5 Ways to Cure Your Itchy, Flaky Winter Scalp

Sure, sledding and building snowmen is all sorts of fun, but when it comes to your skin, winter is the worst season. It seems like we’re always reaching for lip balm, hand cream, or an exfoliating cleanser that will soothe the scaly, dehydrated skin that accompanies icy temperatures. And your scalp is no exception. It gets dry, too, and that can cause all sorts of uncomfortable issues. (No, those aren't snowflakes in my hair...)

A dry scalp can be itchy, painful, and embarrassing to deal with—so here are five derm-approved steps that will bring you closer to banishing those pesky flakes for good.

1. Understand the Problem
You could just be experiencing normal dryness due to the lack of moisture in the air during the colder months—but you could also have seborrhoeic dermatitis, a skin condition caused by an overgrowth of harmless yeast that lives in your oil glands if you’re genetically susceptible, says David Bank, M.D., director of the Center for Dermatology, Cosmetic, and Laser Surgery in Mount Kisco, New York.

“Eventually the overpopulation causes the immune system to react and you start getting some redness and irritation,” says Bank. “One of the skin’s defense mechanisms is trying to basically spit away the infected skin cells, and what happens is the flaking that you see in that situation.”

Knowing how severe the problem is will help you later when you look for different treatments. Some remedies are targeted for basic dryness, while others are stronger and work towards fighting the yeast buildup. Your derm will be able to properly diagnose you.

2. Go Easy on the Products
Cutting back on styling products is pretty important once you start experiencing any flaking or scalp irritation. “Once you have a dry scalp condition, it’s important to start cutting back on products you’re using because there’s a decent chance that one of the things you’re using is actually causing the condition,” says Valerie Godlburt, M.D., a cosmetic surgeon and dermatologist in New York. “Typically on the scalp, something like hair dye or even a response to certain shampoos, hair treatments, or styling products can cause a local irritation, and that can cause dryness.”

3. Revamp Your Shower Routine
Always go for a gentle, hydrating, and moisturizing shampoo, and avoid the ones targeted for oily scalps because they’ll be even more drying. However, if you’re dealing with severe redness and flaking, a medicated shampoo may be the next step up.

Bank recommends DHS Zinc Shampoo ($17, drugstore.com) because of zinc’s anti-inflammatory and slight exfoliating effects. A shampoo containing salicylic acid like Neutrogena T-SAL Therapeutic Shampoo ($7, drugstore.com) will also help exfoliate and peel away dead skin cells. Be careful not to over-shampoo, which can strip the skin of its protective oils, leading to more dryness.

“On the flip side, if you have yeast overgrowth, it’s going to benefit you to shampoo a little more frequently because every time you do it, you’re basically working on crowd control in terms of trying to get rid of the excess amount of yeast that’s partly driving the flaking,” says Bank. “You want to find your own harmony point that’s somewhere between every day to twice a week. It will take a little bit of trial and error to find the sweet spot.”

4. Amp Up the Exfoliation
If moisturizing shampoos aren’t cutting it, try incorporating a scrub a few times a week to aid in removing any buildup on the scalp. Christophe Robin Cleansing Purifying Scrub with Sea Salt ($52, sephora.com) and Kiehl’s Deep Micro-Exfoliating Scalp Treatment ($20, kiehls.com) both use natural exfoliants to help loosen any buildup and stimulate new cell growth.

If you don’t want to dish out the cash for a scrub, you can definitely make one of your own at home with similar natural ingredients. Simply combine Epsom salt or sugar with coconut oil or olive oil until you create a paste. The salt or sugar will get rid of dead skin and the oil will bring in moisture. Part your dampened hair, gently rub the mixture onto the exposed scalp, and rinse clean. You can store leftover product and reuse it to your liking.

5. Keep Moisture Locked In
When your face needs a bit of a pick-me-up, masks are a go-to option. You can do the same for your scalp and opt for a moisturizing treatment to soothe any broken skin. Look for ones with natural oils, like Lush Superbalm Scalp Treatment ($22, lushusa.com), which works to keep any flaky skin soft and hydrated.

Or, moisturizing can easily be done with ingredients in your kitchen. “Oil can really help combat dry scalp conditions,” says Goldburt. “This is true for any cause of dry scalp. I’ve actually recommended baby oil, but you can also use olive oil or coconut oil.” Just put it on your scalp, massage it in, leave it in for an hour, and then rinse. “Sometimes people leave it in overnight; just use a shower cap and wash it out in the morning and it really really helps,” says Goldburt.

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