How to Relieve a Dry and Flaking Scalp, According to Dermatologists


@ownmyfemme / Design by Zackary Angeline

We'd be lying if we said that dandruff and scalp itchiness weren't frustrating. We liken it to the rather unfortunate scenario of noticing pesto in our teeth mid-date—unavoidable, but something we'd rather avoid. And while we know we shouldn't let an innocent sprinkling of flakes on our favorite black sweater send us into a tailspin, a dry, flaky scalp can be a downer.

However, as annoying as dandruff is, it's one of those pesky situations that at one point or another happens to just about everyone. According to dermatologist Elizabeth Tanzi, MD, the founder and director of Capital Laser and Skin Care, there's not a lot you can do to actually prevent it—especially when fall and winter's cooler temperatures come around. She notes that the frigid air will exacerbate a dry, flaky scalp.

"Seborrheic dermatitis (dandruff) is an inflammatory condition of the scalp that is very common," adds board certified dermatologist Hadley King, MD. Common symptoms are redness, itchiness, and flakes on the scalp or other areas like the eyebrows and ears. The key, as it turns out, is all in how you manage it. "For mild dandruff, try cleansing daily with a gentle shampoo to reduce oil and skin cell buildup," says certified trichologist Gretchen Friese.

In the meantime, we have some suggestions featuring our favorite, tried-and-true remedies for a dry, flaky scalp. Keep reading for the expert-approved methods that never fail to save our skin.

01 of 10

Invest in a Scalp Scrub

Christophe Robin Scalp Scrub
Christophe Robin Cleansing Purifying Scrub with Sea Salt $53.00

Get quick relief with a scalp scrub. Great for any hair type, this purifying scrub from Christophe Robin is infused with sea salt and specially formulated to help detoxify and hydrate even the most sensitive of scalps. You can use it in lieu of your normal shampoo, but be sure to follow with a moisturizing conditioner on your ends. Other formulas we love are the R+Co Crown Scalp Scrub ($38) and the IGK Low Key Cleansing Walnut Scalp Scrub ($36).

02 of 10

Use a Nourishing Oil

True Moringa Face, Hair, and Body Oil $26.00

"Many of the things that cause dry skin can also cause a dry scalp including: dry air, especially during the winter months, excessive washing, and skin conditions, such as eczema," says Friese. Therefore, hydration is key. Intensely moisturizing, but surprisingly lightweight, this nourishing oil is thoughtfully made from naturally-moisturizing pure moringa oil. While still in your warm, steamy bathroom post-shower, massage three to five drops into your roots and work gently down through your ends. Feel free to leave it in, or wash it out after a day-long Netflix session.

03 of 10


close up of pink DIY conditioner


In a pinch, you can engineer a DIY treatment with items you likely already have in your kitchen. Coconut oil, apple cider vinegar, and aloe vera are all ingredients that Friese suggests are good for calming a dry, inflamed scalp and minimizing flakes. Each one is touted for its soothing and antimicrobial properties and are frequently listed among popular DIY hair mask recipes.

04 of 10

Give Yourself a Scalp Massage

Aveda Pramāsana Exfoliating Scalp Brush $21.00

Nothing feels better than a scalp massage, and when your schedule or S.O. is unwilling, this exfoliating scalp brush from Aveda does the trick beautifully. In fact, it’s basically dry brushing for your head. Intrigued? Before you wet your hair, work the brush over your scalp and through your strands. Not only does it feel amazing, but it will increase circulation and effortlessly loosen any buildup or impurities, likely making your shampoo way more effective.

You can also use your scalp scrub and your hands instead of a brush, notes Friese. "Giving yourself a scalp massage while using the scrub will also help stimulate blood flow and encourage hair growth."

05 of 10

Avoid Alcohol in Hair Products

woman with curly red hair

Omid Armin/Unsplash 

No, we're not suggesting you skip that glass of wine with dinner. But be sure to scan the ingredients of all your hair products to make sure they don't contain alcohol. "Alcohol will dry the scalp a lot," says Friese. Mousse, in particular, is often a sneaky culprit, she adds.

Other ingredients that can be irritating to the scalp include sulfate, menthol, and eucalyptus. These "can also be drying and cause an imbalance in the PH of the scalp," notes Friese. Overall, "make sure not to use too much product when styling the hair. Product build up can cause the scalp to become oily."

06 of 10

Choose a Detoxifying Dry Shampoo

Scalp Revival Charcoal + Biotin Dry Shampoo
Briogeo Scalp Revival Charcoal + Biotin Dry Shampoo $24.00

As much as we love our dry shampoo, too much of anything is hardly ever a good thing, and the same goes for our product addiction. An overload of buildup can exacerbate dandruff and worsen (or even encourage) a dry, flaky scalp. However, this one from Briogeo is a game changer. It’s infused with white charcoal, which the brand says helps to detoxify your scalp for a much-deserved refresh.

07 of 10

Try a Clarifying Shampoo

hair and scalp wash
AQUIS Prime Detoxifying Hair and Scalp Wash $28.00

Tanzi explained to us that the best thing you can do is look for a shampoo or scalp treatment that specifically targets dandruff and the accompanying dry, flaky scalp. King likes the AQUIS Prime Detoxifying Hair and Scalp Wash ($28) which "contains charcoal, witch hazel and salicylic acid," and Head & Shoulders Smooth & Silky Daily Shampoo ($9).

For more severe cases, Friese recommends BosleyMD Anti-Dandruff Shampoo ($28). "You may need to try more than one shampoo to find the hair care regime that works for you."

08 of 10

Apply a Scalp Serum

Superbalm Scalp Treatment
Lush Superbalm Scalp Treatment $25.00

If you go with a scalp treatment, Tanzi recommends letting it sit for a while prior to rinsing. The Rolls-Royce of scalp treatments, this supremely nourishing ointment from Lush specifically targets even the most stubborn scales. Simply massage into your scalp, leave on for 20 minutes, and then shampoo it out. Infusions of coconut oil, candelilla wax, and chamomile blue oil help calm irritated skin while naturally forming salicylic acid softens buildup pre-cleanse and "helps to reduce scaling on the scalp," says King.

Another ingredient to look out for in serums and shampoos, according to King, is tea tree oil, which has "antibacterial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties." It's found in the Phyto Phytodensia Plumping Serum ($40). "Adding tea tree oil to your usual shampoo or other scalp product can also help," King adds.

09 of 10

Try a PH-Balancing Tonic

Reverie CAKE Restorative Scalp Tonic $72.00

Borderline legendary, this restorative scalp treatment is worth the investment. It's a Byrdie office-favorite and has over 10,000 'loves' on Sephora's website. Not only does it hydrate dry skin, it also promises to restore a balanced pH and promote future hair growth. Plus, it smells amazing (with notes of frankincense, sandalwood, and ylang ylang) and since it's a leave-in, the application couldn't be more effortless. 

10 of 10

See a Dermatologist

black woman touching her hair


If you continue to have problems after trying all of the above, it might be advisable to go in and see a dermatologist for a prescription. Depending on the diagnosis, they "may prescribe a topical cortisone for the scalp or other affected areas," says King. A doctor can also determine whether the cause is really Seborrheic dermatitis or something else like eczema/atopic dermatitis.

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