Fight Flaky Scalp

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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.

In this Article

Itching, flaking, and irritation are signs that you have dry skin — too little of the oil that keeps your skin moisturized. Your scalp can also dry out and cause the same symptoms.

It can happen for many reasons. Here are some of the causes, and how to treat them.

Too Much Washing

Washing your hair every day can strip your scalp of the natural oils it needs to stay hydrated. Over time, you can dry out your hair to the point where it becomes brittle and breaks.

How often you should wash depends on your hair type. People with coarser hair may only need once-weekly washings. Those with fine hair may need to wash a few times a week. Ask your stylist or dermatologist how often to wash based on your hair type.

A scalp that turns red, itches, and flakes after you wash it could be contact dermatitis. This allergic reaction happens when you use certain shampoos, soaps, or other products in your hair. If you dye your hair black, dermatitis may be a reaction to the chemical PPD in the hair dye.

The first step to treating contact dermatitis is to figure out which product caused the reaction. Cut out one thing at a time to see if your symptoms clear up. After 2-4 weeks off the product, your dry scalp should improve.

While you figure out the cause, try not to scratch your scalp. Scratching irritates the skin and can make your symptoms worse. Place a cool, wet washcloth on your scalp for 15 to 30 minutes a few times a day to soothe the itch. You can also apply a cortisone anti-itch cream.

Symptoms of dandruff vs. dry scalp

Following is a comparison of the main symptoms of each condition:

Dandruff Dry scalp
oily, large flakes that are yellow or white
smaller, dry flakes
itchy scalp
oily, red, scaly skin
dry skin on other parts of your body

You can treat most dandruff yourself with an over-the-counter shampoo. If you’ve tried a dandruff shampoo for at least a month and your flakes haven’t improved, they’re getting worse, or the skin on your scalp looks red or swollen, make an appointment with a dermatologist, which is a doctor that specializes in treating the skin. You might have another skin condition that needs to be treated.

Your doctor will determine whether you have dandruff by looking at your scalp and hair. They can rule out conditions like eczema and psoriasis, which can also cause flaky skin on the scalp.

If you have dry scalp, wash with a gentle shampoo and then use a moisturizing conditioner. One way to tell whether you have dry scalp or dandruff is to apply a light moisturizer to your scalp before you go to bed. If the cause is dry scalp, the flakes should disappear once you shower the next morning. Some hair stylists can perform a scalp treatment that uses steam to deliver more moisture to your scalp.

For mild dandruff, wash your hair every day with a gentle shampoo to reduce the amount of oil on your scalp. If your dandruff is more severe or a regular shampoo doesn’t work, try a dandruff shampoo.

Most dandruff shampoos contain medicine that kills the fungus on your scalp or removes flaky skin. Here are some examples:

Pyrithione zinc (Head and Shoulders, Jason Dandruff Relief 2 in 1) is an antifungal drug. It kills the fungus on your scalp that causes flaking. Pyrithione zinc shampoos are gentle enough to use every day.

Selenium sulfide (Selsun Blue) reduces fungus and prevents too many skin cells from dying off. If you have blond or gray hair or you dye your hair, ask your doctor before using shampoo containing selenium sulfide. It can change your hair color.

Ketoconazole (Nizoral) kills the fungus that causes dandruff. You can buy it in over the counter or prescription strength.

Salicylic acid (Neutrogena T/Sal) removes extra scale from your scalp before it can flake. In some people, salicylic acid can dry out the skin and cause more flaking.

Coal tar (Neutrogena T/Gel) slows the growth and shedding of skin cells on the scalp. Tar-based shampoos can also change your hair color if you have blond or gray hair.

Shampoos containing tea tree oil are an alternative remedy for dandruff. Tea tree oil is a natural ingredient with antifungal properties. An older study from 2012 showed that a 5 percent tea tree oil shampoo reduced scaling without causing side effects. Some people are allergic to tea tree oil. Ask your doctor before you try it. Stop using the product if you have any redness or swelling.

No matter which dandruff shampoo you try, read the instructions on the bottle and follow them carefully. If you’re not sure which shampoo to use or how often to use it, ask your doctor or pharmacist for advice. You might have to try a few brands before you find one that relieves your dandruff.

