Fight Flaky Scalp

Medically Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on September 18, 2023
2 min read

It can look like snow has fallen on your shoulders. If only it also melted like snow! But don't worry. When your scalp sheds dead skin cells, it's usually caused by a problem you can treat.

Most of the time, skin shedding happens without notice. Dandruff - or seborrheic dermatitis -- happens when dead skin cells are shed at a faster-than-normal rate. They tend to be white or light yellow and easy to rub off your head.

The cause of dandruff is unclear. Hormones are suspect because dandruff peaks in the teen years. Or a type of yeast that over-grows on your scalp may play a role. But it has nothing to do with poor hygiene.

Flakes run in families. You're more likely to get them if you're a guy, are overweight, or have oily skin. Some conditions, like Parkinson's disease, can also cause dandruff.

Other things can cause the skin on your head to flake and fall, too:

  • Shampooing too often or not often enough
  • Not rinsing shampoo out well
  • Cold weather
  • Stress
  • A bad reaction to hair products
  • A skin problem called scalp psoriasis
  • A skin disease like eczema

You don't have to avoid dark clothes forever. Try these tips instead:

  • Wash your hair often. This helps take the flakes off your head. Some people need to shampoo daily; others, less often. You can use a regular shampoo if you have mild dandruff.
  • If lots of washes with a regular shampoo aren't working, try dandruff shampoo. Start by using it daily. As flakes flee, shift to using it every other time you wash hair. Use regular shampoo in between. Different brands of dandruff shampoo contain different ingredients, so you may have to try a few to find one that's right for you. Look for selenium sulfide, tar-based, zinc pyrithione, or salicylic acid shampoos.
  • When using dandruff shampoo, lather twice and let the lather sit for 5 minutes. This helps the shampoo work better.
  • Use a conditioner after a dandruff shampoo. It will protect your hair against dryness.
  • Try not to scratch if flakes itch. You won't end the flaking and you may cause bleeding or hair loss, making the problem worse.

See a skin doctor if none of these tips helps. The doctor may prescribe a stronger dandruff shampoo that contains the antifungal ketoconazole.

Flaking can also be caused by a condition like scalp psoriasis. In that case, your doctor will recommend other treatments.