Let's get to the root of where beautiful hair begins—the scalp. But when your scalp is itchy, dry, or flaky, it can be hard to feel like you have healthy, strong locks. "The scalp, specifically the hair follicles, are the manufacturing plant for your hair," says Iris Rubin, M.D. "It is best to keep the scalp happy and healthy to optimize hair health."
We talked to two haircare experts, who shared their best tips for keeping your scalp healthy. Keep scrolling to learn how to say goodbye to scalp dryness.
Meet the Expert
- Iris Rubin, M.D., is a Harvard-trained, board-certified dermatologist and the co-founder and chief medical officer of SEEN haircare. She specializes in the relationship between hair health and skin health.
- Gretchen Friese is BosleyMD's trichologist and stylist. She is also a hairstylist and salon director at Foushee SalonSpa in Denver.
Find the Root of the Issue
While a dry scalp can be caused by dry skin similar to anywhere else on your body, it can also be a sign of something else: "Other common causes of a dry scalp include an irritation or allergy from a haircare product and seborrheic dermatitis (dandruff), which may be related to a yeast called malassezia that lives on the skin," says Rubin.
The flakier your scalp is, the more likely it is that dead skin cells may mix with sebum (the natural oils from your skin) and potentially cause clogged pores.
Friese explains, "Dry scalp occurs when the scalp does not produce or hold enough moisture. Like other forms of dry skin, this can cause itching, flaking, and irritation. It can also cause the hair to look dry, since oil from the scalp helps condition the hair."
"People with dry skin are more prone to dry scalp. This means 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," adds Friese.
A dry scalp can even affect how your hair grows. Rubin continues, "We don't know for sure how clogged pores on the scalp affect the hair, though some believe it can negatively impact hair health. And significant inflammation on the scalp in some cases can certainly contribute to hair loss."
To be on the safe side, it's always good to check with a dermatologist to see what's really up. Different causes of dry scalp require different treatments, even if dry skin is the common factor.
Choose a Shampoo for Scalp Health
Some shampoos and conditioners may strip the scalp of its natural oils, leaving it dry and irritated. "Consider avoiding sulfates in shampoo, which tend to be more harsh cleansers that can strip the skin of its natural oils," says Rubin.
If scalp dryness is a problem, consider switching to shampoos and conditioners specially formulated to suit the scalp. Friese adds, "Pyrithione zinc is an antibacterial and antifungal agent. It works great for dandruff, dry scalp, and also oily scalp. It also has DHT inhibitors, for people who are concerned with hair loss."
"For mild dandruff, try cleansing daily with a gentle shampoo to reduce oil and skin-cell buildup. If that doesn't help, try a medicated dandruff shampoo. You may need to try more than one shampoo to find the haircare regime that works for you. You may need repeated or long-term treatment. If these options do not work, see a dermatologist for further treatment," Friese continues.
But, again, make sure to contact a professional to determine how you should alter your haircare routine. Rubin suggests more frequent washings with a medicated shampoo for those with dandruff, which will help more than just using a moisturizing product on its own.
Apply a Hair Oil or Serum
If dandruff isn't your main issue, "there are scalp serums, lotions, and oils that can moisturize the scalp just like you would moisturize other skin areas," says Rubin.
Replenish the scalp's moisture directly with an oil or a serum specifically intended for the scalp and hair. If you do this step at the start of your day, wet your hair first to avoid too much of the product being picked up by the strands, and use a cotton swab to apply it directly to the scalp.
"I would recommend serums versus oils, as oils can clog the follicles and cause other issues," Friese adds.
At night, you can be more generous with how much product you use. Massage it into the scalp, and even run it through your strands.
Use Astringent Ingredients
Applying oils directly to the scalp has the potential to leave hair looking and feeling greasy. Offset this with naturally astringent ingredients like tea tree oil or apple cider vinegar.
If you're noticing a lot of product or dead-skin buildup, you can also exfoliate your scalp, similar to how you would the rest of your skin. But make sure you're not overdoing it. "Avoid exfoliating too often so you don't irritate your skin. And it's best to avoid exfoliating if you have eczema or psoriasis on your scalp since the skin is already inflamed," advises Rubin.
Try a Scalp-Targeting Treatment
If your scalp is particularly problematic, use a haircare treatment that specifically targets the scalp. The most important thing? "Make sure your haircare products agree with your skin and are not the cause of the dryness," says Rubin. From exfoliating scalp "facials" to masks to anti-aging serums, there are plenty of scalp-focused products on the market ready to soothe, moisturize, and revive dry, irritated scalps.
Friese adds, "A scalp massage brush may help dilate blood vessels beneath the skin, which can encourage hair growth. The use of a scalp scrub while massaging can also help remove any dead skin cells, oils, [and] product buildup that can clog follicles, causing hair loss."
Cut Back on the Number of Products You Use
While all of the previous steps require adding new products into your haircare regimen, one of the most important steps to having a healthy, moisturized scalp might actually be cutting back on the number of products you use. Try to keep your haircare routine relatively simple, nixing harsh ingredients and chemicals and opting for a streamlined approach that makes use of natural formulas that won't irritate your scalp or strip it of oils.
It's important to remember that styling products can also react with your skin, so make sure to check those ingredient lists, too. Look for products that have noncomedogenic ingredients, meaning they won't clog the pores on your scalp or on your face.
"Too many products can throw off the pH balance of the scalp and cause
additional issues. Cleansing the scalp and making sure it is free of product
buildup is also very important," Friese concludes.
Try Scalp Oiling
Massaging oil into your scalp as a regular treatment will add hydration to dried strands. This is a treatment for dehydrated hair follicles that will help prep the hair for styling. Scalp oiling, however, is not recommended for those with dandruff, but rather dry scalps that need an extra boost of hydration. This will help with both circulation and decongesting the scalp.
Visit a Head Spa
Head spas offer what are essentially facials for your scalp, offering treatments that address concerns from dryness to build up. The head spas of today often come from the Japanese practice, where scalp-focused services are offered at nearly every hair salon.
If your scalp concerns are on the more severe side, a head spa visit may only offer temporary relief, and a trip to the dermatologist may be the best course of action.
Why is my head itching so badly?
If the itching on your scalp is really intense, you may be dealing with more than just a dry scalp. Check in with your healthcare provider to determine if you have an underlying condition like inflammation.
Should I shampoo every day if I have dandruff?
The natural oils your hair produces can help keep your scalp hydrated and protected, and they get removed every time you shampoo. Therefore, it's best to keep your hair washes spaced out if you can.
Why is moisture important for hair?
Without moisture, hair becomes dry, brittle, and prone to breakage. When your hair is moisturized, it's thriving and keeping your scalp happy, too.
Does moisture help grow hair?
Although moisture doesn't speed hair growth, it does prevent breakage and tangles. This can help retain the length and continued growth of your hair.