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For many of us, the sheer number of products in our bathrooms testifies to the commitment we have to caring for our hair. From high-quality shampoos and conditioners to hair growth oils and leave-ins, we do our very best to ensure that our locks are healthy, shiny, and frizz-free. However, many of us find our efforts thwarted when we're faced with the dreaded issue of a dry, itchy, and often flaky scalp. Not only can this cause unrelenting discomfort, but flakiness can also result in self-consciousness (not to mention a fear of wearing black shirts).
"Dry scalp presents with small dry ﬂakes and an itchy scalp and often coincides with dry skin on other parts of the body," explains Dr. Snehal Amin, MD, co-founder and surgical director of MDCS Dermatology "Basically, a lack of moisture is the cause for the itchy, ﬂaky skin seen with dry scalp. In contrast, with dandruff, the issue is an oily scalp which presents with larger yellow/ white oily ﬂakes."
But what causes a dry scalp and, once that dryness comes about, what can we do to fight it? We've consulted Dr. Amin along with Hairstory (opens in new tab) hairdresser Jennifer Covington-Bowers to learn about what causes scalp irritation, how to prevent it, and what products can be used to treat it.
What Causes a Dry, Irritated Scalp?
"Hair care products, dry, cold winter weather and aging are all potential etiologic factors for this condition," says Dr. Amin. "Shampoos and other hair care products can deplete the hair of oils, leaving the scalp feeling stripped and irritated. The skin of the scalp ages just as it does on the rest of your body. Aging skin, including on the scalp, is more dry and less able to hold moisture."
Covington-Bowers adds that skin conditions such as scalp psoriasis and eczema can also aggravate one's scalp. She continues, “Other triggers include environmental factors, certain hair products, hormonal changes, dietary triggers, excessive washing, and genetics.” One can also be diagnosed with seborrheic dermatitis (seb derm), which results in inflamed, scale-like patches on the scalp.
If you're concerned about scalp irritation and want to get to the bottom of the issue, both of our experts stress the importance of seeing a physician who can give you a proper diagnosis. "It is important to note that a dry, itchy and even ﬂaky scalp can be a symptom of many different medical conditions. The underlying cause can be infectious, inﬂammatory, or even neoplastic in nature," says Dr. Amin. "The ﬁrst step is actually to see your dermatologist to conﬁrm the correct diagnosis."
How to Prevent Scalp Irritation
Anxious about scalp irritation and eager to avoid it? Us, too. And while dandruff, itching, and dryness are relatively common problems, there are several means of maintaining good scalp health in order to prevent them.
First and foremost, Dr. Amin says to keep an eye on the ingredients in your hair care products, listing sulfates, parabens, formaldehyde, silicone, and fragrance as the most important components to avoid. He explains, "Sulfates are foaming agents which are harsh and deplete the hair of oils. The ingredient which may not be as intuitive of a problem is silicone, [which] coats the hair and gives it sheen." However, he says that silicones "repel water and keeps the hair and scalp from getting the moisture it needs." Finally, he says, "Parabens and formaldehydes are preservatives which are absorbed by the skin and cause allergies and irritations."
Meanwhile, Covington-Bowers advises her clients to avoid irritating their scalps by washing their hair too frequently. “When we over-wash our hair it strips the natural oils that we need to keep both the hair and scalp hydrated," she says.
Treating Scalp Irritation
If you're struggling with a dry, flaky, or otherwise irritated scalp, don't worry: Relief is within reach. In addition to switching out any damaging hair products for gentler ones, Dr. Amin recommends introducing new products into your haircare regimen, such as a scalp scrub.
"Scalp scrubs are exfoliants that are used to boost the health of the scalp by removing product build up," explains Dr. Amin, adding that scrubs also "invigorate hair follicles clogged by accumulation of dead cells, dirt and debris. This helps alleviate dry scalp by allowing the hair and scalps natural oils to come through. If you have dandruff, scalp scrubs are also helpful in removing overgrowth of yeast."
I, too, use a scalp scrub as needed, but I'll admit that application feels tricky at first—particularly if you have long hair. For that reason, we asked Dr. Amin for a bit of help.
"Scrub treatments are focused on the scalp, so the product should be placed on the head, gently massaged with small circular motions, and then rinsed," he says. "Do this after shampooing, while the hair is still wet. For people with a dry scalp, try adding this to your routine once every other week. Over-exfoliating can be damaging, so it is important not to overdo it."
