No one wants a dry and flaky scalp, but it happens. A lot of people experience it on the regular, which can be annoying. But the thing is it's actually important for your scalp to be moisturized—and not just so you don't have to deal with any flakes. Having a moisturized scalp will help with hair growth and health.
Trichologist and "scalp therapist" Bridgette Hill explains that normally when discussing moisture, most people think of hydration, but it's not just about water or liquids. For the scalp, the most important moisturizing agent is sebum. "When addressing moisture on the scalp, we have to consider each property that sebum is comprised of and their purpose to scalp health and function and hair growth," Hill says. "Sebum is rich in fatty acids, which provide nutrients and protein to the hair follicle; cholesterol, a necessary emollient; and squalene, an anti-inflammatory property that reduces swelling, and redness. When there is a lack of sebum production on the scalp, the microbiome is disturbed and creates a dry, dehydrated microbiome that can lead to a host of scalp conditions, deterioration of the hair follicle, dry brittle hair fibers, and hair loss. The skin on our scalp has more blood vessels and sebaceous glands and houses more hair follicles than our bodies. The scalp is also the thickest skin on our body."
Plus, it's important to keep your skin moisturized for the sake of your skin barrier. "Skin anywhere on the body, including the scalp, is a barrier between the internal body and the outside world, and proper moisturization supports an intact skin barrier," says board-certified dermatologist Sam Ellis, MD. "An effective skin barrier protects us from environmental insults (like bacteria and allergens) and keeps skin inflammation in check. An unmoisturized scalp can be itchy, flaky, and painful."
As for how much moisture a scalp needs, that depends on the individual. Hill says that each of our scalps has a unique ideal balance of sebum—the scalp's natural moisture. And actually, the sebaceous gland connected to the hair follicle is regulated by hormones. "We cannot address scalp moisture without connecting our internal health and wellness," she says. "When this becomes imbalanced, it creates a breeding ground for overproduction of unwanted bacteria, inflammation, flakiness, tight scalp, compromising the health of the hair follicle."
You might think that your scalp's moisture levels are determined by your hair type—I did—but it's based on a number of factors: lifestyle, genetics, diet, stressors, medications, etc. "Hair type plays a role in moisture level but rather the type of products and our styling habits based on our hair type and texture," Hill explains. "For example, if you have curly hair and you blow-dry your hair regularly, the blow-drying is affecting the moisture levels, not the curly hair. And vice versa if you have fine straight hair and you shampoo multiple times a day. It is the impact of the frequent shampooing, not the fine straight hair, that would cause unwanted dryness."
And board-certified dermatologist and founder of Ziering Medical Craig Ziering, DO, says you do have to keep in mind how you care for your specific hair type and its effect on the scalp. "Hair length and hair texture play a role in managing sebum production," he says. "Those with curly hair require more time between washes than those with straight hair, as the oil needs to travel along corkscrew-shaped strands to moisturize all the way to the ends."
So what are some signs that your scalp isn't moisturized enough? Well, you'll probably notice some flakes. "Dry scalps can present in many ways but are often slightly pink, flaky, and itchy," Ellis says. "The flakes that come from a dry scalp tend to be white and powder-like, whereas flakes from oily scalps tend to be larger, thicker, and sometimes slightly yellow in color." You might also notice dry brittle hair fibers, tightness on the scalp, and dry-looking hair.
When it comes to what causes a dry scalp, Hill says an often overlooked culprit is a hormonal imbalance since the hormones regulate the production of sebum, like we learned above. "This in addition to how we externally treat the skin on our scalp with our lifestyle and habits keep the microbiome of the scalp balanced and nourished," Hill says. "What triggers the imbalance of the microbiome is multi-faceted. Diet, medications, illnesses, stressors can be a root cause to dry scalp internally." Ziering adds that other health conditions that could lead to scalp dryness include scalp psoriasis, dandruff, eczema, and eating disorders.
The weather can also be a factor in the moisture levels of your scalp. "During the winter months in cold climates, the humidity in the air drops," Ziering explains. "Cold weather dries out the skin all over your body, including on your scalp. Turning up the heat can also be drying."
Products can also cause dry scalps, so you'll want to look for things that are clean, fragrance-free, and free of synthetic-based alcohol, she adds. Prioritize soothing ingredients like oat lipids, peppermint, and eucalyptus—anything that's left on the scalp and hair should be cooling and restorative. You'll also want to think about how you take care of and style your hair. Avoid overwashing and letting product build up. Stay away from harsh shampoos, and limit your usage of hot tools and blow-dryers. And be careful with harsh chemicals.
