Damage to the outer layer of skin cells on the scalp is normally the cause of dry scalp, as this lets essential moisture escape easily.
Dandruff is a key cause of dry scalp – it disrupts the moisture barrier, making it hard for the cells to retain moisture, leading to adry, tight and often itchy feeling.
There are plenty of other factors that can make a dry scalp worse too, from heat styling to hot showers.
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What Actually is the Dry Scalp?
Just as we experience dry skin on our faces and bodies, our scalp can also suffer from dryness. A dry scalp can result in a feeling of tightness, a flaky scalp, or dandruff-like symptoms. These are all signs that the skin on your head is dehydrated and in need of moisture.
In some cases, a dry scalp could be a symptom of another medical condition such as eczema, atopic dermatitis or scalp psoriasis requiring specialist help.However, as with the skin, most find that a hair care routine providing increased moisture goes a long way to alleviate the problem.
Most suffering from a dry scalp experience a feeling of tightness in the skin of the head. This is often accompanied by itchiness and irritation, which can vary from mild to intense.
The natural reaction here is to itch, which can cause more irritation and lead to a “flaky scalp” whereby small flakes of dead skin being shed from the head. While losing dead skin cells from the scalp is normal, a dry scalp can lead to problems very similar to dandruff.
A dry scalp can also leave your hair looking lifeless and becoming brittle as the hair shafts lack the oil they require to maintain a healthy shine and provide protection from external influences. In combination with the feeling of tightness and itchiness, this aesthetic aspect can prove distressing for those who suffer from a dry scalp.
There are a variety of possible causes for a dry scalp, often related to hair care habits.
The most widespread cause is excessive washing. Washing your hair too frequently can strip the scalp and hair of their natural oils, which are responsible for locking moisture into the hair. If you wash your hair every day, for example, the natural sebum layer has no time to regenerate between washes, drying the skin out.
Harsh shampoos can also irritate the scalp and dehydrate it. A mild shampoo followed by a deep conditioner as found in the Revalid range will help to rehydrate and restore moisture levels. This also applies to aggressive styling and colouring techniques using chemicals and excessive heat.
Washing the hair with very hot water can also cause irritation and subsequent dryness of the scalp. Sometimes, a dry scalp can result from not rinsing the hair sufficiently when washing, leaving product residue in the hair.
Another factor contributing to a dry scalp could be overexposure to sunlight. Not only can UV radiation damage the hair, but hot, dry air tends to prove stressful for the skin of the scalp, causing it to dry out. Equally, dry, cold weather also causes dry skin, and the skin of the scalp is no different. In both cases, it is important to provide the hair with protection and the scalp with special care.
As with hair loss, hormonal fluctuations and high levels of stress can trigger changes in the hair’s natural moisture regulation. Such problems are often temporary, but it is nonetheless important to give your hair and body the special care it needs in the meantime.
Diet and nutrition can also play an important role here, as does water consumption. A balanced diet with sufficient vitamins and minerals and adequate hydration can help to alleviate the symptoms of a dry scalp.
Scratching the scalp tends to aggravate irritation and can lead to infection. Therefore, as difficult as it may be, it is advisable to refrain from scratching as far as possible.
Finally, your dry scalp could be a symptom of an underlying skin condition as eczema, atopic dermatitis or scalp psoriasis, in which case you should seek medical advice.
Symptoms of Dry Scalp
The loss of skin cells from the scalp is a normal part of the life cycle of skin cells. However, excessive flaking of the scalp, or dandruff, is a common cosmetic problem experienced by millions of people. Dandruff is not contagious and is normally not a serious problem. Some cases of excessive dandruff accompanied by intense itching and patches of flaky skin on the face or elsewhere are actually a form of eczema referred to as seborrheic eczema.
