A flaky, itchy scalp is one of those unspoken beauty struggles that tons of people deal with but no one wants to talk about. Of course, it's only natural that the skin covering our skulls could experience dryness just like the skin on any other part of our bodies. But the snowstorm of dandruff that often accompanies a dry scalp can be super uncomfortable and downright embarrassing. And as someone who exists in a fashion- and beauty-centric pocket of reality, there are few things I consider more annoying than a chic shoulder pad dotted with little white flakes. (especially because I wear predominately black clothing).
While alleviating the itchiness and discomfort of a dry scalp might be your top priority, it's also important to consider that scalp health, hair health, and growth go hand in hand. "While hair growth can be adversely affected by medications, diet, illness, hormones, and genetics, maintaining proper scalp health is a simple and reliable way to minimize, or altogether prevent, many common causes of hair loss," says New York City–based dermatologist Julie Karen."A well-nourished, properly hydrated scalp provides an optimal environment for proper hair growth and survival." The moral of the story? If you want your hair to thrive, you'd better get that scalp all the way together, sis!
Ahead, check out some game-changing dry-scalp tips and treatments from top scalp-health experts that will set you on a path toward healthier hair.
Shampoos and Pre-Poos
According to scalp therapist Bridgette Hill, identifying the cause of scalp dryness may require medical testing such as blood tests and skin biopsies. "Because scalp health is affected by a combination of factors, it is often challenging to isolate one particular cause. Each factor may or may not serve as a trigger to create the onset of dry scalp," she says. But managing symptoms is made much easier with specialized shampoos and pre-shampoo treatments. "Look for pre-shampoo products with ingredients that have oils rich in fatty acids, avocado, shea, and jojoba," she instructs. Karen adds that products with zinc pyrithione are among the best for treating dandruff and the dryness, itching, redness, and irritation that comes with it. "It’s important to find dandruff care products with an active ingredient such as zinc pyrithione, which is a safe and effective ingredient for treating dandruff, redness, itching, and irritation," she says.
"The Astera fluid is phenomenal as a pre-shampoo scalp treatment for scalps that experience moderate flakiness. The fluid helps protect the scalp's microbiome as well as soothes any itchiness or irritation," says Hill. "Anyone that is experiencing major scalp buildup or heavy flakiness should refrain from using anything on the scalp until they have been analyzed or diagnosed by a dermatologist or certified trichologist."
Although there are some two-in-one shampoo and conditioner combinations on the market that claim to help with dandruff and dry scalp, Karen is a firm believer that those two products need to remain separate if you're ever going to get a handle on your scalp condition. "It’s imperative to decouple the shampoo and conditioner and supplement with additional treatment depending on the severity of your situation," she says. This top-rated shampoo treats dandruff by regulating scalp fungus with a powerful active called ketoconazole. In fact, more than 10,000 Amazon reviewers give it a five-star rating, boasting it's fast and lasting results. This is an OTC formula, but it's strong, so be sure to limit use to two times per week max.
"Although it is a shampoo, I use this as a scalp treatment for clients who have oily scalps due to hormonal imbalances or feel a need to shampoo frequently because of lifestyle," says Hill. "This has deep-cleansing plant-based ingredients such as thyme and rosemary, and the curbicia extract assists with maintaining oil production."
"Active ingredients such as zinc pyrithione are FDA-listed ingredients with an intended, specific purpose, such as fighting dandruff," Karen says. She loves this washday trio from Jupiter, calling out its stellar ingredients. "The Balancing Shampoo and Restoring Serum are formulated with zinc pyrithione to treat dandruff and flaking, while the Nourishing Conditioner keeps your scalp and hair hydrated and healthy," she says. "All three swap out many of the irritating ingredients found in the big brands and swap in more natural ingredients like coconut oil and green algae in the shampoo, colloidal oatmeal and vitamin E in the conditioner, and aloe vera and green tea in the serum."
Both Karen and Hill agree that exfoliation is super helpful in maintaining a healthy, itch-free scalp. Karen loves mechanical exfoliation for breaking up product buildup and dandruff, while Hill calls out the chemical exfoliating benefits in products containing alpha hydroxy acids.
