When your scalp is dry, flakey, and itchy in the winter, it's easy to assume that the cold, dry air is to blame. So when you experience those same symptoms during the summer, it can be a bit confusing. But—fun fact—winter flaking and summer dandruff are not the same, and thus require different approaches for proper treatment.
"Dandruff is primarily caused by a yeast that proliferates on the skin, especially in oily areas. By proliferating, it creates a lot of inflammation on the scalp and it starts to scale as a result," says explains Muneeb Shah, DO, a board-certified dermatologist in Mooresville, North Carolina. "And so what you experience with dandruff oftentimes is the flaking and scaling, but the primary problem is the yeast. Now in the winter, you tend to get a little bit more dry skin, and that can contribute to flaking. But in the summer, especially in humid environments, yeast can really proliferate."
So if you're dealing with flaking caused by this excess of yeast, applying the types of heavier moisturizing products you relied on all winter long to your scalp won't help—it can actually make it worse, explains Rae Lynne Kilner, MD, a hair transplant surgeon in Beverly Hills, California.
"If the flakes are caused by an oily scalp and yeast or fungus are a factor, applying more occlusives or emollients is not the answer as it may exacerbate the condition," says Dr. Kilner. "Additionally, some essential oils on the scalp can also cause a reaction or irritation." (Dr. Shah adds that olive oil is a big no-no when dealing with dandruff, no matter the time of year, as it makes the yeast flourish.)
Instead, you should focus on fungus-fighting and exfoliating ingredients.
"Antifungal shampoos are going to be your best bet. There are a few active ingredients that address the yeast that may contribute to dandruff, including pyrithione zinc, selenium sulfide, and ketoconazole," says Dr. Kilner. She adds that you can up the ante by using an exfoliating pre-shampoo serum.
8 products to manage summer dandruff
3 pre-shampoo serums for summer dandruff
Dr. Kilner loves this pre-shampoo serum that uses zinc PCA and willowherb extract to absorb excess oil, reduce irritation, and remove flakes. Plus, it has wild-harvested baobab and marula oils, both rich in omega 6 and 9 fatty acids, for antioxidant support and moisturization.
Dr. Kilner also recommends this lightweight pre-shampoo serum that’s made with exfoliating and oil-balancing salicylic acid, soothing Fluidipure 8G, and hydrating vitamin B5.
Three to 30 minutes before you shampoo, you can apply this buildup-busting serum that Dr. Kinler recommends. It’s infused with alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids to exfoliate the scalp’s surface and dissolve sebum buildup. Plus, it has rose clay, which gently removes impurities from the scalp.
5 shampoos for summer dandruff
“Neutrogena has a whole new line of salicylic acid shampoos that just came out,” says Dr. Shah. This one blends 2.5 percent salicylic acid with cooling menthol to soothe irritation while removing excess oil and dead skin from the skin surface.
“If you find that your scalp is sensitive or easily irritated, consider switching to more gentle hair products,” says Dr. Kilner. She recommends this shampoo from Briogeo. It’s made with binchotan charcoal and plant-based exfoliators to remove oil and buildup while a blend of peppermint, spearmint, tea tree, and coconut oils soothe and refresh.
This shampoo from Phip B is made “with a great blend of zinc, coal tar, aloe vera, tea tree oil, sage, and juniper,” says Dr. Kilner. This blend cleanses while soothing irritation and balancing oil production.
Once you work some of these into your routine, give them a few weeks to see if they help. However, "if the OTC products you try are not working or you are not getting any relief with them, then you should see a specialist and consider prescription products," says Dr. Kilner.
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