A shedding scalp can be just as confusing as it is embarrassing. Is it dandruff—or something else? And will you be subjected to avoiding black shirts for the foreseeable future? Consider this your guide to understanding—and soothing—your flaky scalp.
How Our Health Affects Our Scalp
“The scalp should be considered as an extension of the skin on the face,” says Dr. Dominic Burg, Ph.D., trichologist and hair biologist with èvolis professional. Just like the skin on our face, the condition of our scalp is influenced by all sorts of factors, including illness, stress, poor diet, and more.
In many cases, suppression or overstimulation of our immune system often manifests in skin issues, such as breakouts, eczema, psoriasis, dry skin, and even hair loss, Burg says.
“Our scalp also contains a lot of oil glands that can be influenced by hormone levels,” Burg adds. “Hormonal imbalances in the body can signal those oil glands to either produce more or less oil.” (You’ve probably heard this oil referred to as “sebum.”)
Common Causes Of A Flaky Scalp
The most common scalp issues people experience involve dryness and flaking. Depending on the cause, the severity of these scalp struggles can vary from plain ol’ dry skin, to dandruff, to a condition called seborrheic dermatitis.
1. Dry Air
In milder cases, “some people with dry skin types are prone to flaky scalp in the winter when the air is drier,” says Burg.
For many of these people, flakes only crop up during the colder months and disappear when the air is warmer and more humid.
2. Naturally-Occurring Yeast and Bacteria
The most infamous culprit, “dandruff is a condition thought to be caused by bacteria and yeasts,” says Burg.
These organisms (which are natural) eat the scalp’s oils. In some people, this irritates the scalp and causes it to produce skin more rapidly. The result: large, clumpy flakes. Though these bacteria and yeasts exist all over the skin, dandruff is typically limited to the scalp.
In more extreme cases, the skin’s reaction to natural bacteria and yeasts causes more serious flaking, scaling, and redness, says Dr. Eduard E. Valenzuela, M.D., F.A.A.P. In addition to being more serious in nature, this irritation, called seborrheic dermatitis, spreads to the eyebrows, behind the ears, between the cheeks and the nose, and in the folds of the armpits and the groin.
3. Certain Shampoos
For many people—especially those with more sensitive skin—certain ingredients in conventional shampoos (like sulfates) can irritate the scalp, says Burg. Typically, these products strip out the natural oils and cause flakiness.
Sulfates, in particular, make shampoo get foamy and attract water and oils. The more often you use sulfate-containing hair products, the more likely you are to experience irritation and flakes.
4. A Western Diet
Though Valenzuela has long recommended eating a balanced, nutritious diet to support a healthy scalp, recent research confirms the importance of certain dietary trends for scalp health.
The study, published in The Journal of Investigative Dermatology, investigated the link between diet and seborrheic dermatitis. For the study, the researchers analyzed the diets of more than 15,000 people over the course of two decades. What they found: People who ate a standard Western diet had a 47 percent increased risk of seborrheic dermatitis.
Higher fruit consumption, on the other hand, was linked with a 25 percent lower risk of seborrheic dermatitis.
You know by now that stress impacts your health in a variety of ways—and the state of your scalp is one of them.
“Some people notice that when they’re dealing with stress, anxiety, or depression, their scalp issues worsen,” says Valenzuela. In many of these cases, changes in the body’s hormones associated with stress and mood issues also impact the skin and scalp.
How To Soothe A Flaky Scalp
Just how you ease your scalp issues depends on the severity of your irritation—and the health and lifestyle factors contributing to your flakes in the first place.
First, Valenzuela recommends focusing on eating balanced meals of fresh fruits and vegetables, protein, and whole grains. Managing stress can also play a crucial role.
Then, switch to hair-care products that are free of sulfates and other harsh chemicals (we like Avalon Organics Scalp Treatment Tea Tree Shampoo). Avoiding fragrances and colors can also help prevent irritation in sensitive scalps.
Beyond that, Valenzuela also recommends looking for a medicated shampoo specifically designed to treat scalp flaking, scaling, redness, and irritation.
“One of the most popular active ingredients in medicated shampoos is pyrithione zinc,” Valenzuela says. Other ingredients that can help with dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis include selenium sulfide, ketoconazole, salicylic acid, and coal tar. (Using a medicated treatment at least twice per week typically yields the best results.)
When To See A Doctor
According to Valenzuela, scalp symptoms should start to improve within two weeks of starting to use a medicated treatment.
If you don’t see any improvements, make an appointment with your doctor, who can recommend alternative or most targeted treatments.
Of course, if your scalp ever appears raw or bleeds, or you notice significant hair loss, it’s also time to call your doctor, Burg says.
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