Do you have an itchy, dry scalp? You’re not alone: Half of American adults have dealt with scalp itch, according to the Journal of Investigative Dermatology Symposium Proceedings, and nearly 40% have experienced scalp flaking. This doesn’t make the condition more pleasant to have, but there is a silver lining: Interest in scalp care has increased so much over the past few years that treating a dry scalp is easier than ever.
So, whether you’re dealing with dandruff or product buildup (looking at you, dry shampoo), there’s a way to manage it. Need some guidance on your scalp-care journey? You’re in the right place. Ahead, see expert insight from leading dermatologists and trichologists—a.k.a. hair and scalp specialists—on what causes dry and itchy scalp, as well as how to prevent and treat it.
There are several reasons you might have a dry scalp, Iris Rubin, MD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Seen Hair Care, tells Glamour. “A dry scalp may be due to dry skin, just like on the rest of your body,” she explains—and so anything that dries out the rest of your skin, like dry weather and seasonal changes, can do the same to your scalp. “Dandruff, or seborrheic dermatitis, is another common cause of a dry, itchy scalp, and is thought to be related to a yeast called malassezia that lives on the skin.”
Some other common causes? A buildup of products to which your skin might be reacting to. “Products can leave a residue on the scalp for hours—even with rinse-off products like shampoo and conditioner,” says Dr. Rubin. “That residue can cause irritant or allergic contact dermatitis, leaving you with a red, flaky, or itchy scalp, so it’s important to be aware of your products’ specific ingredients.”
Psoriasis also commonly contributes to scalp itching, Caroline Robinson, MD, FAAD, a board-certified medical and cosmetic dermatologist, tells Glamour. “Scalp psoriasis is a common skin disorder inflammation in the skin that causes the skin cells to grow extremely fast and become patches of dry, itchy, flaky skin,” she says. “Psoriasis often requires management with prescription therapy, which is why I recommend speaking to your dermatologist if you suspect that you might have this.” Finally, your grooming habits could be responsible for some of your scalp discomfort. “Overwashing or underwashing can each lead to dryness or itching,” she says.
There are a few changes you can make to your routine and products that will help bring your scalp back to health. Dr. Nadir Qazi, founder of Qazi Clinic, recommends going through your hair care line up and eliminating ingredients with irritants.
“To reduce dry scalp, avoid products with harsh ingredients like sulfates, parabens, simple alcohols, formaldehyde, and synthetic fragrances. Instead, look for products with nourishing ingredients like keratin and essential fatty acids like omega-3 and omega-6 that will infuse moisture back into the scalp,” says Qazi. “Treat the dry scalp with a humectant, like an aloe vera gel, and seal the hydration with a lightweight oil like argan or jojoba before bed. If the scalp seems dry, limit the number of times the hair is shampooed per week and opt for a co-wash instead. Co-washes don’t contain as many harsh ingredients like parabens and sulfates that will strip the scalp of its natural oils.”
However, if you find that you have a sensitive scalp and have trouble finding products, there are also natural and DIY alternatives. “A few DIY options include: hair masks with moisturizing ingredients—any combinations of milk, honey, coconut oil, avocado,” says board-certified dermatologist at Art of Skin MD, Dr. Melanie Palm, MD.
The proteins and lipids in milk work together to help strengthen hair, while calcium promotes hair growth and hair loss prevention. Palm, she recommends products that are rich in hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid and vitamins. “I recommend Living Proof Scalp Care Dry Scalp Treatment, formulated with hyaluronic acid to amp up hydration and vitamin B3, which helps to rebalance your scalp’s natural ecosystem,” she explains. “I alsol recommend Nutrafol Stress Reliever Scalp Microbiome Essence, a gentle after-shampoo essence that soothes a dry scalp with pre-biotics.”
Assuming your scalp itch is the result of product buildup, managing the symptoms is as simple as modifying your scalp-care routine. “Products that are heavy in sulfates and surfactants and some fragrances can all cause dry scalp,” Helen Reavey, board-certified trichologist, celebrity stylist, and founder of hair-care brand Act+Acre, says. “Additionally, using too much dry shampoo can lead to a large amount of buildup on the scalp, blocking the hair follicles and causing various scalp issues.”
“I always try to tie scalp care back to skin care,” Reavey says. “Can you imagine layering on makeup and leaving it on your skin for three-plus days without washing it? The answer is probably no since it would leave your skin more prone to breakouts and extremely dry—and the same goes for your scalp.” Translation? It’s time to mix up your scalp-care routine. Reavey suggests incorporating oil-based treatments, like the Glamour Beauty Award Winner Scalp Detox, into your routine, as this removes excess buildup. Then follow up with a hydrating treatment or mask. It can also be beneficial to use a humidifier or dehumifier to regulate your home’s climate, and increase your water intake, she says.
Act+Acre Cold Processed Scalp Detox
Authentic Beauty Concept Hydrating Jelly Mask
If you’re experiencing an allergic reaction as opposed to product buildup however, be sure to swap out your usual hair-care products with gentler alternatives, says Dr. Rubin. “For dryness or contact dermatitis, choose shampoos with milder surfactants, or cleansers, that won’t strip the skin of natural oils,” she says. “Look for hair-care products labeled as nonirritating, and fragrance-free products, which can be helpful for those with sensitivities.” What’s more, going fragrance-free might help manage eczema symptoms, as fragrances are known for causing flare-ups of the condition.
Dr. Robinson concurs, and adds that if you’re over- and underwashing, switching up how often you wash could help too. “Depending on your hair type,” she says. “[Dry scalp] can be managed by using an exfoliating shampoo that’s gentle enough to use every hair-wash day, and/or an extra-strength exfoliating shampoo once every two weeks.”
Seen Essential Bundle, Fragrance-Free
Neutrogena Scalp Therapy Anti-Dandruff Scalp Build-up Control Shampoo
Finally, if you have dandruff, Dr. Robinson recommends opting for an over-the-counter shampoo formulated with salicylic acid to address the condition. “I often recommend starting with Neutrogena’s Scalp Therapy Anti-Dandruff collection, [because it has] four different salicylic acid formulas to effectively help with flakes and control many of the symptoms of dandruff,” she says.
If relief is not achieved with over-the-counter shampoos, however, Dr. Robinson encourages seeking out the opinion of a board-certified dermatologist. “I will often treat my patients with dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis, a more severe form of dandruff, with prescription topical anti-inflammatory solutions and prescription shampoos to gain control,” she says.
Neutrogena Scalp Therapy Anti-Dandruff Itchy Scalp Shampoo
Briogeo Scalp Revival MegaStrength+ Dandruff Relief Shampoo
Such is the case if you think you have psoriasis, as well. “Psoriasis often requires management with prescription therapy, which is why I recommend speaking to your dermatologist if you suspect that you might have this,” Dr. Robinson says. To hold you over until your appointment, however, shampoo containing salicylic acid should help ease the symptoms.
DHS Sal Shampoo
Nizoral Psoriasis Shampoo & Conditioner
Danielle Sinay is the associate beauty editor at Glamour. Follow her on Instagram @daniellesinay.
Originally Appeared on Glamour
When your scalp is suffering, it can be hard to think about anything else. Not only is the dryness and itching uncomfortable, but it can come with symptoms like flaking, scabbing, and even bleeding that are downright impossible to ignore. Those of us who suffer with chronic scalp conditions know that finding the right treatment […]
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