Dealing with a dry, flaky scalp that’s itchy, uncomfortable, and just won’t ease up can be downright frustrating. And though it’s a common complaint, a flaky scalp can be quite difficult to manage on your own. The reason: Your angry scalp can have many different causes—all of which require different therapies, explains Boston-based dermatologist Papri Sarkar, M.D.
There’s hope for you yet, though. There are a few general things you can do to promote a healthy, flake-free scalp.
The Causes Of A Flaky Scalp
While most people think dryness causes a flaky scalp, just the opposite is often true, according to Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center. “Flakes usually represent dandruff, which is caused by an overgrowth of yeast on the skin leading to inflammation,” he says. Often, these large flakes have a greasy appearance and get worse in warmer, more humid months or when the scalp is oily.
Another grease-related cause: seborrheic dermatitis. “It occurs when the scalp is oily and that oil makes the dead skin cells that we all produce stick to it instead of shedding off,” explains Sarkar. “Think of it as a countertop with oil on it; if you sprinkle flour on that counter, it will be much harder to get the flour off than if it wasn’t oily.”
That said, skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis can also affect the scalp, notes Marisa Garshick, M.D., a dermatologist at Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery (MDCS) in New York.
And, in some cases, lifestyle habits cause itching and flaking. “If you go too long without washing your hair, it can lead to a buildup of dry skin and subsequent flaking of dead skin,” says Blair Murphy-Rose, M.D., another dermatologist at MDCS.
On the flip side, sometimes the products you use can also contribute to the issue. “When products such as gels, hair sprays, and shampoos aren’t pH-balanced or contain a high concentration of drying ingredients such as alcohol, they can lead to a dry, irritated scalp that is prone to flaking,” Murphy-Rose adds.
How To Show Your Flaky Scalp Some Love
The good news: Despite the many culprits that might be behind your discomfort, you can tweak your routine to help ease your flaky scalp.
1. Wash your Hair more often
Heard that your hair fares better when washed less? This might be true if you’re looking to maintain color between salon visits, but it doesn’t do your flaky scalp any good. If excess oil is your issue, you’ll need to wash more frequently to get it off, explains Sarkar. Start with three times a week.
That said, if you have psoriasis, Sarkar recommends washing your hair every other day. Those with eczema, though, should wash no more than two or three times per week.
2. Try a detoxifying or exfoliating shampoo
If you aren’t prone to psoriasis or eczema, one of the best ways to clear up your scalp is by using a clarifying or exfoliating shampoo, notes Murphy-Rose. Look for ingredients like salicylic acid, apple cider vinegar, or bentonite clay. (Try The Grandpa Soap Co.’s Witch Hazel Clarify Shampoo.)
If you prefer to go a more natural route, a DIY ACV hair rinse can restore your scalp’s naturally slightly-acidic pH. “Add one ounce of apple cider vinegar to eight ounces of water and, after washing and conditioning your hair, pour the solution onto your scalp and massage it in for a couple of minutes before rinsing with cool water,” says Toronto-based naturopathic doctor Olivia Rose, N.D.
Just note that if you do have eczema or notice that your scalp looks more red and irritated than flaky, exfoliating shampoos can only aggravate it more, Sarkar says.
3. Keep showers lukewarm
As nice as a super-hot shower feels (especially during the winter months), it can strip the skin of its natural oils and leave your scalp feeling dry. “It is especially important to keep the shower temperature lukewarm,” says Garshick. “Especially in the winter months when the skin is already dry and there is less humidity in the air.”
4. Get your fair share of vitamin D
A growing body of research has linked vitamin D deficiency and seborrheic dermatitis. In fact, one study published in the International Journal of Current Advanced Research suggests that ample vitamin D may help ward off the issue.
Read More: 7 Signs You Have A Vitamin D Deficiency
Rose considers vitamin D an essential supplement for many people, so consider a healthier scalp a potential benefit of getting your fill. The recommended daily intake for adults is 15 mcg (600 IU), per the National Institutes of Health. (Garden of Life’s mykind Organics Whole Food Vegan Vitamin D3 Spray provides 1,000 IU in a delicious vanilla flavor.)
5. Try a medicated product
If your flaky scalp is really out of control, a medicated dandruff shampoo can be effective for those with psoriasis. However, you have to leave it on long enough for the medication to actually work, notes Sarkar. “I tell people to get the scalp a little damp, apply the shampoo, and then brush your teeth or pick out your clothes for the day,” she says. “Nobody has time to sit in a shower for 15 minutes waiting for their shampoo to work.”
People with eczema or psoriasis should check in with their dermatologist before trying out a medicated product.
6. Protect your scalp from the sun
No one expects you to slather sunscreen on your scalp, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t protect it from sun exposure. “Just like the rest of the body, the scalp can experience sun damage and sunburn, which can lead to dryness and flaking,” says Garshick. “As such, it is important to wear a hat when in direct sunlight to protect the skin on the scalp.”
7. See a board-certified dermatologist
While there are many home remedies, often the quickest path to a solution is to check in with a board-certified dermatologist, Garshick says. They will help determine the exact trigger of your dry scalp and recommend the best course of treatment. “In some situations, a prescription topical steroid may be helpful to reduce inflammation, and prescription shampoos are an option, as well,” she says.