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 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 scalp's 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 Overall Scalp Scrub for Scalp Irritation: Christophe Robin Cleansing Purifying Scrub with Sea Salt
- Best Overall Shampoo for Scalp Irritation: Vanicream Shampoo
- Best Overall Oil for Scalp Irritation: Moroccanoil Dry Scalp Treatment
Best Scrubs for Scalp Irritation
Best Affordable Scalp Scrub
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 immediately resolves the itchiness after application. Its rich formula lathers well and its neutral, subtle scent pairs brilliantly with any shampoo, lotion, or perfume. And because of its moisturizing ingredients, it’s also great for minimizing frizz, enhancing shine along the top of the hair, and relieving roots exhausted from tight up-dos. And the price can’t be beat!
Pros: generous size; affordable; cruelty-free; vegan; editor-approved
Cons: can be difficult to squeeze out of the bottle
Customer Review: "I always have issues in the winter with my hair being oily, flaky, and itchy. I have long (mid-back), wavy, dirty blonde (not dyed) hair. After one shower with this stuff, the itch and the flakes went away completely, and my scalp returned to the level of oiliness it demonstrates throughout the rest of the year. Using this stuff on my scalp felt so good, and afterwards my roots were way softer than they normally are." -Sun Bum
Best Shampoo for Sensitive Scalps
If you have sensitive skin, it's important to keep in mind that your scalp is, essentially, an extension of your face, and should be treated with the same sensitivity. Thus, gentle cleansers like this one—which is made with micellar water— are a great fit. One reviewer specifically recommends this formula for people with sensitive skin, citing its use of natural, moisturizing ingredients like coconut oil. Plus, the formula is color-safe, so you can cleanse thoroughly without worrying about stripping your ‘do of its brand-new shade.
Pros: color-safe; immediate results; isn't drying; clarifying
Cons: high price
Customer Review: "My hair gets extremely oily fast and this has been a great addition to my routine." -Kevin.Murphy
Best Scalp Scrub for Dry Scalps
If you struggle with a dry scalp, consider this vegan scrub, which cleanses skin of flakes and buildup without over-exfoliating or drying it out. Dr. Amin stands by the vegan formula, writing that it "combines both physical and chemical exfoliants in a gentle formula which is suitable for sensitive dry scalp. It's moisturizing and leaves the scalp soothed and hair soft.” To top it all off? She adds, “It also smells great and is a luxe addition to any hair care routine."
Pros: made with sensitive skin in mind; sulfate-free; vegan; expert-approved
Cons: high price; relatively small bottle
Customer Review: "This is quite literally the ONLY thing that has helped to ease flakes from the chemical damage on my scalp." -Sephora
Best Scalp Scrub for Itchiness
Experiencing a chronic itch that just won't go away, regardless of the weather? Consider this hydrating scrub from cult-favorite haircare brand Kérastase, which promises to exfoliate and soothe the irritated scalp without leaving it stripped of moisture. Reviewers back up the brand’s claims, with one writing, "I was scratching like crazy, and had little flakes coming off my dry scalp. I also have dry hair. This product has helped immensely. I am using it once a week, and it's making a huge difference."
Pros: suitable for regular use; hydrating; clarifying
Cons: contains sulfates
Customer Review: "This is a fantastic scrub to help with dry scalp. I only wash my (extremely thick - but not coarse - long, wavy, color-treated) hair two to three times a week, which has helped with texture but caused flaking problems. Using this scrub has gotten rid of about 90 percent of the flakes." -Sephora
Best Versatile Scalp Scrub
This award-winning scrub form Christophe Robin works for both dry and oily scalps, and promises to resolve the flakiness and discomfort that accompany both conditions. Review after review lauds the product's ability to calm an itchy, aggravated scalp, alleviating itching and ridding the skin of those nasty flakes. Plus, one helpful customer writes that "a little goes a long way," so you can be sure that you’re investing in a highly potent product that’ll last you as long as possible.
