My dandruff is horrible. It's one of the only things I'm still embarrassed about when it comes to my body. Zits ? Whatever. Farts? It happens. But my truly aggressive dandruff just won’t to go away, no matter how many tactics I try. I’ve tried dandruff shampoos before but they always leave my curly hair dry and brittle. I’ve also tried exfoliating my scalp on my own using a fine-toothed comb, but often felt like I was just making the situation worse, as my scalp would become red and raw, and sometimes even bleed (it’s hard not to go overboard!). Recently, however, I learned that exfoliating and clarifying scalp masks exist, and I became fascinated by the idea of masking my scalp and getting rid of all my persistent flakes. After all, I mask my face three times a week—why not my scalp?
As a mixed girl, my relationship with my hair has always been complicated. I have really thick, curly hair—mostly 3C with some tighter curls toward the center of my scalp. Growing up, my white mother preferred to style my hair in braids rather than use a hot comb, so my hair didn’t look like the other black girls in school, who largely wore their hair straight. By the time I was doing my own hair, I was at that awkward middle school age where suddenly all of the kids were looking for something to make fun of. For me, that was my hair. But, in high school, I figured it out. I knew how to straighten my hair. I knew how to wear it curly. Still, there was one thing I couldn’t figure out: my dandruff.
My dandruff problem had always been that one thing I wanted to fix, but I didn’t even know where to begin. How was I supposed to ask my friends if they also had flakes breaking free from their scalps mid-sleepover? Plus, it didn’t help that dandruff is seen as disgusting and dirty—a problem gifted to people who just don’t know how to keep their hair clean.
Obviously that stigma is a part of the problem, and it has to go. (In reality, dandruff is caused by a reaction to a type of yeast that naturally lives on the scalp, or because of other skin conditions.) But after years of battling with dandruff, I want to find some way to get my flakes under control, and delving into the world of scalp masks seemed like the way to go.
According to Kenneth Howe, M.D. , at Wexler Dermatology, “Dandruff masks can be a good way to exfoliate the scalp. Scalp exfoliation with a good dandruff mask can ‘jump-start’ your therapeutic response to dandruff treatment.” These masks have an added benefit for us curly girls. “Using dandruff masks can allow patients to shampoo less frequently, which is very important with curly hair,” Dr. Howe explains. (He also recommends a scalp moisturizer, or in severe cases of itch, a prescription strength topical steroid.)
Janet Prystowsky, M.D. , a board-certified dermatologist, says you can overdo it with masks, though. “I’m always cautious with exfoliating, because people tend to overdo it,” she tells SELF. “However, when your scalp is clogged with a buildup of oil and dead skin, it’s not a bad idea to use an exfoliating product to clear that all out. Curly haired people will likely need to do this more often than someone with straight hair.”
She recommends using a scalp mask once or twice a week at most. “Keep in mind that over-exfoliating can also cause your scalp to flake more frequently, as your skin cell production tries to keep up with the rate of exfoliating,” she says.
So when I set up my schedule I decided to try three different scalp masks, dedicating one week to each individual mask and trying it twice that week before moving on to the next one. I usually only wash my curls once a week, but I wanted to make sure I got a good feel for each formula.
This mask contains betaine salicylate, a gentle chemical exfoliant that helps slough off dead skin cells and flakes. You apply this mask to damp hair, massage it in, and leave it for 10-20 minutes. Instead of getting in the shower and then applying, I sprayed water on my scalp before hopping in the shower. I parted my hair in sections, and then ran the mask over my scalp using my fingers. It went on really smoothly, forming a thick white mask on my head, and didn’t really smell like anything. All in all? Pretty easy.
What I struggled with was how much product I had to apply to cover my entire scalp. By the time I was done, I’d used over half of the tube, which really isn’t very big at all. After I let the mask sit for 20 minutes, I washed my hair with my usual shampoo and conditioner . The second time I used the mask, I applied it the same way.
After using this mask, my scalp felt so good, and my hair felt much less greasy than it usually does by the time wash day came around four days later. This definitely had a huge impact on my scalp. My hair felt fresher, and there were only small flakes, as opposed to the larger chunks I can usually dig up when I comb or brush my hair. Overall, I really liked this mask, but I wished it came in a larger tube, or a tub. It felt really wasteful to have to use so much product, and, ultimately, I think this would make more sense for someone with thinner or less hair in general.
Buy it: Philip Kingsley Exfoliating Scalp Mask , $30
Out of the masks I tried, I loved the packaging of this one the most. Scooping product out of a jar is so much easier than continually squeezing a tube when you have as much hair as I do—it didn’t take as much effort to reach every part of my scalp. This mask’s ingredients include tea tree oil, African black soap, and willow bark extract. It smelled amazing, kind of like trees.
What I didn’t love about the mask was the wait. I shampooed my hair first, put on the mask, and then had to wait for it to do its thing before I could rinse it out and condition. (I waited 15 minutes, though SheaMoisture doesn’t specify.)
Otherwise it made my scalp feel refreshed, which I’d attribute to the tea tree oil, and my scalp felt clean and less flaky than usual. My usual endless parade of flakes felt minimal, and I was able to just brush them away instead of scraping at my scalp to get rid of them. Another important point: The price felt fair for the amount of product you get, as I’ll definitely get over ten masks out of this product.
Buy it: SheaMoisture African Black Soap Dandruff Control Masque , $11
With the third and final mask, I massaged it into my scalp dry, let it sit for five minutes and rinsed in the shower before doing my regular shampoo and condition routine. It had a lighter scent and was the only physical exfoliant mask I tried, which I found enjoyable.
I loved the exfoliating beads made from apricot seed and argan shell fragments, as they really made me feel like I was doing a deep clean. It did really well at taking care of the flakes that tend to pop up right along my hairline that I really can’t stand, and the thinner consistency made me feel less paranoid about some of it ending up on my forehead, as I’m always worried about hair products causing acne around my hairline.
I also really liked that I could apply this to dry hair. I hate having to apply masks to wet hair and either stand in the shower waiting and wasting water, or get in and out of the shower, which is just a mess.
The only thing I didn’t love about this mask was that my hair almost felt too clean. When I went to straighten my hair, my hair felt fluffier than usual and looked like it needed to be greased up. This would be one that I’d leave for the days I wear my hair in a curly topknot.
Buy it: Kiehl’s Deep Micro-Exfoliating Scalp Treatment , $20
For me personally, the SheaMoisture mask felt the most realistic in terms of price point, amount of product, and impact on my texture. But I’d keep the Philip Kingsley mask for special occasions. If you also struggle with dandruff, a scalp mask should absolutely be a part of your routine. After all, your scalp is skin, and you should take care of it, just like you take care of your face. Moving forward, I’ll be pairing my weekly scalp mask with my weekly face mask.
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