What Causes Dry Scalp?

Itching, flaking, and irritation are signs that you have dry skin -- too little of the oil that keeps your skin moisturized. Your scalp can also dry out and cause the same symptoms.

It can happen for many reasons. Here are some of the causes, and how to treat them.

Too Much Washing

Washing your hair every day can strip your scalp of the natural oils it needs to stay hydrated. Over time, you can dry out your hair to the point where it becomes brittle and breaks.

How often you should wash depends on your hair type. People with coarser hair may only need once-weekly washings. Those with fine hair may need to wash a few times a week. Ask your stylist or dermatologist how often to wash based on your hair type.

Hair Products

A scalp that turns red, itches, and flakes after you wash it could be contact dermatitis. This allergic reaction happens when you use certain shampoos, soaps, or other products in your hair. If you dye your hair black, dermatitis may be a reaction to the chemical PPD in the hair dye.

The first step to treating contact dermatitis is to figure out which product caused the reaction. Cut out one thing at a time to see if your symptoms clear up. After 2-4 weeks off the product, your dry scalp should improve.

While you figure out the cause, try not to scratch your scalp. Scratching irritates the skin and can make your symptoms worse. Place a cool, wet washcloth on your scalp for 15 to 30 minutes a few times a day to soothe the itch. You can also apply a cortisone anti-itch cream.

Weather Changes

During the winter months in cold climates, the humidity in the air drops. Cold weather dries out the skin all over your body, including on your scalp. Blasting the heat can also be drying.

Use warm water instead of hot water in your shower and bath to keep your skin and scalp moist. Don't stay under the water for longer than 5 or 10 minutes at a time. Spending too much time under hot water can strip your skin of its natural oils.

Turn on a humidifier in your home to add moisture to the air. And use a gentle moisturizing shampoo to wash your hair.

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Dandruff vs. Dry Scalp

Dandruff might seem like the result of dry scalp, but it can happen for many reasons, including a yeast-like fungus that feeds on the oils in your skin. Dandruff is a symptom of the skin condition seborrheic dermatitis, which is a type of eczema. It causes redness, itching, and flakes on areas of skin where there are lots of oil-producing glands, like around your nose and scalp.

To get rid of those little white flakes, use a dandruff shampoo once or twice a week. Look for ingredients like these:

Follow the instructions on the bottle carefully. Some dandruff shampoos need to stay on your scalp for several minutes. Others rinse off right away.

If a dandruff shampoo doesn't relieve your flakes, see a dermatologist. You might have a skin condition that needs treatment.

Eczema

Eczema is a common skin condition that leaves your scalp dry, red, itchy, and cracked.

Atopic eczema is the type of eczema that affects people who have allergies. It often runs in families, so if one or both of your parents had eczema, you may get it too.

Soap, detergent, stress, and changes in the weather can cause dry eczema patches to form on your scalp. You may also have dryness on your hands, elbows, face, and on the backs of your knees.

Avoid harsh shampoos or other products that trigger your symptoms. Ask your doctor about using an emollient or cream to add moisture back into your skin.

Scalp Psoriasis

In psoriasis, your immune system misfires and makes your skin cells multiply much faster than usual. Those extra cells build up on the surface of your skin and create itchy, scaly patches called plaques.

Psoriasis can pop up on your face, inside your ears, hands and feet, back, and nails. It can also leave itchy patches on your scalp, forehead, and on the back of your neck.

For mild scalp psoriasis, you can try a medicated shampoo that contains coal tar. It should help relieve the itch. Treatments for more severe scalp psoriasis include creams like these that you rub on your scalp:

Psoriasis that's on many parts of your body may need treatment with drugs that you take by mouth, like methotrexate or cyclosporine, or shots like adalimumab or ixekizumab.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on February 10, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Dermatology: "10 Reasons Your Scalp Itches and How to Get Relief," "How to Treat Dandruff."

Cleveland Clinic: "The Dirty Truth About Washing Your Hair."

Columbia University: "How often to wash hair?"

Harvard Medical School: "What to do about dry skin in winter."

Mayo Clinic: "Contact dermatitis: Diagnosis & treatment," "Contact dermatitis: Symptoms & causes," "Seborrheic dermatitis: Symptoms & causes."

National Eczema Association: "Seborrheic dermatitis."

National Psoriasis Foundation: "About Psoriasis," "Prescription topical non-steroid treatment," "Scalp psoriasis."

National Health Service (U.K.): "Atopic eczema."

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