Pros: good for both oiliness and dryness; cruelty-free; works on all hair types; color-safe; affordable
Cons: strong scent
Customer Review: "This cleansing purifying scrub with sea salt does wondrous things to your hair and scalp! No other shampoo does to my hair what this product does: it's clean, shiny, full of body & does not become limp & oily the next day. I can even go THREE days between shampoos with this if I want." -Nordstrom
Best Scalp Scrub for Psoriasis
This scrub from BosleyMD is clinically tested to alleviate itching and irritation on the scalp, and is infused with ingredients like rosemary oil, shea butter, and caffeine—all of which support healthy hair growth, too. One reviewer with scalp psoriasis calls this formula one of their "can't-live-without products"—though, if you struggle with a condition like psoriasis, you should consult with a trichologist or dermatologist before trying any new products. It's also cruelty-free, so you can scrub guilt-free to your heart's content.
Pros: works on sensitive scalps; cruelty-free; exfoliating
Cons: high price for small bottle
Customer Review: "Love this scrub. Smells lightly minty, and scrub granules are just right and gentle on the scalp. Hair feels clean after, safe for sensitive scalps like mine." -iHerb
Best Shampoos for Scalp Irritation
Best Affordable Shampoo for Scalp Irritation
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 sun hats and sunscreen, people!), my skin started peeling along my part-line, resulting in embarrassing flaking and a scalp that was tender and painful to the touch. This shampoo eased my discomfort and noticeably reduced flaking without stinging my sensitive, ultra-dry scalp. It’s also great for use when your scalp is oily or prone to dandruff, or even for regular use.
Pros: editor-approved; contains tea tree oil; soothing; cooling
Cons: tingling effect may be unpleasant for some; contains sulfates
Customer Review: "The best thing about this shampoo, according to the brand, is that it does not contain any ingredients that might make your scalp act up. Moreover, it is completely safe for people with damaged and color-treated hair to use this shampoo." -iHerb
Best Gentle Shampoo for Scalp Irritation
There are a number of shampoo options out there, many of which boast beautiful packaging, ultra rich formulas, and scents delicious enough to tempt a taste. However, Dr. Amin reminds us that when it comes to effective hair and scalp care, simpler is often better. "Shampoos are often the culprit behind dry scalp," she reiterates. "Try switching to this super gentle formulation, which is free of fragrances, parabens, sulfates, and other harsh ingredients." It’s also affordable, proving that great hair doesn’t need to come at a high price.
Pros: paraben-free; gluten-free; dermatologist-recommended; sulfate-free; made for sensitive skin; affordable
Cons: contains pentylene glycol, which can be a mild irritant for some
Customer Review: "I have so much trouble with my hair, now that I am older. Vanicream is a wonderful product. It is gentle, and my hair really looks replenished after a wash. It is free of scent, so does not irritate." -Walgreens
Best Balancing Shampoo for Scalp Irritation
Covington-Bowers recommends this cleanser specifically because of its gentle, detergent-free formula. The formula is made to work on all hair types, textures, and curl patterns, and supports scalp health so that your hair follicles have an optimal environment for hair growth. "It cleans and conditions gently and safely with essential oils instead of harsh cleansers," attests Covington-Bowers. She also adds that the cleanser "is meant to keep the integrity of the scalp in balance,” so you’ll no longer need to worry about flakiness, dandruff, acne, or clogged pores.
Pros: balancing; expert-approved; works on all hair types
Cons: high price
Customer Review: "New wash works wonders for my fine thin hair. It now has body, and has stopped falling out." -Hairstory
Best Shampoo for Dandruff
Not only do reviewers love this shampoo for getting rid of dandruff, but they also write that it contains ingredients that battle buildup, clear pores, and turn the scalp into a hospitable place for hair to grow. Indeed, this formula contains salicylic acid, which is perfect for eradicating excess oils that cause dandruff, acne, itching, and greasiness on the scalp. Plus, this Oriba shampoo is also formulated with biotin and caffeine, which support the strength and retention of hair strands and encourage continued growth.
Pros: keratin-safe; effective
Cons: high price; exfoliant may sting for some
Customer Review: ""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." -Dermstore
Best Oils for Scalp Irritation
Best Scalp Oil for Dryness
I'm a huge fan of Morrocanoil's products for both their efficacy and for their signature clean, powder-fresh scent. This product in particular makes my scalp feel hydrated and soft without making my roots look greasy, and it tames disorderly baby hairs and flyaways without resulting in the crunchy feel of a gel. The formula contains salicylic acid, making it perfect for those with oily, acne-prone scalps, but it also contains hydrating ingredients like argan oil, making suitable for reducing dryness and flaking.
