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Dry Scalp

A dry scalp often feels tight and uncomfortable. It’s more common to have dry skin than it is dryness of the scalp since there are more sebum-producing hair follicles on the scalp. Some people think their scalp is dry because it’s itchy and flaky. These may be symptoms of a scalp condition called seborrheic dermatitis. Other causes of scalp dryness and tightness are psoriasis and ringworm.

Seborrheic Dermatitis of the Scalp

Most experts believe seborrheic dermatitis is caused by a tiny fungus called Malassezia. Most people have this fungus living peacefully on their scalp, but in people with seborrheic dermatitis this normally quiescent fungus overgrows, and the body responds by mounting an inflammatory response. This leads to scalp tightness and a sensation of dryness along with flaking and crusting. With seborrheic dermatitis, the scalp isn’t dry but feels tight and irritated because of the flaking and itching.

Regular shampooing is important with seborrheic dermatitis since the yeast Malassezia thrives on excess sebum. The first line of treatment is shampoos that contain pyrithone zinc or selenium sulfide. As an alternative, tea tree oil shampoo has natural anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties that may help. To reduce flaking, look for shampoos that contain the ingredient salicylic acid. In more severe cases, doctors recommend shampoos and topical treatments that contain the anti-fungal medication ketoconazole.


Psoriasis is an inflammatory condition that affects the skin and less frequently the scalp. When it affects the scalp, the scalp becomes itchy and irritated with patchy scales that are typically silver or gray in color. Most people with scalp psoriasis also have involvement of the skin on their body. Psoriasis commonly runs in families and is a chronic problem, although it may come and go.

Stress, temperature changes, alcohol, shampoos and cosmetic products can all aggravate psoriasis. Treatment for mild cases is very similar to treatment for seborrheic dermatitis. Coal tar or anti-fungal shampoos that contain ketoconazole may relieve the symptoms. As with scalp seborrheic dermatitis, salicylic acid helps to remove patchy scales and crusts that are common with scalp psoriasis. For more resistant cases, there are other treatment options including medications that reduce inflammation by suppressing the immune system. Unfortunately, these medications have serious side effects.


People who have ringworm often complain of scalp dryness and scaling and have crusty, scaly patches sometimes with patchy areas of hair loss. Ringworm is more common in children, although adults can get it too. It’s caused by a fungus that spreads easily from person to person. The best way to avoid it is not to share personal items with other people, particularly combs, brushes and hats.

Choose a mild shampoo and conditioner that are free of fragrance, alcohol and harsh chemicals.

Mild cases of scalp ringworm usually respond to a shampoo that contains selenium sulfide. In cases that don’t, shampoos that contain anti-fungal medications like ketoconazole or ciclopirox are helpful. Some resistant cases may not respond to shampoo and require oral anti-fungal medications. It’s important to disinfect combs, brushes and hats after a bout with ringworm. Some doctors also recommend that close family members use a medicated shampoo since they can carry and spread the fungus.

Other Causes of Dry Scalp

Some people develop a tight, red scalp that feels dry and itchy when they use certain shampoos, soaps or hair dyes. This is a form of allergic response or contact dermatitis. The key to avoiding this cause of scalp dryness and itching is to stay away from products that cause a reaction. Hair care products that contain alcohol are a problem for some people. If you have a history of contact dermatitis, use a mild shampoo and conditioner that are free of alcohol or fragrances, and avoid using hot water or heated appliances.

Tips for a Healthier Scalp

Find out what’s causing your scalp to feel dry so you can treat it appropriately.

Add more fatty fish to your diet from sources like wild-caught Alaskan salmon. These healthy fats have anti-inflammatory properties that can relieve some scalp conditions. Make sure you’re eating a well-balanced diet.

Avoid using hot appliances on your hair or scalp.

Choose a mild shampoo and conditioner that are free of fragrance, alcohol and harsh chemicals.

Avoid using harsh chemicals like perm solutions, straighteners and hair dyes on your hair and scalp. Look for organic hair dyes that don’t contain ammonia.

The Bottom Line?

A dry scalp is usually due to some other scalp condition. Find out why your scalp feels dry before treating it, and take steps to keep your scalp healthy.

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