Best Scrubs for Scalp Irritation
Dr. Amin says that this scrub "combines both physical and chemical exfoliants in a gentle formula which is suitable for sensitive dry scalp. It's moisturizing and leaves scalp soothed and hair soft. It also smells great and is a luxe addition to any hair care routine."
This is the scalp scrub I use. I have a little patch behind my ear that gets dry every now and again, and this scrub always resolves the itchiness after application. Plus, it smells great and the price can't be beat!
Experiencing a chronic itch that just won't go away, regardless of the weather? "I was scratching like crazy, and had little flakes coming off my dry scalp," sympathizes one reviewer. "I also have dry hair. This product has helped immensely. I am using it 1x/week, and it's making a huge difference."
This scrub works for both dry and oily scalps, and promises to resolve the flakiness and discomfort that comes with these conditions. Review after review lauds the product's ability to calm an itchy, aggravated scalp. Plus, one helpful customer writes that "a little goes a long way," so you can be sure of the bang you're getting for your buck.
This scrub from BosleyMD has dozens of documented fans, including one person with scalp psoriasis who calls this one of their "can't-live-without products." It's also cruelty-free, so you can scrub to your heart's content without a bit of guilt.
Best Shampoos for Scalp Irritation
"Shampoos are often the culprit behind dry scalp," Dr. Amin reiterates. "Try switching to this super gentle formulation, which is free of fragrances, parabens, sulfates, and other harsh ingredients."
Conington-Bowers recommends this cleanser specifically because of its gentle, detergent-free formula. "It cleans and conditions gently and safely with essential oils instead of harsh cleansers," she says, adding, "it’s meant to keep the integrity of the scalp in balance.”
This is another product that I personally swear by. When I got a terrible sunburn on my scalp this summer after going on vacation (use hats and sunscreen, people!), my skin started flaking along my part-line. This shampoo eased my discomfort and noticeably reduced flaking without stinging my sensitive, ultra-dry scalp.
If you have sensitive skin, it's important to keep in mind that your scalp is going to have that same sensitivity. Thus, gentle cleansers like this one are a great fit—one reviewer specifically recommends it for people with sensitive skin. Plus, the formula is color-safe, so you don't have to worry about stripping your hair of its color when you're in the shower.
This option from Oribe has a near-perfect online rating, and the reviews help us understand why. One customer raves, "As someone who deals with dandruff and itchy dry scalp, this has been one of the only products that actually worked. It relieves the itchy, gets rid of the flakes, and smells amazing! I use it once weekly and it always does the job."
Best Oils for Scalp Irritation
I love this oil from Black-owned brand Naturally Drenched. It features natural ingredients and is lightweight enough to use daily. Not only do I use it to massage my scalp, but I also carry it in my purse to revitalize my hair on particularly frizzy days.
I'm a huge fan of Morrocanoil's products for both their efficacy and their clean, powder-fresh scent. This product in particular makes my scalp feel hydrated and soft without making my roots look greasy. Plus, this rich formula lasts for ages!
This oil both soothes irritated scalps and promises to support healthy hair growth and slow hair thinning. Several reviewers say that its tea tree oil-based formula provided "immediate relief" to their irritated scalps. Another helpfully points out that it works great for braid maintenance as well as scalp care whilst donning protective hairstyles.
This oil from Briogeo promises to promote hair and scalp health for all hair types, from coily to swavy to straight and everything in-between. One reviewer even calls it the "holy grail for my dry scalp."
Not only does this oil contain tea tree oil in order to soothe an itchy, irritated scalp, but it doubles as a hair growth oil by supporting scalp and root health. Multiple reviewers say that they've seen visible results in just a few weeks.
Meet the Experts
Dr. Snehal Amin is a board-certified dermatologic surgeon and dermatologist. He graduated from Harvard College, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and Cornell-New York Hospital Dermatology Residency, and went on to serve as Director of Mohs, Laser and Dermatologic Surgery at New York Medical College. Since then, he has founded MDCS Dermatology: Medical Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery in New York City and started teaching as a Clinical Assistant Professor of Dermatology at New York Presbyterian Hospital and Weill Cornell Medical College.