How to Moisturize the Scalp
And while it seems like there are a number of factors that can contribute to a dry scalp, there are also some easy steps to take to avoid any dryness. The experts shared some with us below.
1. Use a Gentle Shampoo
Hill recommends using a gentle shampoo that is not overly rich and not customized to combat flakes.
2. Don't Over-Shampoo
"Limit shampooing to no more than two to three times a week. It is important to allow the microbiome to not be overly manipulated," Hill says.
3. Look at Products for Dry Scalps
"When looking at hair products, choose those designed for dry scalps," Ellis suggests. "These types of products often contain ingredients that gently remove residue from the scalp without stripping the skin of its natural oils."
4. Adjust Your Diet
Hill recommends increasing your diet with more foods rich in fatty acids and that are hydrating to the body. Plus, don't forget to increase your water intake.
Ziering recommends doing this regularly to prevent a dry scalp.
6. Choose Conditioners Wisely
Hill recommends using a conditioner based on your hair type and texture.
7. Get a Humidifier
"This supports skin moisturization everywhere, including the scalp," Ellis says.
8. Use Hair Oils
Ziering recommends using hair oils that are designed for the scalp. And Ellis suggests using a pre-wash oil to enhance the skin barrier prior to shampoo, which can be helpful for people with very dry scalps.
9. Try a Scalp Mask
Ziering also recommends experimenting with a scalp mask to deal with dryness.
More Moisturizing Scalp Products to Try
"I love that this utilizes fruit enzymes and salicylic acid to lift debris from the scalp while also treating dry scalp skin with a combination of nourishing oils," Ellis says. "Unlike some dry scalp treatments, this one doesn't weigh down the hair and leaves the scalp feeling refreshed but not stripped."
"I am a believer in hyaluronic acid like this one from Dr. Barbara Sturm that can be used for the scalp," Hill says. "The lightweight, hydrating, water-binding properties is an ideal moisture serum that can be used by all scalp types and conditions. High-quality hyaluronic acid serums draw moisture from the environment, while also keeping in moisture to improve the texture and health of the scalp. If there is a scalp type that requires additional moisture, hyaluronic acid are great foundations for more emollient rich moisturizers to be layered on top. This can range from nourishing oils to moisturizing creams."
"For those seeking to condition their hair and scalp with a single in-shower treatment, this gives that two-in-one action and can streamline a hair and scalp care routine," Ellis says.
"I am partial to clay-, mineral- and oat-based cleansers to retain proper moisture levels on the scalp," Hill says. "Continual replenishing and maintain a hydrated, balanced microbiome is the key factor in keeping the skin on the scalp healthy, nourished, and feeling great."
"Several of my patients prone to very dry scalps (and hair!) have recommended this particular pre-wash oil to use before showering," Ellis says. "It can also be used as a leave-in treatment, which makes it versatile."
"Incorporating scalp rinses are excellent ways to retain the moisture in the hair by not over-cleansing and stripping the microbiome," Hill says.
Hill recommends investing in tools and technology that reduce heat exposure to skin and scalp. "Dyson is leading the way to reduce extreme heat styling with design and technology that limit the amount of heat that the our scalps are exposed to and providing attachments like the gentle air dyer attachment that regulates the force of airflow, creating a gentler healthier blow-drying option allowing the scalp to retain the proper moisture levels," she says.
"These are proven solutions and are a must-have for your daily haircare routine," Ziering says. "They are formulated with a patented colostrum extract, an ingredient rich in protein and polypeptides, which revitalize your scalp and regenerate and strengthen your dull and thinning hair."
This article was published at an earlier date and has been updated.
Sarah is lifestyle writer and editor with over 10 years of experience covering health and wellness, interior design, food, beauty, and tech. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she attended New York University and lived in New York for 12 years before returning to L.A. in 2019.
In addition to her work on THE/THIRTY and Who What Wear, she held editor roles at Apartment Therapy, Real Simple, House Beautiful, Elle Decor, and The Bump (sister site of The Knot).
She has a passion for health and wellness, but she especially loves writing about mental health. Her self-care routine consists of five things: a good workout, “me” time on the regular, an intriguing book/podcast/playlist to unwind after a long day, naps, and decorating her home.