Dry scalp? Or dandruff? It's a bit of a mare trying to figure out which one is making your barnet so darn itchy. Plus, you're probably wondering what's the best way to rehydrate your scalp with all that hair in the way?
With so many of us trying to find the right answers–and searches for 'dry scalp' increasing by over 300% this month alone, per Google data–allow us, or rather some very knowledgeable experts to explain the difference between dryness and dandruff so that you can get to the root (pun intended) of the issue and start treating it, stat.
From what actually causes a dry scalp to the best products that help break the itch scratch cycle, here's how to restore your crowning glory with these trichologist approved tips.
What are the symptoms of a dry scalp?
For starters, a dehydrated itchy, flaky scalp can easily be confused with a similarly flaky, dandruff-ridden barnet. But both are caused by different triggers and require different courses of action to be taken.
'Itching is a very common symptom of a dry scalp,' notes on Anabel Kingsley, Philip Kingsley Brand President and Consultant Trichologist. 'However, itching can also accompany dandruff (which is most often oily). Scalp skin has a unique neural structure that contains densely innervated hair follicles (meaning there are nerves present), as well as blood vessels and so it is prone to sensations.
Itching can be caused by anything from external aggravators, such irritation from topical products, chlorine, and skin-barrier disruption, to internal factors, like stress.'
Can a dry scalp cause hair loss?
'A dry scalp does not directly cause hair loss, however, dryness can cause flakiness, irritation, inflammation, itchiness and maybe dandruff' Dr Bessam Farjo, Hair Restoration Surgeon & Hair Loss Expert.
'Stress can aggravate conditions like a dry scalp so it will be good to take measures to deal with stress. All the above can contribute to hair breakage which can be misdiagnosed as hair loss. Of course, if you already have hairs that are going through the hair loss process, things like inflammation may accelerate the process too,' he adds.
What causes a dry scalp?
When it comes to a dry scalp, different sized flakes mean different things. 'The flakes may be super fine, usually caused by central heating, or quite large with hair-sized holes in them, which is usually caused by sun exposure,' says Kingsley.
Unlike dandruff which can be chronic, a dry scalp tends to be a one-off occurrence. 'Or something that occurs due to an easily identifiable trigger. For instance, being exposed to the sun, very cold weather, or central heating,' explains Kingsley.
Is a dry scalp similar to dry lips?
'Yes, similar things dry out your scalp to those that dry-out the skin on your face,' says Kingsley.
'For instance, central heating, very cold weather, and prolonged sun exposure. Hair products will not usually cause scalp dryness, but they can leave a fine, white residue on your roots, and this can be mistaken for dead skin cells. The most common culprit for this is dry shampoo.'
What's the difference between a dry scalp and having dandruff?
'Dandruff is almost always oily, not dry,' Kingsley tells us. 'Dandruff flakes can also be slightly sticky and yellow in colour, whereas a dry scalp will produce dry and white flakes.
'Dandruff is a recurring, chronic scalp condition that, while it can come and go, tends to be a long-term issue. It commonly flares up when you are stressed, when hormone levels fluctuate, and when you eat certain foods such as full fat dairy products, like cheese.' Not so gouda.
How do I treat a dry scalp?
'If you have a dry scalp, applying pure oil to your scalp is not going to do much good – oil-in-water emulsions (i.e. creams) are much better. Dry skin is not just due to lack of oil, it is also actually due to lack of moisture or excessive water loss from the skin. Pure oils can also cause irritation and weigh down your roots,' explains Kingsley.
'Now, usually when you see flakes it is due to an oily, not dry, scalp. As such, rubbing in oils will simply make the flakes appear greasier. Instead, use a targeted daily scalp toner to help clear itching and irritation.'
Gently exfoliate your scalp and keep your hair tangle free with the Manta Brush, £25.
How can you naturally hydrate your scalp?
Sack the oils and look to specific scalp cleansers or toners with hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid. That's the hydrating humectant you find on your skincare labels that can retain a hefty amount of weight in water. The Ordinary Natural Moisturizing Factors + HA, for instance, harnesses this hydrating super hero to help support the skin's moisture barrier and lock in moisture.
What should you eat to alleviate a dry scalp?
'As hair is non-essential tissue, it’s the last part of our body to benefit from what we eat and the first to suffer when our diet is lacking,' notes Kingsley.
'A balanced diet containing all essential food groups is therefore essential. However, if I had to choose three food groups to eat for good scalp health they would be protein, foods rich in iron and complex carbohydrates.' Here’s why:
Your hair is made of protein, and protein-rich foods help to ensure strands are strong. Great examples are eggs, fish, lean meat, and low-fat cottage cheese. For vegans/vegetarians, almonds, quinoa and tofu are good options. In terms of how much protein you should eat, add around a palm sized portion to your breakfast and lunch.
