Luckily, we have just the experts for the job. We asked Stephanie Sey, expert Trichologist for Nizoral and Anabel Kingsley, Philip Kingsley Brand President and Consultant Trichologist, to guide you through identifying and treating dry scalps vs dandruff.
If you’re here, it’s probably because your scalp is giving you gyp. And we all know, there’s few things quite as maddening as a scratchy, itchy, prickling scalp. The problem is, our skin (and therefore our scalps) can be contrary little divas – telling you one thing, but doing another.
Dry scalps can masquerade as dandruff and vice versa since their symptoms are pretty similar. How to treat each though, is very different. So in order to stop the scratching, stat, you need to know what you’re dealing with.
What causes a dry scalp?
“A dry scalp occurs when the top layer of skin (the epidermis) lacks moisture (water). It is commonly due to environmental factors, such as weather. However, it 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.
“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 (i.e. it contains more oil glands, and therefore produces more oils, than most other parts of your body). Therefore a dry scalp tends to be more common in the summer months as the scalp can become sunburnt,” adds Anabel.
How is a dry scalp different to 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, it is not. Dandruff is an oily condition,” says 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 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.
What are the best ways to treat a dry scalp?
“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.
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).
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.
What’s the best way to moisturise a dry scalp?
“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. 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,” says Stephanie.
Anabel agrees, “twice weekly, apply a moisturising scalp mask containing ingredients such as aloe vera, and mild exfoliants, such as betaine salicylate,” she says. And “hydrate from within i.e. drink enough water,” she adds.
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.” If you’ve tried the above and are still suffering, seek out an expert who can help identify the problem and a treatment plan.