Dandruff is believed to be related to a fungus known as malassezia (formerly termed pityrosporum) that lives on the scalp of most people. In some cases, overgrowth of the fungus results in the flakiness of the skin characteristic of dandruff. The reasons for the overgrowth of fungus are unclear but may be related to increased oil production, hormonal changes, stress, neurologic disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, recovery from chronic conditions such as stroke or heart attack, suppression of the immune system, and infrequent shampooing. There is also some evidence that dandruff may run in families. Scalp flakiness may also be caused by psoriasis or other skin ailments or infections.
Here are the main symptoms listed below:
1. Dry Skin
Each strand of healthy hair has a protective layer called the cuticle. Just as shingles shield your home from rain and sun damage, the cuticle protects your hair from heat and sun damage. In a healthy cuticle, the layers lie tightly together and keep moisture in. When a cuticle’s layers separate and peel away from hair, it can’t hold moisture and some oil escapes.
Your hair has no natural lubrication. It relies on oils made in its roots to keep it moisturized. Since the roots are under your skin, dry scalp goes along with dry hair. Dry scalp peels and sheds, leading to dandruff flakes on your shoulders.
As you get older, your hair makes less oil. Hormone changes after menopause can also lead to dry hair. These include a dry, hot climate, frequent sun and wind exposure, and frequent exposure to chlorinated or salty water.
2. Hair Loss
People typically lose 50 to 100 hairs a day. This usually isn’t noticeable because new hair is growing in at the same time. Hair loss occurs when new hair doesn’t replace the hair that has fallen out.
A variety of conditions can cause permanent or temporary hair loss, including hormonal changes due to pregnancy, childbirth, menopause and thyroid problems. Medical conditions include alopecia areata (al-o-PEE-she-uh ar-e-A-tuh), which is immune system related and causes patchy hair loss, scalp infections such as ringworm, and a hair-pulling disorder called trichotillomania (trik-o-til-o-MAY-nee-uh).
Excessive hairstyling or hairstyles that pull your hair tight, such as pigtails or cornrows, can cause a type of hair loss called traction alopecia. Hot-oil hair treatments and permanents also can cause hair to fall out. If scarring occurs, hair loss could be permanent.
Scalp pruritus, known as itchy scalp, is a common condition. There’s a wide range of causes. Dandruff and an inflammatory skin condition called seborrheic dermatitis are the most common causes of itchy scalp.
Seborrheic dermatitis can be the result of stress, seasonal changes, fluctuating hormones, or an overgrowth of yeast on the skin. Dandruff can be caused by scalp that’s too dry, oily hair, and a variety of skin conditions.
If your symptoms don’t subside or if they get worse, talk to your doctor about medical treatments. These may be more effective.
Essential oils and the active ingredients in shampoos may irritate swollen or broken skin. Don’t use any ingredients you have a known allergy to. Don’t treat children with any product until you have their pediatrician’s go-ahead.
Scalp itch is a common complaint with multiple causes. It can often be treated at home, but sometimes requires medical treatment. If your symptoms don’t dissipate easily or within a few weeks, talk to your doctor about the underlying cause of itchy scalp and how best to treat it.
Causes of Dry Scalp
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.
1. 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.
2. Hair Products
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.
During the winter months in cold climates, the humidity in the air drops. Cold weather dries out the skin all over your body, including on your scalp. Blasting the heat can also be drying.
Use warm water instead of hot water in your shower and bath to keep your skin and scalp moist. Don’t stay under the water for longer than 5 or 10 minutes at a time. Spending too much time under hot water can strip your skin of its natural oils.
Turn on a humidifier in your home to add moisture to the air. And use a gentle moisturizing shampoo to wash your hair.
If your skin is dry or you’re dealing with a contact dermatitis reaction that results in dry skin, it can definitely cause flaking, itchiness, and even skin peeling.
But having an oily scalp can be a major factor too. That’s because Malassezia yeast—those that are linked to seborrheic dermatitis—feed on the oil (sebum) on your skin and scalp. They thrive when there’s more of it present, making this condition more likely when you have an oilier scalp.
