoo between washing or using a detergent-free shampoo, called a co-wash."
OK, so wash less: check. What else for this itchy, flaky scalp?
Scalps are pretty easy to forget about because you can't see them, sort of like the hiatus my pedicures take in the winter (anyone in my yoga class can attest). But if your scalp is suffering from an endless cycle of sweat and shampoo, it'll be sure to let you know in the form of itchy, flaky skin on the top of your head—especially during the winter months.
"Your scalp contains many sebaceous glands that produce oil, or sebum, that protects hair. Problems occur when that sebum is lacking." Engleman says. "Dry months, when there's less moisture in the air, can strip hair and scalp of natural oils, resulting in skin that is sensitive and vulnerable. We need those natural oils to create a barrier, keeping bacteria and toxins out."
The good news is there are plenty of DIY options that can drastically improve the oil levels of your scalp (and thus your hair). Coconut oil, tea tree oil, thyme, and lavender are all expert-approved ingredients—and you may already have some of them in your kitchen. Marina Perkovic, a stylist at Eliut Salon, suggests the following DIY scalp concoctions, depending on your needs:
A Scrub for Exfoliation
Before you shampoo, grind steel-cut oatmeal into a fine powder, then add warm water and 5-6 drops of thyme essential oil. Massage the paste into your scalp and leave it on for minimum of 30 minutes.
An Oil for Hydration
Warm up olive, coconut, or jojoba oil, and add few drops of lavender or rosemary oil. Massage it into your scalp before sleep (with a towel on your pillowcase!) and wash it in the morning.
Perkovic adds that it's essential to rinse the masks thoroughly. "Any product left on the scalp will create a buildup, which is practically suffocation for the hair bulb."
For Those of Us Who Hate DIY
I'm right there with you—I once made Elmo cupcakes from Pinterest and they looked fully demonic. Luckily, our experts say there are a handful of products specifically designed to enhance scalp health. Skotnicki suggests avoiding hair products with fragrance, which are known to cause irritation, and passing on sulfate detergents in favor of glucoside detergents (like this one from Hugo Naturals), which are gentler on the scalp. "Less is more in total number of ingredients," she says. "Medical shampoos with tar or zinc can be helpful for dandruff, as can the antifungal Nizoral."
Engleman recommends the Paul Mitchell Tea Tree Scalp Care Collection. "It features a botanical blend that contains clover flower extract, pea peptides, turmeric, kakadu plum, and ginseng to stimulate the scalp and protect against breakage," she says.
There are also moisturizers designed specifically for the scalp (who knew!) like LivSo moisturizing lotion, which was developed by Shari Hicks Graham, M.D. LivSo was designed for textured hair but also digs deep to moisturize scalp skin for all hair types.
And in case you need another excuse to hit up Target, celebrity hairstylist Kristin Ess has an incredible line of hair products that are available there. I'm now personally obsessed with Ess's stuff, some of which specifically targets the scalp (Micellar water shampoo, anyone?). The best part? They all clock in at less than $15. Shwing!
Moral of the Story
If your scalp ain't happy, your hair probably isn't either. "Scalp skin is some of the thickest on the body, and it carries more blood than the rest of your skin," Engelman says. "It carries nutrients to your hair follicles, which help support hair structure and growth, break down carbs and fats, moisturize the scalp, and distribute oxygen to the cells."
So if your workout schedule is wreaking havoc on your scalp, it might be worthwhile to cut back on the shampoo and give the area a little TLC. With the exception of hat head, wearing a cap can do wonders for your scalp —if you tend to dry out more during the winter, Engleman says wearing warm hats can help protect your noggin from the cold air. And if you're beach bound, keeping your scalp protected from sun damage will help keep it healthier year round.
It might take a little experimenting to find the remedy that works for you, but washing my hair less often did the trick for me. It turns out there are a bunch of hacks for post-workout sweat so my scalp can take a breather. Plus, I've freed up time after my workouts to do the things I love—you know, like eating pizza.
Grace Gallagher is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. She's a lover of coffee, thrift store shopping, salt, poetry, watching cooking competitions on TV, and workouts that incorporate lying down. You can see more of her work at gracelgallagher.com.