What Causes Dry Scalp: A Detailed Guide

If you are feeling a stretchy, dry feeling on your scalp, or you can often see flaking skin on the shoulders1 of your darker clothes if you are constantly feeling like scratching your scalp then you may be dealing with a dry scalp.

To know how to treat it well, we must know what causes dry scalp in the first place. In this article, we discuss that and much more about the dry scalp.

What Is A Dry Scalp?

One important fact we often forget is that the scalp is also a part of our skin and just like the rest of the skin on our body, it too deals with problems like dryness, inflammation, and itchiness.

Like the skin on the face and body, the departure of moisture from the scalp leaves it itchy and flakey. Moisture and hydration are two extremely important factors for healthy and supple skin 2not only on the face and body but also on the head.

If you give in to the urge and start scratching the itch, the problem gets worse and the skin on the scalp gets irritated. The flakes get worse and before you know it, you start seeing traces of flaky skin on your clothes.

Difference Between Dandruff And Dry Scalp?

Both dandruff and dry scalp have similar symptoms like flakiness, itchy scalp, and irritation, but despite popular belief, the two conditions are not the same.

Dandruff is caused due to a fungus called Malassezia, which lives on the scalp. There is nothing to be grossed out about this; this fungus is present on everyone’s scalp.3 The problem occurs when someone has too much of this fungus on their scalp.

Too much Malassezia sets off rapid cell turnover. When the skin cells multiply at a rapid rate, they die and shed at the same rapid rate.

Another point of distinction between a dry scalp and dandruff is that dandruff is caused when there is excess oil on the scalp, whereas a dry scalp is caused by to lack of moisture.

Dry Scalp And Seborrheic Dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis is a skin condition, which means it can affect other parts of the skin even though it is mainly known to affect the scalp. The doctors have yet to find out a definite cause of this skin condition, although it is assumed that the fungus Malassezia4 could be what causes it.

Some people think that Seborrheic dermatitis is the scientific name for dandruff or dry scalp, which is not the case. The former is a skin condition that can cause dry scalp and dandruff, but that’s not all it is.

It can cause flaky skin and leave itchy patches, redness, and irritation on the skin that it affects. Apart from the scalp, this skin condition can also target the skin on the back of the neck, chest, behind the ears, and other places.

Therefore, we can say that if you have a dry scalp or dandruff, it doesn’t have to mean that you have Seborrheic dermatitis, but if you have this skin issue, dry scalp, and dandruff will follow suit.

What Causes Dry Scalp?

A dry scalp is caused by loss of moisture from the scalp and there can be many reasons for this loss of water from the skin cells on your head.

1. Genetics

Like many other things, genetics play a role when it comes to the type of skin you have. Since our skin is consistent throughout our body, it is safe to say that if you have dry skin on your face and body, you probably also have a dry scalp.

In case this is what causes dry scalp for you, you must make sure you use hydrating hair products and stay away from excessively drying products.

2. Excessive Washing

Woman washing her hair
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels. Copyrighted 2020.

Where not washing your hair enough can cause buildup and dandruff, washing your hair too often most definitely leads to dry scalp and the problems that come with it.

Excessive washing of the hair strips the hair follicles and scalp of its natural oils, making it dry. If this causes a dry scalp, you should wash your hair only when it needs to be cleaned.

How often one needs to wash one’s hair depends on the type. Fine hair needs to be washed more often than thick, kinky hair.

3. Using Harsh Hair Care Products

Bottle of shampoo
Photo by Sarah Chai on Pexels. Copyrighted 2021.

To take proper care of your hair and the scalp, you should use hair products that are good quality and that suit your skin type. Harsh shampoos, products that have too many harmful fillers and chemicals and overly fragrant products often cause irritation for some people.

If this causes a dry scalp, you should use a gentle shampoo and opt for fragrance-free hair care products. If switching shampoos solves the problem, then you know it was the topical products and not your skin type that was the problem.

4. Change In Weather

snow on the ground
Photo by Sumon Berger on Pexels. Copyrighted 2017.

Cold climates bring with them flaky scalp and scalp itches because of the dryness in the air. Cold weather dries out the skin because of low humidity in the air, which is why we use thick moisturizers on the face and body.

The same is true for the scalp too. To keep the scalp moist, warm water can be used while showering.

While hot water dries out the scalp, warm water helps retain the moisture. 5That is why we should opt for warm baths and showers instead of hot showers, not just in cold climates, but also in general.

5. Scalp Psoriasis

Scalp psoriasis is a scalp condition that can cause dry skin on the scalp and create itchy patches among other things. Scalp psoriasis6 can be caused due to various reasons, like an infection, genetics, injury, and even lifestyle factors like drinking alcohol and not eating right.

Psoriasis makes the skin cells grow too quickly which makes them pile up on top of the scalp in scaly patches called plaques. These thick patches are a nightmare for dry skin because they don’t let moisture seep into the scalp. They are itchy and irritating but you shouldn’t scratch them because that can cause more irritation.

If this is what causes dry scalp for you, you need to go to a dermatologist and they can recommend you a medicated shampoo or a scalp cream that can help with the Psoriasis.

6. Contact Dermatitis

Contact dermatitis is a skin condition that is caused when the scalp comes into contact with any substance that can trigger an allergic reaction. The substance can be anything from a shampoo ingredient to hair accessories.

Contact dermatitis displays the same symptoms that we have talked about in the case of dry scalp and dandruff, but there is the addition of an allergy that you won’t have with the former problems.

