While dry, itchy skin is uncomfortable anywhere on the body, it’s especially frustrating on the scalp. All that scratching leaves the head sore, causes inflammation, and sheds pesky flakes onto your shoulders. When untreated, a dry scalp can result in the deterioration of the hair follicle, causing dry, brittle strands, thinning, and hair loss.
The good news is that you can treat your dry scalp at home in a convenient and personalized way. We do, after all, create all kinds of beauty regimens customized to our unique skin types. Here, with the help of experts Bridgette Hill and Dr. Dhaval G. Bhanusali, we break down exactly how to tailor your routine to treat a dry scalp.
Meet Our Expert
Bridgette Hill is a trichologist, also known as The Scalp Therapist, in Palm Beach, Florida.
Dr. Dhaval G. Bhanusali is a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.
Make Sure Your Scalp Is Dry and Not Unhealthy
A common characteristic of a dry scalp is flaky skin, but not all skin flakes are the same. If the dead skin coming off your scalp is shedding in large chunks rather than tiny, salt crystal-like pieces, you may have a skin condition like dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis, or psoriasis, which should be treated by a professional (more on this later). Tiny flakes are a sign that your scalp is lacking in moisture — more specifically, sebum, or your skin’s natural oils. “When there is a lack of sebum production on the scalp, the microbiome is disturbed,” says Hill. To replenish your scalp’s moisture levels, Hill says you should consider the three factors that make up sebum: fatty acids, cholesterol, and squalene. Respectively, these nourish, moisturize, and reduce inflammation while balancing the skin barrier. Armed with this information, you can better treat your scalp.
Shampoo with Care
One of the greatest contributing factors to a dry scalp is when and how you shampoo. If you’re washing your hair daily, it’s time to change your habits. “You should limit shampooing to no more than two to three times a week,” says Hill. “ It is important to allow the microbiome to not be overly manipulated.” If that sounds like a long time to go without washing your hair, consider stretching your shampoos by cleansing with an apple cider vinegar rinse. R+Co Lost Treasure Apple Cider Vinegar Cleansing Rinse helps purify the scalp without removing your natural oils (or your salon color) while adding shine to your strands.
When you do shampoo, use something gentle and nourishing. Dr. Bhanusali likes hydrating glycerin, you can also look for hyaluronic acid as well as moisturizing shea, says Hill. She recommends the Rene Furterer Karité line due to its fatty acids from shea oil. “They aid in retaining moisture and the natural skin barrier on the scalp,” she explains. Those with fine hair should use the Hydra Hydrating Shine Shampoo, while those with medium to coarser texture should opt for the Nutri Intense Nourishing Shampoo. And be sure to use lukewarm water — hot water will just strip the sebum from your scalp and make the dryness worse.
Add Scalp Massage to Your Routine
While scalp massage may be a trend right now, there’s nothing fleeting about the benefits: Massage can reduce the levels of stress hormones in the body while promoting better blood flow. A recent study even showed that scalp massage can support improved hair growth, which researchers believed could be due to the increase in blood circulation. Hill also notes that this can also prevent flakes and soothe a dry scalp without the use of harsh chemical shampoos. Improved blood circulation is critical to healthy tissues and skin function, and that includes your sebaceous glands. Try a tool like Briogeo Scalp Revival Stimulating Therapy Massager ($18), which features soft, flexible rubber tips to stimulate the scalp without scratching or irritating.
You may be interested in combining your scalp massage technique with a hair oiling practice. While the reported efficacy and benefits of hair oiling are largely anecdotal, the combined practice has been used for centuries around the world. “The anecdotal benefits for hair and scalp are that when the proper oil is used on the proper scalp and hair condition and type, it can hydrate, moisturize, improve circulation, clarify, and provide protection,” says Hill. It is important to not add hair oiling into your routine if your dry scalp is due to seborrheic dermatitis, as oils can feed the bacteria that causes the condition and make it worse, says Dr. Bhanusali.
That said, if your scalp is truly just dry rather than afflicted with a more serious condition, there can be benefits to hair oiling. Dr. Bhanusali recommends looking for argan, sesame, and amla oils due to their low comedogenicity. Ranavat Fortifying Hair Serum ($70) features amla as one of its three ingredients (which are all organic) and a luxurious jasmine scent. You should also consider naturally cleansing essential oils, like citrus and rosemary, which will help reduce inflammation, nurture the scalp, and support a high-functioning hair follicle, says Hill. JVN Hair Complete Pre-Wash Scalp Oil ($29) uses squalane as its base, which mimics the essential squalene found in your own sebum, as well as rosemary and tangerine oils to rebalance the scalp and cleanse it of flakes before you rinse it all away in the shower.
See Your Dermatologist
If your scalp is truly suffering, it’s time to book a doctor’s appointment. “While washing too frequently or being in dry environments can cause it, the most common causes of dry scalp that we see in the office are seborrheic dermatitis and less frequently, psoriasis,” says Dr. Bhanusali. The former is caused by an overgrowth of the same bacteria that causes dandruff and can be cured, while the latter is an autoimmune condition that can only be controlled. While shampoos infused with active ingredients like ketoconazole can help, you may need more intervention. “If they’re not working and you have associated itch, it’s always best to get checked out and make sure you aren’t missing something that needs medical treatment,” Dr. Bhanusali says.
Frequently Asked Questions
What factors can cause a dry scalp?
Beyond medical conditions, everything from hot water, sun damage, and dry air to over-washing, over-processing, and excessively heat styling your hair can dry out your scalp. You want to treat the scalp with the same love and care that you give to your face and body — think about how blasting your whole body with a hair dryer on a regular basis would affect your skin.
What ingredients are best for a dry scalp?
A dry scalp needs moisture and lipids, like what’s found in your sebum. Hill recommends avocado and shea oils, as well as amino acids, oat, clay, or apple cider vinegar, all of which have nourishing, moisturizing, soothing, and balancing properties. “Anything being left on the scalp and hair after shampooing and conditioning should be cooling, restorative, and hydrating,” she adds.
How can I moisturize my dry scalp at home?
You may be tempted to treat your dry scalp by incorporating DIY treatments into your hair care routine, but “most tend to cause more harm than good,” says Dr. Bhanusali. Instead, focus on using gentle hair care products formulated with a blend of hydrating and nourishing ingredients like hyaluronic acid, glycerin, aloe vera, oat extracts, ceramides, and plant oils to help your scalp self regulate. We like Better Not Younger Fortifying Scalp + Hair Serum ($49), which includes ceramides, castor oil, and orange oil to help moisturize and balance the scalp.
What should I not use on a dry scalp?
You might be tempted to use a dandruff shampoo on a dry scalp to quell the flaking, but if your shedding skin is simply caused by dryness, you’ll only be exacerbating the situation. “The active ingredients used to manage dandruff will temporarily control the flakes, but deplete the scalp of moisture, creating a more dehydrated scalp,” warns Hill. These ingredients include ketoconazole, selenium sulfide, pyrithione zinc, and coal tar. You should also avoid products that feature fragrance, alcohol, and/or sulfates, she says.
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