7 Ways to Put an End to Itchy Dry Scalp
Just when you thought dry shampoo — that lauded snooze-button cure of the iPhone Century — could do no wrong, it happens. Slowly at first, then with increasing persistence: A showering of fine white flakes falling around your face with every hair flip.
Is that from my scalp? You wonder in a haze of stunned betrayal. Thank you, next.
Turns out dry is not only an apt descriptor for the no-bad-hair-days hero but also an end result...if you use it, like, every day without showering for weeks, like moi. That was my story arc with dry shampoo, which is now banned from my hair care repertoire. But the back-stabbing, itchy scalp conundrum got me wondering...how important is scalp care? And how can I prevent it from getting that dry again, dry shampoo or no? (Shower more, duh, but, like, what else…)
An estimated 50 million Americans spend a collective $300 million every year to treat scalp itching and flaking. Some of that is to deal with dandruff, a whole other can of worms with similar symptoms, but some of that is just to deal with dry scalp.
With that much moola on the table, it’s not surprising that the beauty world started paying closer attention. As of 2019, scalp care is officially the new skincare-meets-haircare with a whole new set of products, rituals, and hacks. (1, 2)
This is one hairy situation I, for one, needed to know more about.
What’s the Deal with Dry Scalp?
A dry scalp is a pretty good indicator that your scalp isn’t healthy. Poor scalp health impacts hair health. Just like the rest of your skin, your scalp contains sebaceous glands that produce oil along with circa 100,000 hair follicles — and even though the hair growing out of those follicles is technically dead, the bulb in the follicle is very much alive and impacted by the state of your scalp. In the short term, this means itchiness and flaking. Over time, weakened and damaged hair follicles from dry scalp can mean breakage, slower growth or even hair loss. (3)
So, How Do I Stop Dry Scalp (And Save My Hair)?
Like skincare and haircare, maintaining a healthy scalp in most cases is as easy as changing our habits. (Like that’s not hard.)
1. Exfoliate Weekly
Hack: You can use your face scrub
Just like with the rest of your skin, scalp exfoliation boosts skin cell turnover, cutting down on flaking that results from dry scalp. Some shampoos these days contain ingredients like salicylic acid that can exfoliate while you cleanse, or you can try a gentle scrub with as a pre-treatment to your shampoo. Just make sure it’s sulfate-free, especially if you have color-treated hair.
If you’re an avid DIY-er, try mixing equal parts brown sugar and finely ground oatmeal with your regular conditioner for a little homemade hair exfoliation. Or just the sugar if your walnut stash isn’t fully stocked. (4, 5)
2. Massage Often
As if you needed an excuse…
Note: Massaging your scalp is not the same thing as digging your nails into your scalp violently. Keep this massage gentle, using just the fingertips in slow, circular motions. Not only is this the dreamiest way ever to fall asleep in the shower, but it also helps stimulate blood circulation, your nutrient delivery system, to hair follicles and promotes balanced oil production. (6)
3. Maintain Moisture
Skip these three dehydrating habits...
1. Hot showers
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a half-dozen times here: hot water is not your skin (or scalps) best friend. It’s dehydrating and strips the natural sebum your scalp needs to self-lubricate. Keep those showers on the lukewarm side if you’re trying to fix dry scalp.
2. Blow drying
Put down the hairdryer and give your scalp a break from all that heat a couple of days a week. Same goes for hair straighteners or and styling tools that rely on heat to work their wonders.
3. Dry Shampoo
You don’t need to nix it all together like I did, but you’d be doing your scalp (and, ultimately, your hair) a solid if you use your beloved dry shampoo in moderation. Styling products can cause excess buildup that inhibits oil production and irritates hair follicles, especially if you’re not shampooing often enough to remove it regularly.
4. Speaking of Shampoo
Every day is probably extra
There’s a balance between too much and too little hair washing that impacts scalp health. Using shampoo every day can strip your scalp of natural oils and throw it’s pH level helter-skelter, leading to dry, itchy scalp. On the flip side, waiting too long, especially if you use a lot of products, causes buildup and irritation.
5. Go Easy on Color
And don’t try it at home
Cold weather aggravates dryness, sure. Chemicals regularly applied are a recipe for guaranteed dry scalp at some point. I’m not going to tell you what you can and cannot do with your hair color, but if it’s causing dry scalp minimize the damage by limiting frequency, going to a professional and using repair treatments per their instructions. (7)
6. Watch What You Eat
Food changes absolutely everything. Whodathunk?
For some, making sure their balanced diet of pasta and beer (me? No.) also includes omega-3, zinc and vitamin A makes a big difference in scalp health. A healthy supply of fatty acids keeps skin and scalp moisturized. Zinc assists with healthy tissue growth and repair, including hair and nails. Vitamin A from fruits and veggies support skin cell function, minimizes dryness. (8, 9)
7. Try Tea Tree Oil
As long as you’re not allergic…
Just because Tea Tree oil is an essential oil doesn’t mean it’s not without risk. Many essential oils trigger skin reactions and allergies. That said, it’s anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properties have been shown to reduce itchiness from mild dandruff according to at least one study (and plenty of bloggers). But dandruff, as I noted at the beginning, isn’t the same as dry scalp even though they share the same core symptoms. (10)
So How Do I Know If I Have Dry Scalp or Dandruff?
It comes down to too much vs. too little oil
Both dry scalp and dandruff are itchy and flakey. The most recognizable visible difference, however, is that dandruff flakes are typically bigger, kinda oil and have a yellowish tint whereas dry scalp flakes are finer and white. (Real appetizing stuff, I know). This is because dry scalp is the result of too little moisture, which can be triggered by cold weather, product buildup or lack of nutrients. Dandruff is too much oil, which builds up and creates bigger flakes when the scalp naturally sheds its dead outer layer, or overproduction of yeast that’s normally present on the scalp. The big takeway here is that dry scalp is relatively easy to treat with a few mindful updates to your grooming routine. These same treatments might help alleviate dandruff, but dandruff doesn’t exactly have a cure...yet. But, as the scalp care revolution demonstrates, this is one industry that’s always on the lookout for then next best thing. (11, 12)