Pros: fresh scent; long-lasting; includes argan oil; includes salicylic acid to combat acne and oiliness
Cons: high price
Customer Review: "This is so amazing! As soon i applied this on my scalp, the itching stopped. I am so happy! Finally! My scalp was dry without flakes, just itchy and this helped stop it right away!" -Sephora
Best Charcoal-Infused Scalp Oil
This popular oil from Briogeo uses clean, plant-based ingredients like peppermint and tea tree oil in tandem with clarifying elements like charcoal and witch hazel. The result is a balancing, soothing products that halts discomfort by removing impurities and buildup from the scalp and hydrating red, angry skin. It works for both dry and oily scalps, no matter the hair type or density, and creates an immediate cooling effect on the scalp that reviewers love. One even calls the product “the holy grail” for their dry scalp.
Pros: works on all hair types; clarifying; gluten-free; clean
Cons: high price for small bottle
Customer Review: "This stuff is great. I actually use it as a pre-shampoo treatment and leave it in for a few hours before doing my weekly deep shampoo. It really helps break up the oil and buildup on my scalp and keeps my scalp feeling clean yet hydrated. I tend to have a pretty oily scalp yet dry hair, and this has helped balance my scalp and prevented my hair from getting greasy so quickly." -Sephora
Best Natural Hair Oil for Scalp Irritation
I love this oil from Black-owned hair brand Naturally Drenched. It features natural ingredients and is lightweight enough to use daily. Not only do I use it to massage my scalp for better hair growth, but I also carry it in my purse to revitalize my hair on particularly frizzy days. It’s perfect for taming annoying fly aways and baby hairs, for smoothing down a slicked-back style, and for hydrating my lengths and ends. And because it’s so small, it’s the perfect TSA-friendly hair option to pack on vacation.
Pros: Black-owned brand; natural ingredients; editor-approved
Cons: small bottle; high price
Customer Review: "It's one of the lightest oils I've tried so far. It doesn't make my hair greasy, but still gives it a gorgeous shine. It has an amazing subtle watermelon smell (because it's literally just watermelon oil - no added fragrance!). I've been using it for several months, and it quickly became my go-to hair oil to protect my hair from frizz and keep it healthy." -Naturally Drenched
Best Cooling Oil for Scalp Irritation
This serum from Bread Beauty Supply promises to soothe irritated scalps, support healthy hair growth, and slow hair thinning by making the scalp a more optimal environment for growth. Several reviewers write that the tea tree oil based formula provided immediate relief to their scalps, alleviating itching and halting redness and flakiness. Another reviewer with natural hair points out that the formula works great for braid maintenance as well as for scalp care whilst donning protective hairstyles. Plus, it’s versatile enough for use on just about any part of the body when skin gets a little too dry (think: elbows, ankles, knees, and so on).
Pros: good for sensitive skin; works well with natural hair; stimulates hair growth and thickening
Cons: cooling effect can be polarizing among customers
Customer Review: "I bought a few different scalp serums to try because i was desperate. This was the winner by a long shot. I actually felt and saw results, my dry, tired scalp loved this, and I didn’t get overly oily after either!!" -Sephora
Best Oil for Immediate Scalp Relief
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. Like most formulas based in tea tree oil, it also provides a soothing, cooling sensation on the scalp. Meanwhile, the drops also contain aloe vera, which hydrates the skin and can combat sunburn on the scalp, along with peppermint, which supports blood circulation to the scalp, aiding in hair growth. Multiple reviewers said they saw visible results in just a few weeks.
Pros: immediate results; affordable; lightweight; enhances hair shine
Cons: small bottle
Customer Review: "Tried the drops when my daughter purchased and I am completely impressed. I am a retired hairstylist and I can assure you, you will not regret trying these drops. My hair is growing so quickly that even my family and friends have noticed. And [my hair is] definitely healthier." -Sally Beauty
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.
Jennifer Covington-Bowers is a hairstylist and colorist based in New York City. In addition to working with private clients, she has assisted fashion photographers, beauty brands, and have been on beauty teams at New York Fashion Week.