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Got a Dry Scalp? Here’s What’s Causing It, According to Top Trichologists

If you’re here, it’s probably because your scalp is giving you jip; and we all know there’s few things quite as maddening as a dry scalp. All that scratching, itching and prickling is enough to make us shudder. The problem is that our skin – and therefore our scalps – can be contrary little divas; telling us one thing but doing another.


Vogue Arabia, December 2020. Photo: Nagi Sakai

Dry scalps can masquerade as dandruff and vice versa since their symptoms are pretty similar. How to treat each though, is very different (more on that below). So in order to stop the scratching stat, you need to start by working out what you’re dealing with.

Luckily, we have just the experts for the job. We asked Stephanie Sey, expert Trichologist for Nizoral, Anabel Kingsley, Brand President at Philip Kingsley and Consultant Trichologist and Trichologist, Mark Blake, to guide us through identifying and treating dry scalps vs dandruff.

What is a dry scalp?

“A dry scalp occurs when the top layer of skin (the epidermis) lacks moisture or water,” says Anabel. This can cause itchiness and irritation and can lead to your scalp flaking.

“While a dry scalp is common – it’s not quite as common as having dry skin elsewhere, such as your hands, arms, legs and even your face. This is because your scalp is a highly sebaceous environment (it contains more oil glands, and therefore produces more oils, than most other parts of your body),” adds Anabel.

What is the main cause of a dry scalp?

There’s many reasons that a dry scalp can occur, but we’ve listed the most common below..

The environment

“A dry scalp is commonly caused due to environmental factors, such as weather,” says Anabel. “In the summer months the scalp can become sunburnt,” she adds, which can exacerbate the condition. But the cold has a lot to answer for, too. According to research done by The Body Shop, searches for “why is my scalp itchy” increases by 379% from its average search volume and sees 31,800 searches over winter. Likewise, questions around how to deal with dandruff peak between November and February, with the term “how to get rid of dandruff fast” rising by 350%.


“A dry scalp is more likely to occur when your scalp is not producing enough, or adequately replacing, sebum (oil) – which tends to happen as we get older,” explains Anabel.

Hair products

Your hair products can be responsible for causing contact dermatitis (an itchy rash caused by direct contact with a substance you’re allergic to). So, if you’ve introduced new products into your haircare routine, they may be the culprit. Or, it may be that a product you’ve used for years has been reformulated, so it’s worth checking the ingredients list.

Scalp psoriasis

Psoriasis is a skin condition that causes skin cells to multiply faster than normal. The build-ups are called plaques which are dry, itchy raised patches covered with scales. There is no cure but there are steps that can be taken to alleviate symptoms including topical creams prescribed by your GP.

What’s the difference between a dry scalp vs dandruff?

“Many think dandruff is a dry scalp condition and although the symptoms are the same (dry flakes and itchiness) dandruff is actually due to excess oil. The flaking gives many the impression that this is caused by dryness, but it’s not. Dandruff is an oily condition,” explains Stephanie.

The oiliness experienced when you have dandruff is caused by an overgrowth of yeast. “Yeasts naturally live on your scalp, and usually do not cause any problems. However, itching and flaking can occur when an overgrowth of yeast causes your scalp’s microbiome to become imbalanced. However, some people are simply sensitive to normal levels of these yeasts on their scalp,” says Anabel.

“It is difficult to differentiate between dandruff and dry scalps, however, the best way to do this is to think what may have caused this dryness to the scalp,” says Stephanie. “Is it an allergic reaction to something you have used, or have you been using products that are drying out your hair and scalp recently? If you’ve answered yes, then it is probably a dry scalp,” she adds.

“If your hair is a bit greasy despite the flakes and is there all the time, then it is likely you are suffering from dandruff. If you are still not sure then use a dandruff shampoo for a while, like Nizoral (£9.30), and see if it alleviates the symptoms. If it is dandruff, then the ketaconazole (an anti-fungal ingredient) in Nizoral will do its job,” says Stephanie.

Is a flaky dry scalp different to dandruff?

A flaky scalp can be a symptom of dandruff, but it’s also a symptom of dry scalps, although they’re caused by different reasons. “With a dry, flaky scalp, the skin gets irritated and flakes off. With dandruff, the cause is too much oil on the scalp. That excess oil causes skin cells to build up and then shed,” explains Stephanie.

