Here's why your scalp is flaky—and how you can treat it
Kick dandruff and dry scalp to the curb.
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When you have an itchy, flaky scalp, it’s tempting to scratch, pick, and peel. But to make it really go away, you need to know what's irritating the skin and treat it accordingly. If winter is synonymous with dry weather where you live, you may assume that’s the culprit. You might be right, or you may be suffering from a condition that’s unrelated to climate. If you’re not sure what’s causing your scalp woes, don’t fret. We spoke to a dermatologist to get to the bottom of it.
What are the causes of a flaky scalp?
If you’re only noticing a change in your scalp during winter months when the weather is cold and dry, your scalp is probably lacking the natural oils it needs to stay moisturized. A dry scalp may also feel tight and produce small white flakes. To best treat dry scalp, you should use products that replenish the lost moisture (more on that in a moment). It's also important to prevent moisture loss by wearing a hat, limiting your time under a blowdryer, and avoiding long hot showers.
On the other hand, if you notice flakes year-round, and especially if they're yellowish in color, you may suffer from seborrheic dermatitis, or dandruff. This is a condition in which the skin cells turn over too rapidly, not leaving enough time for them to mature in a healthy way. This results in flaky skin. “There’s not a cure for seborrheic dermatitis, but there are times where it can be under control,” says Dr. Suzanne Friedler, a board-certified dermatologist with Advanced Dermatology PC in New York City. “Really listen to your body.” This means paying close attention to your symptoms and adjusting your routine. For example, if your scalp is particularly itchy and flaky, it may be from washing too harshly or using the wrong products. Friedler recommends picking up two or three dandruff shampoos, each with a different active ingredient—common ones are ketoconazole and selenium sulfide—and rotating them. When you’re in the shower, massage your scalp with your fingers, but be careful not to irritate the scalp by using your fingernails or rubbing too vigorously.
For solving your scalp scenario, these are top-rated products you can try.
For a sensitive scalp: Pharmaceutical Specialities Free & Clear Sensitive Skin Shampoo
When your scalp is dry, you want to gently clean it using a non-irritating shampoo before following up with a moisturizing conditioner or any scalp treatments. For a daily shampoo, try the Free & Clear Sensitive Skin Shampoo, which claims to remove flakes, scales, and product buildup without using common irritants, like dyes, lanolin, fragrance, protein, parabens, or formaldehyde.
One Amazon reviewer sings its praises: "This is the only shampoo I can use on my daughter! She has extremely sensitive skin and a very dry scalp. I wish I would have used this on her from day one."
For an irritated scalp: Living Proof Restore Dry Scalp Treatment
For a leave-in treatment that claims to hydrate a dry scalp and provide lasting relief from flaking and itching, turn to the Living Proof Restore Dry Scalp Treatment. It claims to hydrate and relieve dry skin using hyaluronic acid and balance the scalp using a “vitamin-B3-based microbiome complex.” Apply the product directly onto the scalp of clean, damp hair and massage in. Use three times a week for the best results.
One Sephora reviewer says it’s worth every penny: “I couldn’t believe how my flakes disappeared and my scalp felt moisturized and rejuvenated. Truly a holy grail!”
For a dry scalp and oily roots: Briogeo Scalp Revival Charcoal + Coconut Oil Micro-exfoliating Shampoo
If you need something to help with your dry, itchy scalp (and are pretty sure it's not dandruff), try the Briogeo Scalp Revival Charcoal + Coconut Oil Micro-exfoliating Shampoo. The shampoo claims to draw out impurities with charcoal, exfoliate dead skin cells using vegetable-derived micro-exfoliants, reduce itchiness and irritation with peppermint, spearmint, and tea tree oils, and moisturize with coconut oil.
One Sephora reviewer says this shampoo is a game-changer: “This shampoo has done wonders to control my oily roots. It also hydrates my dry scalp without making my roots greasy. I don't have to wash my hair on a daily basis anymore!”
For an itchy scalp and dry hair: Selsun Blue Dandruff Shampoo with Aloe Vera
Control dandruff and banish your itchy and dry scalp with Selsun Blue, which uses selenium sulfide, a skin medication that can control the yeast growth that is sometimes responsible for seborrheic dermatitis. The formula is pH balanced, which the company says is also the reason the shampoo is effective at reducing dandruff and scalp irritation. The shampoo also uses aloe vera leaf juice to moisturize dry strands. Use the shampoo twice each week and rinse it out thoroughly.
One Selsun Blue fan writes: “Love this shampoo. I’ve been using it for years now and don’t have dandruff and an itchy, dry scalp anymore. A little goes a long way also, which makes the bottle last long.”
For a flaky scalp: Head & Shoulders Classic Clean Dandruff Shampoo
Like other anti-dandruff shampoos, Head & Shoulders claims to eliminate flaking and itching from the scalp, but it uses pyrithione zinc, another common ingredient for treating seborrheic dermatitis. The shampoo leaves your hair feeling clean and prevents dandruff from coming back. Use it at least twice a week for the best results.
“I have tried so many dandruff shampoos and this one is easy to find, affordable, doesn't dry my hair out (I have very long hair) and [it] completely eliminated all my scalp issues,” says one Target reviewer. “I feel like this is heaven in a bottle.”
For an oily scalp: Neutrogena T/Sal Shampoo
If you have an oily scalp while suffering from dandruff flaking, try the Neutrogena T/Sal Shampoo, which claims to clear scalp build up. The shampoo’s star ingredient is salicylic acid—yes, like the acne-fighting exfoliant. Massage the shampoo into the scalp and leave the lather on for several minutes before rinsing; repeat this twice a week.
One Amazon reviewer noticed a huge difference: “I got this for scalp acne and seborrheic dermatitis. It was very stubborn and hormonal and I had tried everything and nothing worked until this.”
For a scaly scalp: Nizoral A-D Anti-Dandruff Shampoo
Nizoral A-D claims to eliminate dandruff and control itchiness and flakiness by using ketoconazole, an ingredient that binds the hair’s natural proteins together that have been damaged by seborrheic dermatitis. You should also see an improvement in your hair’s shine and manageability. For best results, use the shampoo twice a week.
“This stuff is absolutely amazing,” one Amazon reviewer raves. “I had severe dandruff that was so bad I could shake my head and it would come off. With just a few uses per week, I got rid of all of my flakes. My scalp also stopped burning from dryness. My hair has never been healthier.”
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