How to use salicylic acid to refresh your hair and soothe a flaky scalp

Salicylic acid is the hero ingredient beloved by skincare fans for its exfoliating and acne-fighting properties.

It’s most commonly used in cleansers and serums, loosening dead skin and flakes while moisturising and soothing.

If correctly and continuously applied, salicylic acid can reduce the appearance of pores, calm redness, and banish bacteria that can lead to acne.

The acid has become popular in bodycare, too, with scrubs and lotions designed to smooth the bumps that keratosis pilaris can cause.

And now its power is being harnessed to revive hair and banish dandruff.

Hair Expert Nicole Petty at Milk and Blush tells ‘As always, TikTok is a breeding ground for haircare hacks, the most recent being using salicylic acid to help combat greasy hair and cure dry, itchy scalps.

‘Users are telling others to apply a solution directly all over their scalp and leave on for 10 minutes, massaging into the root as you go, before washing out.’

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Influencer Elle McNamara of Bambidoesbeauty recently posted a video showing her scalp routine, saying weekly salicylic acid treatments are a ‘greasy hair hack’ for those of us who have oilier locks.

The foam rinse is applied before shampooing, leaving Elle with ‘weightless bouncy roots’ afterwards.

According to Nicole, salicylic treatments for scalp and hair are a trade secret among stylists.

‘Salicylic acid strips away the outermost layer of the epidermis and acts as an exfoliator to remove excess oil, dead skin cells or product buildup from the surface of the skin,’ she says.

‘It is widely used by hair care professionals who claim it’s great for clearing dandruff, cleansing the hair and eliminating grease.’

There are a number of products available that are specifically formulated for hair, from shampoos to scrubs, although some toner waters and spritzes containing salicylic can be applied to the scalp too.

But in the same way that professional-strength facial skincare should be used with caution, it’s important to be sparing with acids on your head.

Nicole says: ‘Over-the-counter shampoos normally only contain around 2.9% salicylic acid, but it’s best you start off with the weakest strength and build-up (if needed). Stronger solutions may be available via a dermatologist.

‘While its presence in specialist shampoos and exfoliators is considered safe for the scalp, you may want to tread with caution if you have sensitive skin, cuts and wounds or a dry scalp, as this could prove extremely uncomfortable or result in further irritation.

‘And just like you shouldn’t exfoliate your skin too frequently, you should also give your scalp a bit of breathing space or risk your scalp becoming too sensitive.’

Best salicylic acid hair products

The right product for you all depends on your hair and scalp condition, washing routine, and specific concerns.

A great place to start is The Inkey List’s Salicylic Acid Exfoliating Scalp Treatment, available for £14.99 in Boots.

It contains 2% salicylic acid alongside 1% panthenol, giving you dramatic results while still keeping hair hydrated. Use before shampooing no more than twice a week.

Use a solution-style treatment to remove build-up and exfoliate prior to washing (Picture: Boots)

For an everyday injection of the ingredient, go for a shampoo and conditioner incorporating it.

Revolution Haircare’s Salicylic Acid Clarifying Shampoo (£9) and Clarifying Conditioner (£9) provide an affordable way to incorporate it into your washing schedule.

If you’re in need of a full scalp renewal, take the belt and braces approach with Beauty Bay’s three-product set for oily hair and skin.

For £18.75 (previously £25) you’l get a strengthening shampoo, a hydrating hair mask, and a soothing scalp tonic to banish flakes while reviving strands.

If you’re finding that your scalp feels tender and sore, this may be a sign that the product you’re using isn’t right for you. It may be that you’re overdoing it, stripping the scalp of all sebum and causing it to dry out.

Similarly (and particularly if your hair is already damaged) you may find that excessive use of salicylic acid makes your hair more prone to breakage and thinning, due to the way it penetrates the hair shaft.

‘If you do choose to try this trend, use a specialised product no more than twice a week, to avoid over-sensitising or drying your scalp out,’ Nicole advises.

‘Alternatively, to cleanse your scalp, consider investing in a sea salt scrub to exfoliate dead skin cells, a massage to stimulate blood flow or a scalp massage brush.’

Following up a salicylic treatment with products that are moisturising and humectant, such as a mask containing glycerine, can be another good way to prevent irritation.

Nicole adds: ‘It’s important we incorporate a thorough scalp treatment into our haircare routine as the scalp is the foundation from which your hair grows, and if it’s not in good shape, your strands won’t be either.’

Why should our faces get all the good stuff? It’s time for that often-neglected area above the hairline to get pampered.

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