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Flaky scalp – do you know why?


Flaky scalps are a very common problem but the reasons for a flaky scalp are not always as simple as you might think.

The scalp is often the most ignored part of the body when it comes to skin, but in fact scalps are often very sensitive and highly vulnerable to skin conditions, especially dry scalp. Flaky scalps, dry scalps, itchy scalps, spotty scalps, these are common scalp problems but with few targeted solutions.

To add to the problem most every day hair products contain harsher chemicals and preservatives than normal skin products, so the scalp is constantly being bombarded with harsh chemicals. In addition sun exposure (no one puts sun cream on their scalp) dehydration and stress can also have cause extra dry scalp issues.

Below are the most common culprits that can lead to a dry scalp, sore scalp, spotty scalp or itchy scalp;

 Hair products/hair dyes

Most styling hair products such as mousse and hair sprays as well as heavily scented shampoos and conditioners contain extremely harsh preservatives and foaming agents, namely Sodium Lauryl Sulphate, which can lead to dry scalp and scalp irritation. Hair dyes are also a major culprit for contact scalp dermatitis and can cause anything from mild allergic reactions to extremely severe toxic shock allergies that, in the most extreme scenarios, can lead to death. Contact dermatitis of the scalp from hair products can cause extreme itching and flaking that is often mistake for normal fungal dandruff. If you have scalp psoriasis, these hair product preservatives can make the psoriasis much worse.

Anti-dandruff shampoos

Normal dandruff is caused by a fungus called Pityrosporum ovale that grows on the scalp. Anti-dandruff shampoos and treatments contain harsh anti-fungal agents to kill the fungus on the scalp. [quote]However approximately 40% of dandruff is actually caused by dry scalp flaking due to scalp dermatitis. [/quote] One of the most common forms of dry scalp dandruff is caused by Seborrheic dermatitis, is attributed to over-active oil production by the sebaceous glands. With this type of dandruff, excess oil on the scalp mixes with dead skin cells, causing them to cluster together and form clumps of crusty, yellowish, oily flakes. Often, the scalp will itch or burn and flakes can also be found on other oily areas of the skin, including around the eyebrows or even the nose.

If you use anti-dandruff shampoos on dry scalp dandruff or scalp eczema is can make the flaking and dryness a lot worse. Dry scalp dandruff is often very itchy and the scalp feels tight and sometimes sore. If you have recently changed to a new brand of shampoo or hair styling product or your flaking scalp is not quickly  improving with anti-dandruff treatments, then it’s more likely that you have dry scalp dandruff and you need to switch to a shampoo that treats this condition.

Blow drying

[quote]Daily blow drying of hair is a main culprit for causing scalp dryness and flaking. I[/quote] f you have a dry, itchy or flaky scalp, try and let hair dry as much as possible naturally before blow drying, use a lower heat when blow drying and apply a leave in scalp conditioner to your scalp before blow drying.


Stress tends to have a drying effect on the skin and the scalp is no exception. Stress can cause flare ups of both eczema and dermatitis as well as make psoriasis worse and the scalp. The scalp is one of the last places on the body to receive natural moisturisation oils plus the daily stripping of these oils from chemical hair products, makes the scalp especially prone to dryness from stress.


[quote]The scalp is very sensitive to changes in diet and if you are trying to loose weight and are cutting out fats and oils from your diet, your scalp will probably be the first place that suffers.[/quote]  While dieting the hair can also become weaker and the combination of an irritated and dry scalp and weakened hair can raise the risk of hair loss, so take special care to look after your scalp while dieting. Use mild and cleansing shampoos and cut down on hair styling products and blow drying.


Sunburn on the scalp is very common as the head gets the most sun and very few people remember to either cover their heads or put an SPF on their scalps. Sunburn on the scalp can cause severe itchiness and flaking for many weeks after and can also trigger eczema flare ups. Remember the skin on your scalp is not accustomed to sun and if usually very pale so it burns very easily. The best sun protection for a scalp is a hat. But many hair products now contain SPF’s or you can purchase SPF sprays to protect your scalp from sunburn.

 Acne related scalp dermatitis

Scalp dermatitis from external irritants such as shampoos or styling products can lead to scalp acne because the small lesions or bumps from the dermatitis get infected with bacteria from the hair oils and turn into scalp spots. Wash your hair daily to reduce oil and try changing brands of shampoo or even better switch to a non-chemical shampoo for sensitive scalps and see if the spots clear up.

Washing powder scalp dermatitis

Many people have mild allergies to washing powders and fabric conditioners. [quote]Bedding is a common culprit for scalp dermatitis due to the length contact the scalp has with pillow bedding.[/quote]  Try swapping to a non perfumed washing powder for sensitive skin and see if symptoms improve.

Scalp folliculitis

Scalp folliculitis is a contagious condition that causes an inflammation of the hair follicles. It thrives in damp warm conditions and so is usually picked up from close contact with an infected person, public gyms (excessive sweating can raise risk) or in public warm bathing areas such as saunas or hot tubs. The risk of infection is far higher if there is already existing damage to the hair follicle. Once it’s damaged, bacteria, mites or fungus are able to invade the follicles. An excessively oily scalp can exacerbate scalp folliculitis.

Many types of scalp folliculitis are superficial, meaning the infection occurs within the portion of the hair follicle closest to the skin. Mild cases usually appear in the form of small, itchy whiteheads along the hairline and by the forehead or ears often with scalp flaking too.

This condition usually responds well to anti-bacterial scalp washes.


Treatments & management for flaky scalps

  • For dry scalp dandruff caused by dermatitis or eczema stop using normal shampoos and switch to a non-chemical shampoo that specifically targets scalp dryness.[quote] Hair products containing the plant extract Cardiospermum have good evidence for helping to reduce the symptoms of dry scalp and scalp eczema or dermatitis.[/quote]
  •  For spotty scalps try Tea-tree and/or Eucalyptus based shampoos and conditioners that have natural anti-bacterial actions but without chemicals .
  •  For moisturising a dry scalp after blow drying while also giving hair some texture and de-frizzing without the chemicals try Neem, Coconut or Starflower oil. After blow drying rub a small amount on the palm of the hand and run through hair and scalp.
  •  Home made hair masques made from honey and oats can be hugely beneficial for dry scalps. Put natural honey and porridge oats in a bowl and add a little warm water until you get a putty. Rub into hair and wrap in warm towel and leave for 30 minutes. Rinse well and wash hair normally.
  •  For scalp psoriasis stop using normal shampoos and switch to hair products that are specifically targeted at scalp psoriasis. Hair and scalp products containing the plant steroid Oregon Grape Root are particularly effective for relieving scalp psoriasis.


 Scalp-saving strategies:

  •  Always patch test any hair dyes before using on the whole head
  • Steer clear of heavily scented or foaming hair products
  • Be gentle when brushing hair and use  natural bristle brush to avoid trauma to the scalp and hair follicle
  • Avoid wearing restrictive hats or abrasive hair accessories
  • After excessive sweating, wash hair immediately
  • Let hair dry as naturally as possible and minimise blow dry heats and duration
  • Minimize time spent exposed to heat and humidity by avoiding the sauna, hot tub, whirlpool or improperly chlorinated pools.
  • Shampoo daily with very mild or specifically targeted non-chemical shampoos
  • Regularly cleanse scalp using tea tree oil anti-bacterial hair washes
  • Always wear an aerated sun hat in the sun




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