To appropriately treat your dandruff, it’s important to know whether your scalp tends to be oily (or have a lot of product buildup on it) or on the dry side.
4. Using bad oil treatment
A hot oil treatment is one of the DIY remedies I found while searching for dandruff solutions on the internet. To see the effects, you’re supposed to apply warm coconut or olive oil directly to the scalp. But does it work? It could help moisturize your scalp if it’s dry. But if your flakes are caused by an oily scalp, “applying more oil will simply give you stickier and greasier flakes,” Anabel Kingsley, a trichologist at Philip Kinglsey Trichological Clinic, tells SELF. “Rubbing oils into the scalp can also cause irritation.”
Flashback to my mom using a rattail comb on my head to dislodge the flakes. But talking to Kingsley, I realized that this wasn’t the right strategy. “If your flakes are so adherent and heavy that they need dislodging with a comb, chances are you have a different and more serious scalp condition,” Kingsley says, such as scalp psoriasis. “Harsh or improper removal of scales can be painful and cause bleeding.” And bleeding leaves your scalp susceptible to infection.
6. Less Hair Wash
If you assume your dandruff is due to a dry scalp, it might be tempting to cut back on washing it so often. But whether the cause is dryness or oiliness, you should actually be washing your hair pretty regularly to rinse away the flakes and any buildup of debris on your scalp.
In fact, the most effective way to treat most dandruff is to use an over-the-counter shampoo, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) explains. You should shampoo your hair daily and swap in the anti-dandruff shampoo twice a week. If you have natural hair, you only need to use the anti-dandruff shampoo once a week.
Exfoliating your scalp every once in a while seems a little extreme, and for most of us it is. But if you’re dealing with dandruff—especially if you think excessive product buildup is playing a role—then an occasional exfoliating treatment may help. Also, it just feels nice!
But beware of DIY scalp scrub recipes, Dr. Kim says, which can contain irritating ingredients or things that are just too harsh. Instead, opt for a product that contains exfoliating salicylic acid, like Scalpicin ($8, Amazon).
8. Styling Products
If you’re battling a dandruff flare, you might think that you should steer clear from adding any styling products to your hair or scalp. And in general it is a good idea to investigate the products you’re using to make sure they aren’t irritating. If you can, it’s also smart to cut back on the amount of styling products you’re using to minimize the chance of a bad reaction or exacerbating the one you’re currently dealing with.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t use any styling products ever! As long as you’re washing your hair regularly—ideally, daily—to prevent buildup, then you can go ahead and keep styling your hair with the products you enjoy.
9. Hair Growth
There isn’t a ton of research in this area. But what we have suggests that, while dandruff doesn’t cause hair loss directly, it is associated with hair loss—especially in people who are already dealing with some level of hair loss or thinning. The link isn’t totally understood, but some experts think that dandruff may interfere with the normal hair shedding cycle. And it makes sense that constantly itching your scalp could disrupt your already fragile hair and lead to hair loss. If you’re already dealing with some hair loss, it’s especially important to effectively manage your dandruff to prevent further hair issues.
10. Dandruff in the Summer
In truth, there’s no real seasonality to dandruff. Some people get it more in the winter, when the air is less humid, causing a sweaty yet dry scalp. And most people cut down on shampooing due to the cold temperatures, which can also make the buildup of products and flakes on their scalp worse. Other people find that hot, humid weather in the summer makes their dandruff worse, possible because their scalps are oilier with sweat. And yes, some people deal with dandruff year-round.
11. All Flakes
As we mentioned, there are many conditions that can cause dandruff-like flaking. If you notice flakes on your scalp or in your hair, it could be due to one of the following:
Seborrheic dermatitis is another condition that can cause dandruff and flaking of the scalp. It often appears as red, swollen, greasy rash that may have white or yellow flakes or crust. Also, as Dr. Kim notes, seborrheic dermatitis is not just limited to the scalp; you can find flaky patches in your brows, beard, ears, chest, and other skin folds.
