In the fall of 2021, Dr. Barbara Sturm launched hair care products that, at a glance, you might mistake for her already well-known line of skincare, with their minimal gray packaging and emphasis on “molecular cosmetics.” The hair products most analogous to the existing skin line are her scalp serums, which feature many of the same ingredients found in serums for the face, like hyaluronic acid and vitamin B5. They even co-opt the typical language of skincare: for $100, you can get Dr. Sturm’s Super Anti-Aging Scalp Serum.
Other skincare brands have more or less done the same thing: Sunday Riley, Augustinus Bader, Drunk Elephant, and most recently, The Ordinary – which turned “skinification of hair” from a subliminal message into a prominent slogan – have all expanded into hair care with scalp products at the forefront. And it’s not just skincare brands, but also hair care brands like Verb launching scalp exfoliants, or new brands altogether popping up with scalp care at the center of their marketing. Jupiter for example, which launched in 2020, calls itself “scalp care designed like skincare.”
“It's the same three-part routine you do on your face, which is exfoliate, cleanse, and moisturize,” says Jupiter co-founder Robbie Salter of the scalp routine.
It would be easy to roll your eyes at the beauty industry giving you yet another part of your body to optimize. But the new obsession with the scalp is more than just a natural ebb and flow of trends or a savvy marketing push. Scalp care’s successful breakthrough is a result of multiple factors: our complete immersion in the world of skincare, which has wholly taken over the beauty sector in a shift that shows no sign of reversing, as well as unrelenting years of global stress that have impacted our bodies from head to toe. Suddenly, a “scalp care routine” doesn’t sound all that far fetched.
The idea of scalp care is nothing new. “I've been working in this industry for 20 years, and there was always a trend that the scalp was about to happen,” says Hind Sebti, co-founder of beauty incubator Waldencast. But attempts to expand scalp care beyond the unsexy plastic bottles of Selsun Blue and Head & Shoulders never stuck, not because the products weren’t adequate, but because the beauty market itself had to change to make scalp care a viable sector for prestige beauty brands.
The change first had to take place with the concept of skincare in the Western market. “For a long time, skincare has been quite a stagnant category compared to makeup. Consumers [thought], ‘If I have to spend money between a skincare that I don't know will work, and makeup that's going to give me immediate satisfaction, I'd rather do that,’” Sebti explains. “But what happened over the last five to seven years, is that social media moved from being makeup transformations and how-to videos to education on skincare.”
The end effect is that today’s beauty consumers have become accustomed to taking a leap of faith in skincare’s delayed results, and they’re able to put that faith not just in established brands, but in specific ingredients. Hyaluronic acid, for one, has come to have the name recognition and trust of a brand unto itself. “The thing with skincare is, it's the beauty category that has a lot of trust,” Sebti adds.
The new slate of scalp care products also turn what was once an embarrassing (albeit common) issue of dandruff into a pleasurable part of a self-care routine, encased in a bottle we might be proud to put on our vanity alongside our retinols and toners. “We've been super inspired by brands like Aesop and Le Labo, who we consider to be the leaders in launching genderless fragrances and personal care revolution,” says Salter of Jupiter’s aesthetic. “Let's put up something that blends in with those types of products in the shower.”
It is also no coincidence that an increased interest in scalp care coincides with what we might call a mass hair loss crisis, brought on by the stress of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“It's a massive pandemic of people losing their hair, especially after what's going on with the lockdown. People's lives have been turned upside down,” says certified trichologist Penny James, IAT, IoT.
For James, it’s not surprising that skincare brands would take an interest in scalp care, as the skin on top of our head is exactly the same as the skin on our face. “The epidermis is all over our body, and it just so happens that we have about 100,000 follicles all over our scalp. That's the only difference,” she says.
Hair and scalp problems can be influenced by multiple factors, James notes, from diet to lifestyle, potentially requiring the help of a general practitioner, dermatologist, gynecologist, or psychologist. Hair loss or damage may or may not be addressed by a single serum, she says, but there has been increased focus in the industry on developing new technologies to address scalp and skin issues, particularly in the area of lipids, which can stimulate the growth of collagen.
Even as the scalp and hair care sectors gain steam in the industry, they fall behind skincare in one major aspect: diversity. Skincare and makeup brands must now meet consumer expectations to address all skin tones in their products and marketing. Whether they do so successfully or not is another story, but the prominence of influencers like Jackie Aina and the standard set by Fenty Beauty have made it so any new beauty brand must answer to how its products perform for deeper skin tones.
The hair care industry is not yet there, according to James, as there is still a dearth of products that address the needs of African hair types. “Kinky, coily hair is the most fragile hair in the world,” she says. “That's where all the scientific research needs to be done right now, on how we can hydrate the hair shaft. It's very, very difficult because of the molecular structure.”
There are, however, brands attempting to fill that gap like, BREAD BEAUTY SUPPLY. The Black-owned hair care brand debuted in 2020 with contemporary products like hair oils, scrunchies, and in 2021, a scalp serum and mud mask.
“Traditional scalp products can be impossible to work out of textured hair, so we designed both products to give everyone the benefits of an invigorating scalp detox, and opted for a non-manual exfoliating and detox system,” BREAD founder Maeva Heim says of the serum and mask duo. Prior to launching BREAD, she found that brands addressing textured hair still presented themselves in a narrow ideal of beauty. “This meant a super glossy and defined ‘no curl out of place’ photoshopped look that just isn’t realistic for day-to-day life, and is not achievable for all curl types – especially women like me with 4C, supercoiled hair.”
With the rise of e-commerce, Sebti notes that it is now easier for brands to expand into different sectors outside their core offerings. On a brand website, a scalp mask and face cleanser might sit in one cohesive page, rather than being flung across opposite ends of a store. That means entrants from all sides of the beauty aisle can make their case for scalp care, whether their core offering is hair care or skincare.
Both James and Sebti agree that skincare brands have an edge over hair care brands in terms of product expertise. “Skin has the capability and the trust that gives you permission to go into other categories,” Sebti says. Some loyal consumers might even repurpose their skincare favorites, like influencer An Nguyen, who applies The Ordinary’s popular glycolic acid face toner right onto her scalp.
That doesn’t mean you need to spend $80 at Augustinus Bader to participate in the scalp care trend. Sebti says it will, inevitably, trickle down to the mass market. Case in point: Unilever launched a scalp care line with Walmart just this month. The brands that haven’t yet positioned themselves in the scalp care market might already be late.