People can have dry skin anywhere on their body, including the scalp. Although dry scalp and dandruff have similar symptoms, they have different causes and treatments.
This article will describe what a dry scalp is and how it differs from dandruff. It will also look at some of the common causes of dry scalp, some available treatments, and a few prevention strategies.
People can have dry skin anywhere on the body, including the scalp. Dry skin occurs when the skin loses water too quickly.
A person with dry skin on the scalp may notice:
- patches of itchy or scaly skin
- flaky skin with a rough texture
- skin that stings or burns
- peeling skin
- itchy skin
There are many potential causes of dry skin, such as low humidity or indoor heating. In fact, the American Skin Association notes that dry skin is not usually anything to worry about.
Sometimes, however, an underlying skin condition might be the cause of a dry scalp. When this is the case, a person might need medical treatment.
The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) says that some people are more at risk of dry skin than others. These people include:
- those over 40 years of age
- those with brown, black, or fair skin
- those with jobs that involve their hands being in water a lot, such as nurses and hairdressers
- those who live in cold climates
- those who smoke
Lots of different things can lead to dry skin and a dry scalp. Some examples include:
- not drinking enough water
- using harsh cleaning products
- taking long, hot showers or baths
- living in cold, dry conditions
- using artificial heat sources, such as central heating and wood-burning stoves, that dry out the air
Sometimes, underlying health conditions can also lead to a dry scalp. These might include the following.
Atopic dermatitis is the most common form of eczema.
In children, atopic dermatitis causes dry, itchy rashes anywhere on the body. In adults, rashes are less common, and a person may have skin that is extremely dry and easily irritated.
Contact dermatitis, which is another form of eczema, happens when the skin has an allergic reaction to something it comes into contact with.
On the scalp, hair care products, hair dye, and hair accessories can all lead to contact dermatitis. Contact dermatitis can cause itching and burning or blistering of the skin.
Around 50% of people with psoriasis experience flare-ups on the scalp. A person may also experience:
- patches of skin that are violet or purple on black skin or red on white skin
- dandruff-like flaking
- a dry scalp
- itching that can range from mild to intense
The best treatment for a dry scalp will depend on what is causing it.
In many cases, making healthy lifestyle choices will help. Some examples include:
- drinking plenty of water
- getting enough sleep
- avoiding caffeine and alcohol, which can dry out the skin
- avoiding certain heat sources, such as central heating and log fires
- not using harsh hair products and shampoos
Other causes may need additional treatment. If contact dermatitis is the cause, a person may require corticosteroids.
Treatments for other medical conditions that can cause a dry scalp include the following.
Doctors recommend that people with atopic dermatitis avoid triggers, or things that make the condition worse. Triggers are different for everyone, but some common ones include:
- soaps and detergents
- hair care products
Sometimes, people may need medical treatment. Doctors might recommend special shampoos or biologic medications that help control the immune system.
Learn more about how to treat atopic dermatitis here.
Over-the-counter products can sometimes help treat scalp psoriasis.
According to the National Psoriasis Foundation, people should try to look for shampoos that contain salicylic acid or coal tar.
In more severe cases, doctors might recommend phototherapy, which uses UV light to slow skin cell growth, or biologic drugs, which help control the inflammation.
Dandruff is a common skin condition. It causes gray or white flakes of skin to appear on the scalp and in the hair.
According to the AAD, researchers are unsure of the exact cause of dandruff. However, it may be the result of other skin conditions, such as:
- seborrheic dermatitis, which is a skin condition that mainly affects the scalp
- tinea capitis, or ringworm, which is a fungal skin infection
- contact dermatitis, which is a rash that occurs due to contact with an irritant or allergen
- psoriasis, which is a condition that causes skin cells to build up and form scales on the skin
- cradle cap, which is a skin condition that may result from excessive oil production by the glands that surround the hair follicles
The above conditions can also lead to dry skin on the scalp.
Learn more about the difference between dry scalp and dandruff here.
A person can use medicated shampoos to treat dandruff.
There are lots of things that people can do to help prevent developing dry skin on the scalp. These include:
- washing their hair in warm, rather than hot, water
- only using gentle, fragrance-free hair cleaning products
- avoid sitting or standing close to certain heat sources, such as fireplaces
- avoid using products that irritate the scalp, such as hair dyes or hair accessories
- drinking plenty of water
Anyone who suspects that they have an underlying skin condition should talk with a doctor. This is especially true if the symptoms are interfering with their everyday life.
The doctor will assess the person’s skin and recommend the best treatment or course of action for them.
A person with a dry scalp may experience itching and flaking skin. Although it may look like dandruff, a dry scalp is different. The two conditions have different causes and different treatments.
Many dry scalp cases resolve on their own with a few lifestyle changes. These changes include drinking plenty of water and avoiding harsh shampoos and hair care products.
Sometimes, a dry scalp may be a symptom of an underlying skin condition. When this is the case, a person can talk with a doctor. They will be able to assess the skin and recommend the best course of action.