Dry Scalp: Causes and How To Treat, According to Dermatologists

Say goodbye to a dry, flaky scalp with these tried-and-true remedies.

woman combing her brown hair

Stocksy / Design by Tiana Crispino

Let's be honest: Dry skin can be a real drag. Not only does it lead to itchiness, irritation, and flaking but it also makes applying makeup even trickier. And since dry skin doesn't discriminate, it can happen anywhere: face, hands, legs, you name it. The possibilities (unfortunately) are endless. Perhaps one of the most problematic and confusing areas where dry skin can occur is the scalp.

However, by pinpointing the underlying causes that lead to a dry scalp, not only can we treat it, but we can (sometimes) prevent it from happening in the first place. To find out how, we asked the experts.

Meet the Expert

  • Elizabeth Tanzi, MD, is a dermatologist and the founder and director of Capital Laser and Skin Care.
  • Hadley King, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City.
  • Gretchen Friese is a certified trichologist.

Keep reading for our expert-approved remedies for fixing a dry scalp.

What Causes a Dry Scalp?

  • Hair products
  • Washing too frequently
  • Changes in the weather
  • Psoriasis
  • Eczema

Simply put, a dry scalp is caused by a lack of moisture. This can be due to a number of reasons, from how frequently you wash your hair to the products you use on it. Environmental aggressors also play a role in your scalp's health. Too much sun exposure—without the proper protection—can burn your scalp, resulting in irritation and (you guessed it) dryness. In addition, cold, dry hair can exacerbate a dry, flaky scalp, Tanzi tells us.

If you have dry skin on your hairline—or anywhere else on your body for that matter—the likelihood that you have a dry scalp is even higher. Fortunately, there's a simple solution: hydration. By keeping your scalp moisturized, you can often avoid dryness. Still, if your dry scalp is caused by an allergy or seborrheic dermatitis (aka dandruff), you'll need to resort to another fix. Moral of the hair story? Talk to your dermatologist to determine the cause of your dry skin so that you can find the best remedy.

Dry Scalp vs. Dandruff

Dry scalp and dandruff might seem similar enough—symptoms for both include dry, itchy, flaky, skin—but they are not, in fact, the same. Dry scalp is a hydration issue whereas "seborrheic dermatitis (dandruff) is an inflammatory condition of the scalp that is very common," says King. As such, they require their own set of treatments.

How to Treat a Dry Scalp

If you're looking for relief for your dry scalp, we've got you covered.

Get Quick Relief With a Scalp Scrub

Great for any hair type, the Cleansing Purifying Scrub with Sea Salt ($53) by 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).

Use a Nourishing Oil

Intensely moisturizing, but surprisingly lightweight, True Moringa Face, Hair, and Body Oil ($26) nourishing oil is thoughtfully made from 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.

DIY It

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 is frequently listed among popular DIY hair mask recipes. "Adding tea tree oil to your usual shampoo or other scalp product can also help," King adds. "It boasts antibacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-inflammatory properties."

Try a Scalp Massage

Nothing feels better than a scalp massage, and when your schedule or S.O. is unwilling, Pramāsana Exfoliating Scalp Brush ($22) from Aveda does the job beautifully. It’s basically dry brushing for your head. 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."

Choose a Detoxifying Dry Shampoo

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, Briogeo Scalp Revival Charcoal + Biotin Dry Shampoo ($25) is a game changer. It’s infused with white charcoal, which the brand says helps to detoxify your scalp for a much deserved refresh.

Apply a Scalp Serum

If you go with a scalp treatment, Tanzi recommends letting it sit for a while prior to rinsing. The Rolls-Royce of scalp treatments, Lush Superbalm Scalp Treatment ($27) is supremely nourishing and specifically targets even the most stubborn scales. Simply massage into your scalp, leave it 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.

Try a pH-Balancing Tonic

Borderline legendary, Reverie Cake Restorative Scalp Tonic ($72) is worth the investment. It's a Byrdie favorite and has over 10,000 'loves' on Sephora's website. Not only does it hydrate dry skin, but it also promises to restore a balanced pH and promote future hair growth. Did we mention it smells amazing thanks to notes of frankincense, sandalwood, and ylang ylang?

How to Prevent a Dry Scalp

As it turns out, a detox can do the body—specifically, the scalp—good. And we're not referring to forgoing that glass of wine with dinner. We're talking about avoiding alcohol in your hair care products. "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. "They can also be drying and cause an imbalance in the pH of the scalp," she notes. "Make sure not to use too much product when styling the hair. Product buildup can cause the scalp to become oily." This can actually create an environment conducive to the growth of fungi and dandruff.

When to See a Doctor

If you continue to have problems after trying any and/or all of the above remedies, 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 notes King. A doctor can also determine whether the cause is really seborrheic dermatitis or something else like eczema/atopic dermatitis.

Best Products for Treating Dry Scalp

There are a litany of high-quality (but still affordable) products aimed at treating a dry scalp. Some of the most common and most often recommended are:

  • Clarifying shampoos: King likes Head & Shoulders Smooth & Silky Daily Shampoo ($12). 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," she says.
  • Scalp treatments: Look for a shampoo or scalp treatment that specifically targets dandruff and the accompanying dry, flaky scalp, recommends Tanzi. Nutrafol's Scalp Essence ($59) is formulated specifically to address dry, itchy scalps.
  • Scalp moisturizers: Harry's Scalp Cream ($9) can be used daily to nourish and calm an itchy scalp (it's also fragrance-free so it likely won't irritate sensitive types).

The Final Takeaway

Dry scalp is a common condition associated with itching, redness, and flaking. Fortunately, it is treatable with the proper hair care routine—from pH-balanced cleansing products that specifically target a dry scalp to nourishing oils and serums that keep the scalp moisturized. However, if you are facing chronic dry scalp, it's worth seeing your dermatologist to confirm your diagnosis. They can rule out whether you are experiencing another skin condition with similar symptoms as dry scalp, as well as any contributing factors.

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