Scratching your head wondering what to do about a dry and flaky scalp? Here’s what you need to know
A dry or itchy scalp might not be high on your list of concerns right now, but that's not to say it's not annoying. According to Marie Drago from skin and haircare brand Galinee , around 40 per cent of people are plagued by an itchy or dry scalp and in order to banish the flakes, it's important to identify the cause of your bothersome scalp - and there are many.
First things first, don't confuse a dry flaky scalp with dandruff; dandruff occurs when there’s an overgrowth of naturally occurring yeast which causes skin cells to divide too rapidly. Because they produce faster than they can be shed, flakes appear. "Dandruff is almost always oily, not dry," says trichologist Anabel Kingsley. "It is normally sticky and yellow in colour, whereas a dry scalp produces dry and white flakes. Dandruff is a reoccurring scalp condition that tends to be a long term condition (though it may come and go), but a dry scalp is often a one-off occurrence or something that occurs due to an easily identifiable trigger."
While these triggers might be easily identifiable to a trichologist, it's trickier for us mere mortals - here are the biggest causes of a dry, itchy scalp and what to do about them.
The cause: Overwashing the hair
"The main cause of itchy, flaky and dry scalps seems to be self-inflicted," says Marie. "Our haircare routine is one of the main perpetrators. The constant washing and stripping cycle damages the scalp eco-system and can lead to a dry scalp."
The remedy: Use PH appropriate haircare
"Do less! It sounds weird coming from a beauty brand, but Galinee's whole philosophy is to treat more, wash less," advises Marie. "Also, wash with PH appropriate products. The scalp is very acidic with a PH4 so you need products that don't disturb this."
Thankfully, most modern shampoos are PH neutral, so you don't need to go scouring bottle labels to find shampoos that are a suitable PH.
"Our shampoos are designed to be very mild at neutral PH while being efficient in cleansing,"says hair care brand Living Proof . "The conditioners have a low PH to help relax the cuticles, while specific additives deliver critical benefits to care for the hair and scalp."
Try: Living Proof Restore Discovery Kit , £19
The cause: Stress
"Stress can wreak havoc on both the hair and the scalp," says Annabel. "It commonly triggers or worsens flaking and itching of the scalp because stress alters hormone levels as well as the skin's barrier function which in turn disrupts the microbiome of the scalp."
The remedy: Be consistent with haircare
Having a consistent hair care routine is imperative when you're tackling scalp issues brought on by stress. Using a mask once won't solve all your scalp issues. "You need to be just as consistent with products when tackling scalp issues as you are when you try to clear-up a skin issue," says Anabel. "Daily targeted topicals are key."
"In terms of lifestyle, people experiencing flaking and itching should try to reduce stress levels. At-home yoga, meditation and pilates can be very helpful – as well as apps like Calm and Headspace."
The cause: Pollution
Pollution such as dust, dirt and daily grime affect the hair and scalp in a similar way they affect the skin on our face. "These factors make the hair dirty and increase the likelihood of scalp problems such as flaking and itching, as well as the formation of pimples," says Annabel.
Oily and greasy hair and scalps attract more pollutants, dust particles and dirt. Think of it a bit like Pritt Stick – any toxins will simply stick to you like glue and stay put until you wash it away. Which is where a well-honed haircare routine will be your saving grace.
The remedy: Use the right products for your hair type
"To remove daily environmental pollution from your scalp, simply cleanse with the correct shampoo for your hair texture," says Annabel.
Keeping your hair and scalp as clean as possible is crucial but avoid over-washing as this can produce an excess of natural oils and make the scalp greasier. Make sure to massage the scalp and avoid products containing sulphates and silicones which could potentially lock in pollution.
The same caution should be exerted when you’re using styling products as heavy products like mousses, thickening creams and hair spray can attract more pollution elements to your hair. Think about a lightweight multi-tasking product instead and ideally one that aids hydration.
The cause: Unbalanced scalp microbiome
"New discoveries in wellness have uncovered that balancing the body’s microbiome is key to overall wellbeing. It’s not just about your gut—the same is true for your skin, including your scalp," says Living Proof's global creative director Michael Shaun Corby. "Your scalp is made up of many different microorganisms. When its microbiome is out of balance, it can lead to flaking, itching and irritation."
"When your scalp’s ecosystem (made up of “bad” and “good” microorganisms) is imbalanced, it most likely means that the population of “bad” microorganisms have outnumbered the “good” and can lead to dry scalp itching, flaking, and irritation."
"A healthy scalp has clean, open pores with good blood flow. It’s essential that the hair follicles and scalp are clean and clear, and the microbiome is in harmony with a good balance of good and bacteria."
The remedy: SLS free hair care
Harsh surfactants and high amounts of ethanol can sometimes leave your scalp feeling tight and dry so avoid products that contain these. The typical culprits are SLS and SLES, to name a few. Look for scalp care which omits these.
Try: Monpure Hydrate and Soothe Scalp Serum , £96
The cause: Styling products
"The build-up of styling products is often responsible for an itchy scalp," says stylist Michael Van Clarke." Particularly products with silicones and other plasticisers that can seep into the pores. Suffocating the follicles leads to inflammation, which will irritate."
The remedy: Scalp exfoliators
Exfoliating is key to ridding excess product build-up. "Some people think that washing their hair is enough to keep the scalp clean, but a 30-second shampoo at home might not have much impact on the build-up of styling products," says Michael. "Scalps need to breathe easy, free of suffocating product build-up, so periodic exfoliation is necessary to remove the detritus and unclog the pores that are filled with bacteria."
The cause: Severe hairstyles
Few of us wear an Ariana Grande high ponytail every day, but any style that holds your hair in an unnatural position can cause an itchy, dry or flaky scalp. "If the hair is held in place for long periods against the natural lay of root direction, combined with the build-up of sebum around the roots, it can lead to itching and aching as the individual tiny muscles at the base of each hair realign themselves. Think how your shoulder would feel if your arm was held up behind your back for hours then released," says Micheal Van Clarke.
The remedy: Scalp toner
If you've been putting your scalp through its paces, treat it to some TLC, with scalp toner.
“Apply a soothing scalp toner that contains ingredients such as camphor (cooling and calming) and benzalkonium chloride (an anti-itch agent) such as our Flaky/Itchy Scalp Toner , £22,” says Anabel. It’s also fragrance-free in case you’re especially prone to irritation.
The cause: Central heating
As we said, the same things that wreak havoc with your skin also cause chaos on your scalp - superfine flakes on your scalp are usually caused by central heating, in the same way that the radiators dry out your face.
The remedy: A scalp mask
Like the skin on your face, your scalp can benefit from weekly intensive treatments, so we recommend using a targeted scalp mask twice a week. Phillip Kinglsey just launched a mask specifically for dandruff sufferers. "It contains an innovative triple acid complex of salicylic, lactic and hyaluronic acid which work together to exfoliate, cleanse, soothe and moisturise. It is also formulated with piroctone olamine, an anti-fungal active," says Annabel.