This handy scalp brush can be used on dry hair to gently massage and get the blood flowing to the scalp, but it's also perfect for getting a more rigorous scrub while shampooing the hair. Either way, flakes don't stand a chance.
Hill points out that apple cider vinegar is antibacterial and contains natural alpha hydroxy acids, which encourage exfoliation on the scalp. It can be a slightly smelly ingredient to work with, but the resulting scalp relief and shiny hair that follow are so worth the temporary smell.
This intensive scalp scrub calls in both physical and chemical exfoliation, with coarse Himalayan sea salt and apple cider vinegar working in tandem to detox the hair and scalp. I love this one and personally find that it works best when I separate my hair into small to medium sections so I can really concentrate the paste onto my scalp. This also helps me to more easily rinse it out.
Much like the scalp brush Karen swears by, I keep this one handy on washday and anytime my scalp needs a little massage. It's nice and big, so the silicone bristles have no problem connecting to my scalp through my thick, coily hair. I like to massage in soft circles to relieve tension and promote circulation. While the bristles are firm, they're not too hard, so when I use it to shampoo, I never have to worry about them scratching my head too aggressively or creating any painful tears in my skin.
"A weekly scalp mask with moisturizing ingredients is a great way to reset your scalp," Karen says. She cautions against harsh ingredients like sulfates, parabens, and phthalates that can be drying and irritating. Hill agrees, adding that products with ingredients rich in fatty acids, avocado, shea, and jojoba are extra soothing but reminds that scalp care isn't one-size-fits-all. "All scalp is truly individual, and what soothes one person’s epidermis may not soothe someone else’s," she says. Patience is key.
"If you’re able to, I think splurging on your hair and scalp care to avoid these potentially irritating ingredients found in many commonly sold drugstore products is very well worth it, both in terms of efficacy and overall experience," says Karen. She recommends this purifying mask with volcanic ash, argan oil, and biotin to draw out impurities and balance the scalp.
If you're a fan of the Hungarian moor mud found throughout Omorovicza's face mask options, then this scalp mask is sure to please as well. The nutrient-dense mud helps to alleviate congestion in the scalp (salicylic acid also aids on that front) while soothing inflamed follicles with menthol and camphor.
This hair mask from Aesop goes to work on dry scalps and hair with rose petal extract and a combination of hair-loving lubricants, including sweet almond oil, camellia oil, and glycerin.
Raise your hand if you have portion control issues when it comes to hair products. Now, take that hand and add this perfectly portioned single-serve mask to your cart. It protects and detoxes the hair and scalp with matcha tea and eco-certified bamboo charcoal.
Though it may be tempting to slather all sorts of oils on an irritated scalp, Hill says your best bet for keeping your epidermis moisturized and happy lies in earth's most prevalent natural resource: water. "I suggest refraining from oils to manage the discomfort and itchiness brought on by itchy scalp. Instead, opt for water-based tonics and serums to soothe the scalp in between shampoos," she explains.
This hyaluronic acid serum attracts water to the scalp, just like it would in a serum for your face. It also calls in vitamin B3 to keep the scalp's pH in check.
This Soothing Elixir can be used to calm hot spots anytime. It uses jujube, oat kernel, and eucalyptus to nourish the scalp and impart a cooling sensation for a breath of fresh air directly to your head. It also dries down quickly, so you don't have to worry about creating slick areas in your hair.
This top-rated spray treatment offers a full spectrum of scalp-soothing benefits in one convenient product. Lippia helps purify and clarify the scalp, while salicylic acid gently exfoliates and makes way for rosemary, echinacea, and sage to deeply soothe the scalp.
This nourishing night serum is packed with all the good stuff your scalp needs to sustain healthy hydration levels and encourage stronger hair. It has skincare-grade peptides, which are, essentially, building blocks for naturally occurring proteins like collagen, elastin, and keratin. It also supports the scalp's moisture barrier function via hyaluronic acid.