Once your dandruff improves, you might be able to cut back on the number of days that you use the shampoo. For more stubborn dandruff, your doctor can prescribe a stronger shampoo or a steroid lotion.

Dandruff isn’t curable. Most people will have to manage symptoms over the long term. Usually, the flakes will come and go. Treating dandruff with a special shampoo can manage the condition and prevent itching and flakiness.

Here are some tips to prevent dandruff and dry scalp:

If you have dandruff, wash your hair often with an antidandruff shampoo. Make sure to rinse out all the shampoo.

Avoid using hair products that contain harsh chemicals, like bleach and alcohol. These ingredients can dry out your scalp. Also avoid oily hair products that can build up on your scalp.

Spend a few minutes out in the sun every day. There’s some evidence that ultraviolet light exposure can help control dandruff. Yet you don’t want to get too much sun exposure because it can increase your risk for skin cancer.

Last medically reviewed on March 8, 2017

Differences between dandruff and dry scalp

Most people find it difficult to tell the difference between dandruff and dry scalp, and it is also possible to have both dandruff and a dry scalp. In general, flakes are more likely to be dandruff:

  • if the scalp feels oily
  • when there is intense scalp itching even when the scalp does not feel dry
  • if the hair looks greasy
  • Both dandruff and dry scalp can usually be managed at home. However, some scalp conditions can look like dandruff.

    Scalp psoriasis, for example, causes redness, flakes, and itching but is caused by an autoimmune disorder. A form of severe dandruff called seborrheic dermatitis can cause intense, painful inflammation.

    People should see a doctor for a flaky scalp:

  • if there are other symptoms, such as redness or sores
  • if home treatments do not work
  • if there are open wounds on the head or face
  • People with autoimmune disorders and chronic illnesses should talk to their doctor before treating dandruff. Symptoms that resemble dandruff may be due to another condition, and a weakened immune system increases the chances that a scalp condition will quickly get worse.

    Most cases of dandruff can easily be treated at home. People with dandruff should aim to shampoo their hair with anti-dandruff shampoo regularly. This can treat many underlying causes of dandruff, including minor fungal infections.

    Most dandruff shampoos contain pyrithione, and many different types of anti-dandruff shampoo are available online.

    Another option to treat dandruff is coal tar shampoo. However, this shampoo may change the color of light hair, so people with blonde or gray hair may prefer another option.

    Dandruff shampoo can have a strong smell. Some people may wish to alternate between dandruff shampoo and traditional shampoo, or shampoo with a different shampoo immediately following treatment with dandruff shampoo.

    People who prefer natural remedies, or who dislike the smell of dandruff shampoo, may wish to try tea tree oil shampoo. Tea tree oil has antimicrobial properties.

    An old study found that a 5-percent tea tree oil shampoo could effectively treat dandruff without causing serious side effects. However, there is a lack of recent research to back this claim up.

    People whose dandruff does not improve with home treatment should see a doctor. Identifying the cause of the dandruff — which could be a bacterial or fungal infection — can be helpful. Prescription-strength treatments usually clear up dandruff.

    The idea that poor hygiene causes dandruff is a myth. Going long periods of time without shampooing, however, may make dandruff more visible.

    As researchers do not fully understand what causes dandruff, it is unclear if it can be prevented.

    In most people, dandruff is a chronic condition that tends to go away and then come back. While some people think that lifestyle changes improve their symptoms, there is little research on this topic.

    It may be possible to prevent dry scalp by:

  • using less irritating shampoos
  • switching to a moisturizing shampoo
  • shampooing the hair less frequently
  • using a humidifier to keep the skin from getting dry
  • drinking more water
  • Dandruff remains a mystery to many doctors who do not understand how a fungus that is harmless on one person’s head can cause severe dandruff on another person. There are no guarantees with any dandruff treatment. There is no way to predict who will develop dandruff, or how severe it will be.

    Both dandruff and dry scalp are annoying but not harmful. With home treatment, they usually go away.

    People who do not see improvements with home treatment should consider that the problem might be something other than dandruff. Only a doctor can conclusively diagnose the cause of a flaky scalp.

    Last medically reviewed on February 21, 2018

    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
  • Psoriasis
  • Eczema
  • Allergies
  • Read on to learn more about these conditions and the course of treatment for each one.

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