Contact dermatitis is a reaction to something that’s either irritating to your skin or something that you’re allergic to. In either case it typically causes a red rash that may itch, burn, and swell. It can also cause the skin to become itchy and dry, possibly resulting in peeling or flaking. If you’re experiencing contact dermatitis on your scalp, it could be due to a reaction to a shampoo, conditioner, or styling product.
Scalp psoriasis is another dandruff-like issue, but it looks a little different. Psoriasis an autoimmune condition that results in thick, scaly, silvery patches of skin that can also itch and flake. When it’s on your scalp, it can cause dryness, itching, bleeding, burning, and soreness, the AAD says.
Eczema is a general term that describes a few different conditions. The most common form of eczema, atopic dermatitis, causes dry, red, itchy patches of skin that can flake. Atopic dermatitis is most often seen on places like your hands, ankles, feet, knees, and elbows. But it can definitely also affect the scalp.
Essentially, what looks like dandruff could be many different things. If you’re not sure what yours is, or if you’re having trouble treating it on your own, it’s important to get properly diagnosed by a board-certified dermatologist.
How You Should Treat Your Dry Scalp?
Possibly the most effective and easiest treatment for dry scalp is a scalp massage. You can give yourself a gentle massage by simply rubbing your fingertips in a gentle, circular motion over your scalp while shampooing or applying oil.
Scalp massages can stimulate the production of natural oils and increase blood flow towards the hair follicles, meaning they receive more nutrients and hair growth is promoted.
Using lukewarm oils during massage can not only be therapeutic, but can also work as natural anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal and anti-bacterial agents which can resolve itchiness and soothe the scalp.
Running a brush through your hair is recommended as the unique structure of the boar bristle can carry natural oils produced by the scalp all the way down to the end of the hair shaft. This results in shiny, well-conditioned hair and removal of any oil or hair product build-up on the scalp.
A gentle pre-wash massage with a boar brush can open up pores on the scalp and remove dead skin cells so that the scalp can be properly cleansed and moisturised.
Running a brush through your hair is recommended as it will stimulate the scalp resulting in shiny, well-conditioned hair and removal of any oil or hair product build-up on the scalp. A gentle pre-wash massage with a brush can open up pores on the scalp and remove dead skin cells so that the scalp can be properly cleansed and moisturised.
Sometimes when the scalp is not producing enough natural oil sebum, it can cause hair to appear dull and the scalp to feel itchy and become flaky. By nourishing the scalp with a scalp treatment, you can instantly soothe and fix the main cause of dryness and itchiness.
A scalp treatment can nourish the scalp so much that problems such as itching and irritation become a rarity.
It is important to choose the correct type of hair treatment conditioning mask according to your hair type, choose one which contains a main part of natural ingredients.
A good scalp treatment should be left in for at least 20 minutes to fully penetrate the scalp. Once the treatment is complete; rinse hair with cool water to help close the hair shaft and seal in maximum moisture.
It is recommended that at home conditioning treatments are carried out at least once a week for best results.
Use Tea Tree Oil
Tea tree oil is well-known for its countless beneficial properties such as anti-bacterial and anti-septic which is why it’s a popular natural alternative to harsh chemicals.
The oil itself is found in leaves from an Australian tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) and is often found in various products such as herbal gels, creams, shampoos and conditioners.
This oil can be applied to hair in a variety of ways however as it is an essential it should not be applied directly to the scalp, or anywhere on the skin as it can cause skin irritation.
It is better to dilute the oil with a second or multiple carrier oils such as castor oil, coconut oil or other healthy oils for your hair and leave in overnight.
You can also add a few drops of 100% tea tree oil to your regular shampoo before washing your hair to reap the benefits of it.
Did you know:
The Australian Bodycare hair range with Tea Tree Oil is designed to remedy scalp problems.
