Everything You Need to Know About Treating Your Dry, Itchy Scalp

 We offer reasons—and remedies.

woman scratching dry, itchy scalp
Photo: Getty Images

Take heart, dry scalp sufferers. Your itchy head may be uncomfortable, but it's not unusual—even among the posh, Hollywood set. In fact, celebrity hairstylist Chaz Dean says that a flaky, irritated scalp is a fairly common complaint. And it's often neglected, since it's not as visible as other parts of our body. But this thin strip of sensitive skin needs TLC just like any other area, and if we don't give it the hydration it needs, it could cause uncomfortable and annoying symptoms.

Just like a sunburned scalp can feel more troublesome than a sunburned arm, having this scalp type can feel worse than dry skin anywhere else. We've asked experts what causes a dry scalp and how to treat it at home.

01 of 05

What Is Dry Scalp?

A dry scalp is simply the flaking of the scalp skin caused by irritation, according to Dean. This is caused by the scalp's inability to produce enough sebum and natural oils to keep the skin moisturized. Without enough moisture to keep it healthy, Dean says the scalp becomes excessively dry, leading to flaking and shedding. There are many elements that can cause this, including internal, external, and environmental factors.

02 of 05

Dry Scalp vs. Dandruff

While a dry scalp is caused by a lack of moisture, dandruff is the opposite, caused by excess oil production or an overgrowth of harmless yeast. The flakes also have different appearances: With dry scalp, flakes are small, white specks, while dandruff causes large, yellow-tinted output. Angela Phipps, DO, ABHRS, the medical advisor for Hair Club, says people often use dry scalp and dandruff interchangeably because they have the same main symptoms. However, they are two different conditions with varied treatment plans.

03 of 05

What Causes Dry Scalp?

From what you put in your lovely locks to where you are located, several factors impact your likelihood of having a dry scalp.

Excessive Washing

Has your stylist ever scolded you for washing your hair too often? This can hurt color treatments, of course, but it can also cause dry scalp issues, according to Brendan Camp, MD, FAAD, a double board-certified dermatologist and dermatopathologist. Our bodies create oil—also known as sebum—that helps the top layer of our skin retain moisture and lubricates the scalp skin and hair. When we scrub with hot water and shampoo daily, we strip our scalp of the oil that's ultimately meant to prevent our scalp from overdrying. Combine this with aging, which naturally leads to oil loss, and you could get an itchy scalp quickly.


If you are among the estimated 8 million Americans who suffer from psoriasis, you're more likely to develop dry scalp than others. With psoriasis, your immune system gets angry at your skin, causing red plaques, according to Joshua Zeichner, MD, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at New York City's Mount Sinai Hospital. If you have a family history of psoriasis, or you have it elsewhere in your body, it's likely you will develop a spot on your head, too.

The Environment

Two seasons are trickiest for folks who suffer from dry scalp: the hot, steamy days of summer and the cold, brittle days of winter. When the temperature is sky-high, we are more likely to experience UV-ray exposure. Like any other skin, our scalp can get sunburned, causing dryness that leads to flaking and peeling. "Prolonged sun exposure, even if it doesn't burn your scalp, can also dry it out," explains Anabel Kingsley, a consultant trichologist and brand president of the Philip Kingsley Clinics and product ranges "This is because the sun causes water evaporation from the epidermis, our superficial layer of skin." In the winter, low humidity, dry, blustery winds, and freezing weather conditions can cause or worsen a dry scalp.


You can blame your mom or dad for a dry scalp, Dr. Zeichner says, especially since eczema and dry skin can be passed down through generations. "People with these conditions have a skin barrier that is not functioning optimally, leading to microscopic cracks, loss of hydration, and inflammation," he says. So if your parents or grandparents often complain about flakes, you, too, may experience this as you age.

Poor Nutrition

Diet is integral to health, and what we eat affects our skin, too. Our scalp, like the rest of our skin, is a barrier that contains lipids, including phospholipids, free fatty acids, cholesterol, and ceramides. "When you don't have enough fat in your skin or produced by sebaceous glands, water can escape and dehydration can occur," explains Alan J. Bauman, MD, ABHRS, a board-certified hair restoration specialist.

Hair Care Products

Since hair care products soak through our strands and into our scalp, any ingredients that cause sensitivity can cause flare-ups like dry scalp. If you use chemical hair treatments or dyes, keep them away from your scalp. "If they come in contact with scalp skin, they can cause what is known as an irritant contact dermatitis, which can lead to itching, redness, and flakes," Dr. Zeichner says.

