Chances are those flakes aren't dandruff.

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how-to-treat-dry-scalp
Credit: triocean, getty images

On the list of annoying beauty concerns we have, a dry scalp is in the top 10. There's nothing fun about dealing with a dry, itchy, and flaky scalp day in and day out. "Is it dandruff? Could you be experiencing a negative reaction to styling products? Or could a tight, dry scalp suggest something more serious?" If you ask yourself these questions, you know that finding the root cause of your dry scalp can be tricky. So, we spoke to three scalp and hair experts to learn about the causes and treatments for a dry scalp. 

What causes a dry scalp?

Nicole Williams, head of creative and communications at the haircare brand, Headquarters, explains that a dry scalp can be caused by several things. "Some of which may be an individual's predisposition for dry skin, sunburn, or environmental changes," she says. New Jersey board-certified dermatologist and founder of the Skin Cancer and Cosmetic Surgery Center of NJAdriana Lombardi, M.D., adds that frequently bleaching, shampooing, or using alcohol-based hair products can exacerbate dry, itchy scalp, too. 

Sometimes, though, a dry scalp can result from something a little less obvious. Certified trichologist Penny James of Penny James Salon says it could be from an underlining thyroid problem or extreme stress. "Hypothyroidism often leads to dry skin, dry scalpbrittle hair, and hair loss," she says. Heightened stress levels can also trigger itchiness and dryness on the scalp. The condition is called neurodermatitis, and research shows that it can cause itching, flakes, or red skin due to extreme stress, anxiety, emotional trauma, or depression.

What's the difference between dry scalp and dandruff?

Figuring out the difference between dry scalp and dandruff can be tricky, considering the similarities, such as itchiness and flakes. However, the causes for these two conditions are different. "Dandruff is different from the dry scalp as it is caused by a fungal overgrowth in the scalp, leaving a thicker white scale and resulting in excess oil production," explains Dr. Lombardi.

A dry scalp, on the other hand, is simply dry skin. The best way to tell the difference is by looking at the flakes. If it's dandruff, your scalp will feel oily, and you'll notice thicker, oilier white or yellow flakes. If it's dry scalp, however, the flakes will appear smaller and dry. Another way to tell is by your skin type. If you have dry skin on the rest of their body, Williams says you may also experience a dry scalp.

How to get rid of a dry scalp?

The way you moisturize the dry skin on your face and body is how you should care for your dry scalp. Use moisturizing products and avoid styling products that dry out of your hair and scalp. "Treat it by using moisturizing shampoos and conditioners, scalp treatments, using a humidifier at night, and decreasing bleaching, frequency of hair washing, and the use of alcohol-based hair products," says Dr. Lombardi.

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Sephora

How often you should wash your hair depends on multiple factors such as hair and skin type, but if you struggle with perpetual dryness on the scalp, avoid washing your scalp daily with hot water as it could strip the skin of necessary hydration. Instead, use lukewarm water, and when it's wash day, Williams recommends sticking to hydrating products, like the Headquarters Cleansing Shampoo for dry roots and the brand's Hydrating Conditioner

Headquarters Cleansing Shampoo
$7.48
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Walmart

James also recommends using a nourishing mask infused with soothing ingredients like moisturizing vitamin E, shea butter, and castor oil on the scalp once a week. "All of these ingredients combined will restores much-needed moisture to the skin and hair," she says. (The Maria Nila Head and Hair Heal Masque is a great option that prevents and treats dryness and dandruff by moisturizing the scalp and hair. It's also suited for all skin types, including sensitive skin types.) Similarly, she says to stay away from dry shampoo as they tend to dry out the hair and scalp.

Maria Nila Head and Hair Heal Masque
$28.59
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Walmart

If you find that your dry scalp isn't getting any better despite incorporating these expert-approved tips into your routine, Williams recommends speaking to your dermatologist or a trichologist to find the right treatment plan for you.