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Cracking the Code to Scalp Health with Dr Mary Sommerlad

When we talk about hair we’re used to hearing about trichologists - after all they’re meant to be the experts in everything hair, right? Well what if we told you it’s a dermatologist that you might need to see? And your hair issues may actually be starting from the scalp? You might be scratching your head (literally and figuratively), wondering why you’re experiencing itchiness, pain and even hair loss. Well, no need for the confusion… We’ve cracked the code to scalp health together with Dr Mary Sommerlad (find her on the web:, a UK trained dermatologist based in London, who has offered her professional insight on the topic of scalp health, and we’ve wrapped it all up in a nice blog post for you. 

Why is my scalp suddenly so important?

Why do we tend to overlook our scalp? The scalp is simply skin - an extension of the forehead and exactly the same as the skin on the back of our hand, except it has more hair follicles and produces more oils. Dr Mary Sommerlad stresses the importance of seeing the scalp as part of your overall skin. Experiencing itchiness, burning or pain? Treat it the same as if you would back or leg pain - seek advice from a medical expert. Wait?

Our hair makes our own natural conditioner?

You might have heard of the term ‘sebum,’ a huge buzzword when it comes to all things hair. Well sebum is actually the natural oil we produce at the scalp. Your sebum reflects everything from your environment, to your diet and lifestyle, and even your age after a certain point - it becomes anti-fungal post puberty! Think of it as your own personalised and tailored hair conditioner - pretty cool right? So how exactly does it work? Imagine your scalp and then imagine each hair strand as part of a unit growing from your scalp. In each unit there are little sacs of sebum attached to the hair strand that create these natural oils. So when you hear of people complaining about greasy hair, it’s actually a build up of sebum that causes this. This is more common in people with straight hair as sebum can travel easily down the hair strand. Afro textured hair has a spiral strand which makes it harder for the sebum to travel from the root down to the tip of the hair, which is why the ends of the hair tend to be dry and need lots of moisture.

Should I be oiling my scalp?

So if mother nature has granted us our own personal conditioner then why have many of us been taught to oil or grease our scalps? Dr Mary explains that ‘a healthy scalp does not need oiling or greasing - but the ends of the hair do.’ The reason being that the scalp’s sebum should grease the scalp enough. It can come as second nature to grab some oil as soon as you spot a bit of flakiness, especially after removing a protective style like braids. Dr Mary suggests using a shampoo instead to remove the flakiness which is often product build up that simply needs to be cleansed. However, if you are experiencing irritation or tightness of the scalp along with this then it may be that the skin needs to be treated. We know that oiling the scalp can sooth this irritation but if the issue persists it could be a sign of eczema or psoriasis. So what do we suggest you do? Well, Dr Mary suggests going ‘cold turkey’ with oiling the scalp. If the scalp is persistently itchy after dropping this from your routine, then you could have an underlying scalp condition you may need medical treatment for.

Losing your hair

What’s going on in your scalp is often the root cause for hair loss. Like, literally. Hair loss can be a tricky subject to talk about, yet it is so incredibly common. Dr Mary recalls one patient who came into her practice after experiencing 3 years with a burning, itchy scalp that she had to take painkillers for. Yes. Painkillers. Because the scalp is so intrinsic to your hair, scalp issues can often be viewed as cosmetic and therefore not serious enough to get checked out. But ignoring symptoms shouldn’t be the norm.

The main types of hair loss & what you need to know about them:

  1. Alopecia areata -  a type of temporary  hair loss associated with thyroid issues and B12 deficiency.
  2. Central fungal alopecia - a type of permanent hair loss when you lose hair at the front and centre of the scalp. This is very common amongst black women, and used to carry a stigma to do with hot comb styling practices. We now know this is not the cause and it’s actually related to fibroids and possible heart disease.
  3. Traction alopecia - a type of hair loss caused by constant pulling of the hair - Dr Mary suggests scrutinising this diagnosis if you get braids and they’re not uncomfortable or too tight, and you only get them a couple of times a year. Dr Mary emphasises that ‘this should be a diagnosis of exclusion’, so request a biopsy or blood test if you think it may be something else

Being Your Own Advocate

Your scalp health is important, and sometimes you might need to ask for a second or even third medical opinion to get to the root cause of your symptoms. So be your own advocate! And remember: sometimes what’s best for your hair starts at the scalp. 


Want to listen to the full interview? You can find it on our Instagram here 

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