It is especially effective against dandruff, irritated and dry scalp. The products are clinically documented – See the products here.
Change Your Shampoo and Hair Products
Dry scalp can be caused by shampooing too regularly or by using products which are too harsh for your scalp and hair.
The best advice is to avoid shampooing on a daily basis, or to opt for a gentle formula specially formulated for dry hair.
Frequent washing with hot water and hair products which contain alcohol can also contribute to drying out the scalp and worsening the condition. Choosing a more suitable shampoo may be trial and error, however a professional and high-quality shampoo can make a huge difference in cleansing and hydrating the scalp.
It is best to minimise or stop using heated hair products and hair dryers to avoid hair drying out and allow the scalp to have a chance to recover and naturally nourish itself.
If you can’t pack away your styling products for good, then you can always change and use more suitable, lightweight products which offer a protective layer over your hair shaft to create softer, shinier and smoother hair.
A poor diet which is deficient in key nutrients which are meant to support skin health, can be a leading factor in the development of dry scalp. By following a healthy well balanced diet, many people have found relief from their condition.
Key nutrients include;
- Zinc – Research suggests that hair, skin, teeth and nails cannot grow without zinc, the mineral is important for healthy tissue growth and repair throughout the entire body.
- Omega-3 fatty acids – dry scalp can be an indicator of a deficiency in these fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids can lead to dry skin and poor blood circulation, which contribute to dry scalp.
- Vitamin A – liver, eggs, dairy products and many fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of vitamin A which is known to support the maintenance and function of skin cells. By ensuring that enough vitamin A is included in your diet, you can minimise dry scalp.
It is also known that a diet high in sugar can worsen dandruff and dry scalp conditions. Dandruff is often associated with dry scalp and attributed to the candida yeast; therefore an over-consumption of sugar can promote growth of this yeast and contribute to the problem.
We all know how important staying hydrated is critical for a healthy glowing complexion, but did you know that dehydration can also be a cause of dry scalp.
When your body is dehydrated, you may have noticed how dry your skin becomes, as well as other symptoms such as feeling exhausted and maybe even sick but probably haven’t noticed the resulting dryness on your scalp.
Unfortunately your scalp can dry out as it is often exposed, sometimes directly in the sun and mistreated as it is not usually moisturised and given the hydration it requires. All these factors contribute to a dry, itchy and in more serious cases a flaky scalp.
The general advice is to drink six to eight glasses of water per day for optimal hydration; however, this figure does vary per person according to climate and levels of activity.
Use Coconut and Tea Tree Oil:
Coconut oil is best known for its moisturising properties in helping hair to retain lost moisture and to treat dryness. It has both anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties.
The application of combining Tea Tree oil and coconut oil can encourage blood circulation to the hair follicles and to the scalp which promotes the supply of essential nutrients.
Between hair washes, the oil can act as a protective barrier and seal moisture into the hair so that it remains soft and shiny.
Some people prefer to use warm coconut oil as a scalp treatment by applying it directly to their hair, using a comb to work the oil into the hair and then leaving the oil to soak for a few hours before shampooing.
Not only does it smell great, but as it is completely natural it’s a much better alternative to most products available on the market which offer similar results.
If you don’t like the scent of coconut oil, you can easily mix in one or two drops of your favourite smelling essential oil for a more pleasant scent.
A flaky scalp can not only be inconvenient and embarrassing, but it can also be accompanied by discomfort such as tightness, itching and stinging. Find out what causes a dry flaky scalp and how you can help reduce the symptoms and even prevent the condition from coming back.
Dandruff vs. dry scalp: what’s the difference?
When it comes to dandruff vs. dry scalp, there are some key differences that will help you in your dandruff/dry flaky scalp treatment. Read on to find out what causes these two flaky scalp concerns.
What is dandruff?
