What is dry scalp?
Dry scalp can be both uncomfortable and embarrassing, but you can take steps to ease your symptoms and speed up your recovery.
Dry scalp is dryness of the skin in the densely-haired area on top of your head. It is not a specific medical term and is often related to other conditions like dandruff or seborrheic dermatitis (called cradle cap in babies). Many people experience degrees of scalp irritation, from small flakes of dandruff to large, itchy scales on the scalp.
The main difference between these two conditions is their causes. While dry scalp is caused by a lack of moisture in the skin on your head, dandruff is caused by an accumulation of oil on your scalp and/or the presence of certain kinds of microbes.
Symptoms of dry scalp
The symptoms of dry scalp are often:
- Visible flakes
- Hair loss
Causes of dry scalp
Dry scalp occurs when the skin on your head does not have enough moisture. This can be triggered by exposure to cold, dry air, contact dermatitis as a reaction to products that you use in your hair, or even old age.
Dandruff can also be caused by a fungus called Malassezia, which can be made worse by stress or hormones.
Diagnosis for dry scalp
Most dry scalp can be diagnosed and treated without a visit to your doctor. However, if the problem is persistent, and your attempts to treat dry scalp at home are not effective, speak to your doctor or a dermatologist.
If your attempts to manage your dry scalp at home are unsuccessful, it may be an indication that you are experiencing another condition like psoriasis, eczema, or impetigo. If your dry scalp is accompanied by open or bleeding sores on your head, it’s also a good idea to seek medical care. A visit with your doctor or a dermatologist can help you identify if a more complicated skin condition is the cause of your symptoms.
Treatments for dry scalp
If the itchiness and flaking are caused by a lack of moisture in your scalp skin, there are many ways to manage the condition at home. Some are over-the-counter options including shampoos or moisturizing treatments, while others use natural ingredients that you may already have.
Home remedies for dry scalp
Some home remedies that can alleviate the dryness of your scalp include shampooing less frequently, using water that is not as hot when showering, or applying a moisturizer to your head like:
- Coconut oil
- Tea tree oil
- Aloe vera
- Apple cider vinegar
- Witch hazel
- Baking soda and olive oil
- Mashed bananas
Over-the-counter and prescription treatments
Many over-the-counter shampoos are available to address the issues of itchy, flaky scalps. Dandruff shampoo can help minimize flaking. Two of the most common active ingredients are coal tar — derived from wood and coal and used for medical purposes — are treatments for psoriasis, including of the scalp, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Others include tea tree oil, which can also help alleviate symptoms.
If these options do not work, your doctor or a dermatologist can prescribe a prescription-strength shampoo or other topical treatment for your dry scalp.
Possible complications and side effects of treatments
Dry scalp, while it can cause some mild discomfort, is largely a cosmetic issue with no real possible complications. However, if you are scratching and create open wounds on your scalp, you could acquire a secondary infection.
Side effects of treatments like anti-dandruff shampoos and at-home moisturizing are nearly nonexistent, outside of the potential for an allergic reaction.
American Academy of Dermatology: "How to treat dandruff."
American Osteopathic College of Dermatology: "Dandruff."
Archives of Dermatological Research: "Dandruff: a condition characterized by decreased levels of intercellular lipids in scalp stratum corneum and impaired barrier function."
Indian Journal of Medical Research: "Association of Malassezia species with dandruff."
Journal of Investigative Dermatology Symposium Proceedings: "A Practical Guide to Scalp Disorders."
Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology: "Treatment of dandruff with 5% tea tree oil shampoo."
Journal of Investigative Dermatology Symposium Proceedings: "Clinical Diagnosis of Common Scalp Disorders."
National Psoriasis Foundation: "Over-the-Counter Topicals."
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