04 of 05

Remedies That Work

It can be cumbersome—and embarrassing—to have flakes falling from your strands, but a number of non-invasive treatments can solve the issue for most people. Try these simple treatments for dry scalp. If they don't work, try a scalp brush or other store-bought dry scalp remedies.

Use a Gentle Shampoo and Moisturizing Conditioner

The first step to curing dry scalp is to be extra-selective with your shampoo and conditioner combo, Dr. Phipps says. In fact, pairing a gentle shampoo and a moisturizing conditioner will help stop the scalp from drying out. Maintaining a warm but not scorching hot temperature in the shower can also help.

Not sure what ingredients to look for? Check for all-stars like aloe, chamomile, sage, and panthenol in your cleansing and softening hair products. Dr. Phipps also recommends added hair moisturizers like baobab and other essential oils help to maintain hair and scalp health and hydration. "Look for products with anti-inflammatory and antiseptic botanicals such as rosemary and lavender to maintain a healthy scalp environment," she says.

Try a Hot Oil Treatment

In the winter—or any time you notice dry scalp symptoms—hairstylist Jana Rago suggests trying a hot oil treatment. There are many ways to do this at home or in the salon, but the goal is to supercharge your locks (and head!) with the moisture it's lacking. After you wash your hair, Rago says to lather on the hot oil treatment and let it sit overnight. In the morning, wash it out and you'll have soft strands—and a less itchy scalp.

Drink More Water

When we are drinking enough water to sustain our body's functioning and maintain skin hydration, it's less likely that we'll develop a condition like dry scalp. When in doubt, drink more water, recommends Zain Husain, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist. His best advice is to consume six to eight glasses daily to help the scalp retain moisture. Though it is technically more helpful during the summer, when the top of your head sees more sunlight, it's never a bad idea to drink plenty of water.

RELATED: How to Deep-Clean Your Humidifier Using Vinegar

Buy Some Defensive Products

In the summer, a hat and sunblock can go a long way in preventing dry scalp, Kingsley says. If the air in your space feels dry, consider investing in a humidifier that will add moisture to the air.

05 of 05

DIY Methods

Are you a DIY type? Many natural remedies can alleviate dry scalp symptoms.

Coconut Oil

According to Gretchen Friese, a certified trichologist of BosleyMD, coconut oil can work wonders. "Apply a small amount of melted coconut oil directly to your scalp, massage it into the skin, and leave it on for at least 10 minutes before washing your hair as you normally would," she says. Coconut oil offers bonus benefits, too: "As an all-natural ingredient, coconut oil can help your hair grow longer, thicker, and faster," says Lucy Chen, MD, a board-certified dermatologist of Riverchase Dermatology.

You can also add tea tree oil to the coconut oil for added benefits. "Tea tree oil has strong antiseptic, antifungal, and antibiotic properties that can help relieve a dry, itchy scalp," says Friese.

Essential Oils

A mixture of essential oils can also help soothe an itchy, dry scalp, says Penny James, a certified trichologist and the founder of Penny James Salon. She recommends using pure rosemary oil, lavender oil, juniper oil, and jojoba oil. "Mix all the ingredients, apply the oil directly onto the scalp on unwashed hair and massage it in using your fingertips or a brush," says James. "Wait or sit under a steamer for 20 minutes, then shampoo the hair and scalp." This combination of oils can help soothe and hydrate the scalp.

Aloe Vera

Aloe vera also has beneficial properties that can help. "It is anti-inflammatory, can help reduce skin irritation, and it's an effective moisturizing agent," says Friese. Apply it topically to your scalp, either straight from the plant or an aloe vera gel, and let it sit for 10 minutes before washing it out.

Apple Cider Vinegar

Dr. Chen suggests good old apple cider vinegar. "By combining half a cup of water and apple cider vinegar, you can massage it onto your scalp and leave it in for about 15 minutes."

"Apple cider vinegar is antimicrobial, so it can eliminate the bacteria or fungi that may be causing itchiness," affirms Friese. It can also help exfoliate the scalp.

Baking Soda

"Baking soda exfoliates and prevents dandruff," says Dr. Chen. To use, you combine 2 tablespoons of baking soda with water to create a thick paste. Then, part your hair and apply a few drops of olive oil followed by the paste. Leave it on for about 10 to 15 minutes before washing your hair with shampoo and conditioner.

If these treatments don't work, Dr. Bauman suggests seeking treatment from a trichologist. This licensed cosmetologist specializes in hair and scalp disorders and can work with a doctor to evaluate symptoms and design an appropriate regimen. Though this is typically only needed in extreme cases, you don't want to let the itching go on for too long without treatment, as there could be underlying issues at play.

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