Humans and animals both shed (skin, hair, fur, feathers) in a natural process known as “dander”, which is possibly where dandruff gets its name. While everybody naturally sheds skin, usually these tiny cells remain invisible and are whisked off into the air to become dust. Dandruff, however, is when these dead skin cells build up on the surface of the skin and cluster in large, visible white flakes. They then break off from the skin and settle along the hair fiber and on your shoulders.
What is dry scalp?
Just as we are born with a certain eye or haircolor, genetics also determine our natural skin type. These skin types are usually divided into oily, sensitive, combination, normal and dry. The latter, dry skin, is caused by the skin’s incapacity to produce enough sebum and natural oils to keep itself moisturized. As a result, the top layer of the skin dries out, cracks and sheds as fine flakes, which could be the reason why you notice small white flakes of skin on your scalp and in the hair. This condition can be diagnosed through a dry itchy flaky scalp, while dandruff does not often cause irritation.
Dandruff vs. dry scalp: similar symptoms, different causes
Dandruff is not necessarily due to your skin type, and usually looks different to the small white flakes that are caused by a naturally dry flaky scalp. While dry skin accompanies dry-looking hair, dandruff isn’t related to your skin type – so you can have either greasy hair or dry hair with a flaky scalp. This is an important distinction, because dandruff is not treated in the same way as a dry flaky scalp.
How to treat dandruff vs. how to treat dry scalp / flaky scalp causes
How to manage dandruff: To remove flakes of dandruff without irritating the skin, use a gentle clarifying product like the Serie Expert Instant Clear Anti-Dandruff Shampoo for flaky scalp concerns. It contains zinc pyrithione which clarifies and purifies the scalp and all down the hair lengths. Regular use will help balance the skin’s moisture levels and help prevent visible flakes from forming.
How to treat dry flaky scalp causes: Treat your dry scalp just as you would a dry complexion – through moisturizing with the best shampoo for dry flaky scalp concerns. The Nutrifier haircare collection from Serie Expert contains glycerol and coconut oil: the range is ideal for moisturizing both the skin and hair fiber itself. The Nutrifier Masque is popular for replenishing damaged hair and soothing a dry scalp, and the shampoo for flaky scalp problems is also a firm favorite.
Other causes for an itchy flaky scalp
Some other reasons for scalp sensitivity and dry flaky scalp treatment suggestions.
Seborrhoeic dermatitis occurs on areas of the body that produces a lot of oil, which is why it is common on the scalp, upper back and nose. In infants it is known as “cradle cap”, and it can be triggered by stress, hormones, irritants (harsh detergents, chemicals, solvents etc.), cold dry weather and certain medications. The most common symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis include redness, excess oil, white/yellowish flaky scalp, pink inflamed patches and a burning or itchy flaky scalp. If you have these signs you might want to consult your doctor for a dry itchy scalp treatment.
How to treat an itchy scalp: If your itchy flaky scalp is due to sensitivity, it is important to soothe the scalp while also removing the excess flakes by using the best shampoo for flaky scalp conditions. Try Source Essentielle Delicate Shampoo or Serie Expert Sensi Balance shampoo for flaky scalps, both specifically formulated for sensitive skin prone to dandruff.
Another cause of an itchy flaky scalp could be psoriasis, a chronic autoimmune disease caused by skin cells multiplying far faster than the normal rate. As a result, dead cells build up into red, cracked and often painful scales. On the scalp, this can prevent new hair from growing, so hair thinning is often noticed around the inflamed area. Psoriasis can occur in flare-ups throughout life and, while it is not yet fully known exactly what the cause behind it is, psoriasis is believed to be related to genetics, and is not infectious.
How to manage psoriasis: dry itchy scalp treatments for psoriasis can include prescribed oral medication and topical application of ointments designed to soothe the inflammation. If you recognize the symptoms of psoriasis or any serious skin condition, it’s highly recommended to see a dermatologist for a dry flaky scalp treatment.
In addition to an expert advice, you should also adopt a sensitive cleansing haircare routine to help care for your dry itchy flaky scalp.