Even though no one actually sees the skin on your scalp, you should still care about what's going on up there...ideally before things start to get itchy and uncomfy under your cute winter beanies. "The skin of your scalp is very much like the skin of your face or the rest of your body,” explains Dominic Burg, PhD chief scientist and trichologist with Evolis Professional. "The moisture of the scalp is influenced by the sebaceous glands, which reside within each follicle. As we know with the skin of the face, there are a variety of skin types ranging from dry to oily and this is no different for the scalp.”
The symptoms of a dry scalp are more or less the same as those of dry skin in general: tightness, itching, and flaking. One thing worth keeping in mind? Dry scalp is not the same thing as dandruff. "There is a difference between dandruff and dry scalp: A dry scalp can cause flakes, but the two conditions are distinct," says Thom Priano, celebrity men’s stylist and co-founder of R+Co. As it happens, dandruff is caused by a yeast called malassezia, which results in yellow, oily flakes; dry scalp flakes, on the other hand, tend to be smaller in size and more rounded.
Make sense? Now, read on for your exhaustive guide on what might be causing dryness on your scalp, plus a handful of dry scalp remedies that actually work.
Check off these dry scalp causes
Environmental factors: "Environmentally, the biggest factor that influences scalp dryness is humidity," says Dr. Burg. "The air in the winter is particularly dry, as is the air from air conditioners in summer. This can lead to drying of the skin, leading to sensitivity, itchiness, prickliness and flaking that many people experience in the winter months.”
Product buildup: "Alcohol and sulfates can contribute to dry scalp as they all have drying properties," says Priano. Getting rid of chemicals could help clear things up up top.
Skin conditions: Dandruff, eczema, psoriasis, and sebum pore blockages are all medical reasons that your scalp could be dry. If you're concerned about any of these particular issues, it's worth chatting with a dermatologist to see what's going on.
Over-washing: No matter what shampoo you're using, lathering up too frequently could create problems on your scalp. Over-washing messes with your scalp's pH and strips it of its natural oils, which help to keep strands strong, moisturized, and protected. Enter: Pesky, white flakes.
Unfiltered H2O: Hard water—which is packed with minerals like calcium and magnesium—can have the same effect on your scalp as it does the rest of your skin.“It’s been noted that contact with hard water can lead to disruption of the protective epidermal barrier, which may aggravate atopic dermatitis, dry skin, and cause resultant itching,” says David Lortscher, board-certified dermatologist, CEO, and founder of Curology. If this happens to be the root of your issues, a filtered shower head may be all you need.
Try these scalp remedies
The Internet may have you believing that the best dry scalp remedies come from slathering things like mayonnaise, baking powder, and avocado on your scalp, but the experts agree that its best to forego these DIY methods in favor of products and solutions that were created with your actual hair in mind.
Ditch the chemicals: "I would suggest looking to remove harsh chemicals from your routine, such as sulfates, which are drying," says Dr. Burg, who recommends ditching silicones, which he says can suffocate the skin on the head and keep it from breathing and getting moisturizing ingredients.
Read your shampoo labels: One of the most foolproof dry scalp remedies, says Dr. Burg, is a solid shampoo and conditioning regimen with the proper products. "I suggest looking for product alternatives with gentle, natural ingredients," he explains. "Aloe is a great ingredient for adding moisture, as is vitamin E, but when it comes to moisture, baobab oil really is king." And be sure to stay away from anything with perfume, too, which could also be the culprit behind excess dryness.
Use scalp scrubs (with caution): There are plenty of benefits associated with scalp scrubs (like making your head less greasy and smelly, to name a few), but if you're dealing with major scalp dryness, Dr. Burg suggests using them sparingly and taking a keen eye to the ingredient labels. "Although they’re having a moment right now, scalp scrubs can actually cause more irritation to dry and unhappy scalps," he explains. "So if you want to use a scrub to clean up excess skin, make sure that it contains moisturizing ingredients as well." Try Kristen Ess Instant Exfoliating Scalp Scrub ($14), which is made with a combo of glycerin and sugar to help balance and nourish your scalp while sloughing away dead skin.
Try a supplement: "Certain supplements can help with dryness," explains Dr. Burg. "As the scalp is so similar to the rest of the skin the same principles apply. Look for supplements with key ingredients such as the Omega 3 oils and vitamins A, C, and E which are great for helping skin maintain its structure and moisture." He also suggests looking out for zinc, iron, and B vitamins (particularly biotin) to help with hydration.
Invest in argan oil: There's a reason why argan oil has become such a mainstay in the hair-care aisle of late. Because of its super-hydrating properties, a product infused with the stuff (or the straight oil itself!) can help nourish a dry, flaky skin situation. Beauty guru Josie Maran suggests making an argan oil mask, and letting it sit on your scalp for an hour before shampooing.
Treat yourself to a scalp facial: Yes, scalp facials are a thing, and yes, they are just as heavenly as you might imagine. If you can't make it into the salon to get one done at the hands of a professional, try an at-home kit like the Paul Labrecque Repair Treatment Restorative Hair & Scalp Therapy kit ($58), which uses lemongrass oil to reduce and prevent scalp dryness, and works to reverse damage on scalp and strands.
Add some aloe: In the same way aloe can be used to soothe a sunburn, it can also help treat scalp dryness. To deal with those pesky flakes, massage one tablespoon of aloe into your scalp, let it sit for five minutes, and rinse.
Check with an expert: "If a dry scalp is something that's happening to you and it seems out of your control, set up an appointment with a good dermatologist to discuss and determine a product regimen for your hair and scalp," says celebrity hairstylist Paul Labrecque with Paul Labrecque Salon and Spa in NYC, Philadelphia and Palm Beach, Florida. "Doctors can prescribe different medicated creams and cortisones, too."
Your scalp likely isn't the only thing that's dry this season. Here's your complete guide for everything you should be using on those chapped, flaky lips, plus eight skincare ingredients (under $10!) that will give you a glow now matter how cold it is outside.
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