Regardless of the season, a flaky scalp can be a pesky problem. How do you get rid of dandruff? Below, some tips and tricks for how to address your head case — so that you can finally start wearing black again.
Dr. Jessica Weiser of New York Dermatology Group explains that dandruff, which presents itself as white flakes, is a mild and common form of seborrheic dermatitis. You can get it behind the ears, eyebrows, or even in folds of the face. It can be red, flaky, itchy, or a combination of all those factors. (It’s different from psoriasis, which also can look like flakes — but those will appear like “thicker pink or red plaques” with “silver-white scales” on close examination. Go to a dermatologist if you aren’t sure.)
You don’t get dandruff because your scalp is flaking off — it’s actually because your scalp is producing too much oil. Nunzio Saviano of the Nunzio Saviano Salon explains in layman’s terms: “Dandruff is caused by either dry skin or oily skin. Oil can build up and flake. If [the skin is] dry, chances are the hair is dry, too.”
Elizabeth Cunnane-Phillips, a trichologist at the Philip Kingsley Trichological Clinic, explains that dandruff’s causes include hormonal variables and fluctuations (which influence oil production), stress, poor nutritional habits, and not cleansing the scalp often enough. All of these factors react to a naturally presenting yeast called malassezia (yum) that sits on the scalp and creates flakes.
So how do you get rid of it? Read on.
1. Change Your Diet
According to Dr. Macrene Alexiades-Armenakas, a New York–based dermatologist, poor nutrition can lead to dandruff. “High-carb foods can result in the buildup of glycogen in the skin, which yeast feeds on.” She suggests you avoid carbs and sugars if you’re prone to dandruff.
2. Drink More Water
As with many things, water can be helpful. Don’t forget to keep your scalp hydrated by drinking enough water, recommends Saviano.
3. Start Washing Your Hair More Often
“There’s this concept now that you need to let natural oils sit longer on your scalp, but that can add to the problem,” Cunnane-Phillips explains. Dr. Weiser adds, “Oils and dead skin cells further accumulate as a result of infrequent hair washing. Patients prone to dandruff or seborrheic dermatitis should regularly wash hair a few times a week at minimum to reduce build up.”
4. Try Exfoliating Your Scalp
Yes, this is a thing. Much like exfoliating your skin, exfoliating your scalp gently lifts the top layer of dry skin. Scalp exfoliators typically remove dead skin with either small amounts of salicylic acid (more commonly found in acne products), or granules that dissolve. Dr. Weiser explains that the latter are “very helpful at breaking down the dead skin cells that accumulate on the scalp and lead to flaking.”
5. Or Try a Hot Oil Mask
“Oil-based treatments can help to balance some of the scalp’s excessive oil production,” says Dr. Weiser. “Applying oils to the scalp will help draw oils from it and remove them. It’s the classic law of attraction, where like substances attract each other.” You can try heating up the only oil celebrities are unafraid of, coconut oil, in a microwave and gently applying it to your head. Be careful not to make the oil too hot, as doing so increases the risk of burning your scalp.
6. Don’t Use Apple Cider Vinegar
Internet lore suggests using apple cider vinegar a home remedy for many things. Among them: toner, hot water salve, and for dandruff. Dr. Weiser simply says, “I do not generally support the use of apple cider vinegar for dandruff.”
7. Do Use a Special Shampoo
Special dandruff shampoos containing zinc or sulfur can reduce yeast populations and offer help. Gone are the days of smelly Selsun Blue. I wouldn’t go so far as to say dandruff shampoos have become chic, but their smell and packaging no longer make them repellent.
Here are some of the best dandruff shampoos. If you have simple dryness and flaking, Dr. Weiser says that shampoos with salicylic acid should be enough. If you have redness and irritation, try the ones with ketoconazole and selenium sulfide. Tea tree helps with inflammation.
8. Wash Your Scalp Only
Unfortunately, dandruff shampoos can dry out your hair, in addition to your scalp. To ensure this doesn’t happen, Dr. Weiser says that you should apply your special shampoo only to the scalp. “These shampoos and treatments should be applied directly to the scalp (not the hair) and massaged gently in place for at least five minutes with each application.” Make sure you don’t do it for less than five minutes, to give the active ingredients time to work.
9. Don’t Scratch
It’s the white bear problem, but try not to think about scratching. It’s so itchy, I know, but scratching can exacerbate inflammation and irritation. Particularly if you have long, sharp nails, scratching can cause open scalp wounds which lead to infections. Dr. Weiser suggests doing a gentle massage only, saying that it “allows ingredients to penetrate the scalp.”
10. While You’re Waiting for These Steps to Work, Hide the Evidence
Try a ponytail or updo. Nathaniel Hawkins, a celebrity hairstylist for Adele and Heather Graham, also adds, “Resist the urge to itch. When your hair is down and has freedom of movement, the flakes will fall.”
11. Try These Products
It’s a scrub and a shampoo, formulated by Catherine Deneuve’s colorist of 18 years, Christophe Robin. It contains sea-salt granules that exfoliate the scalp, then dissolve, meaning they won’t get stuck in the hair or dry it out. Plus, it has a pretty, sort of salty lemon smell.
This is also a scrub and a shampoo that smells intriguingly like Thin Mints. It’s chock full of things to soothe your scalp, including charcoal (rumored to draw out impurities), tea tree oil, peppermint oil, and spearmint oil. Small microfine bits of exfoliator help slough dead skin off the scalp, too.
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