It doesn’t matter the time of year, an itchy, dry scalp can be uncomfortable. The good news is there are plenty of dry-scalp treatments out there—and they now look much cooler than the clunky old bottles of dandruff shampoo you remember. But first you have to pinpoint what’s causing the underlying issue. Is it dandruff? Or maybe you’ve been overusing dry shampoo? (It happens.) Could it be something else entirely?
We talked to leading dermatologists to find out why dryness arises and how to get to the root of the problem. Here’s what they advised.
Why Do I Have a Flaky, Dry Scalp?
There are several reasons you could be dealing with a dry scalp, including:
Sebhorrheic dermatitis (a.k.a. dandruff)
Hair products and styling habits
Read on to learn more about these conditions and the course of treatment for each one.
Seborrheic dermatitis is the fancy term for dandruff, says Brookline, Massachusetts, dermatologist Papri Sarkar, M.D. And while seborrheic dermatitis might look like dry scalp, it’s actually due to having too much oil. “Dandruff is caused by an overproduction of oil or other secretions in your skin, or an increase in normal skin yeasts,” says Carlos Wesley, M.D., a cosmetic surgeon and hair-loss specialist in New York City. The oil on your scalp blocks dead skin cells from shedding as they normally would, and in turn these dead cells become more apparent—hence the flakes that pop up along your hairline.
Dandruff isn’t curable, but there are several ways that you can help keep flakes at bay. First, you’ll want to add a dandruff shampoo to your routine. “Products containing tar, zinc pyrithione, or selenium sulfide often prove most beneficial,” says Wesley. One option experts swear by is Head & Shoulders Classic Clean Anti-Dandruff Shampoo.
Since the product needs to have contact time with your scalp in order to work, Sarkar recommends applying the shampoo to the affected area before you jump in the shower and then hang around for a few minutes to let the formula do its thing. “For most people, I recommend using it only on your scalp, not your hair, because it’s quite drying,” she says. “You can rotate it with other shampoos, but make sure to use it at least a few times a week to prevent the spot from coming back.”
Stanford University–trained dermatologist Laurel Naversen Geraghty, M.D., recommends at-home coconut oil treatments to soothe your skin. “A lot of women also feel better with once-a-week home scalp treatments,” she says. "Massage coconut oil onto your scalp at bedtime, plop a shower cap on to help it penetrate, and shampoo in the morning."
If the dry, itchy flakiness continues, you can also talk to your dermatologist about a prescription topical steroid. “You can also try over-the-counter 1% hydrocortisone cream and use that twice a day for three to five days,” says Sarkar. “It's weak enough that it won't cause any side effects.”
Hair Products and Styling Habits
If you don’t have dandruff, your hair styling products or habits could be to blame. “Some gels, creams, balms, pomades, and sprays can build up on your scalp and form tiny flakes and itching,” says Geraghty. (Dry shampoo overuse ring a bell?) “Other products contain ingredients that may cause a contact dermatitis rash from irritation or allergies. For example, there’s a hair dye ingredient called paraphenylenediamine, or PPD, that’s a common cause of skin and scalp allergies.”
A dry scalp can also be caused by how frequently (or infrequently) you shampoo. “If you shampoo too often, you could dry out your scalp, but if you shampoo too infrequently, your skin’s natural oil can build up, making your head feel flaky or itchy,” says Geraghty. “Most women know what makes their scalp and hair feel good, and that’s what you should stick with, regardless of any no-shampoo or infrequent-shampoo trends.”
Start by considering how often you’re washing your hair. Does itchiness come whenever you’re stretching between washes with dry shampoo? If so, either switch formulas (here’s a list of the best dry shampoos) or hit the shower a little more regularly.
If allergies to hair products are a concern, a dermatologist can offer patch testing to see what ingredients your skin may be adversely reacting to. From there it’s rather simple: Switch to a new product that doesn’t contain the offending ingredient, and you should be flake-free in no time.
Psoriasis is a common skin condition that can cause redness, flaking, and scaling on your scalp. “Usually the scaliness is a lot thicker and more pronounced in psoriasis compared with dandruff. Prescription medicines are often required to control it,” says Geraghty.
People with psoriasis may also benefit from shampoos containing coal tar or salicylic acid and mineral oil as a scalp treatment to help soften and remove scales. A dermatologist can prescribe topical steroid medicines—liquids or foams that dry quickly and don’t tend to weigh down your hair—that can be very helpful in controlling dryness, itching, flaking, irritation, or rash.
Eczema is a skin condition that can cause flare-ups of a red, itchy rash all over your body—yes, even on your scalp. “Skin cells are usually held together, forming a barrier that helps skin retain its moisture and prevents things from getting in—people with eczema have a defective barrier,” says says Heather Summe, M.D., a dermatologist with New York’s Northwell Health Medical Group. What this means is that your skin loses moisture more easily, which also makes it easier for allergens and irritants to get in.
Fragrances can often be the culprit behind eczema flare-ups, so you’ll want to look for shampoos and conditioners that are unscented. Good ones can be hard to find, but derms agree that Exederm and Free and Clear are good options. If you suspect eczema could be the cause of your itchy scalp, though, it’s worth scheduling an appointment with a dermatologist so you can create a custom regimen that works best for you.
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No one wants to hear that what they’re eating could be a trigger for skin conditions, but the fact is some high-carb foods can contribute to increased yeast on your scalp, which results in flakes.
If you’re prone to dandruff, try cutting back on carbs and sugar to see if you notice a difference. You can also take fish oil supplements, which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and known to help fight dryness. Zinc, along vitamins A, B, and C, can also help keep your skin hydrated and healthy. And don’t forget to drink more water. (It really does help.)
Dry Scalp Prevention
Treating the underlying cause of dry scalp is the best way to keep the problem from coming back, but there are a couple universal prevention steps you can take.
As mentioned above, pay attention to when your scalp flares up. If it’s after not washing enough, try to shampoo more regularly—but if you’re already washing every day, try cutting back to every other day.
Incorporate scalp-soothing treatments into your routine, whether that’s an anti-dandruff shampoo, a hydrating coconut oil mask, or a calming scalp serum.
Drink enough water. It’s not a magical cure-all, and it won’t make a dry scalp go away overnight, but dehydration definitely plays a role in your skin’s health. And that’s exactly what your scalp is—skin.
When to See a Dermatologist
You can try anti-dandruff shampoos or switch up your hair-care routine, but at some point you might want to see a professional. “If scalp dryness is very itchy, feels irritated or uncomfortable, or is causing a lot of flaking, it’s worth a trip to a dermatologist to find out what’s going on,” says Geraghty. “A derm can determine the diagnosis, offer medicines, and tailor a skin-and-scalp regimen to help control the problem.”
Lindsay Colameo is a beauty writer in New York City.
Originally Appeared on Glamour