It's a common but uncomfortable moment: You scratch your head to soothe an itch, only to find endless flakes that land on your shoulders and beyond. There are many causes for scalp flaking and itching, the most common being everyday dandruff, followed by seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis. However, if you don't have any of these conditions, the source of these issues can sometimes be as simple as a dry or irritated scalp.
Meet the Expert
- Rebecca Marcus, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Maei MD.
- Ava Shamban, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist in Los Angeles and the founder of Ava M, Skin Five, and The Box by Dr. Ava.
The underlying cause of your scalp dryness will determine the degree to which you experience symptoms and will influence the correct course of treatment. Unlike yeast or bacteria-fueled dandruff, a dry scalp can result from many things, including using a harsh shampoo, sensitivity to fragrance, low humidity in the air, taking long or hot showers, certain medications, hormonal changes, and advanced age. When it comes to scalp dryness, board-certified dermatologist Dr. Ava Shamban says all of the associated conditions involve some form of dysregulation of skin cell turnover and low sebum production.
Our experts caution that several conditions may appear to be dry scalp but are actually something more serious. "If dry scalp is not resolving with over-the-counter treatments, it's important to see a dermatologist to rule out a more serious diagnosis and ensure that whatever is causing the problem is appropriately treated," board-certified dermatologist Dr. Rebecca Marcus shares.
With that in mind, we asked both experts for their advice on how to treat a dry scalp. Keep reading to learn eight dry scalp treatments dermatologists swear by.
Take Shorter, Cooler Showers
At the end of a long day, a hot shower can be just the thing to help you unwind. It's easy to lose track of time when you're enjoying the soothing heat of a shower, but our experts warn this can be a cause if you're experiencing scalp dryness. "Limiting time in the shower and using warm, but not hot water may help. Overly hot showers can exacerbate dry skin, including dry scalp," Marcus explains.
In addition to the temperature and length of your showers, you may also want to evaluate how often you wash your hair. "If your scalp is extremely dry, it may help to wash less frequently, maybe every other day instead of daily," Marcus shares. Consider using a shower cap to protect your scalp when you shower and don't plan to wash your hair.
Use an Oil Treatment
Dry scalps can benefit from added moisture in the form of an oil treatment. Marcus says applying an oil, like castor or coconut oil, directly to the scalp can help soften flakes and ultimately help to repair the skin barrier. Coconut oil, in particular, is deeply nourishing to both the scalp and hair. Some hair oils contain ingredients, like rosemary oil, which may also have added benefits like promoting hair growth in addition to hydration.
If you want to maximize the benefits of an oil, Shamban recommends creating a hot oil treatment. To do this, carefully warm the oil before applying it to your scalp (make sure the temperature isn't too hot), then cover your hair with a shower cap and apply heat using a blow dryer or hot steam from the shower. Shamban recommends the Philip B Rejuvenating Oil, which she calls a "heavenly life-saver."
Use a Gentle, Fragrance-Free Shampoo
Dryness, itching, and even flaking can be from irritation, Shamban shares. She adds that harsh products with chemicals, excessive sulfates, or fragrances can create dryness and the same effects. Marcus agrees and recommends using a gentle, fragrance-free shampoo, as this can help to repair the skin barrier if you have sensitive skin and experience irritation from harsh shampoos and common irritants.
If changing to a gentle shampoo does not improve your scalp irritation or you experience any cracking, bleeding, or scabbing, it's time to visit a board-certified dermatologist. "If it's inflamed, red, and scaly, it may be a condition beyond dry scalp. Dry scalp is often confused with dandruff or the more severe inflammatory condition known as seborrheic dermatitis," Shamban cautions.
Add a Hydrating Hair Serum
Hair serums can treat a variety of hair concerns, and Shamban says some hydrating hair serums may also benefit the scalp. Specifically, she recommends The Ordinary's Natural Moisturizing Factors + Hyaluronic Acid Scalp Serum ($14), which is designed to be applied from roots to ends. If a product's instructions don't say to apply it to the scalp, it's best to follow this, as it may contribute to buildup. While it may seem harmless, excessive product buildup can create dryness, worsening your initial problem.
Try a Gentle Scalp Exfoliator
Many people love scratching their scalp while shampooing, but this can make flaking worse. Scratching may help to dislodge the flakes, but the damage it causes to the skin barrier will promote the creation of more dry skin as the scalp heals. Instead of using your nails, seek out scrubs and shampoos designed to gently exfoliate the flakes away without causing further damage.
A salicylic acid shampoo can help to loosen flakes, and a gentle scalp scrub can also help to wash them away, Marcus explains. Shamban agrees and adds that using a light scrub on your scalp can help to avoid buildup. Shamban recommends the Briogeo Scalp Revival Charcoal + Coconut Oil Micro-Exfoliating Shampoo ($42), a two-in-one shampoo and scrub.
Try a Keravive Scalp Treatment
If dry scalp is not resolving with over-the-counter treatments, it's important to see a dermatologist to rule out a more serious diagnosis. Another benefit of consulting your dermatologist? They have access to more intensive treatments to help your condition. "A dermatologist may prescribe a topical steroid to help control flaking on the scalp," Marcus shares.
Your dermatologist will be able to rule out more serious conditions and then pursue a more rigorous regimen for your scalp dryness, which may include in-office treatments like the HydraFacial Keravive Scalp Treatment. The HydraFacial Keravive will clean the scalp, infuse moisture, and seal in nourishment to help heal and calm a dry, itchy scalp, Shamban explains.
Massage the Scalp
Massaging your scalp can provide many benefits. Scalp massage stimulates blood flow to the area, which is believed to relieve tension and potentially promote new hair growth. When it comes to dry scalp treatment, massaging can help clear buildup that may cause dryness and help loosen flakes without causing irritation. Shamban recommends that you massage your scalp with your fingertips nightly, but you can also consider an in-shower scalp massager to use when you shampoo.
Receive Red Light Therapy
LED light treatments are popular for their use on the face to treat a variety of concerns. Red light therapy has been used to treat irritation and inflammation in the face, so it's easy to see where it may be helpful for similar scalp issues as well. Shamban recommends red light treatment for the scalp, and there are both in-office and at-home options for treatment.
At-home red light therapy machines can be pricey, so consult your dermatologist before investing in one. It's important to ensure you know what you're dealing with, as certain scalp conditions require prescription medication or creams for effective treatment.
What causes a dry scalp?
A dry scalp can be the result of many things, including using a harsh shampoo, sensitivity to fragrance, low humidity in the air, taking long or hot showers, certain medications, hormonal changes, and advanced age.
What can scalp dryness be a symptom of?
Scalp dryness can be indicative of more serious scalp conditions, such as everyday dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis, psoriasis, and more.
When do I need to consult a doctor about my dry scalp?
If you experience any cracking, bleeding, or scabbing, it's time to visit a board-certified dermatologist.
Kim I-H, Kim T-Y, Ko Y-W. The effect of a scalp massage on stress hormone, blood pressure, and heart rate of healthy female. J Phys Ther Sci. 2016;28(10):2703-2707. doi: 10.1589/jpts.28.2703