“A flaky scalp can also be caused by other scalp conditions, such as tinea capitis (a highly infectious fungal infection of the scalp, also called scalp ringworm), allergic contact dermatitis (a reaction to products used on the scalp, such as hair dye, hairspray, hair gel or mousse), or psoriasis (a skin condition that causes red or silvery scales that are adherent to the scalp,) Stephanie clarifies.

Why does a dry scalp cause itchiness?

“A dry scalp is irritated and, as such, causes itchiness. Scalp issues such as seborrhoeic dermatitis can cause low-grade inflammation and shedding, which in turn causes itchiness,” says Stephanie.

How do I get rid of a dry scalp?

Identify the cause

“To deal with a dry scalp you need to identify the cause of it first. We have enough sebaceous glands on our scalp to keep the scalp lubricated, so if the scalp is dry, then there is most probably an underlying cause,” says Stephanie. “Some causes could be an allergic reaction to a product, or even washing your hair too often with a poorly formulated harsh shampoo,” she adds.

Try gently exfoliation

As with dry skin elsewhere on your body, a combination of gentle exfoliation and hydration can help. “Try a daily re-hydrating scalp toner containing ingredients such as sodium salicylate – an anti-inflammatory and anti-irritant active that helps to soothe the scalp,” says Anabel, such as Philip Kingsley’s Stimulating Daily Scalp Toner (£19.10).

Wash hair with an anti-dandruff shampoo

It seems like an obvious one but: “wash hair with a good anti-dandruff shampoo or medicated shampoo if advised by your doctor,” says Mark.

Seek out soothing ingredients

“Some ways to address a dry scalp are by using something soothing like aloe vera gel directly on the scalp [try Aloe Pura Aloe Vera Gel, £6.49] or a hydrosol like rosewater [try Heritage Store Rosewater & Glycerin mist, £7.99],” says Stephanie

Seek our purifying ingredients

“Use purifying ingredients such as tea tree oil – they cleanse and control yeast levels, which in turn combats scalp issues,” says Mark.

Use a nourishing oil

“A hot oil treatment, such as coconut oil and jojoba oil, just before you are going to wash your hair could go a long way as well to help rebalance the scalp,” Stephanie says.

Apply a scalp mask

“Twice weekly, apply a moisturising scalp mask containing ingredients such as aloe vera, and mild exfoliants, such as betaine salicylate,” Anabel says.

Drink plenty of water

Another tip? “hydrate from within i.e. drink enough water,” says Anabel. “Hydration is essential for the body and can help reduce scalp flaking,” agrees Mark.

Tweak your diet

What we put in our bodies actually can make a difference to what’s happening on our bodies. “Cut down on alcohol, sugar, and processed foods – these increase yeast production,” says Mark (which as we know from above, can trigger itching).

Will a dry scalp go away on its own?

“It really depends on the cause,” says Stephanie. “If it was an allergic reaction and you remove the cause, then it will go away. If you are over-washing with a harsh, poorly-formulated shampoo and you stop, it is also likely to go away. If your scalp is still dry and flaky after some time, then it could be that you are suffering from dandruff and need an anti-fungal treatment like Nizoral.”

When should you speak to a doctor about my dry scalp?

If you’ve tried the above and are still suffering, seek out an expert who can help identify the problem and a treatment plan,” says Stephanie. And, if you think the dryness might be caused by a more serious scalp conditions, such as psoriasis, allergies and sensitivities, these may need further investigation. “It’s best to talk to a dermatologist or trichologist if you are concerned. A few ‘red-flags’ to look out for are very heavy scales, scales that are firmly stuck to your scalp, pustules, bleeding, inflammation and pronounced redness,” says Anabel. “Just as if you had a skin condition, like acne, a scalp condition needs consistent and daily treatment to bring it under control. After all, your scalp is simply an extension of the skin on your forehead,” she adds.

How to prevent a dry scalp

Avoid overly hot water

As with the rest of your body, washing your hair at too high a temperature can cause the skin on your scalp to feel tight, itchy, uncomfortable and dry, so its best to wash hair in luke warm water.

Pay attention to ingredients

It may be that your scalp isn’t responding well to the products you’re putting on it so watch out for harsh ingredients such as alcohol, menthol, sulphates and even highly fragranced formulas.

Don’t over-wash hair

Our scalps naturally produce oils to provide lubrication, if you’re washing hair too regularly, you’ll strip your scalp of the oils it needs to stay comfortable, so try elongating the time between wash days if you can.

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