Robrt L. Pela

Heads up!

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Just when you think you’ve got every aspect of good health covered – nutrition, exercise, stress management – some wise guy magazine writer turns up with a new angle. Like this one: how’s your scalp?

No kidding. The skin on top of your noggin can determine more than whether you’re going to have a good hair day; it can indicate your overall health as well. That’s because the cells found at the roots of our hair are the most rapidly developing cells in our bodies, and are more sensitive to changes in nutrition and body functions than any other cells. So, if your scalp is healthy, chances are the rest of your body is, too. And, summertime is the best time to take a little extra care up there, because higher UV rays and extra exposure to the sun tend to dry and sometimes injure your pate.

The cells of a healthy scalp are produced at the lowest level of the skin and migrate toward the outer surface; once there, they flatten out and are invisibly shed. When your scalp is functioning properly, the entire process takes about a month. But a sick scalp can shed cells in as little as a week, leaving large, ugly snowdrifts, politely known as dandruff.

Those nasty flakes on your shoulders are probably the result of something simple, like too frequent shampooing, which can strip the scalp of natural oils, while infrequent shampooing can clog scalp follicles and lead to such conditions as seborrheic dermatitis, an itchy red rash that’s treatable with nonprescription shampoos containing tar or sulfur. Seborrheic dermatitis can sometimes indicate an immune system disorder, so a recurrent bout with this complaint might be worth reporting to your physician.

Chances are the doctor will rattle off a list of benign reasons why your head has turned on you. Harsh shampoos, styling products, hair color and blow-drying can exacerbate scalp problems or cause new ones, as can a diet high in fat, sugar or salt. Stress also aggravates a sickly scalp, according to Albert Kligman, M.D., professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. When you’re tense, your body produces an excess of cortisone, which can suppress the immune system and increase the growth of yeast organisms on the scalp, which leads to inflammation and flaky dandruff.

External stress is just as likely as internal anxiety to irritate your scalp. Men with curly hair who shave their heads should be careful not to shave too close, Kligman says. A super-smooth shave can result in ingrown hairs and razor bumps that become acne, which can further compromise scalp health by trapping bacteria in the inflamed follicle around each ingrown hair.

Because exercise helps relieve stress, your daily workout will help you keep a healthy head. Giving your pate its own quick workout won’t hurt, either; a daily, two-minute scalp massage not only feels great, but improves blood flow to the head, bringing vital nutrients to follicles. While you’re at it, occasionally treating your scalp to a handful of an essential oil, like jojoba, will help break up encrusted oil and remove dead cells.

Guys who favor finger-combing will want to know that brushing your hair, no matter its length, is a great way to keep cuticles flat and well-lubricated with the scalp’s natural oils. Brushing also loosens dead skin, which may be clogging your pores. Fair-skinned fellows, as well as bald or balding men, should don a cap or rub a glob of sunscreen (with a minimum level of SPF 6) onto their heads about a half-hour before heading outdoors. Skin cancers of the scalp account for two percent of all skin cancers, according to the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery. Most of us assume that wearing a hat or having a lot of hair is protection enough, but we’re mistaken.

What you don’t put on your head is just as important as what you do put on. Keep hair-styling products away from your scalp, and steer clear of alcohol-based gels and sprays. Because blow-drying can stress out your scalp, a low or medium setting and a snap-on diffuser are a good idea; towel-drying your hair is an even better idea. Hot water can be just as damaging as hot air, according to Dale Abadir, M.D., a New York City-based dermatologist. “When you rinse your hair, turn down the water temperature,” Abadir says. “Hot water might feel good, but it can aggravate a dry scalp. If the water is too hot, you’re not hydrating your scalp, you’re dehydrating it.”

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