2/ Complex Carbohydrates
Hair cells are the second fastest growing cells the body produces, meaning they require a steady supply of energy to grow. Complex carbohydrates provide a slow and sustained release of energy. Brown rice, whole-wheat toast and porridge are excellent choices.
Ferritin (stored iron) helps to keep hair in the anagen (growth) phase. The best sources of iron are red meats, like steak and liver, so try to eat one of these around twice a week.
'If you do not eat red meat, or already have low iron levels, take an iron supplement like our Tricho Complex, £45. It was created with over 60 years of trichological expertise and inspired by a combination of vitamins and minerals prescribed on a daily basis at the Philip Kingsley Trichological Clinics.'
WH also rates Spatone Natural Liquid Iron Supplement.
What is the best hair care routine for dry scalp?
Dr Bessam Farjo advises the below routine to help treat a dry scalp.
Use the correct shampoo and conditioner that can add moisture, frequently and regularly
If your dryness is a result of dandruff, then use anti-dandruff shampoo and conditioner, at least until the dandruff clears
Avoid irritant products especially alcohol-based. Try to avoid rinsing with water that is too hot as well
Avoid heating elements such as hairdryers and stylist tools too close to the scalp
A little sunshine might be good for dandruff but excessive exposure can make dryness worse
Don’t aggravate your scalp with harsh combs or brushes
Look after your general health and nutrition making sure your diet is sufficient in nutrients such as biotin, selenium and zinc
'If in doubt, you can always consult with a trichologist or a hair-specialised dermatologist' he adds.
The 11 best products to help a dry scalp
Created by hair industry experts, Percy & Reed, this dermatologically tested, lab-proven formula is kind to sensitive scalps, with soothing chamomile and Dandrilys to help rid you of dandruff and regulate sebum (oil) secretion.
The hero ingredient in dpHue's much-loved hair rinse is, in fact, apple cider vinegar, which helps removes impurities and aid with dandruff, all without stripping your hair of essential natural oils.
'I’d recommend our rehydrating Stimulating Daily Scalp Toner, £10, that cools and stimulates the scalp,' says Kingsley. 'It contains witch hazel that absorbs excess oil, making your hair and scalp less greasy. Pircotone olamine to protect against bacterial overgrowth and relieve flaking and itching. Sodium salicylate's anti-inflammatory and anti-irritant scalp care properties soothe your skin.'
'Twice weekly, apply a moisturising scalp mask containing ingredients such as aloe vera and mild exfoliants, such as betaine salicylate,' suggests Kingsley.
When you finally head off on a sunny beach holiday, be sure to pack an after sun for your scalp not just one for your body. 'This will help to sooth irritation if your scalp becomes a bit pink after a day at the beach.' Try Wella SP Sun After Sun Shampoo on holiday.
Binchotan charcoal helps draw impurities from the scalp and the hair follicle that cause dryness and irritate your skin, while coconut oil helps to soothe and add a much needed hit of hydration.
Desperately dry scalps can expect instant relief with this soothing serum. Formulated with oat oil, frankincense extract and celery seed oil it beefs up the defences of the protective skin barrier, replenishes your moisture levels and establishes a healthy habitat for balanced scalp microflora.
Packed with moisture loving hyaluronic acid, this scalp soothing liquid also contains papaya extracts to gently shift the build up the dead cells on the scalp. Plus, the addition of adenosine triphosphate means the scalp’s microflora can thrive, which helps to banish dryness.
This is packed with the same AHA and BHA acids you'd find in your skincare serums so you can expect the same brilliant results. Flakes are quickly dissolves so that you can run your fingers through your hair without the worry of catching rough bumps.
Developed by a team of scientists, don't let the cheap price point fool you into thinking it won't work effectively. This little bottle of magic will serve your needs admirably, leaving your scalp renewed and healthy looking.
Healthy bacteria on your scalp is vital for keeping flakes and dryness at bay. Formulated with fermented rice water, artichoke extract and lactic acid, this serum works to treated a parched scalp but also leaves hair smooth and glossy. Double whammy.
Kingsley also suggests trying this free trick for hydrating the scalp. “Hydrate from within, make sure you are drinking enough water!”
Hear me out. A leave-on product isn’t exactly the most appealing, but it might just be one of the best you’ll find. The honey and prebiotics make this a lifesaver if your scalp tends to itch like there’s no tomorrow; it can help reduce any redness and flakes over time, too. It’s the ultimate scalp-calming product.
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