If this is what causes dry scalp for you, you should see a board-certified dermatologist and get a proper diagnosis for the condition. Once you get medically reviewed, you will be aware of what substances you are allergic to and you will stay away from them. Doing this should heal your scalp in a few weeks.

7. Tinea Capitis

combs of different colours
Photo by Cottonbro on Pexels. Copyrighted 2020.

Tinea Capitis, also called Scalp ringworm causes dry skin on the scalp. This condition is caused due to a fungal infection and it can spread very quickly. Scalp ringworm can be caused by coming in contact with any human or animal that has the fungus.

You can even get it by sharing head gear like helmets, caps, combs, and hair brushes. Any surface that harbors the fungus needs to stay away from your scalp.

If this is what causes dry scalp for you, you need to see a board-certified dermatologist and get them to prescribe you a treatment plan. You should not try to heal these skin conditions on your own because you don’t know what is causing them and how severe they are. A medical professional will be able to help you better to heal them.

How To Treat Dry Scalp?

To treat a dry scalp, you must first know what is causing it because while the various skin conditions are different in the way they are treated, they all have similar symptoms. If you try to use treatment for one condition to heal another, it will be counterproductive and can cause more harm than good.

1. To Treat Dandruff:

If dandruff is what causes dry scalp for you, you can use dandruff-free shampoo. Dandruff-free shampoos are formulated with ingredients that prevent too much oil production on the scalp.

Too much product build-up can also cause dandruff, to prevent that, you can use a scalp scrub a few times a month. If the condition is severe, you can get dandruff treatments done at salons.

2. To Treat Dry Scalp:

Oil and olives.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels. Copyrighted 2017.

If a dry scalp alone is the problem for you, you should start by taking out any dandruff shampoo or medicated shampoo from your haircare regime because these products can be drying for the scalp and when you are dealing with a dry scalp, to begin with, you need gentle shampoos and hydrating conditioners.

While coconut oil would worsen the problem if it were dandruff, for dry scalp, you can use a little bit as an at-home scalp treatment before shampooing. Just make sure you don’t leave it on for too long, an hour to two hours is the maximum time topical oils should remain on your scalp.

3. To Treat Psoriasis:

If Psoriasis is what causes dry scalp for you, you should see a dermatologist and let them treat the problem for you. Products containing salicylic acid are recommended to soften up the patches on the scalp.

If you are an avid drinker, consider cutting down on the alcohol because that can also help a lot in healing the problem. There are some home remedies that you can try too.

4. To Treat Contact Dermatitis:

If this is what causes dry scalp for you, you should go to a dermatologist so they can let you know what is causing the reaction. Once you are aware of the problem, try to avoid it.

You might also get medication from the doctor that will help heal the problem quicker, so be diligent in taking them.

If you have a medicated shampoo that has been recommended by your doctor, use that too.

5. To Treat Tinea Capitis:

Picture of medicines.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels. Copyrighted 2017.

If this is what causes dry scalp for you, get the scalp medically reviewed and your dermatologist may recommend an anti-fungal scalp cream or oral medicine that can cure the fungal infection.

Medicated shampoo that contains selenium sulfide can also help.

Final Note

There can be various reasons for flaking, itching, and that dry feeling on your scalp but not all are caused by the same factors and they don’t all have the same solutions.

A dry scalp can be dealt with as long as you know what is causing it and then, you can follow the treatment plan that would work on the problem.


Q. What deficiency causes dry scalp?
  • A dry scalp may be caused by nutritional deficiencies, such as not getting enough vitamins B6 and B12 in your diet. Boost your intake through fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads, and cereals, and, if necessary, through supplements such as flaxseed oil, zinc, and selenium.
Q. What foods help dry the scalp?
  • Ensuring a plenty of vitamin A diet may help alleviate dry scalp. Vitamin A supports the maintenance and function of skin cells, as well as playing essential roles in the immune and circulatory systems. Some of the foods rich in vitamin A are eggs, dairy products, orange fruits and vegetables, sweets potatoes, etc.
Q. Is Coconut Oil good for dry scalp?
  • Coconut oil can be applied directly to your scalp to help eliminate and prevent dandruff. The hydrating properties of coconut oil can help reduce itchiness and dryness and may eliminate flaky, dry skin on the scalp. Start with 1 to 2 tablespoons of coconut oil, and gently rub it in.
  1. van Diek, Floor M., et al. “The presence of Cutibacterium acnes on the skin of the shoulder after the use of benzoyl peroxide: a placebo-controlled, double-blinded, randomized trial.” Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery 29.4 (2020): 768-774. ↩︎
  2. Heinrich, U., et al. “Antioxidant supplements improve parameters related to skin structure in humans.” Skin Pharmacology and Physiology 19.4 (2006): 224-231. ↩︎
  3. Raimalani, Varsha, and Brinda Panchamia. “A look into dark side of fungal agents: researches on human diseases.” Environment at crossroads challenges and green solutions. Scientific Publishers (2020): 10-20. ↩︎
  4. Theelen, Bart, et al. “Malassezia ecology, pathophysiology, and treatment.” Medical mycology 56.suppl_1 (2018): S10-S25. ↩︎
  5. Wash, Bondi, and Nourished x Romy. “Boost Your Scalp Health, Boost Your Hair Health! Apr 14, 2021.” ↩︎
  6. Chan, C. Stanley, et al. “Treatment of severe scalp psoriasis: from the Medical Board of the National Psoriasis Foundation.” Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology 60.6 (2009): 962-971. ↩︎

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Yashi Singh

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